Hello from you friendly neighbour, The ComicBook Imperative Guy! For quite some time now I have been thinking of Batman’s choice to not kill the Joker, and their overall relationship as well. Batman is truly a landmark in popular culture. He is one of the most recognisable superheroes for more than 70 years and his adventures have been the subject of countless TV series adaptations, movies, books, and of course the source material itself, comicbooks. Batman is an iconic figure, hence the vast numbers of merchandise and products devoted to the Dark Knight himself. Whenever there is an iconic superhero though, there is bound be an iconic villain as well. The Joker is a chilling literate figure that haunts Batman. No other villain has ever reached the level of darkness and insanity that characterizes the Joker. He is arguably DC’s most emblematic villain.
The Joker is not a mere flamboyant villain that wants to conquer the world. The Joker’s motives are shrouded in darkness and more often than not his plans do not aim towards something grand, but they are born out of cruelty and a fetish to push people to their limits. Other villains desire to conquer the cosmos or destroy the multiverse or gather more power, but the Joker is always grounded in this world. He does not desire all that. And this is why he is so much more terrifying. A villain that gathers an army in order to conquer (or destroy) the world is something that cannot really resonate in the same way that the Joker’s darkness has resonated with readers all over the world. The Joker is a symbol of a dark, twisted mind and psyche. This is one of the reasons why the Joker is such a prominent figure in the entire DC universe and the really good Joker-related stories are classics (i.e., The Killing Joke).
One of the main aspects of Bruce Wayne’s journey as the Batman is his decision to never take someone’s life. This is a constant in every version of Batman. Some of you devoted Batman readers might argue that he has killed in the past, but I think that is a part of certain storylines and do not define his overall presence and narrative. Batman has actively decided to never kill anyone, but should he ever kill the Joker? The Joker has killed countless of people in his different incarnations over the years and he will continue to do it, even if he is losing to Batman. His actions have led to a universe where the most iconic heroes have turned villains (i.e., the amazing Injustice: Gods Among Us). Batman seems to have justified reasons why he should kill the Joker. But he never does. At this point I think I have to set and important disclaimer: we obviously know that the Joker cannot die, since he is pretty much as important to the story as Batman himself. His every appearance is an event. So, this is not really my concern with this post. What I want to discuss is under what premises Batman’s choice is a good or a bad one.
The reasons why Batman should kill the Joker are obvious, but is that an ethical choice? Should Batman kill the Joker even if that goes against his moral worldview? Should Batman just stand by while the Joker is killing innocent people and spreading chaos, because he simply cannot bring himself to the point of taking one life in order to save countless others? These are really important questions both for the Bat-universe and our world. These are some of the oldest questions ever posed in Moral Philosophy and the discussions are ongoing ever since. What I seek to do here is to present broadly how we could justify morally either decision; killing or not the Joker.
First, I would like to start with the moral path that justifies Batman’s choice to not take the Joker’s life. It is with Immanuel Kant’s concept of the Categorical Imperative that we can accept Batman’s decision to let the Joker live. One of the most characteristic and intrinsic aspects of Kant’s Moral Philosophy is the notion of the Categorical Imperative. According to Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) argued that the supreme principle of morality is a standard of rationality that he dubbed the ‘Categorical Imperative’ (CI). Kant characterises the CI as an objective, rationally necessary and unconditional principle that we must always follow despite any natural desires or inclinations we may have to the contrary. All specific moral requirements, according to Kant, are justified by this principle, which means that all immoral actions are irrational because they violate the CI.” Kant’s definition of the Categorical Imperative explicitly dictates that we should: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” (Kant, Immanuel (1993) . Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Ellington, James W. (3rd ed.). Hackett. p. 30.) Batman is first and foremost a masked crime fighter. His drive is to make Gotham a safer place; a place where children will not be afraid that they will lose their parents the same way he did. So, no matter what his instincts or his brains urge him to do, and that is probably to take the Joker’s life, his rational mind cannot accept this maxim, since it cannot become a universal law. Batman, as a crime fighter, could not accept a universal law that would dictate individuals to take someone’s life for any reason whatsoever. More than that, human life has value and this value can never be disregarded, even if the life we are talking about is the Joker’s. The moment Batman would disregard this inherent and intrinsic value by killing the Joker, he would not be any better than him. Batman could never will that his maxim should be a universal law. The mere fact that he has taken a life (any life) would characterize his action as irrational and immoral (even if this action ended up being good for the general public). But not all ethical theories would stand by this rule. As a matter of fact, Immanuel Kant’s greatest philosophical “arch nemesis” was—the rather interesting—John Stuart Mill.
John Stuart Mill is one of the prominent figures in philosophy. He, along with his predecessor J. Bentham, formulated the rather popular theory of Utilitarianism. There are many different aspects in the Utilitarian moral theory, and this is why I am going to broadly reference the most important principle without getting into too much detail, since this is not really the place for it. Utilitarianism—in his most basic form—dictates that the moral status of an action is determined by the good/pleasure it produces for the greatest number of people. Simply put, our actions are good so long as they offer the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of people (or, at the very least, do not harm anyone). As we can observe, where Kant puts forth a normative rule that should guide our maxims for acting in certain ways in the form of the Categorical Imperative, Utilitarianism is following a different route judging our actions only by their outcome. It’s purely consequential. Under the Utilitarian point of view, Batman should kill the Joker not out of vengeance, but because his action would end up benefiting the greatest number of people. The Joker’s life would be taken in order to protect the millions of people that could end up in his way or in the middle of his evil plans. Batman’s decision would not only be justified, but more than that it would be considered a right and moral action. The benefit of going forward with killing the Joker, a renowned and insane criminal, is far greater than letting him live and continue putting in danger both Gotham and the world.
By no means this really broad overview of these two different moral philosophies are exhausted and you could definitely argue that there is more to them and different approaches could be made. I only want to create a framework in which we could see that Batman’s choice (either killing or not the Joker) could be considered acceptable or even moral.
Lastly, in my opinion, I think that Batman’s choice to not kill the Joker is the right one. Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative seems more appropriate in order to understand the complexity of this decision and more than that, the complexity of Moral Judgements. This is not one simple task and even though Utilitarianism certainly offers an efficient solution against a public menace, we have to wonder about both the moral agent’s status after such a horrific action and the place where our society would be afterwards. The notion that we must want our maxims to become a universal law offers a greater guiding light for our actions than just the outcome of them. And every “Batman,” as someone who at their very heart want to protect the world and fight crime, could never wish this maxim to become a universal law.
I would love to read your thoughts on this subject! Should Batman kill the Joker? Comment and let’s have a great discussion!
The ComicBook Imperative Guy
Take a look at the amazing Batman v Joker art kindly offered by the amazing artist, Paulos Kiziridis! Check out his Facebook page, here: The Art of Paulos Kiziridis and his ArtStation page, here: Paulos Kiziridis.