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Should Batman Kill?

TIn recent years, Batman has been featured in quite a few films, ranging from the critically acclaimed trilogy “The Dark Knight”, to the new interpretation by the DC Extended Universe in “Batman v Superman” and “Justice League”. Having been a fan-favourite for decades, Batman bears cultural significance to many people for his unique capabilities and traits. To some, his defining features may be his physical prowess or his bat costume; to others, it may be his intellect or his wealth. However, in my opinion, the essence of the Batman is his controversial no-kill rule. 


Some people would argue: how many lives could have been saved if Batman had just killed the Joker? Sure, after each intense battle, Batman would throw the Joker back into Arkham Asylum, but whenever the Joker broke out again, he would have killed more people! For some people, Batman’s philosophy simply does not make sense: if the duty of a superhero is to save lives, why would he not kill the Joker so as to prevent any more homicides? Why would he put the Joker back in a place where it is possible for him to escape instead of ending his destructiveness once and for all? Being in a position to kill the Joker, and thereby being able to stop him from committing another of his crazed murder sprees, if Batman does not kill the Joker, is he a moral paragon, or is he ethically reprehensible?


This controversy regarding Batman’s choices with the Joker runs parallel to a classic philosophical debate in ethics between utilitarianism and deontology. Utilitarianism is a system of ethics that requires us to maximize the total happiness or well-being resulting from our actions to the greatest number. In utilitarian ethics, the ends justify the means, and seeking this good consequence equals being moral. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, intended it to work in mathematical terms, being able to calculate what the right thing is through a “felicific calculus”. Even if someone does not use the felicific calculus, he would be able to understand a utilitarian who claims that Batman should always kill the Joker to prevent more deaths, and that Batman is morally wrong for not doing so. 


However, one thought experiment proposed by Judith Jarvis Thomson may convince you to believe otherwise. It is called the transplant problem and goes like this: A surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ in order to remain alive. However, the only available and compatible organs for all five patients are from a young and healthy man, who has just come to the hospital for a checkup. Should the surgeon kill that healthy young man and use his organs to save those five dying patients? Upon the first reading, the intuitive response to this thought experiment is that the surgeon should not kill the young and healthy man. The reason is that allowing the surgeon to decide who gets to live and who does not strips others of their own autonomy to choose for themselves; moreover, it may open up a Pandora’s Box, in which others may also kill if the felicific calculus tells them to. These calculations would disregard the intrinsic value of life and autonomy of the victims, and by extension humanity as a whole. 


Kant's view, by contrast, is that the surgeon is wrong to harvest organs for dying patients. He argues instead that people's autonomy is vitally important. Also, he claims that absolute moral laws, called categorical imperatives, can provide universal moral principles. One of the most famous states that one should always act in a way that respects people for themselves and not as mere means to an end. This is not what the surgeon is doing. Kant argues that ethical decisions cannot be made based on how things might turn out. How many people are saved by the donor's death is irrelevant. Morality based on absolute moral claims and obligations rather than consequences is called deontology.


With Kant’s philosophy in mind, we can see that there is a reason Batman does not kill: his respect for and trust in humanity. By refusing to kill the Joker, he stands up for the intrinsic value of human autonomy and freedom. Moreover, two wrongs don’t make a right – just because the Joker kills and breaks his moral code does not mean that Batman should do the same. By refusing to kill, not only is he acting in accordance with what is right, but more importantly, he is setting an example, encouraging others not to go down a path of violence and murder. 


But you may be asking yourself, why is this relevant to me? How could what the thoughts of a caped crusader possibly relate to me? To answer this question, I would like you to think back to a recent dilemma you have experienced. It need not be as dramatic as a life-or-death situation – it can be as trivial as a choice between accepting a deadline for an assignment or lying to get an extension because you wanted to watch Game of Thrones. If you chose to lie, you will gain happiness. You will not tell your friends, so they will not be envious. You do not tell your teacher, so he is not outraged. The total utility goes up! A utilitarian would say that this is justified, though it is not: one’s teachers and classmates should not be exploited in this way. On the other hand, if you opted for a deontological response by not taking people in for your personal preferences, congratulations: you acted as Batman would have and may well have the potential to be a superhero. However, if you responded like a utilitarian, you need to recognize the dangerous path that you have chosen. Next time, think more clearly about what the Dark Knight would have done if he were in your position.


[Article by Jun Hui]


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