Batman is wrong to be nonlethal in the case of the Joker. This shows we can, in some cases, morally kill someone against his will.
I am something of a comic fan. The medium fascinates me - though not so much most of the superhero characters and stories. I am currently writing comics myself (whether they see the light of day is another question and, no, I can't draw to save a bus of orphans). However, since I am trying to be a comics creator, I'm usually interrogating comics and characters when I encounter them. Thus, I've recently become unconvinced by my favourite crime-fighter's attitude toward killing. And, specifically, killing his archenemy - who is, in fact, my favourite character in comics.
Batman and The Joker's "relationship" was best explained by Heath Ledger’s incredible portrayal of the latter, when he said in The Dark Knight:
“This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible, aren't you? You won't kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won't kill you because you're just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.”
The Joker provides us with two reasons two fierce enemies are refusing to end the life of the other. Batman is renowned not merely for his genius and being a non-superpowered superhero but also for his iron-clad principles. Principles that withstand the temptation to kill his enemies, as well as resist the lures of Gotham’s sirens (in most instances, at least). The Joker appears to be the opposite: chaotic and so loose with his principles one can almost see them dragging on the floor.
But, it seems, the two are in fact not so different. Many instances of The Joker lead readers to believe he, too, is a genius – anyone who can often stay ahead of the World’s Greatest Detective surely must be. The Joker’s ironclad principle is simply being a force of chaos and destruction. Indeed, we shouldn’t confuse the result of the principle with how the principle is held: a Rachmaninov piano solo appears chaotic, but no one disputes it requires discipline and determination to master. So it shouldn’t surprise us that neither The Joker nor Batman will kill the other.
Yet, Batman is surely mistaken in maintaining his principle of non-lethal conduct. Surely there are some good reasons, like preventing The Joker’s future crimes, where killing (against a person's will) can be a moral imperative?
I do not support the death penalty, for reasons my fellow Big Think blogger, the incredible Will Wilkinson, has already highlighted beautifully. And for this, I may appear hypocritical. Yet, my reasons against State-mandated killing are premised on the idea that there is no evidence to justify its existence: capital punishment doesn’t appear to lower or deter future crime (most murders, for example, are “crimes of passion”, which are spur of the moment reactions to sudden, unfortunate situations, not planned events in which the suspect can consider the threat of execution).
But The Joker is a clear example of “an unstoppable” force that can be seen to harm. The Joker proves time and again his disregard for law, any semblance of respect for other lives, and his consistent need to create chaos in a methodical way. No prison can hold him, no punishment will effect him, no treatment will cure him. All have been tried, all quiver into dust or, like Harley Quinn, are transformed into another tool for his plans.
A guaranteed way to prevent any more of these horrible crimes is to end the life that creates them. This is a choice to kill, to severe forever the final thread of life, to close the final door to any problems caused by and to the entity in question; certain States in the US take this view for heinous crimes, such as a murder, for convicted perpetrators. On the other side of the coin (and world), there are recognised clinics who do kill their patients at the patient’s request. As I’ve said before, “killing” is a neutral term as is evidenced in these two polar opposite instances.
So the question then is the following: Is it ethical to kill The Joker?
I think yes. Firstly, merely, say, debilitating him in some way is not helpful. What’s powerful is not The Joker’s physical presence but what he can create and conjure. For example, in The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, The Joker attempts to drive Commissioner Gordon insane – The Joker wants to show that anyone, given the right circumstances, could end up as he did. The Joker himself does not need to be there for this to occur. Gordon for most of the story is simply strapped to a ride, in an abandoned amusement park. Even if he was locked up or crippled, there is little doubt The Joker’s powerful mind could still pull on threads that run like veins throughout Gotham’s criminal underworld. The Joker after all is the decayed beating heart of crime.
Or in A Death in the Family, The Joker blackmails the biological mother of Jason Todd (the second Robin) to hand the boy over to him. The Joker proceeds to kill him. However, the blackmail and death need not have been performed by The Joker himself. The Joker’s access to and acquisition of information is what made him successful.
Secondly, Batman could make it such that The Joker’s death appears to be an accident. This means The Dark Knight can retain his image as a nonlethal superhero, but still have the chaotic force of The Joker forever gone.
It appears that Batman’s nonlethal attitude to The Joker is partially responsible for the continual death and suffering of many innocents. This is so because we all know that Arkham Asylum - the revolving door of Gotham's criminals - can’t hold The Joker. And, as I said, debilitating him doesn’t work and there is no cure for his chaos and insanity.
Indeed, a regular accusation is that Batman “created” some of these criminals. In Batman: The Animated TV Series episode “Trial” (Episode #68), Batman is put on trial in Arkham Asylum where his rogues’ gallery make this very accusation (however, in the end, they find him “not guilty” – indeed, they claim they “invented” Batman.) Whether or not he is responsible for their life of crime, there’s little doubt that he fails morally when given the opportunity to end The Joker. He fails because what appears to matter more to Batman is his maintenance of a nonlethal approach, even to the point of Gotham continually suffering.
But what use is holding so tightly to such a principle, when maintaining it only decays your reason for having it? Like a rose whose petals have fallen off, Batman’s principle that guides his crimefighting was perhaps worth holding but now simply scars him. If what matters to Batman is truly preventing crime – as opposed to only fighting it – then he surely ought to kill The Joker.
UPDATE: I'm touched that people are discussing this piece at a few other places. Here's some links to three I quite liked, two of which disagree with my view. I'm not convinced by their arguments against killing The Joker but they make compelling cases, nonetheless. And over at Life as an Extreme Sport, Kelly goes a bit deeper, both ethically and in terms of the Batmanverse, tackling Brandon Johnston's article, too.
And just to restate: I don't consider myself an expert in ethics (or anything); that's merely the title given by Big Think to its contributors.
Life as an Extreme Sport, 'Batman, The Joker, & the Morality of Killing'
Steve Watts, 'Why Batman Shouldn't Kill the Joker'
Another amazing post, by Lauren Davis at Comics Alliance, that uses five philosophers to analyse the permissibility of killing The Joker.
Image Credit: Cropped interior artwork from Batman: The Killing Joke (1988). Art by Brian Bolland, via WikiPedia. (Source)