Should Batman kill the Joker? While there is no objectively definitive answer, like there is say for “What is the capital of Australia?” the two main possibilities just so happen to be the two main opposing forms of moral philosophy: utilitarianism vs. deontology.
- Utilitarianism advocates judging actions by their consequences. The consequences of killing the Joker would be to save the lives of everyone the Joker will kill in the future.
- Utilitarianism contrasts with deontological ethical systems, such as Kant’s and Christian ethics, in that in those systems, certain duties apply regarding how we should act, regardless of the consequences of our actions. In this theory, no one should kill people ever, not even the Joker. (Note that even in deontological systems, rules can, and are often bent, such as the Christian prescription not to kill ever; well, except in cases of perceived self defense and war.)
- There are two types of utilitarianism – act and rule. Act utilitarianism specifies that we should do actions with the best consequences, and rule utilitarianism specifies that we should adhere to rules that will lead us to the best consequences.
- Act utilitarianism is basically the old-school form, that because it ran into problems in specific instances, came to be replaced in popularity by rule utilitarianism. For example, if you’re selling a lemon of a car because you need the money, act utilitarianism might prescribe that it’s okay if you need the money more than the person to whom the car is being sold, while under rule utilitarianism nobody would want to live in a world in which only car salesmen get to make these decisions.
- Rule utilitarianism has the practical benefit that you don’t have to perform a complicated calculation every time you make a moral decision. For tricky moral situations, you simply ask yourself, “Would most people want to live in a world in which most people did this action in this situation?” And, one can’t take a single action, and ask if it is right or wrong, without taking the context into account.
- Philosophy, in it’s seemingly perpetual mission to confuse, often uses the terms “utilitarianism” and “consequentialism” interchangeably.
- One way of arguing for rule utilitarianism starts from a commitment to consequentialist assessment, and then argues that assessing acts indirectly, e.g. by focusing on the consequences of communal acceptance of decisions, will in fact produce better consequences than assessing acts directly in terms of their own consequences.
So, you can have rules, such as “don’t physically attack others,” “don’t steal,” “don’t break promises,” and “be generally helpful to others,” with the acknowledgment that sometimes in life’s myriads of situations, there will be times when the rules must be made
more specific. Almost everyone all of the time can live under the rule “don’t kill,” just fine. But just in case you’re ever given superhero powers, and the realization that you can stop a lot of future evil by breaking this rule just this once, under rule utilitarianism, you can make your decision by asking yourself, “Do most people want to live in a world in which Batmans let Jokers live?”