The Batman who Laughs, Freedom and Moral Responsibility

“I take Orwell’s claim that there is no such thing as inner freedom, no such thing as an “autonomous individual,”… That is there is nothing deep inside each of us, no common human nature, no built-in human solidarity, to use as a moral reference point…To be a person is to speak a particular language, one which enables us to discuss particular beliefs and desires with particular sorts of people. It is a historical contingency whether we are socialized by Neanderthals, ancient Chinese, Eton, Summerhill, or the Ministry of Truth.” ( ‘Contingency, Irony and Solidarity’ p. 177)

Batman (along with Superman), is considered one of the most iconic heroes in our modern fictional world. To some Batman is the ultimate hero, as unlike other comic book heroes, he has no superpowers, he just relies on his own intelligence and training to save people in distress. While his persona is more dark and shadowy than the likes of Superman or Captain America, he is typically portrayed as the hero the world needs. But one wonders if the concept of a hero is one applicable to a creature whose actions are the result of a series of contingent accidents. Batman’s traditional biography has it that he was born as a hero when as a child he witnessed his parents being killed in a mugging. This accident of history gave Batman his sense of justice, and propelled him into developing his skills as a superhero. Another accident of history gave him the capacity to become who he was; he was born into one of the richest families on the planet. This gave him obvious advantages over his fellow man as he developed into the hero he later became. He didn’t have to worry about feeding himself or surviving so he could dedicate himself full time to becoming who he wanted to be. 

Each different accident of history could have resulted in an entirely different human being (including things that happened to his parents that may have altered his genetic make up being altered). Given that the type of person we become is contingent on a series of accidents; one wonders the degree to which a person can be held responsible for behavioural traits of which they have no say over. When thinking about what we could have become if things were different; it is helpful to use the tools of possible worlds: world’s which are like the actual world but differ because of a few contingent changes. 

The story ‘The Batman who Laughs’, is a story about a Batman who exists in a different world from the Batman we know (For a detailed synopsis of The Batman Who Laughs story see: . In this world Batman fights and kills the Joker. Unknownst to Batman the Joker has laced himself with a neurotoxin and upon his death it is released and Batman inhales it. Slowly the neurotoxin modifies Batman’s personality until he eventually transforms into a sadistic monster akin to the Joker. This Batman develops a sick sense of humour who enjoys torturing his friends and family. This Batman who Laughs is a terrifying monster, but one with a tragic element. We know the type of person who he was prior to being exposed to the neurotoxin. We know he had little choice in the monster he became and this adds a tragic element to his story. 

From a moral point of view it could be argued that the Batman who laughs made a crucial choice that the Batman we know never made. He chose to kill the Joker; while our Batman always managed to deal with the Joker without resorting to murder. However, while it is possible to judge this choice and place it as a key causal factor in how Batman became the Batman who Laughs, this “choice” has to be placed within a context. Batman was driven to murder the Joker because of savage torture he recieved at the hands of the Joker. This torture may have played a role in his lack of control when he murdered the Joker. More importantly it was the neurotoxin which turned him into the Batman who Laughs and this neurotoxin could have been administered without the Joker being murdered. So it is fair to say that Batman had little choice in becoming the monster he became. 

To this extent it is also sometimes argued that while The Batman who Laughs is a tragic figure The Joker is evil because he consciously embraces the chaos and chooses to be who he is. However, this way of parsing the issue is implausible. Unlike Batman there is no cannon origin story of The Joker. His character has undergone various iterations and reimaginings. But the ambiguity of his origins aside; there are (or would be if he actually existed) some causal antecedents which lead to him becoming who he became. Some genetic markers which made him more likely to become a psychopath. He presumably had a life history where his genetic predispositions were molded by the environment he was shaped in. Despite the apparent glee the Joker takes in his diabolical acts there is little doubt that his personality would have been shaped by causal antecedents that are beyond his control. 

Despite our intuitions to the contrary, it would appear that the Joker, the Batman, and The Batman who Laughs had little say in who they became and so it would appear that we have little cause to morally judge any of them either as either good or evil. 

There is however another way to look at this issue. This issue relies on focusing on levels of explanation. Some scientists argue that colour doesn’t exist in the objective world. In the world as revealed by physics there is no colour. Colour is a feature of our neuropsychology that results from our brains interpreting light waves that reflect off objects, hit our retina and are interpreted by the occipital lobe in our brains. On this level some scientists argue that colour is a secondary quality one that exists only to perceivers with our kinds of brain, but colours have no mind- independent existence and don’t make up the ultimate furniture of the universe. 

Philosopher Daniel Dennett notes that despite the fact that physicists have no use for the concept of colour in their basic science there is little call to purge the concept of colour from our daily activities. Our rules of the road tell us that we must stop at a red light and we can drive slowly in an orange light, and are free to drive if the light is green. If a person drives through a red light and causes a car crash resulting in a death the person will be legally culpable. A physicist who argued that “because colours don’t exist at the level of basic physics, a person who drove through a red light and killed someone would not be morally culpable”; would be laughed out of court. But in a sense my above argument about the Joker and Batman is using a similar move. I am arguing that at one level of explanation people’s behaviour can be explained in terms of causal antecedents beyond the person’s control; therefore we cannot hold the person responsible for their actions.

But our intentional explanations in terms of beliefs and desires are a key tool we use in coordinating our behaviour in relation to each other. Our entire legal system, and moral system is meshed up in explaining our behaviour in light of beliefs and desires. We assume that people act on reasons and these reasons can be good or bad; all the while acknowledging that at the level of basic physics, beliefs do not exist. 

At the level of free choice there is little evidence to support suggestions it exists, if our universe is deterministic and causally closed there is no room for free choice, an indeterministic universe would leave no room free choice either. So from a scientific perspective, like colour, we are justified in arguing that freewill doesn’t exist. But from a pragmatic perspective of coordinating behaviour, like colour; freewill is a useful tool, whether it exists in the fundamental furniture of the universe or not.  

Dennett cites a paper by Vols and Schooler ‘On the Value of Believing in Freewill: Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating’, which showed experimentally that subjects who read a text which encouraged a disbelief in freewill were more likely to cheat on a task than controls who didn’t read these texts. Vol’s and Schooler’s study is a single study and it hasn’t been replicated thus far, so we shouldn’t take its results as sacrosanct. But it does indicate that disbelief in freewill may lead to behaviours that are problematic. 

We know from behavioural science that by changing the consequences of certain behaviours we can increase or decrease the likelihood of the behaviours occurring. If Vols and Schooler’s study is replicated we will have good reason to think that a belief in freewill and moral responsibility will make the likelihood of moral behaviours we approve of increase. But it is early days and it would be too soon to say for sure; much more experimental data is needed. 

So where does this leave us with the Batman who Laughs and the Joker. In both cases we have good reason to judge them as criminally insane. Both while highly intelligent do not have the emotional wherewithal to curb their criminal behaviour. Therefore while they should be locked away forever they are not morally culpable.In the case of the Batman, pre his transformation, who killed The Joker: things appear to be a bit different. Here despite his torture we have a man who we know may have the cognitive control to desist from committing the murder. Though there were extenuating circumstances in leading him to committing the murder, we do have some reasons to judge him culpable. We are judging him culpable for pragmatic reasons, (consequences for society), not for metaphysical reasons. We do have reason to think he should have done otherwise.  In a society where such acts are viewed as simply deterministic acts with no moral connotations; this may lead  to a society which will increase the likelihood of amoral behaviour; just like in Vol’s and Schooler’s experiment. 

1 thought on “The Batman who Laughs, Freedom and Moral Responsibility

  1. Benjamin David Steele

    What if not only freewill is not real but egoic individuality itself is an illusion? This is, as you argue, tied up with the entire culture and social order. So, what does it matter? It might matter a lot, actually. We may not have individual self-control, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we are deterministic automatons. Maybe the failure is in a lack of imagination. Even if freewill as we’ve idealized doesn’t exist, it doesn’t necessarily follow that no causal influence exists.

    Maybe human reality is always in relationship, as reality is not built on separate things. The false beliefs we use to maintain order is part and parcel of the dysfunction and problems caused by those false beliefs, in creating an experience of reality that feels like it needs to be controlled. Just because the egoic individual is a false self, it doesn’t necessarily follow that there isn’t a sense of self that more accurately aligns with how reality actually functions. In a way, that is the purpose of Buddhist practice, to realign experience with reality.

    I don’t know what that might mean. It’s just that I sense we seek to solve the problems we create. The level of power humans have maybe is always at the cultural and collective level, in the sense that a flock of birds in making micro-movements decide where to fly. Our understanding of volition is possibly misplaced, which is not to say non-existent. This might not be something we can rationally analyze but could only ever discover through experience. Consider it a radical thought experiment, the kind Albert Einstein liked to entertain.


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