Having just read a chapter in The Best of Super Heroes and Philosophy titled “Why Doesn’t Batman Kill the Joker?” written by Mark White, I am prompted to revisit the apparent moral dilemma between consequences and taking certain actions. The chapter likens Batman’s moral dilemma not to kill his arch enemy to the well-known “trolley problem,” one of the more ingenious (in its simplicity) thought experiments in moral philosophy. When it comes to Batman’s dilemma, the Utilitarian view would contend that Batman should kill the Joker so that the least suffering and greatest happiness is achieved through such an action; by Batman killing the Joker, future lives will be saved. [While there is no guarantee the Joker will kill again after any given victim, his history indicates that he most likely will.] The other side of that coin is the Deontologist’s view that Batman should not kill the Joker because the act of killing is in and of itself wrong. Batman appears to agree and has long contended that killing villains would make him no better than them. As it relates to the trolley problem, a Deontologist would let the trolley take its course and kill five people (assuming nothing is known about the five potential victims versus the one potential victim on the other track) since there is nothing wrong with inaction.
It is with the Deontologist’s view that I cannot abide by, seeing how they try to make a distinction between action an inaction, a distinction I disagree with. In this case, the Deontologist would say that Batman cannot kill the Joker because killing is inherently wrong while not killing the Joker, though the Joker will likely kill again, alleviates Batman of responsibility for the Joker’s future victims. The Deontologist is contending that to take certain actions (such as killing) are wrong across the board while inaction (such as not killing a homicidal maniac) does not leave someone like Batman responsible for the consequences. But whether Batman does something or not, both are actions. Killing the Joker would be one action and going off and doing something other than killing the Joker is also an action, with ‘inaction’ being something of a misnomer. Unless one is dead it is impossible to take no actions. For Batman to take an action other than the action of killing the Joker is just as bad, if not worse, than killing the Joker since the sum total of all the Joker’s killings – which are inherently wrong on the Deontologist’s view – would be much more inherently wrong than Batman making a single exception to his rule about not killing criminals. The Deontologist may object here and say that each instance of killing is wrong and cannot be added together to arrive at a seemingly consequentialist conclusion, but such a defense is arbitrary; there is no objective evidence that prevents the wrongness of an action to become greater the more one does it. If the defense is arbitrary, it is tempting to look at the problem from a practical point of view since this is how people act in the real world: If I’m Batman and I know that if I don’t kill the Joker, countless lives will remain at risk. But if I kill the Joker, I could more ably live with one act of wrongness than letting the Joker continue his numerous acts of wrongness.
Of course, not killing the Joker may make Batman extremely happy, so happy in fact that he may think that he is actually being a Utilitarian. For if Batman were to become so distraught over killing the Joker he could not go on being Batman, this would ultimately cause the world a greater amount of suffering than if he were to kill the Joker. However, most of Batman’s enemies are nowhere near the level of homicidal mania the Joker displays, so for Batman to think in these kinds of Utilitarian terms appears to be a weak defense. (This view may also be downright egotistical considering there are so many other superheroes around, one of which you would think would kill the Joker. Where’s Marvel Comic’s The Punisher when you need him?) One way or another, Batman is going to wind up morally culpable for whatever the Joker does after the next time Batman refuses to kill him.
On a related note, the death penalty as it is practiced is institutionalized on Utilitarian grounds while those seeking to abolish the death penalty take the Deontologist’s position, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of a criminal’s wrongdoing and potential to be a grave threat to the general public. And again I would argue to not take certain actions against such a criminal would amount to such vast wrongness that the wrongness of a few applications of the death penalty pales in comparison. It’s akin to choosing the lesser of two evils. Sure, one will be wrong either way, but the Deontological position is ultimately worse than the Utilitarian position. In the trolley problem, passively allowing five people on the train tracks to die is five times worse than flipping a switch and intentionally killing one person. Not flipping the switch to kill one person is still an action, meaning one is still responsible for the results, intentions be damned. (Those who think intentions actually make a difference in these types of situations are those who subconsciously and overwhelming value an individual’s right to autonomy, which conveniently absolves one from helping in situations help could be given. Of course, it is not practical to provide help every time one could and we let Deontologists – and ourselves – off the hook on these grounds.)
When given a choice in Batman’s situation between being a Utilitarian or a Deontologist, Batman should opt for killing the Joker, given that the Deontologist’s position is facetious. Yes, if you ever have the choice to be Batman, be Batman. Just remember that Utilitarianism requires you to kill the Joker.