For years, fans of the Batman comics have puzzled over a mystery at the heart of the series: why doesn’t Batman just kill his arch-nemesis, the murderous Joker?
The two have engaged in a prolonged game of cat-and-mouse. The Joker commits a crime, Batman catches him, the Joker is locked up, and then invariably escapes.
Wouldn’t all this be much simpler if Batman just killed the Joker? What’s stopping him?
Enter philosopher Immanuel Kant and the deontological theory of ethics.
The history of batman and The Joker are simplified for the convenience of the ethical issue. Batman has killed or been responsible for the death of The Joker many times since the original Batman debuted in the 1940s. That in itself sets a cat and mouse game the creators of the comic have with Batman fans. The Joker has been drowned, blow-up, shot and electrocuted to death at least once. Regular fans get a sense of closure with each death – obviously toward the end of a series. At the same time long time fans know the Joker is probably going to live again. Maybe it would be better to ask why doesn’t Batman capture the Joker and then once and for all formally execute him. Have a doctor confirm physical death. Dismember the body and incinerate the remains. Considering modern comics and modern science, even then some mad scientists would probably find some tissue left behind and clone a new Joker. As a practical matter killing or not killing the Joker is not for ethical reasons. It is because the Joker has been one of the most popular villains in comic book history. If the Joker was ripe to be killed off by popular demand why would Batman be reluctant to carry out an actual execution. In the series Batman has been given such opportunities. In the incidents in which the Joker has been killed they were usually an indirect result of Batman’s actions or the Joker himself. On one occasion Batman was about to kill the Joker and described his moral qualms about killing as making him, as that would make him “a killer like yourself!”. Enter Emmanuel Kant. Kant deontological form of ethics encompassed an acting from duty. This duty to do the right thing applied in every situation. Batman might be right in the particulars in taking one life, but that killing would be part of a continuum of obligations to act in away that is morally right. The imminent consequences would matter less than the moral subjugation of one’s conscience. Motives matter. Could Batman say that his execution was justified both in itself and as part of the larger framework in which this act becomes an exception. As soon as an exception is made, regardless of the expediency or justification of the one act, there could be unintended consequences. Kant was butterfly wings metaphysical before the world became all too familiar with the pop philosophy associated with that example. Thus Kant and Batman thought one should only take actions which would also be part of a universal maxim. Batman is a vigilante, but not of the mob with a noose variety. Kant was also of the golden rule school of philosophy, as is Batman. Do not execute others as you would expect not to be executed. An ethical constraint lost on the Joker. Batman, in his own peculiar way, subscribes to the non-aggression principle of deontological ethics. He is generally an actor in the larger play of mankind, the world of violence against the innocent. Violence does not emanate from him. He is not the aggressor. He reacts in proportion to the violence – a bit of a stretch considering the entire history of the Dark Knight, but not so much so his actions exclude him from the general principle . Batman could thus be a hero to Martin Luther King Jr and Ayn Rand – both proponents of the non-aggression principle. Depending on which iterations of the Joker we look at in the comic book series (the movies, TV and animation series are another matter) the Joker very much realizes this – what the Joker would see as a fatal flaw in Batman – why doesn’t the Joker kill Batman once and for all. At one point in the series the Joker hints at the answer telling Batman that Batman created him and he created Batman. Without his arch nemesis the Joker loses the thing that defines him. Batman is part of the Joker’s identity. From the Joker’s point of view the duo is a modern Cain and Able. Though the Joker also sees Batman as part deity. Just as Batman reacts to the Joker, the Joker acts because of Batman. Cain, as one version of the legend goes, murdered Able . Able offered a portion of land to his god, who was pleased, while Cain offered up an animal and it’s fat. Cain’s god was not happy with that offering. As Able was the favorite son so is Batman. Jealousy for public admiration, or mass fear if he cannot have that, is a prime motivator. Almost all the Joker’s modern plots are not about causing Batman direct harm – at least at first, but about embarrassing, or mentally or physically torturing Batman in the eyes of the public, and whoever else might be watching. Thus the Joker is humiliating his brother in the larger morality play. The Joker is a kind of perverse consequentialist – among other apt descriptions. The Joker is agent focused and not in a good way. For him his ends are disconnected from moral boundaries and are determined by what obsesses him at the moment. His actions are limited by what will please him. If an adversary is not killed when the opportunity presents itself it is only because not killing them serves some personal agenda.