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Ethics & Batman Pt. 1: What Films have Taught about National and Local Challenges

Disclaimer: this column and the next discuss Batman movies including the most recent one released in March of this year. They contain spoilers.

Batman has one rule. If you have seen Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight then you probably know this one rule even if you are not a fan of the comics.

In the movie, Batman's arch nemesis the Joker rigged explosives on two ships, one with upstanding citizens of Gotham and the other a prisoner ship. The villain has given those on board the choice to save themselves at the expense of the others, detonating the bombs on the other ship, while threatening to blow up both ships if no choice is made by a certain time limit.

The Joker's choice to Batman is that he can prevent the deaths of the people aboard both ships if Batman kills him, which would violate Batman's one rule. Of course, the Caped Crusader finds a way to prevent the Joker from detonating the devices without killing him. The people and our hero prevail.

In ethics, what the movie is presenting is called a moral dilemma, specifically a variation of a prisoner’s dilemma. Why do people not want to cooperate even if it appears to be in their best interest to do so?

The most recent prisoner’s dilemma was presented during covid times with mask wearing and vaccinations. However, that’s not the topic of this column.

The implicit irony in the Dark Knight from an ethicist's perspective is that there is someone acting in his own self-interest the whole time: Batman.

What the world's greatest detective is not self-aware enough to realize is that if he truly believed in the greater good for all, the way a traditional utilitarian would, then he would kill the Joker. He would be taking one life to save many as the Joker would only escape from prison and keep killing every time Batman just defeats him without killing him.

Batman though is a specific type of utilitarian called a Kantian named after 18th century enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant. Kant proposed categorical imperatives, or rules for life that cannot be compromised regardless of the situation, and to Batman the “no killing rule” is a categorical imperative.

Kantians main categorical imperative was a variation of the golden rule, suggesting you should act toward other people the same way you wish all other people would act toward everyone else.

While Christopher Nolan’s storyline helps illustrate some ethical dilemmas that we still grapple with today, the more recent Matt Reeves telling of the Bat’s tale is more relevant to Citrus County. Warning: if you haven’t seen the move and don’t want to know critical elements of it - stop reading now.

Unlike Nolan’s trilogy, Reeves focuses on Bruce Wayne when he is only two years into donning the cape. The movie’s opening scene begins on Halloween night and the first gang of criminals Batman approaches in defense of an innocent man doesn’t even know who he is, thinking he’s just someone dressed for Halloween.

After he disbands them, one asks who he is to which the hero responds, “vengeance.”

Throughout the film, Batman chases the Riddler who is exposing corruption in Gotham City government. Citrus County has quite a few people who are playing Batman and the Riddler here.

There are those who want to expose perceived corruption, whether it be in county government, the libraries or schools. Much like the Riddler, what they are actually doing in causing havoc rather than contributing to solutions.

Then there are those who feel it is their mission to stop these people. Our Batman. They label the people involved and push dramatic narratives like that this is a fight against pure evil in order to save our county. But is it helping?

After the Riddler is caught, Batman goes to see him in prison. He becomes frustrated when the Riddler appears to have a psychotic break after thinking that the two had been working together the whole time.

As Batman tries to stop the final push against Gotham City descending into chaos, he is fighting one of the Riddler’s faithful followers asking who he is and the henchman responds with Batman’s own saying, “I am vengeance.”

It’s at this moment that Bruce realizes his approach has been all wrong. His desire to make Gotham better clouded his ability to see he was empowering and inspiring the very people he thought he was trying to defeat.

It’s time we had this realization in Citrus. It’s time for a new approach. More on this Thursday.


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