Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Pop Culture and Philosophy vol. 1: The Dark Knight and the Dilemma of Responsibility

As anyone who's ever read a Batman comic -- or perhaps Dark Knight of the Soul -- knows, the world of Batman is philsophically intensive.

There are countless philosophical questions at the very root of the Batman character, and of the world he inhabits.

Because it was released prior to the release of The Dark Knight, Dark Knight of the Soul doesn't directly address many of the interesting questions raised by the movie. Yet this film is utterly full of them.

One of the more intriguing scenarios in the film is the devious boat dilemma, in which two ferries are being used to evacuate two very different groups of people from Gotham.

One ferry is loaded with regular -- and presumably innocent and law-abiding -- citizens. The other is loaded with accused and convicted felons.

Under the guise of a "social experiment", the Joker has bombed each ship, and given the passengers of each ferry with the detonator for their counterpart's bomb. At any point, the passengers of either boat can ensure their survival by destroying the other. However, the Joker promises that at midnight he himself with destroy both ships.

In the overall scheme of the matter -- which is rather ironic seeing as how the individual who has dreamed up this nightmare scenario insists that he himself isn't a schemer, or "planner" -- deciding not to destroy the other boat actually ensures one's own death.

The scene confronts the occupants of each boat with a key dilemma -- that of responsibility.

First off, the nature of the occupants of each boat is clearly in play. Trapped on one boat is a collection of ordinary Gotham citizens. In the other, a group of violent criminals -- "Harvey Dent's most wanted", as its been remarked. It very well could be surmised that the latter boat is more likely to kill the occupants of the former.

After all, they're criminals. Their apparent lack of respect for the lives and property of others is a precipitating factor in them winding up in this predicament in the first place.

However, to make such an assumption could very well be argued to be an ad hoc fallacy, arguing that the criminals are criminals because they're more likely to "kill and steal" (as one passenger puts it), and the ordinary citizens are as such because they're less likely to do these things.

This can be argued to be a fallacy because such a view overlooks the numerous complicated factors that influence the decision to become a criminal. Factors such as poverty and drug and alcohol are known to increase an individual's likelihood to engage in criminal activity. Furthermore, such poverty or drug use is unlikely to be exclusive to the passengers of either ferry.

Last, but not least, there is the question of relative guilt or innocence. Any number of individuals on the prisoner's boat could be innocent and wrongly convicted, just as any number of individuals on the citizen's boat could be guilty of some crime for which they haven't been caught.

This is all aside from simple considerations of character. The motive each man on the prisoner's boat for engaging in crime could range from anything between personality factors -- the previously-surmised lack of respect for others -- to economic desperation or even mental illness.

Likewise, the motive of each individual on the citizens' boat for remaining among the law-abiding is not entirely clear. It, too, could range between anything from personality factors -- perhaps these people have legitimately internalized society's rules and accepted as their own -- to economic comfort, or even mere fear of the potential consquences of criminal behaviour.

The situation is not nearly so black-and-white as those on the boats -- and many viewers -- may otherwise insist.

Each boat addresses the situation rather differently.

On the prisoner's boat, the prison warden holds on to the detonator. For the most part -- at least in the early going -- the decision seems to be largely up to him.

The captain of the citizens' boat seems to feel entitled to hold the same power over the situation. He tells the passengers of his boat that they aren't even going to talk about destroying the other boat. His passengers don't see it the same way. Intriguingly, they are much less orderly than the passengers on the criminals' boat. They loudly demand their say, using their obedience to the law as political capital with which they can demand the right to make that decision for themelves.

The National Guard sergeant on the boat concedes, and distributes rudimentary paper ballots among the passengers. When counted, more than twice as many passengers have voted in favour of killing the prisoners than have voted against it.

What has come into play is a diffusion of responsibility scenario.

The test case used to teach about diffusion of responsibility in sociology and social psychology is that of Kitty Genovese, who in 1964 was brutally murdered outside of her New York apartment building while her neighbours watched. None of her neighbours came to her aid, or even called the police.

Diffusion of responsibility is believed to become more and more pronounced as more and more people are present. The more people are present, the less responsible each individual feels for whatever events may transpire.

Thus, as merely one among 500 people on board the ferry, most of the passengers on the citizens' boat finds themselves able to do something that they initially considered themselves superior because they -- unlike many of the passengers on the prisoners' boat -- had not done. Namely, make the decision to take a life. And not merely one life, but hundreds.

Yet the situation is really not that simple. One person still has to trigger the detonator. Even with nearly 500 people involved in making the decision to kill a comparable number of people on the other boat, someone still has to take a direct hand in exercising that decision.

The captain -- being against the decision -- is clearly unwilling to do so. Even having presumably voted against destroying the other boat, there's little question that he himself would be directly responsible if he were to trigger the explosion.

The diffusion of responsibility would coalesce rather abruptly around the individual who conducted this legally unauthorized execution of 500 lives.

Even when an unnamed man who had argued vociferously in favour of destroying the other boat volunteers to use the detonator, he finds his enthusiasm for the act significantly diminished in the face of the fact that while he made the decision to destroy the other ship in concert with more than 300 others, it's he alone who has his fingers on the detonator.

In the end, he returns the detonator to its box, seemingly preferring to die rather than be directly and personally responsible for the destruction of the other ship.

On the other ship, the warden seems entirely unwilling to destroy the other ship. Yet as the clock ticks closer and closer to midnight -- the time at which both ships will be destroyed -- the warden has to consider the possibility of the loss of both ships. Not merely the loss of the innocent (or perhaps not-so-innocent) citizens on the other ship, but of the prisoners for which he, himself, is ultimately responsible.

It's unlikely that many people -- in the corrections system or otherwise -- will miss the passengers on his boat. But to lose both ships is a total loss. By saving the prsioners, at least the warden prevents that.

Then, naturally, there is the question of self-preservation. The warden may have a wife and children that he may want to go home to, just as many of his men must have families of their own. Furthermore, there is the matter of the families of the prisoners for which he is responsible.

If the citizens on the other ferry live up to their presumed innocent and noble character a great many people would suffer needlessly. The seemingly perverse nature of saving the prisoners at the expense of the innocent citizens aside, from a purely objective point of view it's prefereable to a total loss.

Of course even the notion of self-preservation doesn't account for the fact that, being responsible for the destruction of the other ship, the warden would be widely reviled for his actions. That revulsion would almost certainly be taken out on both himself and his family by the families of the occupants of the other ship and by orderinary citizens alike. Then, to top this all off, there is the matter of moral and criminal responsibility.

But perhaps this is all besides the point.

Regardless of who makes the choice and whatever choice they make, the role of the Joker in the entire matter is unmistakable. After all, it was the Joker who engineered this sadistic choice in the first place.

Even more important than this is the Joker's compunction for offering deceptive choices. When Batman and Commissioner Gordon are given the choice of saving Harvey Dent or Rachel Dawes from the predicament they've been placed in, the Joker gives Batman a false location for each: Harvey is where Rachel is supposed to be, and Rachel dies because of this deception.

But the Joker himself accepts little responsibility for the matter. When confronted by Gordon about their whereabouts, the Joker asks him who left them with. One can't help but remember that Dent himself confronted Gordon with his concerns about some of the officers in his unit.

Just as the Joker refutes any responsibility for the death of Rachel Dawes and the disfigurement of Harvey Dent -- insisting to Harvey that he's just like a dog chasing cars -- he would certainly claim no responsibility for the result of his boat trap.

One way or another, the people aboard the boats made their choices. Fortunately for the people of Gotham -- and unfortunately for the Joker -- each chooses not to destroy the other boat, even under the prospects of impending death. After all, without Batman's heroic intervention, everyone involved dies, no matter what.

Almost unequivocally, those involved have to be taking responsibility for the prospect of their own deaths. And even if the Joker refuses to accept any responsibility for his actions, that refusal may prove to be a moot point. Responsibility ultimately would have been forced upon him, although his contempt for that may in turn render forcing responsibility upon him pointless.

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