Thursday, August 7, 2008

Is Batman a consequentialist?

People are dying. What would you have me do?” Bruce Wayne (Batman) asks his butler. Alfred responds, “Endure. You can be the outcast. You can make the choice that no one else will face—the right choice. Gotham needs you.”

The Dark Knight, what a movie. I'll admit, I went to Batman on opening night at midnight (not my idea, actually, but I'm glad I went). I only vaguely remembered the Batman movies of old, though I was always a fan. The new Batman movie, as you may have heard, is pretty intense (and dark) in comparison to the previous films. What I didn't expect, and this is always a delight, was that this particular summer blockbuster actually had some intellectual food for thought, philosophical issues at that. I was overjoyed. In fact, the movie happens to coincide quite well with a collection of essays that I'm currently making my way through (slowly, but surely, as always). The essays all focus on consequentialism, and for this post, I'll pay close attention to an essay by Bernard Williams called, “Consequentialism and Integrity.” I want to discuss two moral dilemmas in the film, though I'll try and keep the spoilers to a minimum. Take this as a warning, though, so if you don't want to know what happens, I'd stop here.

The first moral dilemma is somewhat comparable to Williams' Indian example, so I'll outline both. In Williams' article, there is a man named Jim who faces a tough choice. He stumbled onto a scene where a government official, Pedro, is about to make an example out of a group of Indians (all names/groups, kept the same as the original story). Pedro has decided that he will kill all of the Indians that are tied up, but he has offered Jim (an outsider) a special privilege. If Jim kills one Indian, then the rest will be spared. If he refuses, then Pedro will kill all of the Indians himself. What should Jim do? What is Jim required to do? What is he allowed to do? The consequentialist will answer this question by comparing the possible end outcomes that Jim could produce. If Jim kills one Indian, then the rest are spared. If he doesn't, then they all die. The latter outcome is clearly worse than the former, on purely consequentialist terms (or more specifically, utilitarian terms-- and yes, I'm skipping the complicated bit about determining which states of affairs are better or worse than others). If picking between preferable end outcomes is our only moral guide, then it seems that Jim has no choice but shoot one Indian. How can that be? Can you be obligated to take a life (or perform any act that is usually considered to be morally wrong)? It seems like there's something wrong with making that option an obligation (though it does seem okay that that option would be morally permissible for Jim). With that scenario in mind, let's take a look at the boat dilemma from the Dark Knight.

There are two ferries floating in Gotham's harbor, and the Joker has rigged both with an explosive device that he can activate. One boat is carrying the who's who of Gotham's elite citizens. The other is full of prisoners. Each boat has detonator that will blow up the other boat, and the Joker gives the passengers a choice: either blow up the other boat before midnight, or he will blow up both boats. What should they do? They can't contact the other boat, and they can't diffuse the explosives. What would a consequentialist moral theory tell us? Well, as a passenger I'd have to take a good look at what I had the power to do or to let happen (negative responsibility is a huge factor in consequentialist theories – you are just as responsible for what you allow or don't stop as for what you actually do, which means you have to factor in the actions of other agents in your deliberation). There are three options: 1) everyone dies, 2) the elites of Gotham die, or 3) Gotham's most wanted die. As a passenger on either boat, what is your moral obligation (or, what are you morally allowed to do?)? You don't know what the other boat will choose, and you have a clock to beat, so time is also a factor. It's possible that both boats could blow each other up at the same time, but unlikely (unless both do it fairly quickly after the Joker's announcement). From a consequentialist standpoint, you have a few considerations: the total number of deaths, and the types of people being saved (if, of course, that can be weighted). Does one boat have a duty to blow up the other, or is it at least allowed to? I have a feeling that the consequentialist would choose to blow up the prisoners (because the city needs officials/leaders to run it), though at a minimum a consequentialist would want to minimize the total number of deaths. So however you slice it, someone has to step up and detonate the explosives for the other boat.

What is the problem with that? Well, should anyone ever be morally obligated to kill others (even if it would save more lives)? What about, as Williams argues, the integrity of the person put in this situation (Jim and the passengers)? The consequentialist view is more worried about minimizing damages than dealing with the internal moral struggle of the agent. There is, after all, a difference between what we actually do and what we allow other people to do. Here's what I mean: both scenarios depend pretty heavily upon a bit of knowledge held by the agent that is more than a little uncertain. Will Pedro really kill the other Indians? Will the Joker really blow up both boats? This type of knowledge, key to consequentialist deliberations involving negative responsibility, is highly dubious. How certain can I be, really, that the other agent will act as they say they will act. Sure, in thought experiments we can stipulate certainty, but in real life (and real life does happen to be our actual moral battleground) how sure can we be? If you've seen the movie you know what I'm hinting at: the Joker never blew up the boats. Some high minded passengers prevented their fellow passengers from hitting the button, and the Joker never got the chance to do it himself. That uncertainty makes my inaction quite a different matter from another agent's possible action. [This also reminds me of the Prisoner's dilemma, given the lack of knowledge on all sides, though it's not quite the same.]

Which leads me to an important question: am I really responsible for Pedro or the Joker's morally wrong acts? What responsibility do we have beyond our own actions? Are we responsible for allowing bad things to happen (if it was in our power to prevent them)? I do see what would motivate us to give some moral weight to what we allow to happen. The kid who silently watches the awkward kid being bullied at school is no hero, and he is not morally praiseworthy for his silence... However, he is not to blame, morally, in the same way that the actual bully is. If I sit by and let the Joker blow up both boats, then I haven't myself blown them up (even if their doom was in someway causally effected by my inaction). Perhaps I should act, but must I? The bully example is less clear because standing up to the bully (which may itself incur risks to the agent) does not require me to do something morally suspect (unless we say that the only way to silence the bully is to punch him/her in the face). Killing some people to save others does. There is something that makes one uneasy about following the consequentialist's prescription on this one. Perhaps it would be okay, maybe even good, if I could ignore my moral squeamishness for the sake of the greater good –but I don't think I am obligated to. Perhaps there is a something more valuable than the end state of affairs that isn't captured by your typical consequentialist or utilitarian solution (though sophisticated versions of these theories do try and take the following into account). As a moral agent I have a moral character, and I build and change that character by my moral decisions. It is a violation of my moral integrity to obligate me to do something that (though it maximizes the good) is itself a morally abhorrent act. Even sophisticated consequentialist arguments can't capture this, as Williams argues, because in the end my squeamishness (or my protectiveness over my integrity) is irrational –because it doesn't contribute to the only morally valuable consideration: the end outcome. Maybe our integrity is valuable enough, that it's morally okay (or maybe sometimes morally praiseworthy) to not make a choice that violates my moral character (and by character I mean the principles upon which my normal moral decisions rest). Asking me to toss them aside for the sake of the bottom line might just be too much (again, not that it wouldn't be allowed, but whether I should be obligated to). Or perhaps I'm just too preoccupied by moral agency and purity, maybe I need to get over it (I'm sure if I were one of the Indians I'd want me to). But then again, why should someone else be made the means to another person's survival (cue the now cliché example of slicing up random people for organ donations, etc).

And this leads me to the other dilemma. In this case, Batman understood a thing or two about both the consequentialist solution and moral integrity. In the quote above Batman was unnerved that the Joker was killing people systematically unless Batman turned himself in. Batman's choice was more complex. His inaction led to other people's deaths, but it also allowed him to remain a fighting force against the Joker and his ilk. In the end, Batman knew what needed to happen, and sometimes that meant performing the unsettling act. He knew that it must get done, but he also knew that the regular citizens of Gotham were not the right ones to do it. They needed to preserve their moral integrity (well, some of them). Is he doing the right thing, being the vigilante? Is it better for some “guardian angel” to do the consequentialist-determined “right act” without requiring that of the masses? I'm unsure.

I had more thoughts about the movie and worries about consequentialism, but I'll end my thoughts here. It's all much less developed than I'd like, but there's never enough time to complete my thoughts. Oh well.

For those who saw the movie, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts...

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