Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Gotham Ethic

This is my final paper for my philosophy class. It's a bit contrived, I admit, but done is done.

 “Like the unfortunate madman who says he’ll climb down to Dovrefjell to blow up the whole world with a syllogism, what was needed was someone who could, to everyone’s knowledge, climb really deep down into the whole world of mediation, mediocrity and spiritlessness to plant there, for all to see, the explosive either/or.”

–Søren Kierkegaard, (Kierkegaard, 1852)


The Gotham Ethic

The world of Batman, as it appears in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, presents the viewer with a conflict between several competing and sometimes complimentary forces. The city of Gotham is firstly divided into two distinct groups prior to the introduction of the key characters. Each of these groups has its own code of conduct and social mores: the law abiding citizens of Gotham and the criminal underbelly governed by their distorted code of honor. Within the context of Gotham’s history, the Batman and Joker are relatively recent and radical newcomers who appear in the city as agents of change seeking to undo what they view as a corrupted or flawed social order. Each of these characters espouses an ideology that seeks to unseat the entrenched and stale status quo of Gotham and unify the city’s population through the establishment or disestablishment of order. At the end of the film it is unclear which ideology was victorious because both had suffered serious blows. So, to perhaps untangle the somewhat muddled conclusion to the tale it is necessary to determine which philosophy better serves its ends by studying the ethical ramifications of the intent, action and outcome of the story by comparing it with the philosophical theories of more traditional voices: Kierkegaard, Plato and Aristotle.

            To start with, we can say that Batman and the Joker are philosophers since both characters have a clear desire to define and propagate a world view with a specific ethical system similar but not entirely identical to their respective camps of origin (again, law and order versus criminality). The dialog between the two characters occurs mostly through indirect means, each attempting to prove his theory through the reaction of Gotham’s citizens to their actions. Each of them adopts certain conventions from traditional philosophers in order to effectively present their world views. In some ways these characters transcend the role of philosopher in that they transform themselves into perfectly embodied symbols of their philosophies capable of assuming authority higher than that entrusted to those they impose upon. In this sense, the Joker and Batman can be viewed according to Platonic political thought as, if not Philosopher Kings as in The Republic (Plato, 360 BCEa), then as the near ideological cousin: Moderate Tyrants as in Laws (Plato, 360 BCEb). Philosopher Kings and Moderate Tyrants share many of the same virtues in Plato’s writings, the difference being that Moderate Tyrants arise as a means of political segue into a more perfect government whereas Philosopher Kings are a perfect state.

            Viewing Batman and the Joker as Moderate Tyrants, one can better understand the struggle over the District Attorney Harvey Dent. According to Plato, in order for a Moderate Tyranny to become a perfect state the tyrant requires a skilled legislator.

“Cleineus: You would assume, as you say, a tyrant who was young, temperate, quick at learning, having a good memory, courageous, of a noble nature?

Athenian Stranger: Yes; and you must add fortunate; and his good fortune must be that he is the contemporary of a great legislator, and that some happy chance brings them together. When this has been accomplished, divine fortune has done all that it ever does for a state which it desires to be eminently prosperous.” (Plato, 360 BCEb)

Batman’s alliance with Harvey Dent was pivotal in almost completely eradicating the deeply entrenched criminal hierarchy that plagued the law abiding citizens of Gotham. Batman was poised to relinquish his power to a society governed by ethical laws in which a tyrannical vigilante enforcer was no longer necessary. The introduction of the Joker complicated this transformation of Gotham. The Joker sought to impose a different code of ethics and he recognized the need to destroy and usurp the relationship between his rival tyrant and the skilled legislator. In turning Harvey Dent against Batman and the order he sought to establish, the Joker effectively recruited him to impose his chaotic ethical system through the abandonment of law and order. Harvey Dent was important to both Batman and the Joker as the symbol of legitimate and consenting governance, in that he would rule Gotham by the grace of a people seeking out an ethical ideal as opposed to the Moderate Tyrants who would rule ethically by decree.  

The use of secret identities by these philosophers to perpetuate an ideology stems from the need for the perfection of an ideological belief system to be delivered by means of a likewise perfect embodiment of that ideology in order to perfectly govern less perfect people. To reveal their identities would effectively tarnish the perfection of the ideas by tying them to the human flaws of their originators. Kierkegaard’s use of pseudonyms in his writing performed an eerily similar function to Bruce Wayne’s use of the Batman identity to present his ideas: both men are wealthy and noted for their lavish lifestyles, and in order to be taken seriously both had to divorce themselves from the aesthetics of their social personas and adopt an unknown identity. The Joker too, wears makeup to maintain anonymity and frequently revises his personal narrative to confuse his origins. In that sense, the adopted identities remain always true to form in a way that their true identities could not. This is perhaps the same reason that Plato does not personally espouse his philosophy, but rather he attributes it to Socrates who, in death, becomes a perfect embodiment of the ideas free from the failings that a living Socrates might possess. It is perhaps this same reason that Batman and Commissioner Gordan are forced to conceal the collapse of Harvey Dent from the people of Gotham so that he can embody the philosophical ideal that the city should strive toward.

In terms of supporting the two disparate ideologies through the writings of traditional philosophers we can observe that Batman’s view holds up to scrutiny more readily than the Joker’s. Batman enforces justice day to day in Gotham; he is a relentless actor working to achieve philosophical supremacy in a constantly shifting environment in which success is achieved only so long as he is able to maintain his virtues. The Joker on the other hand seeks to prove the validity of his thinking through singular acts in which his unwilling participants are forced to make decisions which inevitably result in turning them against their own ethics. The Joker’s reliance on isolated acts to prove his ideology runs counter to both Aristotelian and Kierkegaardian thought in that it ignores the constant struggle to act virtuously in a changing world by presenting a moment for weakness to take grip and ignoring the entire scope of the subject’s existence. Kierkegaard would argue that one act, while romantic and aesthetically pleasing to the storyteller, the Joker, does not signify the larger truth of a person or validate the ideological narrative being related: in this case, anarchy and natural human wickedness or selfishness. “Then let your consolation be, as it is mine, that we are not to read about or listen to or look at what is the highest and most beautiful in life, but are, if you please, to live it.”(Kierkegaard, 70) Batman on the other hand, through a constant struggle seeks to instill a working ethic into the citizenry, to establish a habit of virtuous conduct that Gotham might live justly and not just act justly in specific circumstances. Where both characters succeed is in the Kierkegaardian sense of choice. “Do it or do not do it, you will regret both.” (Kierkegaard, 72) Batman is capable of making difficult ethical decisions because he is able to reconcile the regret he feels by knowing that he is acting virtuously and that his sacrifices ultimately benefit the city. The Joker, on the other hand, delights in pushing others into a choice that guarantees regret, though he is flawed in his thinking that the regret constitutes an admission of ethical failure. Additionally, the situations posed by the Joker do not meet Aristotle’s criteria for voluntary actions, as laid out in Book III of Nicomachean Ethics, since the agent doing the action is compelled to act by threat of violence to others. (Aristotle) The Joker does make effective use of Socratic irony in evidencing, if not proving, through their own actions that people are not as just or ethical as they believe themselves to be,

            An informal straw poll of the internet, by way of search engine, reveals that a common theme viewers and critics feel is expressed in The Dark Knight is that evil triumphs over good. I suppose it could be viewed in that light since Batman failed to turn over the reigns of justice to Harvey Dent and thus usher in a more perfect state, Dent himself is destroyed, their mutual love interest Rachel Dawes is dead, the police force is shown to have been corruptible, Batman is perceived to have stepped beyond the bounds of his ethics and is hunted for crimes he was forced to accept blame for in order to hang on to the possibility that the society he envisions will come to be. Batman does, however, win some decisive victories over the course of the struggle. His position as a symbol of absolute virtue is transferred to the dead Harvey Dent, whose memory cannot be compromised in the same way that he was in life. His goal of bringing down the criminal underground in Gotham is furthered not only through his own actions, but also the destructiveness of the Joker’s philosophy since the Joker not only kills key members in the criminal hierarchy through his own actions, but also through the actions of the corrupted Harvey Dent, and he essentially bankrupts the massive criminal enterprise through robbery and the burning of their cash reserves. In that regard, the Joker furthered the means by which Batman seeks to bring order to the city by denying the criminal class of leadership and capital. Also, by Batman assuming the blame for Dent’s crimes he was also able to overcome the limitations of his own ethical code since criminals can no longer rely on the fact that he does not take lives in the pursuit of his goals. In the end, Batman was not able to achieve his ultimate goal of a more perfect state, but he is well poised to continue his crusade for order and the end of criminal rule in Gotham. The Joker can take solace in his corruption of Dent, but ultimately Batman retained his ethical footing on a personal level and prevented the Joker from completely undoing the means by which he can accomplish his goals.
Works Cited

Kierkegaard, S. (1909) Søren Kierkegaard’s Papirer. Copenhagen: Gyldendal (Original work published 1852).

Kierkegaard, S. (2000) The Essential Kierkegaard Princeton: Princeton University Press (Original work, Either/Or published 1843).

Plato. (c. 380 BC) The Republic (B. Jowett, Trans.). Web.


Plato. (c. 380 BC) Nichomachean Ethics (B. Jowett, Trans.). Web.


Aristotle. (c. 350 BC) Nichomachean Ethics (W.D. Ross, Trans.). Web.



FOMSG said...

Batman is of course the Kierkegaardian hero the "Knight of Infinate Resignation." Whearas I see the Joker as the true face of Zarathustra the Nietzchean Ubermensch.

But what about this:
"The Dark Knight" as an Hegalian Dialectic with Batman as Thesis, Joker as Antithesis and Two Face as Synthesis?

FOMSG said...

Oh, and well done...