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Ahead of the Curve: A Reflection on the Joker’s Terrible Insight

Introduction

Early in The Dark Knight, Alfred describes the Joker in perhaps the most memorable lines of the film:

Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

The Joker is characterized as someone who is beyond reason: crazy, deranged, out of his mind. His ostensibly pointless acts of violence and mayhem appear to reinforce this assessment.

But sometimes, buried beneath apparent madness is a kernel of stark truth. The madman in Nietzsche’s parable was not mad when he announced the death of God—his audience just couldn’t grasp the truth in what he said:1

At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men.”

The Joker himself maintains he is perfectly sane. During his meeting with the mob, when he demands half of their money in exchange for killing Batman, they laugh at him and call him crazy. He quietly responds, “No I’m not. No, I’m not.”

What lends credence to the Joker’s claim of sanity is that if we examine his words and actions throughout the film, we can see he has a perfectly intelligible motivation. Namely, he seeks to show that conventional morality is bankrupt.

The Joker’s Insight

The Joker expresses this motivation most clearly when Batman is interrogating him for the location of politician Harvey Dent, who is being held hostage. During the scene, the Joker says this about human beings in general:

You see, their morals, their “code”…it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these uhh, these “civilized” people…they’ll eat each other.

In other words, the Joker is out to demonstrate that conventional morality is a farce because even though people claim to adhere to moral principles, many are willing to violate them in dire circumstances, often in the name of bringing about a “greater good” or preventing a “worse evil.” He aims to show that most people are consequentialists, meaning they assess the morality of an action based not on the nature of the act itself—i.e., whether the act is inherently good or bad—but on whether its consequences are, on balance, judged to be good or bad.

The Joker seeks to demonstrate this because—as he sees it—if it is permissible to break moral rules in some circumstances, then there is no sense in following moral rules at all:

Joker: You have all these rules, and you think they’ll save you.

Batman: I have one rule.

Joker: Ohh, then that’s the rule you’ll have to break to know the truth.

Batman: Which is?

Joker: The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.

In the Joker’s eyes, he is simply taking the societal norm of consequentialism to its logical conclusion. Hence, as he puts it, “I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve.” The Joker’s goals are not material, but ideological, as he makes apparent when he burns his half of the mob money: “It’s not about money. It’s about sending a message. Everything burns.”

This is the purpose behind his “social experiment” with the two ferries at the climax of the film, which is set up as a classic ethical dilemma: according to the Joker, either one boat must blow up the other, or everyone on both boats will die. Given these stipulations, he clearly expects one boat to blow up the other, with whoever acts first subordinating any scruples about murder to the “greater good” of some living rather than all dying.

Sure enough, shortly after the Joker’s announcement, one woman on the civilian ferry argues, “We don’t all have to die. Those men had their chance.” The civilian ferry overwhelmingly votes to blow up the other ferry, but no one triggers the detonator. After it becomes evident that no one wants to actually do the deed, one man tries to take the initiative, again with the rationalization that murder is justified if it leads to a “greater good”:

No one wants to get their hands dirty. Fine. I’ll do it. Those men on that boat—they made their choices. They chose to murder and steal. It doesn’t make any sense for us to have to die too.

He takes the detonator in hand, but in the end can’t bring himself to press the button. The ferry of convicts also refrains, with one of them taking the detonator and deliberately throwing it out the window. The Joker, irritated at this unexpectedly bloodless outcome, prepares to make good on his threat to blow up both boats, but Batman stops him.

Two questions arise when we consider the Joker’s experiment: first, is he correct in saying that conventional morality amounts to consequentialism? Second, even if this is true, does it follow that it makes sense to abandon the notion of moral principles altogether?

We can gain insight into these questions by considering the work of a 20th-century British Catholic philosopher named Elizabeth Anscombe, who, much like the Joker, recognized that conventional morality is consequentialist in nature. All too often, people discard moral principles when it is deemed necessary for the “greater good.” Unlike the Joker, however, Anscombe does not infer from this that the only sensible way to live is to dispense with moral principles altogether.

Anscombe’s Corrective

In Anscombe’s time, some believed that the moral philosophy taught at Oxford corrupted young people. She dryly observed that this accusation was false because the moral philosophy taught at Oxford was identical to what the country at large believed anyway:2

There is a high conception of responsibility which is certainly imparted at Oxford and which is in tune with the time. If something seems in itself a bad sort of action, but you calculate that if you do not do it then the total situation (some say the total state of the world) will be worse than if you do it—then you must do it; you are answerable for the future if you can affect it for the better.

This is consequentialism in a nutshell, and its logic is apparent in the Joker’s ferry experiment. People on the civilian ferry calculate that, while murder is normally a “bad sort of action,” failing to blow up the other boat would lead to a “total situation”—i.e., everyone on both boats dying—that would be morally inferior to a situation entailing the destruction of only one boat. Therefore, they conclude that blowing up the ferry of convicts is the best action to take.

I do not think it is controversial to say that many, perhaps most, people—even some professing Christians—would agree that it is preferable to kill some in order that others may live. To borrow another example from Anscombe, if someone taking care of a child were forced to choose between “doing something disgraceful and going to prison”—thus no longer being able to support the child—many would probably say it is better to do “something disgraceful” to avoid what is perceived as the worse evil of the child losing its only source of support.3 (For that matter, the same people would probably condone committing apostasy to prevent others from suffering.) To the extent these generalizations are accurate, the Joker is correct in his terrible insight—today’s conventional morality is essentially consequentialist in nature.

This brings us to the second question: is the Joker right to say that if conventional morality is consequentialist, meaning that moral rules can be broken in some circumstances, then it only makes sense to live without any moral rules at all? Whether or not this conclusion inevitably results from the logic of consequentialism being taken to its extreme, the obvious alternative would be to reject consequentialist thinking altogether, as orthodox Christianity does. Anscombe notes:4

All these philosophies [i.e., those that say  “‘the right action’ means the one which produces the best possible consequences”] are quite incompatible with the Hebrew-Christian ethic. For it has been characteristic of that ethic to teach that there are certain things forbidden whatever consequences threaten, such as: choosing to kill the innocent for any purpose, however good; vicarious punishment; treachery (by which I mean obtaining a man’s confidence in a grave matter by promises of trustworthy friendship and then betraying him to his enemies); idolatry; sodomy; adultery; making a false profession of faith. The prohibition of certain things simply in virtue of their description as such-and-such identifiable kinds of action, regardless of any further consequences, is certainly not the whole of the Hebrew-Christian ethic; but it is a noteworthy feature of it.

In Christian ethics, God commands us to refrain from certain actions no matter what consequences threaten. Belief that God exists and has given us universally binding commands to obey, regardless of consequences, is an obvious prerequisite for living out such an ethic. Beyond this, though, it is essential for us to have a deep faith that God not only exists, but also genuinely governs the world in perfect wisdom and righteousness. If we do not believe this, our professed moral principles are liable to crumble during a crisis, in the face of what we perceive to be an outcome that is so terrible and unthinkable we must act to prevent it, no matter the cost. So says contemporary Catholic philosopher J. Budziszewski:5

One may play God if no one is God already. What we have in view here is the conviction that one must play God if the Creator is not Judge and Healer too. Immanuel Kant thought that morality would be undermined without a belief in divine judgment, but Kant did not say the half of it. The wrongs of the world would not merely dismay the desire to do right. They would taunt, torture, and drive men to a despair that could be relieved only by committing yet greater wrongs, on the principle that if God does not save us then we must save ourselves.

The Joker was right to point out that this is the world we live in, where countless immoral acts are justified because they are “necessary,” but he grievously erred in concluding that we should therefore abandon all semblance of morality. Anscombe does not make this mistake, reminding us that the Christian faith in a God who enforces justice is a better alternative.

Conclusion

After the Joker’s experiment fails, with neither boat blowing up the other, Batman attributes the people’s forbearance to their readiness to “believe in good.” This might not be an accurate account of what stayed their hand, given that the civilian ferry was perfectly ready to blow up the ferry of convicts in principle even though it failed to act. Still, it is certainly true that we cannot hope to act righteously in such dire circumstances unless we believe in something greater than our circumstances—specifically, a God who acts so that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28 [ESV]).

But faith in God’s justice and providence does not mean we believe he will act to prevent all tragedies and suffering if we just wait on him. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego understood this well when King Nebuchadnezzar ordered them to worship an idol on pain of death:

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up. (Dan 3:16-18 [ESV])

They knew God could save them. They believed God would save them. But they also believed that if he did not it was still better to obey God and suffer the consequences. They trusted that he would order their deaths towards the good.

In the eyes of the contemporary world, this ethical approach is utterly insane, if not depraved. Woe, then, to the world, to “those who call evil good and good evil” (Isa 5:20 [ESV]), who reduce the very idea of morality to a “bad joke” by insisting that it is our responsibility to ensure justice, no matter what “lesser” wrongs we must commit along the way. Let us rather trust and obey the One who truly bears that responsibility and can actually fulfill it.

James Clark graduated from Princeton University in 2014 with a B.A. in Religion, and is currently a student at Yale Divinity School. His writing has been featured at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, The Gospel Coalition, the Davenant Institute’s Ad Fontes, and Themelios (forthcoming), as well as other publications.

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