The Dark Knight became one of the highest grossing films in history after it hit theatres. Well, it was deservedly so. Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker will assuredly be considered one of the top of this time and maybe ever. Something that often times is not acknowledged about The Dark Knight, probably due to the intense action and wonderful acting by Ledger, is the philosophy embedded in the film. The issue I confront, though, is a bit more specific: What is Batman’s philosophy? Is he pro-liberty? I would argue that he indeed is. The majority of his actions do side with liberty, although he certainly is not perfect.
In Gotham, the fictional city that the “caped crusader” fights crime in, the government has been corrupted beyond all belief (Washington insiders would fit in quite well). Much of the police force has been paid-off by the mob and evil is actively encouraged by public officials. So, in a moment such as this, the question must be asked: Has the government lost its legitimacy? My opinion is yes, it has. No longer was the government of Gotham City protecting its citizens like it was supposed to. As Locke argued, in the law of nature every individual has the ability to protect him/herself against others. However, in each moment all individuals are vulnerable to the invasion of another individual. The point of consenting to a “commonwealth,” regardless of the type of government, is to maximize the protection of property — a police force, established laws, and other government forces are supposed to be used for this limited purpose.
But Gotham City’s government was no longer maximizing the protection of propety; rather, it was making life less safe for the citizens in the city. “[N]o rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse,” Locke rationalized. I think this is pretty easy to agree with; the individuals of Gotham would not have consented to being subject to government’s laws if they thought they would become less safe. The people of Gotham would have been safer under the law of nature than under the corrupt laws of the the government. And with that being said, it can firmly be established that the people of Gotham had a right to rebel — Batman had the right to rebel. The government no longer had a legitimate claim to power.
Phew. Okay, so Batman was cleared to act. Now, how did his actions hold up for liberty? First, let’s start with the major negative I see with Batman: anti-privacy. Lucius Fox, played by Morgan Freeman, noticed this problem after Bruce Wayne — the man behind the Batman mask, for those who do not kn0w — developed a system of mapping Gotham City by hacking into every citizen’s cell phone. “This is too much power for one person…Spying on 30 million people isn’t part of my job description.” Three cheers for Mr. Fox. Batman was using this device in a consequentialist manner but the “ends justify the means” argument does not excuse the invasion of privacy, in my opinion. Batman should have acted above this, since he was so concerned with fighting evil.
A second charge against Batman that can be made is his unwillingness to allow others to help him, outside of Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent. In the beginning of The Dark Knight, Batman tells two civilian imposters, “I don’t need help.” However, as I will mention shortly, the “false Batmans” were violating his rule of not killing people by firing guns on the bad guys. This is one excuse when it comes to his monopolizing the vigilante power but I don’t think it is a full justification.
But beyond these two blemishes, Batman has a fairly liberty-friendly record. Consider, as I just alluded to, Batman’s rule of not killing others. Even after the Joker tempts the Batman by saying “…that’s the rule [not killing others] you’ll have to break to know the truth,” he sticks to principle. Multiple times Batman has the opportunity to kill the Joker or other criminals but instead captured them and sought legal justice.
It can also be reasoned that when Batman does use violence it is in self-defense; the entire city is under siege and needs to be protected. Imagine if your neighborhood was corrupted to the point where nobody was safe; would protecting your community be considered self-defense? I do believe so and this is the case with Batman in Gotham; not until the city was at risk of extreme harm did he return with violence.
One of the greatest aspects of Batman’s vigilantism is that it is completely privatized. In this sense, the entire film seems to stress a libertarian message, which is that private organizations can be more efficacious in protecting citizens than government can. Certainly Batman believes this, otherwise he would have taken an alternate route to fighting crime rather than privately developing security through Wayne Enterprises. Plus, Bruce Wayne “The Businessman” has an incentive to stop the crime. Gotham assuredly lost investment and capital during the high-crime years. Once again, this seems to imply the entire film has a liberty message; businesses have incentives to do good.
One last discussion point on Batman’s liberty-minded vigilantism: He did not destroy the entire city merely to catch a criminal. Batman, and Wayne (when he was out of the mask), made mostly ethically sound choices along the way. He did not buckle on principle. Remember the story that Alfred, the butler, tells of the robber in Burma? When Wayne asks Alfred if they ever caught him and how, Alfred responds, “Yes…We burned the forest down.” Wayne didn’t revert back to this strategy, though; instead, he sacrificed himself by playing the villian in order to allow Gotham to rise again.
And so I think it can be said that Batman is a friend of liberty — perhaps a masked libertarian — and The Dark Knight may be a liberty-laced film, as well. As Alfred said of Batman, “He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice.” Indeed, the right choice was made, to side with liberty and freedom.Published in