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Objectivism and Utilitarianism in The Dark Knight Rises

The following paper was prepared for Dr. Jeremy Evan’s introductory philosophy class.

Among the many interesting philosophical tangles woven into The Dark Knight by the Nolan brothers, one of the most interesting is the film’s implicit contrast between a set of conflicting moral visions: the constrained utilitarianism of Batman himself, the nihilistic amoralism proclaimed by the Joker, and the quiet objectivism displayed by Lucius Fox and Rachel Dawes. Of these, Batman’s utilitarianism is both most dynamic and most interesting in the broader context of the Nolan canon. The objectivist position of Fox and Dawes and the anarchist angle espoused by the Joker are both essentially static points that provide contrasts with Batman’s philosophy throughout the second film. Meanwhile, the ethical dilemmas Bruce faces here provoke him to confront at a deeper level the questions raised by the radical utilitarianism of the League of Shadows in the movies that precede and follow The Dark Knight. As a result, Batman transforms from the idealistic, restrained utilitarian—at times almost an objectivist—of the first movie into a compromised, decidedly not objectivist utilitarian by the conclusion of the second film.

Batman’s basic ethic is clearly utilitarian. He stands outside—and, at times, over and against—the legal structures that prevent the state from fighting the criminals on their own terms, doing almost whatever is necessary to bring order to Gotham, whether that means incapacitating mobsters or breaking into a building in Hong Kong and kidnapping a CEO. His utilitarianism is not radical, however, but chastened by a set of objective constraints: he does not engage in torture, he refuses to simply accept others’ deaths as necessary consequences of his actions (even when at others’ hands), and he refuses to kill.

The Joker’s actions provoke a significant internal conflict for Batman as he attempts to hold two ethical systems in tension. On the one hand, he has committed himself to a broadly utilitarian stance as justification for his vigilantism (an ethic apparently embraced by Alfred as well). On the other hand, he holds to an objectivist view of murder and torture, and repeatedly interacts with objectivist arguments from Dawes and Fox.

Though some deaths inevitably occur, he struggles with them and wonders repeatedly what he could have done to save them or whether he is responsible for their deaths. Moreover, while he is willing to lie repeatedly and at length to cover his identity and achieve his ends, he is unwilling to continue the charade—even in the face of Alfred’s suggestion that it would be right for him to do so—when exposing himself could save lives. On the other hand, sensing in Dent’s self-declaration as the Batman an opportunity to catch the Joker at last, he accepts the lie as. Likewise, his decision to take the fall for the crimes committed by Harvey Dent evinces a willingness to take actions that in Fox or Dawes’ frameworks would simply be wrong as means to ends he believes to be good and necessary.

In the first act, Bruce and Alfred discuss Alfred’s experience with a bandit many years earlier. To Bruce’s curiosity as to how Alfred had eventually stopped the bandit, Alfred responds simply: “We burned the forest down.” Interestingly, Bruce offers no reply to his butler; the language is perhaps too reminiscent of the “cleansing fire” talk offered by Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins, where Batman’s final enemy proved to be not mere criminals but those seeking to wipe them out at any cost. The League of Shadows represented utilitarianism carried to its logical end: the sacrifice of the “few” of Gotham City for the good of the rest of the world. In the sequel, Bruce Wayne/Batman finds his attempt to constrain the radical utilitarianism of the League of Shadows repeatedly challenged by the extreme circumstances presented to him by an ethically unconstrained opponent. Whereas in the first movie his choices had been relatively unambiguous—prevent the total destruction of Gotham, or stand aside and let the League burn it to the ground—here he faces a villain that repeatedly tempts him to set aside the constraints he has placed on his own utilitarianism.

The result is a steady decay in nearly all the objectivist standards to which Batman had previously held himself and a corresponding move toward thoroughgoing utilitarianism. His opposition to Dent’s torturing a lunatic comes only a few scenes before he tortures the Joker for information. His belief that the people of Gotham could be encouraged to the pursuit of good crumbles under the Joker’s successful attack on Harvey Dent’s ethics. Perhaps most significantly, his resolution not to kill breaks in the face of an imminent threat to the life of Gordon’s son. While this might suggest that he has simply committed himself to a different objective standard to chasten his utilitarianism—the preservation of innocent life—it leaves him differing from the League of Shadows by degree, not kind.

This move toward a more absolute utilitarianism culminates in the film’s climax. Having crossed every line he had set for himself as an objective check on his utilitarianism, Batman embraces the apparent necessity of a lie to keep the Joker from “winning” and tempting the public to despair. The idealism with which he had returned to Gotham in Batman Begins and with which he, Gordon, and Dent had begun The Dark Knight finally crumbles into a cynical embrace of the “noble lie.” This decision, emphasized by Gordon’s concluding voiceover and the swelling horns and strings of the main Batman theme, highlights the transformation effected in Bruce throughout the film. Batman accepts as necessary the sacrifice of his own moral idealism. If possible, he would preserve the idealism of his objectivist friends such as Lucius Fox. Likewise, he hoped that the people of Gotham could keep their belief in a noble public defender, Dent. For Batman, however, there was only necessity. Moreover, utilitarianism drove this final concern: what would happen to the city if hope failed? Here, he makes himself the final decision-maker for the people of Gotham; he does not believe them able to pursue the good without his noble lie.

In the end, then, Bruce’s embrace of utilitarianism leads to capitulate on the very moral standards he set out to guard and enforce. He becomes a liar, and torturer, and a killer. He embraces precisely the same sort of superiority complex embraced by the League of Shadows. Though The Dark Knight leaves ambiguous the results of Batman and Gordon’s embrace of utilitarianism, The Dark Knight Rises makes a resounding argument against it. As John Blake points out, Batman’s uncompromising and unflinching conviction had made him a hero; in sacrificing those things, he took away precisely the hope he aimed to give the people. Confronted once again with the final logical consequences of the utilitarianism to which he had committed himself, Batman rightly turns back toward the objectivist ethic espoused by Dawes, Fox, and to a large extent his younger self. The cost of pure utilitarianism, unchecked by objective standards, is simply too high.


  • Ben Holcombe thought to say:

    Just would like you to defend your use of Objectivist in the entire essay. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you, but I am an objectivist and did not see objectivist ethics in the batman series. I would say that acting as a vigilante is certainly politically against objectivism since it rests on a presumption of guilt and not innocence until proven guilty. Further, batman’s motivation is that he craves justice at any cost because of a childhood incident. I do not think that him destroying destroyers would be considered a productive activity , especially in the context it takes place. Lastly, and most importantly, batman does not seem to use the betterment and sustenance of his own life as the standard of value in his actions. Physically it is self evident as to why not, “spiritually” you might be able to make an argument, but I’d rather doubt it since he seems to be portrayed as selfless.

    Offer a rejoinder↓
    • Ah, I should have been clearer when I posted this for public consumption; I forgot how many uses to which “objectivism” has been put. In this case, I’m treating “objectivism” as a form of moral realism: there are objective moral standards outside the self, to which everyone must be held—which we might also call “absolutism” or any number of other names. (In our discussions in the class for which we posted it, we used “objectivism” as just such a shorthand.) Thence the confusion. Sorry about that; you’re quite right if we take Randian Objectivism as our definition!

      Offer a rejoinder↓

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