Life as an Extreme Sport

Batman, The Joker, & the Morality of Killing

So, the internet has been busy, the last few weeks, discussing ethics. And I’m going to continue avoiding discussion of what I’m sure everyone would love me to discuss, and instead wade into the other debate: should Batman just kill The Joker?

Tauriq Moosa, over at Big Think, argues yes, Batman should just kill The Joker. In short, by not killing The Joker, Batman is falling down in his job to protect Gotham; no matter what happens, The Joker escapes confinement and goes on another murderous spree, killing and harming more innocents in Gotham. If Batman is really trying to protect these people and maintain order, then his clear option – after all this time – is to humanely kill The Joker. Moosa points out that, given Batman is basically the greatest detective who ever lived (sorry Michael, the internet gives this to Bats, not Sherlock), it wouldn’t be difficult for him to make The Joker’s death look like an accident, if that were really necessary to maintain his public face of a non-lethal superhero.

Over at Scifi Mafia, Brandon Johnston declares that Moosa is wrong across several fronts:

  • Batman isn’t a superhero so that’s not a motive for his non-lethal stance
  • Batman isn’t image conscious
  • Batman’s non-lethal stance isn’t one based in morality

So, let’s get the “God is an editor” argument out of the way at first: Batman started out killing, and using guns. When he moved to his own comic, the editor at the time, Whitney Ellsworth, decreed no guns and no killing, and that held up for decades due to various pressures facing the comics industry as a whole. But remember, Batman started out as an antihero, Sam Spade-style detective, and that grain runs through his character to today.

Which brings me to Moosa’s throwaway about Batman being a superhero, and Johnston’s response that Batman is not a superhero. Here, Johnston is right: Batman is not a hero, super or otherwise. That’s always been the emphasis of difference between Superman and Batman: Superman is a hero, Batman is an antihero. By virtue of special powers (or being alien life-forms or gods), most heros in the comicverse as a whole are superheroes – they have super-human powers; the lack of (and instead reliance on science and his brain) has always been a key point of Batman.

However, Moosa is also right: because of his staunch and unwavering morality, over the years Batman has become a hero to the superheroes that inhabit the DCverse. But, given the overlapping ideas here, perhaps it would be better to say that Batman is quite often a role model for other heroes (super or otherwise) in the DCverse.

That brings us to image consciousness. Arguing that Batman isn’t image conscious is sort of strange, given that everything Batman did in creating his secret personae of the Batman is about image: what is scary, what will intimidate, what will bring fear into the heart of those who would dare commit crime in his city? Everything about Batman is about image, including his action and relation to the villains running through Gotham.

Let’s just let Batman explain this one for us,

Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible…

Cue the drama as a bat crashes through the window. Some origin stories, such as Year One, add in a bleeding Bruce Wayne, or a history of being afraid of bats as a child, but one thing remains constant: a conscious effort at creating an intimidating and fearful image. And the question that has to be asked, then, is whether or not an avowed stance of non-lethality helps or harms Batman’s overall image. If it is known that Batman will never main or kill someone, it significantly detracts from the fear he inspires in others – what, after all, is the worst that will happen if you run into Batman? Bruises, some bones, maybe a spin through Arkham. Are these motivators strong enough to stop criminals? Maybe some – but clearly not The Joker.

Finally, Johnston argues that Batman isn’t motivated by morality. Well, how are we defining morality? Or, perhaps more specifically, what motivates Batman to go out nightly and protect Gotham from criminals? Well, I think we all know this: as a child, Bruce Wayne’s parents were mugged and killed in front of him, and this motivated him to a life of revenge against criminals – and justice.

While revenge is not something that we are ever going to strongly associate with morality, justice? A lot of different forms of ethical discourse focus specifically on justice, from the entire body of Rawlsian-influenced theory to natural law theory to principlism and more. Seriously, I’m certain you could fill an entire PhD of nothing but the different aspects justice has taken in ethical discourse since the invention of writing.

It’s a big thing.

So is Batman’s non-lethal stance based on his moral commitment to justice? I would argue yes, but also that this same moral commitment can and does indicate that he should kill The Joker.

First, and before continuing, it’s probably necessary to note that given all the various incarnations of Batman, it’s necessary to clarify which Batman I’m discussing. For the sake of not trying to go multiverse crazy, I’m sticking with the general portrayal of Batman we’ve seen since Frank Miller turned comics on their head with his The Dark Knight Returns and Year One.

The Batman that has emerged since then is clearly dedicated to justice and protecting Gotham. I would argue that, as a whole, this Batman operates under Rawls’ principles of justice, and is clearly utilizing a basic implementation of Rawls’ veil of ignorance to determine his actions. For those of you who did not slog through too much political philosophy, in general this idea says that all of our actions have to be determined from a place of ignorance about our position within society.

By blinding ourselves to our position, not knowing our place, class, social status, fortune (in wealth, assets, abilities, etc), or anything else about ourself, we are in theory supposed to consider all possibilities – that we might be born Bruce Wayne, with a silver spoon and tragic antihero past, we might be a space alien, or a reporter, or just a housewife in Kansas. Because we don’t know who we are, in theory the principles of justice that are chosen behind this veil of ignorance are going to benefit the most – that is, no one is going to decide that one person should have 99% of the wealth if there’s a good chance that they’ll be the 1%. We are much more likely to choose balance if we don’t know how we’ll benefit (this strong principle is reinforced by game theory research).

So in theory, you could say that Batman, not knowing if he would be Batman or The Joker, would make a decision from behind this veil of general non-lethalness, and I think that you can see that for the most part, this is the case. Batman is using his position to make balanced decisions in favour of a universal justice that pretty neatly follows Rawls’ principles of justice.

However. However. We know that post-comics code Batman actually isn’t as married to this non-lethal stance as people like to claim. For example, leading up to the infinite Crisis, “The Tower of Babel” story shows Batman’s so complete mistrust of the superheroes he associates with that he starts keeping files on how to kill each of them. Why would a man dedicated to non-lethal approaches have kill files, not to mention a kill satellite (Brother I)?

Because in Batman’s worldview, justice really is blind, and superheroes can cause as much, if not more, harm than good. When looking at things from that point of ignorance, I think it’s entirely likely that Batman would say that it would be better for the normal and ordinary citizens of the world if superheroes-gone-bad were killed, even if he might be one of those superheroes once his position is revealed. Batman’s stance on justice is so strong that the removal of the threat, that to give everyone the equal right to the most extensive basic liberties, which will benefit most the least advantaged person in society, justifies the death of the outliers threatening others – whether that outlier is a superhero, or a super villain.

Applying what appears to be Batman’s dedication to a very Rawlsian form of justice to the situation with The Joker, it becomes difficult to rationalize Batman’s lack of killing, because although as a whole non-lethal actions do offer the greatest benefit, in the specific scenario of The Joker and his effect on Gotham, it is of greatest advantage to remove him. Permanently.

This feeds into Batman as antihero, it protects Batman’s image as someone to fear, and it works seamlessly with Batman’s moral emphasis on justice at all costs.

In the end, Moosa’s argument is right: Batman should kill The Joker. The question as to why Batman does not is not answered by any of the responses Johnston offers; the best answer is probably given by The Joker himself: the Batman needs a Joker. Someone who gives him purpose.

(And yes, we could have a very interesting discussion about Batman’s choices, especially with regards to The Killing Joke, and how Batman might not necessarily be so dedicated to the principles of Rawls’ theory of justice, because of the “one bad day” hypothesis. But this is really long enough, and I think the point was made well enough for one day.)


  1. I always thought that Batman was an almost sociopath who channeled his rage into an almost serial killer like code of hunting criminals and that each time he beats up criminals he’s defeating his parents murderer over and over. And the no killing policy is an attempt at distiguishing himself from the monsters he fights.

  2. This made me smile.

    However, I think the reason Bats does not off the Joker, is because that is the one thing that separates him from the very thing he fights against. It’s almost as if Batman stubbornly, and ideally, hangs on to this one rule as a form of discipline or self-policing.

    Maybe this is a bit of a romanticized way of looking at it, but I think it’s been brought up in several of the stories (you mentioned The Killing Joke, for example).

    I think with the kill files, like you said, it would also include himself, should that line ever need to be crossed.

    Of course, that creates the argument if whether or not the Joker NEEDS to be killed. And why is it Batman’s responsibility to kill the Joker?

    Is it not reflective of the broken system, which allows the Joker to remain alive within itself?

    I think if Batman would ever need to cross that line, he would do it, of course, but not without compromising himself. Whether he kills a hero, or villain, etc would be irrelevant (again, just like you said).

    1. I think if anybody is going to off the Joker, it would be Gordon. While the act itself would be incredibly cathartic to witness, there’ll be repercussions.

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