As regular readers of this blog will know, I think that one of the best things about superheroes is that they’re really good at helping us think about ethics. Perhaps more clearly than most other fictional characters, superheroes help us explore the responsibilities that come with power, as well as the extent and limits of our duty to others.
Superheroes are especially good at helping us to compare and contrast different ethical systems. Utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, natural law ethics––which moral philosophy is best able to tell us how to live a good life? That’s a hard question, and not all of us can go get a philosophy degree in order to answer it. Luckily, we have superheroes to help us out.
Indeed, stories about costumed vigilantes are almost uniquely suited to helping us sort out the benefits and drawbacks of the various moral philosophies. Batman, in particular, provides rich material for the ethical imagination. His single-minded dedication to his mission; his “One Rule”; his secret identity; his wealth; his treatment of villains; his relationship with Alfred; his fascinating rogues gallery; his relationships with other heroes––all of these things work together to create one of the most philosophically and morally interesting characters in modern fiction.
To help us mine this wealth of raw ethical material, Mark D. White has written Batman and Ethics, a smart and fun-to-read book that uses three of the major ethical systems in western philosophy in order to explain why Batman does what he does. Maybe more importantly, White uses moral philosophy to ask whether or not Batman should do what he does. Is his Batman’s quest to destroy crime in Gotham truly good? Are his methods morally sound?
By analyzing Batman in terms of ethics, White suggests ways in which each of us might examine our own moral philosophies and evaluate our choices more consciously. Are we doing all the good that we can do? Can we do more? Should we do more? In order to answer those questions, we have to know first how to answer them. What kind of reasoning should we use to determine the best way to live in the world?
To help us think about how different ethical systems might offer different answers to moral questions, Batman and Ethics is divided into two sections, each dealing mainly with one particular way of thinking about ethics. In the first section, White analyzes Batman’s mission through the lens of utilitarianism, a consequentialist theory of ethics that judges an action based upon the good that comes from it. Does Batman do more good than bad? Do the good consequences of his actions outweigh the violence that he uses to achieve it? Could he do more good if he gave up his cape and cowl and used all of his resources for philanthropy? Is it right that he limits himself (mostly) to operating within Gotham? What about all the good he could do outside Gotham?
This section of the book also examines the morality of Batman taking on young boys as sidekicks. Is it good for him to endanger the Robins in order to further his mission? Is Batman to blame for the injuries and harm that each of them has suffered because of their dedication to his mission? What about Jason Todd’s death? Is Batman to blame for that?
In the second part of the book, White explores what Batman is willing to do in order to further his mission––and more importantly, what he won’t allow himself to do. In one of the book’s most fascinating chapters, White examines the ways in which Batman’s “One Rule” stands in tension with his mission to protect citizens of Gotham from violent crime. One of the most common debates surrounding the Dark Knight is his refusal to kill (a question I’ve explored here before). While some (including fans, characters in the books, and Batman himself) argue that killing would make Batman no better than the villains that he fights, others point out that his refusal to kill the Joker has allowed the Joker to murder hundreds. Since Batman’s motivations and goals are mainly utilitarian––the elimination of crime and suffering––doesn’t his refusal to kill someone like the Joker hinder his mission? White applies three different philosophical approaches to the question––consequence-based ethics, duty-based ethics, and virtue ethics––and reaches conclusions that might be surprising to a lot of the Dark Knight’s fans.
Batman and Ethics is an important book because it arrives at a time when social and mass media give the average person access to a broad audience. Before now, only a few elite had the microphone. Now anybody can take to social media (or, ahem, to a blog) in order to pontificate to everyone else about ethics and politics. That’s a good thing in some ways––but most of us could benefit from learning to think more carefully about how we decide moral questions before we go making pronouncements on Twitter. Many of us just skip the thinking part and leap right to the pronouncements. A book like Batman and Ethics can help us do better.
White writes in a clear, engaging style that moves along quickly. He’s thoughtful, logical, and thorough without getting bogged down in overly-long philosophical explanations. There’s also plenty of humor in the book, but it’s never campy––just enough to keep the mood from getting too serious (Batman’s a pretty gloomy guy, after all).
Even though his primary purpose is to give us a serious discussion of ethics, White relies almost exclusively on comic books for his examples and thought-experiments, so the book manages a balancing act that almost seems superhuman: it shows that superheroes are serious and philosophy is fun.