What is the cost of a life?
By Radheesh Ameresekere | Canada
Something about the eternal rivalry between the Batman and the Joker seems to enthral people across every generation. It’s a classic case of the unstoppable force versus the immovable object. However, for all the justice, morality, and goodness that unstoppable force Batman represents, the immovable Joker represents a disproportionate evil. He is a derange, sadistic, morally depraved serial killer who is either beyond rehabilitation or has absolutely no desire to do so. The Joker has no profound philosophical motivation either, but rather, just thoroughly enjoys the depravity. It's all a sick game to break the Bat. However, Batman just won’t kill him. Following a strict moral code that swears never to take a life, letting the Joker live has led to the torture, death, and anguish of Batman and many of those he loves. So, should he kill the clown?
I think to give this question its due diligence, it's important to examine some of our basic intuitions about right and wrong. It’s not particularly controversial to suggest most people believe human life is valuable and taking it is wrong. We have an intuitive understanding that murder is a serious evil we ought to avoid in any case. However, sometimes we are greeted with an unstoppable, reprehensible, moral abomination, and our desire to rid the world of it surpasses this intuition. Consider the Hitlers, Stalins, and Idi Amins of the world. Murderers, butchers, and warlords. Their deaths – organic or otherwise – would have (and did) rid the world of innumerable evils. To kill them, though taking a life, would have saved millions upon millions of others. To justify killing them on these terms would be “consequentialist” terms. Consequentialist ethics suggest an action is right or wrong based on its consequences – good consequences, good action; evil consequences, evil action. It is a fairly commonsense view that many of us unconsciously subscribe to. If Batman were to kill the Joker, he would obviously be doing a considerable (consequentialist) moral good. So why doesn’t Batman reap the good fruits and kill the Joker?
Simply, Batman doesn’t follow consequentialist ethics. Batman is a deontologist (or a Kantian, to be more specific). Batman’s stance against killing does not even bother weighing the consequences of the Joker’s death. Perhaps he even knows that it would be a good thing, but he is indifferent nonetheless. His stance against killing examines the nature of murder itself regardless of its consequences, and heavily considers his personal duties to do certain things and not do other things. Batman considers the mere act of killing a moral evil, given objective moral standards (whether from his god, the power of human reason, or some other justification, I'm not sure), regardless of its subject (in this case, the Joker). Batman actively chooses to allow the Joker to live because he has a duty to oblige these objective moral standards, and sees it at his moral responsibility to follow them. In a few simple worlds, killing is categorically wrong, so one must never violate that principle and kill anyone, despite its consequences.
The more interesting question is whether or not this is the right decision? As an honest and transparent disclosure of any conflicts of interest, I will preface by saying that I am a wholehearted Kantian deontologist (hopefully with good reason). Let’s examine a few practical issues with consequentialism. Consequentialism rests on the arbitrary possibility of outcome, meaning morals are subjective (i.e., certain actions may be good in one case but wrong in another, depending on their outcome in a particular instance). Sure, killing the Joker may produce obviously great consequences? But what about a thief – surely, Batman would do some good by killing a petty thief? But what if that thief would have become a great crime fighter if he lived (this actually happened in the case of Batman's sidekick, Jason Todd)? Still good? What about a Gotham police officer who objects to vigilantism, and tries to stop him? Perhaps it would do some good for Batman's vigilante agenda, but it would still be the death of a duty-conscious man? The problem is, without an objective moral standard, even “good” and “bad” judgements about the consequences themselves are arbitrary, and can clearly be abused. Consider history for more practical examples. Hitler used this logic to justify his holocaust, ridiculously thinking that killing the Jews would return Germany to its former ‘glory’. Stalin threw away millions of lives trying to create a Russian superpower. So on and so forth, as history shows. If you're a consequentialist who thinks these are great evils, ask yourself why. This is a serious practical flaw in the methodology.
However, while this is a practical argument against consequentialism, there is another important detail. Murder is wrong, despite its consequences. Deontologists don’t need to convince you that the consequences could go awry – hell, you could win a Noble Peace Prize for killing someone evil – but you are still violating an essential moral principle and the standard it draws from by taking a life. The benefit of this kind of system is that it is not arbitrary, and it is much harder to abuse. It sets ethical parameters which apply in every case, and does not consider each individual’s preferences, for better or for worse. What is good in Batman’s case cannot be evil in Joker’s – this would violate the basic logical principle of non-contradiction (thanks, Aristotle). If the Bat takes a life, he has done exactly what the Clown has done. They are either both wrong, or both right. It may limit good, but it limits evil too. I will admit making this argument is difficult. It requires you, the moral agent, to subscribe to some objective moral framework, whether God’s divine command, the command of human reason, or some other objective moral fact about the world. If you reject the existence of these things, there is little I can do to convince you.
So should the Batman kill the Joker? While I would implore you to contemplate the answer to that yourself, I am going to say no. I believe that murder is a supreme ethical evil – everything the Batman stands again – and committing murder in any case would be categorically unethical. Would the Joker’s death be in incredible net good? Yes, without a doubt, but does that matter? While this is just a surface-level introduction to two of the biggest schools of ethical thought, I implore you to keep examining your moral beliefs and why you hold them. If you think Batman - or you - should just do the world a favour and pull the trigger, you must ask yourself if the outcome you want outweighs the moral weight of taking a life. In other words, what is the cost of a life - and why is yours any different than his?
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