Friday, October 10, 2008

Utilitarianism in The Dark Knight

This post concerns plot developments in The Dark Knight. I imagine you’ve seen it, but if you haven’t, you shouldn’t read this post.

The Setup:

By the final act of The Dark Knight, the city of Gotham has suffered murders, robberies, assassinations, and bombings, all orchestrated by the Joker. Panicked residents are told (by the Joker) to flee the city, which means that most must leave by ferries. Coincidentally, the police forces are also evacuating Gotham’s prisons, using ferries to transport inmates. The night the evacuation is happening, the Joker disables two of the ferries in the water – one carrying ordinary citizens, the other carrying prisoners. The Joker hacks into the P.A. system of each ferry and announces the following: 1) each ferry is loaded with enough explosives to kill everyone on board; 2) the passengers of each ferry have been given a radio-controlled detonator that will destroy the other boat (the convicts can detonate the ship of citizens, and vice versa); and 3) unless one boat detonates the other by midnight, the Joker will detonate both boats. Of course, the Joker is monitoring the situation, and any attempt by anyone to escape either boat will result in the Joker detonating both boats.

The Film:

The people on both boats wrestle with what to do. On the law-abiding citizen’s boat, a vote is taken, and the Gothamites resolve to blow up the other boat of prisoners. However, no one, not even a self-righteous businessman, is finally able to push the button. On the boat of prisoners, a particularly menacing convict eventually takes the remote detonator from a guard by promising to blow the other boat up and save everyone on his own boat, but this convict throws the remote overboard. Fortunately, Batman is able to find the joker and take the detonator around midnight. The result is that both boats are spared, and Batman triumphantly says to the Joker “this city just showed you it’s full of people ready to believe in good!”

The moral choices made by the boat hostages is presented by the film as perhaps the only ray of light the otherwise relentlessly bleak downfall of a city. Each boat had plenty of motivation to destroy the other boat. The normal citizens had argued among themselves that they would only be killing convicted murderers and rapists – why should they not kill the convicts who have “had their chance?” Behind this is the assumption that the criminals were less morally worthy than the law-abiding citizens. The convicts boat was filled with murders, who would seem to have few scruples about killing others to preserve their own lives (pure selfishness, in other words). But ultimately, no one on either boat acted on these motivations. Because each boat transcended these motivations, good seemed to triumph in the end.


The fact that no one is able to blow up the other boat is presented as a triumph for goodness and decency. But really, doesn’t this just maximize bloodshed rather than minimizing it? Of course, in the movie, Batman is (barely) able to keep the joker from blowing up both boats and killing everyone as he had promised. However, this eventuality was by no means a sure bet from the point of view of the ferry passengers. After all, Batman failed to prevent a warehouse explosion that killed Rachel Dawes, and failed to prevent the Joker from blowing up a hospital. He was just barely able to apprehend the Joker in the first place, and the Joker escaped from jail almost immediately. Any rational person on either ferry would have to assume that the Joker would very likely make good on his promise.

Thus, the choice to a passenger on either boat looks like this:*

1) I don’t blow up the other boat, and either;
a. The other boat doesn’t blow us up, and the Joker blows us both up at midnight; or
b. The other boat blows us up, meaning that we die but they live.**

2) I do blow up the other boat, meaning that they die while we live.

Under this choice architecture, the best way to ensure the maximization of life is to make sure one boat blows up the other. The only way to ensure this happens is to blow up the other boat. This must be done some time before midnight. If you wanted to be fair, you could wait for some time, in order to give the other boat a fair shot at blowing you up too. We normally take it for granted that saving lives is a good thing, everything else being equal. Wouldn’t that reasoning hold in this case as well?


Of course, some would object. The crucial difference, one might argue, is that if each boat does nothing, the Joker will kill everyone on both boats, whereas if a passenger pushes the button, that passenger will be responsible for the death of an entire boatload of people. From a passenger’s point of view, one course of action makes me a murderer, whereas the other merely makes me a victim. Thus, under this view, the choice is not between saving more lives as opposed to saving no lives, it is rather between murdering people and not murdering people. In fact, this very moral architecture has been used in ethics textbooks for some time.*** In the end, the boat passengers choose against utilitarianism, and Batman (and seeming, The Dark Knight) approve of this choice.

While a real discussion of this flavor of utilitarianism is beyond the scope of this blog posting, it’s worth noting that The Dark Knight is somewhat consistent in being anti-utilitarian.

Batman’s Code:

Most notably, Batman is resolute in refusing to kill the Joker, even when it becomes increasingly obvious that the Joker is a murdering psychopath. He purposefully wipes out and crashes the Batpod to avoid running over the Joker (where the Joker had attacked a police caravan with RPGs only seconds before) and, at the end of the movie, he actually rescues the Joker from falling to his death, after a mortal hand-to-hand fight, knowing that the Joker has easily escaped jail before and will likely do so again to cause more mayhem. In fact, the Joker says to him (while hanging upside-down by wire) “you won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness, and I won’t kill you because you’re too much fun!”)****

Batman does, however, tackle Two-Face off a high building ledge to his death, but only when Two-Face has a gun pointed to a child’s head. Doesn’t this indicate that Batman knows that killing is sometimes necessary for the greater good? One might argue that killing Two-Face was necessary to prevent an imminent harm to another person (Gordon’s child), whereas the Joker arguably posed no immediate threat to anyone the times Batman could have killed him. One could argue that with Two-Face, Batman “had no choice.” But this is really a cop-out. It is virtually certain that Two-Face would have killed the boy. But it is equally certain that the Joker would continue to wreak havoc (although the details of who, when, and how are less certain).

Is it really the case that Batman will allow the Joker to perpetrate any manner of evil out of a vain moral absolutism? Or is Batman’s stance an admirable refusal to give in to the temptations of lawlessness and ultimately fascism?***** There is more support for the former. Batman has shown he is more than willing to torture suspects by pounding the crap out of them, participate in illegal, extra-judicial international kidnapping (seriously!) and monitor every single citizen of Gotham using secret technology hidden in their cell phones. He kills Two-Face to save a young boy.******

Batman’s unwillingness to kill functions as a sort of a signal to the audience that in spite of his other questionable tactics, Batman is one of the good guys (as are the ferry passengers). Perhaps, though, The Dark Knight ultimately acknowledges (in a small way) that hard-and-fast rules cannot be easily adapted to a complex moral universe.

Update 10/10/08: Wow, I didn't know that this topic has been touched on here, here, and here.

* No one knows how many people are on the other boat, but it’s a fair guess that both boats are pretty packed, since it’s an emergency evacuation. Neither boat can communicate with the other.
** Note, by the way, that this reasoning applies to either boat. That is, this analysis rests on the numbers of lives at stake, and does not involve any notion of the intrinsic “moral worth” of the normal citizens vs. that of the convicts. It also does not implicate selfishness.
*** One example: you are an explorer in the jungle and come across a village where ten prisoners are to be killed by the village chief. Upon seeing you, however, the chief says to you: “you are a guest of distinction, and if you will do us the honor of shooting one of the prisoners, we will spare the rest." The prisoners would much prefer that you shoot one of them. Do you shoot one prisoner to spare the others, or do you let the chief execute all of them, in order that you do not become a murderer yourself? There are others involving a railroad switch operator, and an operating room full of people with fatally failing organs (different organs for each person), and a healthy person who happens to be walking by who is a tissue match for all of them.
**** The Joker may be taken as a (superficial) Nietzschean. He is a “pale criminal” who lusts after the “joy of the knife” (saying, at one point to a decective “you know why I use a knife? . . . guns are too quick . . . you don’t get to savor all the little emotions. . .”) See Also sprach Zarathustra: Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen, “Die Reden Zarathustras,” ch. 6 (1883) in: Werke in drei Bänden, vol. 2, pp. 304-05 (K. Schlechta ed. 1973)(S.H. transl.) Obviously, the Joker’s nihlism may place him, in his own eyes, “Beyond Good and Evil.”
***** In the first Batman movie, Bruce Wayne parts ways with the League of Shadows when he refuses to execute a prisoner who murdered his neighbor. Batman’s subsequent refusal to kill the Joker seems fundamentally different from this earlier case, because the Joker has shown that incarceration and the normal workings of the law enforcement system are not nearly enough to stop him. In other words, the Joker is always imminently dangerous, as opposed to the helpless prisoner from Batman Begins. In addition, Batman does not kill Ra’s al Ghul at the end of Batman Begins, but rather refuses to save him from a speeding train that is about to crash. However, Batman and Lt. Gordon destroyed the rail that the train was heading towards, directly causing the imminent crash. On the other hand, Ra’s al Ghul had caused the speeding train to head on a collision course with Wayne tower, where a stolen microwave device placed on the train by the League of Shadows would explode the central water mains of Gotham City, thereby setting off a chain reaction and vaporizing a weaponized hallucinogen that had previously been distributed through the water supply by a psychologist who . . . you know what, never mind.
****** The point at which Harvey Dent becomes a “bad guy” may be traced to the moment he starts killing corrupt cops – this of course coincides with his scarring and becoming Two-Face.

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