(Warner Bros. Pictures)

A talk with Robert Arp and Mark D. White

What Batman teaches us about philosophy

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Peter Bebergal
July 13, 2008

ON JULY 18, "The Dark Knight," the much-awaited sequel to "Batman Begins," will swoop into theaters. Director Christopher Nolan has reinvigorated the Batman franchise with his vision of a darker, more realistic crime-fighter. Batman has seen a number of interesting evolutions: in the '30s and '40s he was a gothic-tinged detective; in the '50s, he was a smiling mentor to his new sidekick Robin. In the '80s, Frank Miller's critically acclaimed comics The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year 1 reintroduced Batman as a grim and complex character, a man obsessed with the death of his parents at the hands of a mugger when he was a child.

Unlike most other superheroes, Batman's origins do not include radioactivity, alien heritage, or high-tech armor. Batman is self-made hero, and because of his humanness, he easily becomes a vehicle for asking questions psychological, social, and, well, philosophical. In the new book "Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul," editors Robert Arp of the National Center for Biomedical Ontology and professor Mark D. White of the College of Staten Island (CUNY) have compiled 20 essays by philosophers of every field, from metaphysics to ethics to social-political philosophy. For many of the writers, Batman offers a window into profound real-world issues, particularly in the realm of ethics.

Arp and White frame Batman's ethical dilemmas in three ways. Is Batman a deontologist? That is, does he follow an ethic that must be universally true for all people at all times no matter the consequences? Is Batman a utilitarian, in that he struggles to achieve the best possible outcome for the most well-being? Or is Batman a virtue ethicist who makes moral decisions based on his own capabilities in the face of his ethical dilemmas? (Why, for example, doesn't Batman just kill the Joker? Is it right that he keeps picking up orphan boys and training them to fight crime at his side?)

Ideas interviewed Arp and White separately, by phone; Arp from his office in Buffalo, and White standing outside a comic shop in South Orange, N.J.

IDEAS: What is it about Batman, more than say Superman, that's relevant to philosophy?

WHITE: Because he doesn't have powers, Batman faces more limitations, and limitations force decisions, many of which will be ethical, or more broadly philosophical, in nature. He can't always save everyone, so who to save? How far does he have to push himself for his mission? Superman rarely confronts these issues, because he is so strong and so fast.

IDEAS: We often think of ethics as having to be grounded in some idea of God, but we don't see that with Batman.

ARP: In Batman's universe there is no God. We have to make our meaning, make our own way. Batman becomes the new god, the superhuman that steps up to the plate and metes out justice the way in which God would.

IDEAS: Do you think the realism of the new films helps or hinders thinking about Batman philosophically?

WHITE: I think it definitely helps. This is not the shiny, happy Batman that Adam West portrayed, which was consistent with the comics at the time, or even the more serious Batman that Michael Keaton played. This is how we imagine Batman would be if he were real, given all that he's gone through. This makes him more believable, more realistic, more human. And human beings, more than shiny caricatures, face philosophical dilemmas.

IDEAS: Is Batman a relativist or does he believe in some kind of universal ethic?

ARP: Yes, he believes in some kind of universal ethics, no doubt. Batman thinks there's an objective reality no matter what the situation is. When all is said and done he is still an American superhero, and in that sense he can be black and white. Almost all superheroes are going to be black-and-white objectivists. I can't think of any superhero who champions relativism.

IDEAS: Doesn't this make Batman come across as authoritarian?

WHITE: Batman believes wholeheartedly in his mission, but it's his mission alone, and he very hesitantly involves other people in it. I think he knows his ideas of right and wrong may seem fairly extreme, but he's not asking anybody else to believe in them.

IDEAS: The image of the young Bruce Wayne looking over his dead parents really defines the book. How does someone go from that to dressing like a giant bat?

WHITE: There are children who tragically lose their parents each day, but young Bruce obviously took it differently than most. It stole his innocence and steered him toward devoting his life to helping make sure others don't face the same tragedy he did.

IDEAS: Why does it often take a comic book or movie to get the general public to think about philosophy?

WHITE: Comic books, and quality pop culture in general, are simply more approachable, and lead us to consider philosophical questions without realizing it. Bill Irwin [series editor of the Blackwell Popular Culture and Philosophy books] uses the spoonful-of-sugar analogy: If you make philosophy fun, and use an entry point they are familiar with, they may find out they like it, and then read some "real" philosophy.

IDEAS: Do some scholars see this kind of thing as silly?

ARP: Sure. People think it's just a moneymaker or a way to get your name on something. But I don't think there's anything wrong with that. At root we are trying to bring philosophy to people and bring people to philosophy.

IDEAS: Is there anything we can really learn from Batman, a fictional hero, about making our own choices?

WHITE: I see in Batman a great example of devotion and self-sacrifice that can counter the "do what feels good" advice you get in so many self-help books and talk shows. I'm not saying we should all put on a costume and fight crime, but I think we can all learn from Batman's determination to do what he feels is right, even if it doesn't always make him happy. Sometimes doing what's right is more important than doing what feels good.

Cambridge writer Peter Bebergal is coauthor of "The Faith Between Us."

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