Batman (and Kierkegaard on the suspension of ethics)

batman cowl
I am unashamedly a big fan of Batman; I grew up watching the PG-rated cartoons and reading innocent adaptations of the mythology (some more innocent than others — I definitely read “A Death in the Family” a little too young”), and in high school read the more mature trade paperbacks and graphic novels, an interest that I know for a fact was rekindled by Nolan’s trilogy. Batman is the only “superhero” I have ever been interested in (as a child because neither Batman nor his best villains have superpowers) as an adult because unlike other superhero story-lines, Batman stories explore the fact that he is a vigilante more thoroughly, and force the reader to grapple with the question of whether Batman is more moral than the villains he pulverizes.

What seems to distinguish the moral codes of Batman from his more psychotic villains is that while they kill for pleasure, Batman does not kill at all, though he does savagely beat and maim them — the question remains whether Batman takes pleasure in dealing such punishment. Still, whether or not Batman is a sadist, it seems the force he uses is often excessive, and should be morally repulsive. Imagine seeing a police officer treating a suspect as Batman would handle them:
beating joker

Personally, I would want to see that police officer in prison! But do Batman’s dealings of severe beatings provoke the same reaction? I do not think they do, and that is how people can stomach watching — and rooting — for Batman. I want to attempt a Kierkegaardian analysis of Batman’s vigilantism in order to posit a new reason why Batman must where a mask.

Batman wears a mask first and foremost in order to become a fearsome legend that dissuades persons from committing crimes. But what about the psychopaths he battles? As the second Robin, Jason Todd, observes, the psychopaths of Batman’s rogue gallery do not fear him or the myth. The common line has been that superheroes wear masks in order to not endanger the lives of the their friends and family. This may work for other superheroes, but not for Batman, who has no family other than Alfred, and his friends are all crime fighters, and thus are more than capable of defending themselves. Moreover, Bruce Wayne is the richest man in Gotham, so the fact that he is Batman should put him at no greater danger than he was already in for being attacked and robbed of his wealth. No, there is another reason, and it is related, but distinct, from the fact that he must hide his identity in order to be not be arrested and prosecuted as a violent vigilante.

fear-and-trembling1.1 Suspending the Ethical
In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard explores why the actions of Abraham are considered as exhibiting true faith in God when they are so clearly morally wrong. Writing as the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio, he begins his discussion by observing what is “the ethical”. He notes that because the ethical applies to everyone it must be that the ethical is universal, such that Abraham was bound to the ethical. He also posits that we do not act ethically for an ulterior reason, but rather because it is good in itself. The ethical has nothing outside of it that is its telos, or end, such that we act ethically because it itself is an end, that is, we act ethically in order to act ethically. Silentio notes that if the ethical is good with no higher purpose, then it is an ultimate good or purpose.

But if we accept Abraham as the father of faith then faith must entail a good above the universal good of ethics. Silentio thinks this as he holds that there is no way that Abraham’s preparedness to murder Isaac is a universal good. Whereas in acting ethically the individual particular person acts so as to be part of the universal, in faith, the particular believes the paradox that having become one with the universal they are above it. The individual recognizes ethics, such that they are one with the universal, but in faith they believe in the paradox that they can act in ways that are good but not in harmony with the universal. For this reason, Silentio says that the person of faith is a particular higher and superior than the universal, and this is a paradox.

As such, before faith the particular is subordinate to the universal, but in faith the particular moves beyond the universal and back to the particular where it, “as the particular, stands in absolute relation to the absolute.” In this the particular recognizes there is a good above the universal and that is what is willed by the absolute. Thus, in the name of faith we leave our conception of the good life as what is universal and recognize that there are acts that are not ethically good by the universal but are nonetheless for a higher good because they are commanded by the absolute.

Oh you know, just following God's command to cut my son's throat, NBD.

Oh you know, just following God’s command to cut my son’s throat, NBD.

1.2 Ethics as Openness
Silentio posits that ethics requires openness because in acting ethically one relinquishes their particular interests and thinks about the societal norms established as the universal. In their particular interests a person hides from the idea of a universal ethic, thus separating their self from the universal. As such, in acting ethically the particular opens up to the universal to go beyond their particular interests. This provides the basic ethical demand that one not lie and instead be honest.

Silentio points to the example of the tragic hero, who does a moral wrong for a greater moral good, to show that ethics demands openness. Recalling that the ethical is the universal, Silentio posits that if the tragic hero remained silent about their deed then they would take the responsibility individually, and would thus, be separate from the universal. For this reason, Silentio posits that the universal requires openness. Moreover, as ethical actions are committed by the individual externally he must also be honest about his motivation so that he can allow arguments to challenge him. If he does not allow for arguments and questions to be made of his actions, then he cannot explain that he is doing this for a higher ethical good. Thus, we need him to be open so that we can understand him, and this is where Abraham is different, for he cannot be open because we cannot understand him.

Abraham cannot be understood precisely because he is a knight of faith. Because he is in an absolute relation to the absolute his faith is expressed internally and thus cannot be understood by the community in his external actions. Thus, while the tragic hero speaks and is open about how his acts were for a greater ethical good, Abraham cannot speak, and must be closed off from the community because they cannot comprehend what is not universal.

Somehow when I look at this guy I don't think "there's a morally upstanding gentleman!"

Somehow when I look at this guy I don’t think “there’s a morally upstanding gentleman!”

2.1 Batman and the Mask
Kierkegaard postulates that because ethics is universal it can be understand by all, but when man, in an act of faith, acts for a good that is greater than the ethical good, he cannot be understood and cannot be open, as universal ethicality requires. In Abraham’s case he did not speak, in Batman’s case, he wears a mask. As his acts of vigilantism cannot be understood ethically because of their depraved violence, Batman acts for a good that is greater than the ethical good, such that he is closed off from the universal and is a particular above the universal. But while Abraham suspends the ethical and then becomes closed off from society because his actions cannot be understood, Batman dons a mask in order to close himself off from society so that he can suspend the ethical. In other words, Abraham becomes closed off from society because he suspends ethics, whereas Batman closes himself off from society by wearing a mask so that he can suspend ethics.

Thus, the reason why readers and viewers are not morally disturbed by the pain and suffering Batman causes his adversaries is that we do not see him as acting in the moral realm due to his mask. If we could see his face, such that there was openness, we would feel that universal ethics to apply to him, and thus, hold that his brutally beating villains, more than is necessary to subdue and cuff them, is morally wrong. This is why we are morally outraged by police brutality; they are part of the universal in their openness and we demand that they act ethically. By contrast, Batman wears a mask in order to separate from and go beyond the universal, such that he is a particular above the universal, acting for a good that is greater than the universal ethical good.


Some disclaimers:
Batman isn’t real, so I don’t want anyone to think that I actually think that the ethical can be suspended for a greater good. I don’t! The greatest good is the ethical.

I am an atheist, so I don’t think there is much to learn from the story of Abraham. This is me having fun with the surface reading of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. The only value Kierkegaard’s work on the story of Abraham has is as a hidden critique to G.W.F. Hegel. Briefly, Hegel thought the “inner is the outer and the outer the inner” in consciousness, because all reality is is consciousness. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard argues that the outer is not the inner because they are vastly different realms of action: the outer is the realm of ethics, whereas the inner is the realm of faith. As the history of 19th century philosophy goes, I’m more impressed by Marx’s critique of Hegel than Kierkegaard’s, but still, you have to respect the man’s ability to write hidden messages.

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