Is Batman a Liar?

At the end of the Dark Knight, Batman tells Gordon, “I killed those people,” referring to the people killed by Two Face in his revenge rampage.  Batman’s purpose was to preserve the reputation of Harvey Dent for the sake of giving the people of Gotham hope.  Batman sacrifices his own reputation for the sake of Gotham City.

That’s all fine and good; but Batman has been accused by many of being a liar.  I would already agree for other reasons i.e. the wire-tapping incident, that Batman does not escape the film entirely unscathed, morally speaking; but is he a liar?  A consequentialist can easily argue that Batman did the right thing, doing something wrong to achieve a greater good.  However, I believe that a case can be made that not only is Batman not a liar, but also he did nothing morally wrong, even assuming the falsity of consequentialism.

Dictionary.com defines a lie as “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.”  For our purposes in this article, this definition is sufficient.  Thus, in order to be a lie, something must be 1)  false (or at least believed to be false by the person lying), 2) a statement with 3) the intent to deceive.

Based on these criteria, it is quite clear that Batman is not a liar, for whom did Batman lie to?  What lie did he tell?  The immediate response is that Batman told a lie when he told Gordon that he killed those people; but this is obviously false, as I will presently show. 

Batman was well aware that Gordon knew about Dent’s killing spree.  It was never his intention to deceive Gordon.  Now obviously Batman had the intention of deceiving the city; however, not all acts of deception are lies.  Assume the truth of the following two statements:  “All acts of lying are wrong,” and “all lies are acts of deception.”  To conclude, “all acts of deception are wrong” does not logically follow.  In order to make the argument valid, we must assert the truth of the converse of premise two, asserting:  “all deceptions are lies.”  But there are obvious counterexamples to this assertion: it is common for a soccer player taking a penalty shot to look at one side of the goal and shoot at the other.  His intent is to make the goalie think that he is aiming for one side so that the goalie will dive in that direction.  The player then shoots for the other corner.  This is an instance of deception, but it is not a lie, for it is not a statement, but an act.  Therefore, the conclusion of the original argument does not follow.

As a matter of fact, our counterexample to, “all deceptions are lies” is also a counterexample to the conclusion of the original argument.  I doubt many people would argue that the soccer player acted immorally for deceiving that goalie.    

So if Batman wasn’t intending to deceive Gordon, then what was he doing?  It seems that Batman’s statement is not really a statement at all, but an imperative.  He seems to be issuing a command to Gordon to tell others that he is the murderer, not Dent.  Taken in a different context, “I killed those men” would be a proposition which is either true or fase; however, in this instance, he was giving a command, and no command has a truth value.  Therefore, because Batman was not making a statement but issuing a command, criterion 2) is not met.  And because commands are neither true nor false, criterion 1) is not met, either.

Failing to meet any one of these criteria would be sufficient to demonstrate that Batman did not tell a lie.  Still, two arguments can be advanced to show that Batman still acted immorally, even if he is not a liar.  First, Batman intentionally deceived the city.  Isn’t this act of deception wrong?  

I answer that this act of deception is not wrong.  First, I refer the reader to Alexander Pruss’s excellent article, “Deception and Lying.”  He not only shows that all deceptions are lies, but also that not all deceptions are morally wrong.  Thus, In order to show that Batman acted immorally, one must not only establish that Batman deceived the city (to which all parties would agree), but also provide an argument showing why that particular act of deception is wrong.  Unless such an argument is made, objection 1 fails.  

Secondly, Batman acted immorally because he commissioned Gordon (pun intended) to lie on his behalf.  However, Batman did no such thing.  Even if Batman issued a command to Gordon, that command was ambiguous enough that Batman never specified what means Gordon must take to achieve those ends.  Sure, Batman was clear that he wanted Gordon to deceive the city; but he never tells him how to do it.  Batman says, “I killed those people;” which can be interpreted in a number of ways.  It can be interpreted to mean “Gordon, lie to the city, telling them that I (Batman) killed those people.”  However, it can also be interpreted to mean, “Gordon, deceive the city (but do so without lying to them).”  Some may say this interpretation is not the most likely one, but I don’t think that is necessarily true.  Perhaps Gordon knows Batman so well that he knows he would never ask him to do something immoral; perhaps Batman knew Gordon well enough that he (Gordon) would interpret his (Batman’s) ambiguous command in a way consistent with his (Gordon’s) impeccable moral sensibility.

Gordon could easily deceive the city into thinking Batman is a murderer without ever telling a lie.  First, he can state truthfully that Batman killed Harvey Dent; all he needs to do is fail to mention that Harvey Dent had lost his mind and was holding his family hostage.  Also, Gordon can truthfully say repeat Batman’s words, saying, “Batman said to me (and I quote!):  ‘I killed those men.'”  Again, Gordon is being perfectly honest when he says this:  he is not telling a lie because his statement is true.  Of course, by context we know that Batman was issuing a command, not making a statement; however, by failing to mention the proper context in which the words were uttered, Gordon fails to communicate this fact to Gotham. 

Now I think that Gordon could not only say these things without lying, but would also not deceiving in a way which is immoral, either.  However, that is an argument for a separate post.  At present, I have done what I set out to do:  I first showed that Batman is not a liar, and then I showed that Batman’s deception was not immoral.  Thus, instead of using evil ends to achieve a good end, Batman used good/morally neutral means to achieve a good end.  All that remains is his heroic intention to sacrifice his safey and reputation for the good of Gotham.

Update:  See my subsequent post on this same topic.

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2 Comments on “Is Batman a Liar?”

  1. Greg Says:

    This argument works pretty well as an exercise in logic but from a practical standpoint, it is a load of bunk. Batman didn’t kill those people and he took the blame for it on purpose. Regardless of his intentions, he’s a liar.

  2. phamilton Says:

    Greg,

    There’s no way to have an ethics discussion without being clear on terms. If logic chopping is aimed at the truth in things, I consider your observation a compliment rather than a criticism.

    It does not follow from the fact that Batman intended to deceive that he is a liar. Poker players intend to deceive all the time without lying. Therefore lying and deception are not always the same thing. While every act of lying is an act of deception, not every act of deception is a lie. Now it seems clear that Batman’s act of deception fails to meet at least one criterion for being a lie, and therefore it is not a lie.

    Nothing in that argument vindicates Batman’s actions, but it does clarify the question: given that Batman is not a liar, is his act of deception blameworthy? If we are going to condemn Batman, we might as well condemn him correctly.


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