Killing Joke(r)

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).

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Batman Haunted by the Joker. Paulos Kiziridis, 2016.

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) [1785]. 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.

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The Joker. Paulos Kiziridis, 2015.

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!

George,

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.

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Batman Haunted by the Joker. Paulos Kiziridis, 2016.
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The Joker. Paulos Kiziridis, 2015.
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The Joker. Paulos Kiziridis, 2015.
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Batman. Paulos Kiziridis.
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The Joker and Harley Quinn. Paulos Kiziridis, 2016.
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The Dark Knight. Paulos Kiziridis.
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4 thoughts on “Killing Joke(r)”

  1. Okay i get it!i want so much to agree with Kant (and let Joker live?!) but i think he himself does not let me!First help me if i did not comprehend but isn’t the part “an objective, rationally necessary and unconditional principle that we must always follow” a little definitive? I mean we are talking about a moral code as it was a dress – code?Something that imposes us how to act? And secondly who defines(i mean Gotham people, the society) the maxim of one person -and in this case Batman’s- as a universal law?Little too subjective don’t you think?Wouldn’t for instance be more right to accept the universal law of a lawyer or a doctor?

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    1. Well, let me start with something important when it comes to Kant’s Moral Theory: it is and it never can be something subjective! It is impossible.
      And, yes, Kant’s moral theory is definitive. Every normative moral theory has to be definitive. Otherwise it does not offer anything.
      Ethics-as a philosophical field-is not subjective. It cannot be subjective. There is no difference between the maxims of a lawyer or anyone else as a matter of fact so long as they are rational beings. This is why Kant’s Categorical Imperative is founded on the idea of a universalizable law.
      I’d suggest to you, if you are interested in Kant’s moral theory to read the man himself! He is actually quite thrilling-okay not as thrilling as Batman, but he is doing fine! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. First and foremost congratulations on your article! So inspiring and motivational to start reading comics (for those who haven’t already)!!! It is a very interesting topic who touches so many different aspects of someones actions!But i noticed something that i would like to ask! As you mentioned “Batman’s actions led many heroes turn to villains” (i.e Injustice: Gods among us). What i conclude from this article is that the difference between Joker and the other villains is that he never turned evil, he already was (as i believe because Joker’s origins are somewhat fuzzy). So what if Batman wants him alive so that understanding his true motives can understand more about himself and his crusade and become a better hero for Gotham?A little risky i know but hey that’s why we are here for discuss and understand 🙂

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    1. Thank you for you comment, comicsfan2017! 🙂 This is a really interesting remark! I would like to correct something though: with “his actions” I meant the Joker. It was the Joker’s actions that led Superman to become a villain in the “Injustice Universe.”
      To be honest, I don’t know if we ever find out the true motives in Joker’s actions. As you correctly noted, his origins is not clear! But, to be fair, and I don’t know if we really need it. For me, I think the Joker represents the deprave, the dark and the insane aspects of humanity. There is no real need to know what’s behind that. I think we need to have a reason when someone wants to destroy the multiverse and we needed a reason when Superman decided to take over the world during the events of “Injustice,” but with the Joker you just have a pure and unadulterated evil!
      Now, my question with this article is whether Bateman should kill the Joker and if that is a moral choice (because it certainly would be justifiable)! It is interesting that you point out that Batman might need the Joker alive in order to become better (I mean, we’ve seen stories where the Joker was a necessity for Batman’s existence)! This actually is a risky and exciting idea! But I don’t know if that is the reason or if Batman understands that by taking the Joker’s life he is no better than him. Batman seems to understand really well that by killing the Joker he makes an example for the rest of Gotham. And this would go against the reason why he wanted to start this crusade. For me, his journey is about saving Gotham and not normalizing killing!

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