Leitmotif

Reason as the Leading Motive

The Morality Presented in The Dark Knight

Posted by Jerry on August 7, 2008

To the extent of my knowledge, nobody–not even any Objectivists–have pointed out some of the crucial complications in morality that occur toward the climactic scene in the movie The Dark Knight. I haven’t the time to write all of it down right now in detail, although I have stated these in conversations with my friend soon after we watched the movie for the second time.

Let me say this: The Dark Knight is a fantastic example of superb artistic integration–including music, plot, theme, character, ideas, logic, and conflict. It’s a cinematic achievement that occurs only rarely in a lifetime. However, it’s themes are dark, evil, and at very critical junctures, even ambiguous, which I think becomes its failing. This is not Nolan’s fault, however. I think it’s a matter of the philosophical context he functions in–the one in which we all find ourselves–the predominant one holding sway in this world today.

At the Atlasphere review of this movie, this is the comment I left:

I loved the movie as well; however, this review like all the others I have read by Objectivists, fail to identify some crucial failures in the morals held up as ideals by the director for the characters of Batman, Dent, and the people of Gotham.

For one, Rand would never have approved how the boat scene in the end turned out, nor would she have approved of how Batmand undercuts his own virtue and corrupts the image of good by accepting the mantle of a criminal fugitive. It’s a very Christ-like self-sacrificial attempt to take on the “sins of the world.”

In addition to the above, let me clarify that the boat scene requires a moral context that is ignorant of how the plot eventually plays out; imagine yourself as a citizen of Gotham on one of those boats and not having even an inkling about how your fate’s going to turn out. You do not know that Batman will eventually save the day. Now, given this context, analyze the morality of the actions that people on that boat commit–and the implicit affirmation of a certain course of action as the right and moral one.

UPDATE: Hello, yes, there is the gun-point scenario and the game theory. However, there is more, and unfortunately, I don’t have the time to make a detailed case, so here goes: The choice made by both parties in the two boats–and in particular, the choice made by the convicts–would logically have led to the destruction of the lives of everyone on both boats.

Essentially, between choosing to blow either one of the boats, *some* people made the “executive decision” to end the lives of every single person on both boats (by leaving the decision upto Joker to blow both boats at midnight).

However, this evil choice and its horrendously destructive logical outcome is cloaked under the garb of altruism that the movie affirms as the ideal and self-sacrificial course of action, when in fact there it is more a butchering of others than of the self that is being advocated, and the evil is not just altruism but annihilation, a worship of death.

The essential evil is this: Gotham city affirms the exact same premise of burning death and destruction that motivates Joker’s desire to see “the world burn.”

Moreover, the interference of Batman to save the day distracts the movie-watching audience from fully processing the horrendous and evil nature of what had just transpired–something more evil than the Joker himself, and something the Joker should have been proud of. By saving the day, Batman (and thus, the director) sheilded Gotham and the movie-audience from witnessing the explosive mutilation and barbarity that would have resulted from the altruistic choice they had made. Nobody on the boat would have known that Batman would interfere to save them. Thus, Joker won and he didn’t even know.

Thus, in the end, actually, evil in this movie triumphs in more ways than even Joker could grasp–or the director. This is because the evil is served to us on a sappy, emotionalist plate that has all the sprinkling of humanity, humanism, altruism, brotherhood, love, self-sacrifice, etc.

ADDENDUM

Finally, another really disturbing aspect of the movie was that the convict in the boat was shown as the one being able to make the so-called “moral” decision without a thought—of throwing the detonator out of the boat, saying this was something that should have been done a long time ago. I agree that the detonator should have been thrown out–but as I said above, there should have been an explicit statement of the reason–even briefly–that this was being done in defiance of the terrorist, not because we want to accept death and then congregate to pray together during our final moments (as it was shown in the movie among the convicts).

Meanwhile, the free citizens of Gotham were shown as immoral people who not only debated on whether or not to trigger the bomb but also who were ready to press the button right up until the last moment when the man got a moral crisis of guilt (or cowardice, whichever).

Why did Nolan choose to show convicts as making the “right” choice without a thought and show the free citizens debating the matter endless but then not being able to follow through? Is this a matter of undercutting the moral legitimacy of the good citizens?

For these reasons, my argument stands that the ending of this movie is morally ambiguous at best, critically wrong and evil at worst, and the actions of the citizens of Gotham on both those boats were terrifyingly evil for the logical consequences that would have played out. These citizens were not moral, were not virtuous, and were not defying the Joker. Hence, Joker should have been happy.

20 Responses to “The Morality Presented in The Dark Knight”

  1. NS said

    “The Dark Knight is a fantastic example of superb artistic integration.”

    Only if a jumble of tacked on plots and subplots is superb integration.

  2. Franco said

    I don’t think Rand would have even approved of the moral scenarios as presented for a more than a couple of reasons. Foremost, she is quoted as saying that “morality ends where a gun begins”. I think this applies here. All of these people were under threat of destruction by a madman’s machinations designed to set people against one another. In a situation like that, where you don’t know whether you will live or die and you cannot take definite action to affect it, there is no morally appropriate course of action.

    The movie succeeds in presenting psychological issues but philosophically it doesn’t do so well.

  3. Bob Sanders said

    The boat scene at the end was pure game-theory; total rationalism. The movie was entertaining but philosophical bunk. BrianS, a commentator at NoodleFood, had some insightful things to say about the new Batman movie in a recent posted movie review of Wall-E; essentially the movie presents a Kantian view of ethics.

  4. Ergo said

    Hello, yes, there is the gun-point scenario and the game theory. However, there is more, and unfortunately, I don’t have the time to make a detailed case, so here goes: The choice made by both parties in the two boats–and in particular, the choice made by the convicts–would logically have led to the destruction of the lives of everyone on both boats.

    Essentially, between choosing to blow either one of the boats, *some* people made the “executive decision” to end the lives of every single person on both boats (by leaving the decision upto Joker to blow both boats at midnight).

    However, this evil choice and its horrendously destructive logical outcome is cloaked under the garb of altruism that the movie affirms as the ideal and self-sacrificial course of action, when in fact there it is more a butchering of others than of the self that is being advocated, and the evil is not just altruism but annihilation, a worship of death.

    The essential evil is this: Gotham city affirms the exact same premise of burning death and destruction that motivates Joker’s desire to see “the world burn.”

    Moreover, the interference of Batman to save the day distracts the movie-watching audience from fully processing the horrendous and evil nature of what had just transpired–something more evil than the Joker himself, and something the Joker should have been proud of. By saving the day, Batman (and thus, the director) sheilded Gotham and the movie-audience from witnessing the explosive mutilation and barbarity that would have resulted from the altruistic choice they had made. Nobody on the boat would have known that Batman would interfere to save them. Thus, Joker won and he didn’t even know.

    Thus, in the end, actually, evil in this movie triumphs in more ways than even Joker could grasp–or the director. This is because the evil is served to us on a sappy, emotionalist plate that has all the sprinkling of humanity, humanism, altruism, brotherhood, love, self-sacrifice, etc.

  5. Ergo said

    I haven’t read BrianS’s comments on Noodlefood. If he has touched upon the same points I have raised here, then that’s good.

  6. Ergo said

    On Ari Armstrong’s blog, Ari writes that the theme that explains the actions of Gotham on the boat is one of defiance against the terrorist, the refusal to negotiate with the Joker. This is what he says:

    “So I think that the actions the people take — not to blow each other up — are defensible on grounds of not negotiating with terrorists.”

    My response is this:

    I agree that this would have been the most moral course of action. But this was not the case. Unfortunately, I think you have ascribed your interpretation to the people’s actions, which actually is not warranted.

    Their act was not of moral defiance against the terrorist but of upholding the “virtue” indicated by the statement: “I’d rather die as an act of self-sacrifice and let the other person live.”

    However, what this sentiment actually would lead to in this particular situation is this: “I’d rather die and bring everyone else down with me.”

    Notice that on the convicts boat, the virtue of self-destruction was thrust upon everyone by the fact that the detonator was thrown out of the boat. Thus, the context was altered to remove any hint of a possibility that a choice against self-sacrifice might be made.

    Certainly, I’m not saying that they should have blown each other up. What I’m saying is, they acted in a way that signified resignation from life, acceptance of death, and self-sacrifice as a virtue.

    Alternatively, I would have used your [Ari’s] interpretation of defiance against the terrorist by showing that BOTH GROUPS of people throw their detonators out of their boats–wilfully and volitionally, after a discusion of the philosophical motive underlying this action, namely, “We’d rather not dance to the whims of a terrorist and thus die, not because we value self-sacrifice, but because we despise the life of a prisoner.”

    This would have been the most moral course of action. You could argue that the morality actually portrayed in the movie is ambiguous, which is what I stated in my blog post as well. Although, my stance is that the morality projected was the idealization of death and self-sacrifice as a moral virtue.

  7. Kris Bass said

    Finally you are back on the blogging scene. I agree to your points here.

  8. Ergo said

    Kris, yea, I’ve been rather neglectful of blogging in general. My work’s keeping me very busy. But it’s been a while since something moved me so much as to compel me to blog–and this movie was one such thing. So, I’m glad.

  9. :_) said

    I guess it has been pointed out that Ayn Rand believed “Morality ends where a gun begins”. Also, there are some principles, some values that every man abides to and holds them too high. As John Galt says in “Atlas Shrugged”, I will give my life, but not my mind. Here, accepting the Joker’s whim as a conscious decision of their own minds would have been more anti-Rand than throwing the detonator away.

  10. Tim R said

    I thought, the not-negotiating with terrorists principle was well demonstrated with the police/mayor/batman actions previously in the movie. I loved their counter-plan (except for how that police chief guy “had” to lie to his wife by faking his death) – why did the movie go to so many extremes to show good guys suffering?

    When watching the movie, I thought that if I was on the boat, I would have pulled the trigger, and quick! A madman’s setup is not my fault, and my life becomes #1.
    The Joker had repeatedly shown that his bomb threats and brutality were genuine through the movie. Also, the city had descended into an almost anarchistic state.
    The scene where the criminal throws the detonator out the window. Yeah right! What a joke. And why choose the worst looking criminal to do this act anyway!

    However after reading this post I am now thinking that in a situation where almost all your freedom has been taken away (by the Joker) that both boats simultaneously throwing away their detonators may have been the best option. I think there are hypothetical situations were suicide would be preferable to living a life with no freedom.
    But the boat scene was clearly about promoting altruistic ethics.

    The boat scene also highlighted how the movie storyline’s ethical/philosophic logic was inconsistent. I guess inconsistency is inevitable when dealing with altruism.
    eg/ The people were so willing to kill that guy on TV who could identify batman, but then all of a sudden they’re perfect altruists (on the boat)? Why the turn around?

    Then after the people had “proven” their moral worth (on the boat), Batman decides they can’t be trusted to know the truth! Another backflip.

    The last minute of the movie was the most ethically frustrating for me. I didn’t understand why they needed a cover up.
    Why does a city need false heroes? Why can’t people be trusted with reality? Incredibly disturbing ideology.

    I realise that batman was supposed to be “dark” knight. But the movie doesn’t actually portray him as a vigilante. He’s portrayed heroicly, and the police are well aware of his actions and even request his assistance. So again, another inconsistency.

    However, I liked the way this hollywood movie is trying to tackle more difficult and interesting themes. It’s the first time in a while that I’ve been to see a blockbuster and actually had to turn my brain on.
    And although I never been a big Heath Ledger fan. His joker is awesome.

    So the movie clearly states: that heros don’t really exist, that the masses can’t be trusted to know reality and that good guys suffer excessively aka Jesus. Great message for the kiddies there! I reckon being the bad guy sounds much more fun!
    And it’s no surpries that the Joker’s character was by far the best and logically consistent ethically if not practically (he seemed to have unlimited resources).

  11. Runar said

    How would you know that your detonator wouldn’t set off your own bomb?

  12. Cep said

    I was assigned to write a paper for my philosophy class on this movie and the ethical theory portrayed by the characters in it. I appreciate the though you guys have put into this, and have asked for an extension to look further into this.

    I was wondering about Tim R’s comment about the joker…”the Joker’s character was by far the best and logically consistent ethically if not practically”

    What school of wthical belief would you say the joker is asousing to?…Subjectivism?

  13. Tim R said

    The joker is a nihlist and politically an anarchist. I can’t remember that well, but there’s a point in the movie where someone talks about how money doesn’t interest the joker – and he simply loves destruction. I’ve never studied philosophy in great detail but I’d say the joker was primarily a nihlist, perhaps with elements of hedonism and existentialism.
    By consistent I mean in ethics, action and appearance.
    However when I said not “practically”, I was thinking that his character was not possible in reality. Because someone this evil is very unlikely to have the monetary resources of the Joker in the film. Although I guess it’s possible that someone evil and intelligent could have a long range goal of mass destruction.
    Of course remember that actual realism isn’t the standard for good art, it’s the standard for journalism. So my “practical” comment is of very little importance.

    Reflecting now, I think the lifeboat scene was actually consistent with the rest of the movie in painting the masses as ethically dubious, panicked and generally pathetic while still being well meaning. This serves to highlight the heroic status of the good guys. It’s also a pretty good artistic representation of the ethical confusion in most people today. I do of course object to the altruistic bent on the heroes. (the heroes undergo excessive suffering and, batman takes the blame at the end, but that’s another issue).
    With the lifeboat scene, the majority did not make the decision to do the right thing (which was to refuse to negotiate with terrorist) in both cases.
    On the criminals’ boat, decepetion was used to throw away the detonator. On the civilian boat they actually agreed to blow up the other boat, but were simply too cowardly to go through with it – no one stood up to that guy.
    The writer’s would have deliberately choosen the meanest, worst looking crim to do the right thing for a reason – but I’m not really sure why. The best reason I’ve heard is because it shows the joker is even more evil than the worst criminal.

    Artistically, when you set up an ultimate villian like the joker it serves as a brilliant way to contrast to the good guy. Even the most evil of evil people cannot defeat good. – That’s a great timeless message for a movie. (universal theme I suppose).
    Part of being good is not tolerating evil and evil people can only exist with the sanction of the good.

    In summary, an altruistic act by the masses wasn’t portrayed at all, like I said in my above comment. I’m so de-sensitized to life boat scenarios that my brain switched into sceptical mode straight away when I was watching the film and I assumed this was going to be a portrayal of altruistic morality.

    When force is used, no morality is possible because morality implies volition and volitional has been taken away. So determining the best course of action on the lifeboats is difficult – for me anyway – and it’s just an action movie, you can’t waste too much time thinking about this stuff. Modern movies are always very confused, in fact ambiguity is unfortunately a sign of a good movie to most pretentious critics these days.

    If you are interested further, I’d recommend this discussion:
    http://www.dianahsieh.com/blog/2008/08/ethics-of-emergencies-gotham-style.shtml#comments

  14. Kushal said

    You’ve hit the nail right on the head. These are the exact same points I pointed out in my post about the Dark Knight on my blog. It’s surprising how many people get swayed by the emotional coefficient and forget what the actual message is at the end of the day — “I am whoever the people of Gotham want me to be.”

    Check out my post when you have the time. It’s here: http://myunsaidthoughts.wordpress.com/2008/09/19/the-dark-knight-not-a-review/

    PS: Despite the philosophical blunder, The Dark Knight is one of my all-time favorites.

  15. Nice and usefull post, thanks, this is one for my bookmarks!

  16. The Rock said

    “Essentially, between choosing to blow either one of the boats, *some* people made the “executive decision” to end the lives of every single person on both boats (by leaving the decision up to Joker to blow both boats at midnight).”

    This is a silly claim. Blowing up the other boat would have absolutely been an immoral decision. The Joker is his own moral agent and by rejecting his ultimatum, the people on the boats are not somehow complicit in his act of murder.

    Secondly, the Joker is clearly the kind of twisted psychotic who cares little for laws or morality. He is obviously willing to kill innocent people — what evidence would people on the boat have to think that he would obey the rules of his own “game”? If the Joker is capable of murder, why would he be incapable of, or refuse, lying? The character was a man “without rules” and without morals. It would be unreasonable of anyone on either boat to take the Joker’s word.

  17. The Joker is the embodiment of the Modern Hero, he is coming into a society that is already in despair, We can obviously put Batman as the Christ figure, but he has a conjoined reality with the Joker, essentially they are working towards the same purpose. “You complete me” he says. Becuase the reality of the modern human condition is so grim a character like the Joker is necessary for progression. The ancient heroes of past are gone, and Christ too has been hidden and therefore it is the role of the modern hero to hit a society of delusion with reality, and then steer them towards the Christ figure (Batman) Joseph Campbell said in his book, hero with a thousand faces, in the chapter on (the modern hero) “such monkey holiness is not what the functioning world requires; rather a transmutation of the whole social order is necessary, so that through every detail and act of secular life, the vitalizing image of the universal god-man who is actually immanent and effective in all of us may be somehow made known to consciousness” (Campbell 335)

  18. Ock said

    I do not think the people on either boat assumed that there could be only two outcomes as you have prescribed, which is either to kill off the other boat or to sacrifice oneself. While they certainly was not aware of batman’s intervention in this scenario, that does not imply that they simply gave up hope for some other positive outcome. By choosing not to participate in Joker’s horrific experiment, that did not translate directly into self-sacrifice, but rather a stance of abstinence while hoping for the best. I don’t even think the focus of the boat scene was necessarily altruism. It seemed more like a plain rejection of darwinism, and the acknowledgement that deep down inside us, there is something more sophisticated and discerning than just survival of the fittest, or in this case, survival of the “superior” citizens. In any case, I’m more of an optimist, glad you aired your views ergo🙂

  19. Jais said

    can you expose some ethical theories on the boat scenario – like ethical egoism, utilitarianism and the like….

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