How Dirty are Batman’s Hands?

Batman deceived Gotham City, which is sinful; but I am having a difficult time labelling his actions as unequivocally virtuous or vicious.  Batman is operating in a fallen world, and he is trying his best to do good, even when he fails in some respect.  And no matter how hard I try, I cannot stop thinking about Batman’s “noble lie,” deceiving Gotham for what appears to be the greater good.  The scenario is so messy, mixed with good and evil, that it is ripe for philosophical discussion.  I previously explain both why Batman is not a liar, but why his deception is still a sin against the truth.  In this post, I examine another factor in this moral equation: does Batman have the “dirty hands?”  

Instances of moral rule-breaking which cannot be avoided in this life are called “dirty hands” situations.  As much as I am disgusted with the majority of politicians, it’s difficult to be too hard on them because they must handle very difficult situations where the best solutions are not readily apparent, even in hindsight.  For instance, as a general moral rule, it would be unjust for a person to pay into Social Security his entire life without getting any benefits in return:  he has planned his retirement around that money and needs to support himself.  However, when the Baby Boomers retire in 2020, a very small number of people will be paying the SS benefits for a large number of people.  If we give every Boomer the money which they paid into SS, the working generation will be saddled with an excessive economic burden.  SS reform is one of those terrible situations where someone is going to get the short end of the stick.  Our politicians are going to have to make the decision concerning who must take the burden of the impending disaster for the sake of the common good.  I do not envy them for the decision they must make, for to solve this problem involves dirtying one’s hands.

God never promised that absolute goodness would win in this life, but only in the next.  It is thus possible that evil will triumph insofar as human affairs are concerned.  As David notes, in this life there just aren’t states of affairs or groups of people that are entirely good, fighting against another state of affairs or group which is pure evil.  Thus, even if the war against Hitler was just, it still brought with it evils.  The invasion at D-Day, for instance, was successful only after thousands of US troops first were used as cannon fodder to drain the opposition’s bullets.  The sacrifice of those men was an evil which piggy-backed on a noble objective.  In such situations, there is no way to entirely eliminate every evil, even on the side with a better claim to justice:  all evil will be conquered only at Christ’s second Coming. 

On the one hand, it’s difficult to hold the generals and politicians from the above examples accountable for protecting the common good in such circumstances.  On the other hand, the fact remains that what these men have done is still objectively sinful.  Granted, the circumstances reduce their culpability, perhaps almost entirely; but they still have committed an evil act, and the very participation in such evil leaves a man’s soul a bit blackened.  Even if the man minimizes the evils as much as possible, he is still partner to the crime.

Batman’s moral dilemma appears to be a dirty hands scenario.  The Joker knew that if Gotham found out about Dent’s corruption, they would lose all hope.  Batman knows the Joker is right about this, because he warned Dent that if Gotham found out about his questionable interrogation tactics, all of Dent’s work would be for nothing.  In saving Dent’s reputation as the White Knight, Batman preserved the already fragile campaign to rid Gotham of its corruption.  He did this at the cost of deceiving Gotham and ruining his own reputation. 

So how do we behave when the cost of doing the right thing involves a choice among imperfect means?  I think this is where virtue-ethics has a lot of appeal.  In situations where our moral rules seem to conflict, the virtuous man possesses the wisdom to know which moral rules take precedence (perhaps that formulation is too weak:  the virtuous man determines what the moral norms are for the rest of us!), and the wisdom to determine the best possible solution…even if the best solution in this imperfect world of ours may still require us to go to Confession afterwards.  The virtuous man must trust that there is a best course of action (perhaps knowable only in the eschaton), and act after asking for an extra dosage of the Holy Spirit.

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