The Batman Paradox: The Joke’s On You

One of the things I enjoy most about reading comics is the commentary on culture it can make. Such as how the 1980s run of Animal Man by Grant Morrison gives huge props to animal rights. Or the way Alan Moore’s run of Saga of the Swamp Thing explores the ideas of what it means to be given natural life versus what is artificial, and the viability of each. Essentially, what makes a man (or swamp-man as the case may be). Then, you have the overwhelming amount of statements made with Peter Milligan’s version of Shade, The Changing Man. But that one is a post all on its own.

My favorite thing to do with so much commentary is investigate the philosophical implications in each story. I admit it, I am an armchair philosopher. So, if you are one of those people who think philosophy is a waste of time, you might want to leave now. Many people believe all philosophy does is give people who can’t do anything, something to think about to make them feel important.

Frankly, I don’t see the problem. Even if studying philosophy as a profession teaches you nothing more than asking, “Why do you want fries with that?” Just the fact that, at its heart, it is nothing more than an experiment in thought, is very important. I truly believe that in our modern society, much of the current generation has lost the ability to do critical thinking, and philosophy (or me) is a great way to get the mental muscle moving.

So where am I going with this? Well, I’m going into one of the biggest philosophical questions in the comic book world.

Should Batman kill the Joker?

Okay, folks, there is the $10,000 question. We all know about Batman’s personal no guns and (generally) no kill policy. But before we tackle this further, we need to set some ground rules.

We will primarily be speaking on the philosophical side of things, dealing with morality. This has nothing to do with the legal aspect, or what rights Batman or Joker has according to the law. When we say things like, “Does Batman have the right to kill someone?”, we mean from a completely philosophical stand point. Here, the word “right” means more about Batman’s moral responsibility as a free-willed individual, not as a subject of government law.

Which also brings about that we will agree that free will exists. Anyone, provided in their capacity, has the ability to make any choice presented to them. There is no secret “hand of fate” that guides their actions.

With that in mind, are we good now? Everything understood? Are you strapped in and ready for the ride?


Then now is when I am going to tell you, we will probably be investigating the question across more than one blog post. So now that your buckled in, you have no choice but to come along. Bwahahaha!

Also, as with all philosophical pieces, we probably won’t answer a single freaking question without raising ten more.

So Welcome to the Asylum

To begin with Batman’s right to kill Joker, we need to start with Joker’s right to be…well…the Joker. We all know the Joker is playing with a few cards short of a deck. That is his defining feature, but can we hold him responsible for his actions because of it? So to ask if Batman should kill the Joker, we will need to ask, is it morally right to kill the Joker in the first place?

For this discussion, we will start by agreeing that if you have no control over your actions, you cannot be held morally responsible for them. Makes sense right?

I mean, if you are making a peanut butter sandwich and someone bumps your arm and you spread the peanut butter on the counter, that isn’t entirely your fault, is it? Sure, causal responsibility states your direct involvement caused the action. But morally, you did not make the choice that caused the incident.

So then, if you have a mental condition, say one that was brought on by an accident, unfortunate circumstances, or even genetic disposition, that causes you to involuntarily perform certain actions, does that remove your (moral) responsibility over said actions?

Naturally, I am speaking about insanity. Which, for simplicity’s sake, we will say is a mental condition in which the subject performs socially unacceptable actions involuntarily. No, that is not an all-encompassing medical definition, but I only have 1500 words to play with here.

Now then, let’s look at some of Joker’s actions/crimes:

As we can see, there is more than enough questionable intent behind Joker’s actions. But is this enough to prove he has no control, and therefor, no responsibility behind his actions? Does the fact that, on the surface, the actions make no sense, prove a lack of control over said action? Or is there some deeper reason to excuse actions ranging from the mundane to the deadly as acts of insanity?

I Want You to Want Me

In the book, Batman and Philosophy, Christopher Robichaud brings up that we have this amazing ability to conceive second-order desires. Think something along the lines of Inception. We have the ability to analyze our own wants. Essentially, we can ask ourselves if we want to have a desire, or do we desire a certain desire. No other animal on Earth seemingly has this ability. When an animal wants something, say food, they go and get it. No second thought as to how that food comes about. A wolf may kill a rabbit, and not think twice about it. It was hungry, rabbits are tasty, and boom goes the dynamite.

The example given by Robichaud is drug addicts. For our example, let’s use smokers. On the surface, their body requests cigarettes to fulfill a want (or a need, as addiction is defined). But as a human being, they can analyze this want, and decide if it is good for them, or worth it otherwise. At the most primal level, they may desire a cigarette, but they can say to themselves, they no longer want the desire for a cigarette, and thus, decide to quit smoking.

So back to the Joker. If we say that insanity is (at least in part) a lack of second-order desire, can that apply to the Joker? I believe so. Ever heard the phrase, “Some people are only alive because it is illegal to kill them?” We all come across people at times that we just do not like. No, we probably do not want to kill them, but we might want to do bad things to them. Do we do it though? No. At least, usually not. This is because we analyze the desire, and weigh the consequences. And decide not to follow through.

Joker, on the other hand, he decides he wants to do something, and then immediately follows through. Or at least begins planning. Now, just because he has animalistic tendency (the lack of second-order desire), does not mean it takes away from his intelligence. He still plans his goals. It’s just once that goal is desired, there is no going back for him.

The point is, never do we see any sign of analysis on the decision of said goal.

 As far as I know, I’ve never seen the Joker provide even a hint of regret for any decision, short of poor execution that resulted in failing his ultimate goal. As for regret for the goal itself. Never. And I think you could argue that regret would be closely tied to second-order desire. So at this point I think we can say that as a result of something outside of Joker’s control, he has lost the ability to recognize second-order desires, which for our discussion, can be used to excuse him for reasons of insanity.

Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel

So now we have to ask, do we (or Batman) have the right to kill someone who has no ability to stop what they are doing? Or does that mean we should be rid of them because they are an even bigger threat? Stayed tuned for my next post on this, when we will examine what it means for Batman to kill at all.

By John Ayers

By day, John is a mild-mannered techie, geek, and dad. But by night, he is a dice-rolling, comic-reading...techie, geek, and dad. Not everyone has to live two lives, you know. You can find him on Twitter as @FalconX2.


  1. Sounds like there’s a bit of potential in there for a “needs of the many vs. the needs of the few” discussion.

    Nice start!

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