Batman and Ethics: An informative take on Batman’s ethics (or lack of them)

Batman and Ethics by Mark D. WhiteBatman and Ethics by Mark D. WhiteBatman and Ethics by Mark D. White

Batman and Ethics (2019) by Mark D. White does just what it purports to do, and does so clearly, smoothly, and with a surfeit of supporting examples to bolster his claims. I had a few issues, but honestly, complaints seem a bit churlish with a book that achieves its goal so successfully.

In a brief, broad introduction, White explains why he’s decided to limit discussion to the comics version of Batman, as well as why he further narrows his scope to the time period of the early 1970s through 2011. The body of the book he divides into two broad sections, one titled “What Batman Tried to Do — and How He Might Do It Better,” and “What Batman is Willing to Do — and What He Isn’t.” The first focuses mostly on the system of ethics known as utilitarianism, the second on another system — deontology. The former advocates the greatest good, the maximal happiness for the maximum number, while the latter argues that that are inherent principles or moral “norms” by which one gauges right actions. A simple (perhaps overly so) comparison in action might be utilitarians would argue killing one person if it would save twenty is the right action because it brings the greatest good the greatest number, while deontologists would say killing is always wrong; the results or consequences do not matter.

White recognizes the simplicity of the above distinction, and so spends some time, after offering up a concise description of utilitarianism, exploring its nuances and complications, generally and with regard to Batman particularly. For instance, White distinguishes between positive and negative utilitarian actions, the first being those that increase happiness and the other being those that prevent unhappiness (i.e. a loss of happiness). The character, White points out, fulfills both through his dual persona. As millionaire Bruce Wayne, he increases happiness through philanthropical giving while as Batman, he ensures that Gotham’s residents aren’t made unhappy by becoming victims of Joker, Penguin, et.al.

Within this framework, White explores several branches. While recognizing, for instance, that Bruce Wayne/Batman together enact both positive and negative utilitarianism, he ponders the question of efficiency — yes, Batman prevents crime, but would he be more efficient in adding to the greater good by spending all the money that goes to Batmobiles and Batcopters etc. on, say, food banks or distribution of medical care? Other issues examined in section one Batman and Ethics includes the difference between vengeance and justice, the arbitrariness of bringing happiness to just Gotham as opposed to the wider world, whether personal happiness factors in at all, and, probably most problematic — the moral choices inherent in a “greatest good” philosophy. For instance, does it make sense for Batman to stick to his moral principle of not killing the Joker, if doing so would prevent the hundreds of deaths Joker is responsible for? Or, given a choice between two bad outcomes, the “tragic dilemma” where “one cannot escape with clean hands,” how does one decide which terrible choice leads to the greater good? There’s also the brow-furrowing question of how an ethical person can take a young person on as his sidekick, thus putting them in constant lethal danger.

Batman’s moral choices are looked at more fully in section two against the backdrop of deontology. White examines again Batman’s decision not to kill, not simply in the context of the greater good but also in the ways Batman enacts that principle. Or, in a few examples, choose not to enact it. Also questioned is the “morality” of refusing to kill but being willing to torture or reveling in committing violence against a fellow human being. After discussing these more interior aspects of Batman’s code of ethics, White shifts to looking at them in a broader social context — how does Batman fit into the ethics of the legal system, the police and the courts. Which, of course, leads to an exploration of that age-old question surrounding superheroes, their vigilantism. All of this placed into the context of “consequential” ethics (utilitarianism), obligation or duty ethics (deontology) and virtue ethics.

Many people, perhaps most, have a view of philosophy as arcanely abstract, dense, and humorless, conjuring up stern old German men as the face of the field. You won’t find any of that here. White is always crystal clear, engaging, fluid, and easy to follow. And his questions are made concrete through multiple specific examples from the comics. I’m not sure his attempts at humor are all that successful (your mileage may vary), but at least they’re present.

As noted, I had a few minor issues. One is that the book felt a bit repetitive in places. Sometimes in the topical discussion, but most often in the use of examples. I’m just not sure I needed so many examples of each point making that particular point. The other issue is not at all a criticism, as it’s more a personal preference, which is I would have liked to have seen some comparative ethics with regard to a few other heroes. Not in-depth, not particularly thorough, but just on occasion, just to place Batman in the context of his fellow DC characters (and to be fair, White does give us a lengthy segment on Wonder Woman choosing to kill someone) or, more broadly, some Marvel characters. But again, this isn’t a criticism of Batman and Ethics, since my desire is a different sort of book.

As a basic introduction to several ethical systems, and an in-depth, strongly supported exploration of Batman’s ethics, Batman and Ethics is clear, informative, engaging, and thought-provoking.

Published in April 2019. Batman has been one of the world’s most beloved superheroes since his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in 1939. Clad in his dark cowl and cape, he has captured the imagination of millions with his single-minded mission to create a better world for the people of Gotham City by fighting crime, making use of expert detective skills, high-tech crime-fighting gadgets, and an extensive network of sidekicks and partners. But why has this self-made hero enjoyed such enduring popularity? And why are his choices so often the subject of intense debate among his fans and philosophers alike? Batman and Ethics goes behind the mask to shed new light on the complexities and contradictions of the Dark Knight’s moral code. From the logic behind his aversion to killing to the moral status of vigilantism and his use of torture in pursuit of justice (or perhaps revenge), Batman’s ethical precepts are compelling but often inconsistent and controversial. Philosopher and pop culture expert Mark D. White uses the tools of moral philosophy to track Batman’s most striking ethical dilemmas and decisions across his most prominent storylines from the early 1970s through the launch of the New 52, and suggests how understanding the mercurial moral character of the caped crusader might help us reconcile our own. A thought-provoking and entertaining journey through four decades of Batman’s struggles and triumphs in time for the franchise’s 80th anniversary, Batman and Ethics is a perfect gateway into the complex questions of moral philosophy through a focused character study of this most famous of fictional superheroes.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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