Batman as Vigilante

If my readers haven’t guessed it yet, I found The Dark Knight to be a fascinating movie.  It asks some excellent philosophical questions without having large neon signs pointing at them whenever they occur.  This post explores one such question:  given the corruption of a particular institution, is it ever permissible to attempt to fix the institution as an agent above the law?  Gotham is clearly corrupt, and like any good superhero Batman tries to clean up the corruption as an agent unaccountable to local authorities.  But is it ever moral to place oneself outside of the law?  Or must one always work within the law to combat corruption?  The amazing thing about The Dark Knight is that while Batman is quite clearly a protagonist and a vigilante (which seems to present tacit support for vigilante justice), there are powerful arguments made against vigilante justice throughout the movie.

Philip Lawler, the author of The Faithful Departed, describes corruption in the following way:  assume that out of every 100 people, 5 are extraordinarily virtuous, 5 are extraordinarily vicious, and 90 are average individuals.  In a well functioning institution, the vicious men are kept from power, or can be evicted if they ever obtain power.  The corrupt society is the exact opposite, where the vicious entrench themselves in an institution’s leadership.  Thus, even corrupt institutions have a few good men, and good institutions have a few corrupt men.  The key to judging the moral health of an institution is whether corrupt are able to maintain power once they obtain it.

At the beginning of the movie, Batman is going after Scarecrow, and a bunch of vigilantes show up.  Batman clearly frowns upon there actions, since he leaves them to be apprehended by the police, sitting right next to the very criminal they were attempting to stop.  The vigilantes were attempting to do good, but they placed themselves outside of the law; Batman treats them as common criminals: it is the criminal that acts as if he’s above the law.  Of course, vigilantes are different than criminals because vigilantes desire to wipe out corruption rather than to cause it.  Nevertheless, there are several problems with vigilante justice.  To name a few, vigilante justice may lapse into subjectivity rather than being impartial (as Aristotle would say, it let’s man rule, not the laws).  Vigilantes seek  justice even though they may not have full knowledge of the facts of a given situation.  And, while vigilantes may have the power to punish criminals, they do not have the authority to punish criminals.  The one vigilante asks Batman, “what makes you different than us?”  To which Batman responds, “I’m not wearing hockey pants.”  The humor of the comment aside, Batman never answers the question:  why is it okay for Batman to act outside of the law, but not okay for these men?  It can’t be merely because Batman possesses more training and better widgets!  Alfred half-approvingly, half-jokingly suggests that Batman should hire these men and take the weekend off, a suggestion that Batman dismisses without a second thought. 

Wayne himself realizes that Batman’s existence can only be temporary.  Thus he begins looking for a White Knight who can take his place, an agent acting within the law.  He finds this man in Harvey Dent, and he throws Dent a fundraiser to ensure his political future.  Interestingly, Wayne lends Dent his support immediately after a conversation about vigilante justice, which included the infamous example of Caesar, who acted above the law and never returned control to the people.  Dent acknowledges the problem proposed by this example, but states in reply, “so one either dies a hero, or lives long enough to see himself become the enemy.”  This line, incidentally, is repeated at the end of the movie in reference both to Dent and to Batman, one a criminal, the other a vigilante, both acting above the law.

But most importantly, there is the scene in which Morgan Freeman’s character comments on the immorality of Batman’s wire tapping scheme.  The scene is teeming with situational irony:  a man acting above the law is being chastized for acting above the law by a friend who supported once his acting above the law! 

Sure, even if Batman is acting only above human laws, he can still be promoting a higher moral code, such as God’s laws.  But most laws e.g. giving police the right to enforce justice and not allowing civilians to take matters into their own hands, are instances of the natural law applied through positive law; since the natural law participates in the eternal law, acting above human laws would in this case be acting against God’s laws.  Batman’s defenders cannot escape the ethical problems that easily!

So why does Freeman’s character object to this vigilante act in particular as wrong? Batman previously and repeatedly acted outside of civil law, and Freeman had no objections.  Now Batman is doing the same thing, but Freeman objects.  What is different about this instance of law-breaking that was different than previous ones?  Freeman answers that this wire-tap grants too much power to one man, which is true; but then again, isn’t it a bit too much power to be above the law except with regards to a personal oath not to kill anyone?  And even then, what’s holding Batman to this oath should he decide to break it?  Once we grant the vigilante his premise that it is okay to act outside of the law in some instances, what prevents the vigilante’s logic from being applied to other instances?   

(There are a couple of other scenes which touch on this issue, such as Rachael commenting in her letter that she is afraid that Bruce Wayne will continue to need Batman even after Gotham no longer needs Batman; but I’ll leave the philosophizing on that one to some one else.) 

All of these things seem to argue against Batman’s very existence being moral.  I wrote yesterday about dirty hands scenarios, asking whether Batman might be considered virtuous even in the midst of his bad actions because he did the best thing in a difficult moral situation.  But can one even call Batman’s situation a dirty hands scenario when he was never a lawful authority elected to make such hard decisions in the first place?  It isn’t ever in a non-appointed citizen’s power to apply the just war criteria or enact solutions to the Social Security fiasco, so why ought he have the authority to decide on behalf of Gotham which truths or falsehoods it is to hear? 

The Dark Knight presents a powerful argument against vigilante justice.  And yet, it is still undoubtable that Batman, a vigilante, is the protagonist of the movie, acting in what appears to be an heroic way.  Even after Batman refuses to call himself a hero at the end of the movie, Gordon does not hesitate to do so.  Furthermore, it seems that the producers of this movie wish to present Batman as a hero, too (they don’t play the hero music when Batman steps in front of the camera for nothing!).  But determining exactly what makes Batman heroic is surprisingly elusive.  Like many of the best philosophical questions, this one rouses up a good bout of aporia.

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One Comment on “Batman as Vigilante”


  1. […] Batman: Is He a Liar? Are His Hands Dirty? Is He a Vigilante? – An Interesting Discussion […]


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