The Dark Knight: A Lesson in Ethics

Batman is a disciplined man. His morality is so unwavering that, when faced with the ultimate enemy, the Joker, Batman remains true to his creed and does not kill. In other words, Batman is not as great as we all thought. If he were to find himself holding a gun against the temple of Adolph Hitler he would be one of those -- it seems -- who would not pull the trigger. That appears to be the point of The Dark Knight -- Batman has limits. Or, more bluntly, Batman is limited.

But isn't that how we like our heroes? One man's limitation is another man's conviction. So why does it sound so wrong when the very same conviction is put in a different context? Letting Joker go to jail rather than plummet to his death might be a good thing; letting Hitler go to jail -- less of a good thing? Is Batman's greatness truly determined by what he does not do, as opposed to what he does do?

Especially when there's not much that Batman won't do. If a man's greatness is about his limits then allow me to nominate Superman for consideration. The Midwest farmboy/last son of Krypton is all about the no-nos -- often waving his finger at his brooding compatriot. So, if Batman's claim to sainthood hinges upon his moral boundaries then it's not quite the grip we are used to from him. However, as the news works so hard to remind us, our world is not simply the bright lights of Metropolis where the greatest villain is manifest greed1. Our world is, more often, the darkened alleys of Gotham where the greatest villain is manifest chaos2. We need limits to match.

We need limits that do not hold us back when we are faced with the murky grey of anarchy. But are not so loose as to send us tumbling into the abyss. We need limits that breathe with the multitude of possibilities but pull taut before we are torn apart by the cacophony. The complexity of our world demands a highly intelligent and interactive moral code.3 In many ways this is the crux of the distinction between Superman and Batman. For Superman, there is only one right and one wrong; his morality is clean and predetermined. Thus, he does not wear a mask or use excessive amounts of violence. His message is blunt but resoundingly clear. With Superman, a villain always knows where he stands and where he'll fall. In contrast, Batman works with all the dark forces. His choice weapons are anonymity and unpredictability. It is not simply about striking fear in the hearts of that "cowardly and superstitious lot" -- it is about hiding his consistency in the shadows.

The life of a Torah observant Jew is a life of limitation and bounds. Our daily routine, our annual calendar, our life's milestones are all preconceived notions. What we eat and what we don't eat; when we eat what; how we dress; how we work; how we spend our money. Almost all aspects of our lives are dictated by the tenets of our religious beliefs, by a code of law and its fortifications. In many ways, the Orthodox Jewish way of life is the way of a Superman. We are open about our limitations (especially in more tolerant societies) and we are clear about them. However, the beauty of the Halachic system is not so much in its rigid pervasion into a person's life as it is its subtle flow around and through -- supporting without constraining. It is a system that, when applied in more difficult scenarios, seems almost entirely arbitrary and inconsistent. And yet, at its core, it is entirely uniform and pure.

Most people do not uncover Batman's inherent consistency. The bat-signal is the only sign for evildoers that he is even around on a given night. They may see him or they may not. They may not see him until it's too late. Usually it's the latter. But not always. Batman is never about always. Except he sometimes is. Batman does have his rules -- impenetrable, immovable, but always unperceivable to the naked eye. Then along comes a clown.

Some might say the Joker is truly about inconsistency. While Batman dons unreliability along with the cape and cowl, the Joker's unreliability is simply part of his essence. Yet, as the old joke says, the only thing you could count on about him was that you couldn't count on him for anything. The Joker not only knows this about himself but he embraces it; he is consistent -- he is consistently chaotic. It is a purely emotional consistency. Similarly, Two-Face has his underlying consistency as well; he will do what his coin tells him. Thus, while the Joker allows his emotions to dictate his limitations, Two-Face has divorced his judgment from the implementation of his actions entirely. A Two-Face could go through his entire life never once killing if only his coin beats the odds. That does not make him a great man. To feel one's way through ethics based on a loose moral sense is to wander aimlessly, like the Joker. To follow a system without any evaluation of its ethical qualification is to wander blindly, like Two-Face.

Every person has notions of what he or she will do and won't do. The truly mind-warping ethical questions (the kind that philosophy professors love to throw out at the beginning of the semester -- just to wake everyone up) are the questions that take two or more juxtaposing ethical dilemmas -- each of which has a clear cut answer -- and squashes them together. Saving lives is good; every life is valuable -- so when you have to choose between the train crashing or one person dying4 -- which is it? Very few people have a clear, Superman-esque answer for that. It makes sense that Superman does -- he's fast enough and strong enough to save both the train and the one individual -- but for the rest of us -- what are we left with? We could throw ethics out entirely, subscribe to one vague ideal and then let our emotions guide us in each particular situation. We could attach ourselves, unbendingly, to a single limit without thought beyond adherence and let it guide us. Or we could be like Batman.

Batman has clear rules. He also has procedure and protocol and regulation up to his pointed ears. Those are not his limitations -- they are merely set dressing. Batman has ethical guidelines that surpass the random hypothetical, that -- when applied -- morph into a practical answer only to revert back into an idea upon completion of its services. As an idea, his limits are steadfast; as an action, his limits are seamless. That is the beauty of Batman and that is the beauty of the Halachic system. For both the way of the Bat and the way of Sinai are paths for a complex world. They are mathematical equations (complete with the elusive variable), not the multiplication tables.

In offering my opinion of whether The Dark Knight is a movie to see, I cannot ignore the valid argument that the film's darkness is potentially overwhelming; it is. Nor can I ignore the legitimate critique that this is not a film for children; it is not. However, I maintain that it is a crucial film for adults -- specifically because it is a marvelously woven character study of the underpinnings necessary for an ethical system. As audiences watch Batman refuse to kill the Joker it is important to recognize that Batman's limit is not simply that he won't kill; it is that he won't kill the Joker. It is not about murder; it is about murder in that very instance because of what such an act would do. In another circumstance -- who knows? The point is, Batman does. For, he is a disciplined man but, more importantly, he is a thinking man. Yes, he has limits -- frozen in place on the ethical plane -- but he does not let his limits limit themselves. It's not about consistent actions and it's not about consistent obedience; it's about consistent ethics. It is about the core of the system we choose to let guide us; it is that choice that separates the villain from the hero.

Dodi-Lee Hecht

--

1 If one had to sum up Lex Luthor in a single quality.

2 If one had to sum up the Joker (particularly as portrayed in this film) in a single quality.

3 For more on this, see:
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, Nishma Insight 5761-11: Ethics of the Mind,
available on the web at:
http://www.nishma.org/articles/insight/insight5761-11.htm
.

4 I am referencing a famous ethical dilemma in which a person has the power to divert a train from its chosen path, thus preventing it from crashing, but to do so would require switching it onto a track upon which there stands a lone person. You do not have time to warn the person to get off the track and the person cannot hear the oncoming train. What should you do?

2008 NISHMA