Can The Actions of Superheroes Be Morally Justified?: The Philosophies of Batman and Rorschach

Introduction Within this essay, I plan to explore morality and how it relates to the actions of Superheroes. When discussing these Heroes I will only use their cinematic representations. Rorschach’s cinematic representation will be taken from the 2009 Zack Snyder film, ‘The Watchmen’ (Watchmen, 2009) whilst Batman’s will be taken from the Christopher Nolan ‘Dark Knight Trilogy’ (Dark Knight Trilogy, 2005-2012). To explain and question the morality of Superheroes actions, I will take a hero and give them context by explaining some character information (if necessary) and then taking specific moments where their character has to make a moral decision, this will make understanding how they act far easier and will also expose who they truly are, compared to whom they think they are. I will also use their actions or views in order to apply a real moral theory onto them. Once this is done it will allow a reasonable conclusion of their character's morality since we will be judging them based on their own (or what they claim are their own) moral standards.

Defining morality itself is key to understanding the fundamentals of this essay. Oxford Dictionaries defines morality as “Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behaviour” (Oxford Dictionaries | English, n.d.) however, this definition is limited and doesn’t help us in terms of judging actions since several theories regarding morality question exactly what can be defined as “good” or “bad”. There is not a sole explanation for what these words mean when applying them to specific actions, for example, stealing might be considered bad but what if the person is only stealing to feed their family who would die otherwise, or a person pushes an elderly man into the road in order to save a child falling from a window, these actions might blur the lines in regards to the provided definition. So as stated above, I will be using different moral theories and applying them to each hero explored. Whilst it might be impossible to prove undoubtedly that the moral theories applied are the exact moral views of the characters explored, they will be allocated based on the actions taken by that hero and despite the character potentially doing something that betrays the applied theory, I will aim to show that it is their most consistent form of moral outlook and any form of betrayal is one committed against their own beliefs, rather than being evidence for them not having that belief at all.

Utilitarianism and Duty Ethics - Batman

In the movie ‘Batman Begins’, Batman is facing off against Ra’s Al Gul, the leader of ‘The League of Shadows’ and a man who serves as a father figure and a mentor, being the man that gave Bruce Wayne the skills and training necessary to become the Batman. Their fight takes place on an above-ground train system and after gaining the upper hand on Ra’s Batman has a choice between leaving him to die on the train or saving him and handing him over to the police to face judicial justice. In the end, Batman chooses to let Ra’s die, saying “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you”(Batman Begins (5/6) Movie CLIP - Train Fight, 2011). But is there really a difference between those two things, James Rachels would argue that there isn’t. In his writings ‘Active and Passive Euthanasia’, Rachels presents an ethical situation spilt into two scenarios. In the first, an older brother wishes to kill their younger brother and decides to drown him once he is in the bath, he waits until his brother is in the bath, then comes into the bathroom and drowns his brother. In the second, he has the same plan, but this time when he comes into the bathroom, his brother is somehow already drowning and is thrashing in the water in an attempt to get his head above it, but he doesn’t succeed and instead drowns whilst his older brother stands there, doing nothing (Rachels, 1975). Rachels goes on to say that there is no distinction between the two, since inaction that will knowingly lead to someone's death, when you have the means/ability to prevent it, is morally similar to killing them yourself. Batman is applying the second scenario in his actions, not actively participating in the death of a person, but making the choice of allowing them to die, which according to Rachels doesn’t have a moral distinction. So since in this moral theory, there is not a difference between allowing someone to die and killing them, Batman is morally responsible for Ra’s death. In this situation, Batman appears to be applying the moral theory of ‘Act Utilitarianism’ a theory that argues “that we should always choose our actions based on what will cause the greatest amount of happiness.” ‘happiness’ meaning the most pleasure and the least pain and ‘greatest’ meaning for the largest amount of people (Philosophy Terms, n.d.) since allowing Ra’s to die will in turn ensure he will not cause any further harm to Gotham City, therefore saving a large number of people from pain that Ra’s would/could inflict upon them.

This is similar to the thought experiment of “The Trolly Problem” (an association made by Shana Mlawski in her article “The Philosophy of Batman” (Mlawski, 2008)) where a conductor has to decide between staying their current course and by doing so allowing the five people who are on the track and unable to escape die or switching the track and by doing so killing one person situated on the track instead (Sharp, 1908). The idea behind this ethical dilemma is that based upon one's own moral standards, either choice can be considered morally correct, it is to be used as an indication of one’s own morality. If you allow the trolley to hit the five people, you are allowing them to die, despite being able to take action against it, whereas if you use the switch to allow the five to live but the one person to die, you are taking an active role in the death of that person, which could be argued makes you personally responsible for their death. However, as we are applying the moral reasoning of Rachels there is no distinction between these two in terms of intent, so we should only focus on the outcome. Applying the same reasoning that Batman uses during his fight with Ra’s (that of utilitarianism), we can assume that he would change the tracks and allow one person to die rather than let five die since this action would provide the best possible outcome for the largest amount of people.

All of this makes a solid case for Batman being a Utilitarianist, however, the specific example of the train fight goes against his own moral code. For instance, in the film ‘The Dark Knight’ Batman has an opportunity to kill the Joker by hitting him with his motorbike, but doesn’t and instead avoids him, allowing himself to crash (Hit Me! - The Dark Knight (4/9) Movie CLIP (2008) HD, 2011). He also disarms Catwoman whilst they are fighting criminals, telling her “No guns, no killing” (The Dark Knight Rises - No Guns, No Killing, 2012). The Joker has already killed many people at this point in the movie and has no intentions of stopping, so from a Utilitarian point of view killing him would be the right thing to do, since it would prevent him harming anyone else, yet despite this Batman makes a choice and doesn’t kill him and also doesn’t allow for Catwoman to kill the criminals attacking them. Batman had multiple times where killing would be totally justified and in fact, morally good when considering a Utilitarian approach. These actions give us an indication that Batman’s true morality is perhaps closer to deontology, and more specifically duty bound ethics, a moral theory where an individual follows a set of rules based upon a set of rule (e.g the law) or one's own validation or refutation of actions, for example, based upon one's own principles or duty, murder could always be considered wrong, disregarding the outcome or intention behind the action (Kant, Gregor and Timmermann, 2012). Corroborating this is Batman’s stance on killing and his willingness to cooperate with the police force when given the opportunity (such as interrogating the Joker with police present) indicating that the duty he is bound to is at least mostly based upon the law. He believes allowing criminals to face the judicial system, being allowed their day in court and having their punishment handed down by the courts rather than enforcing his own ideals in regards to justice. Nevertheless, Batman often willingly breaks the law and despite working with the police he will do whatever it takes in order to achieve the outcome he desires to enforce what he believes is his duty, such as beating the Joker in interrogation, willingly disobeying and disregarding an agreement that he had with the police force - to try and force information from The Joker. So in a sense, he perverts and deforms the idea of justice and duty he himself is supposed to champion.

Moral Absolutism - Rorschach

Serving as a sort of parallel to Batman in their feelings of murder is Rorschach, a hero who develops little qualms in regards to killing criminals after a kidnap case he was investigating led him to find the remains of the child who had been abducted. After a confrontation with the child abductor in which he confesses to the kidnap and murder of the child, Rorschach decides to kill him for his crime. Rorschach tells this story to a psychologist whilst he is in prison, having been arrested for his crime of masked vigilantism. He describes his early days as a Hero to the psychologist and states “I was too soft on criminals, I let them live” (Watchmen Scene - "Dogs get put down.", 2009) a line that illuminates his past and his new, reformed beliefs on the matter of morality in the case of killing, if the crimes/criminals are bad enough, then they deserve to die.

By the end of the movie, it is revealed that a past friend of Rorschach, who also used to operate as a government-sanctioned hero, known as Ozymandias, plans to nuke many capitals of the world. Upon learning this Rorschach and his friend, Night Owl, travel to Antarctica to stop try and thwart Ozymandias’ plot. After a brawl between them, Ozymandias reveals that his plan has already been accomplished and was done 30 minutes before their arrival. He also reveals that this plan was done with the intention of uniting the world in peace and ending the looming threat of total nuclear destruction. The heroes struggle but ultimately agree not to share this plan with the world at large, as to keep the greater good and ensure the peace lasts. However, Rorschach has no intention of allowing this and informs them all that he will tell the world exactly what happened since the truth is more important than the outcome of the lie. Rorschach is asked to back down from his view and allow the world to live in blissful ignorance, but he refuses, stating “never compromise, not even in the face of Armageddon” and is soon after killed, as to ensure the world can never learn the truth (Rorschach’s Death, 2012).

Ozymandias’ plan is truly the greatest test of Rorschach's own morality, presenting Rorschach with the ethical question ‘Is a good outcome ever a justification for a terrible action’, and if Rorschach had gone through with the lie his morality would side closer with Consequentialism, which is an encompassing moral theory presenting the idea that morality of actions is based solely on the outcome of said actions (Haines, n.d.) Utilitarianism, as discussed in Batman’s chapter, falls under this. However, Rorschach’s willingness to die obviously shows his unwavering tenacity to uphold his own moral views and tells us his answer to that question is simply ‘never’. Rorschach holds steadfast in this view, which is rooted in Moral Absolutism, since he sees no grey area to criminal wrongdoings and through his refusal to leave the world in peace, a peace that is built on the foundation of a lie, but peace nevertheless, it is clear he believes morality of actions are black and white. As moral absolutism argues that there are universal standards of morality and that there are actions which can be defined as intrinsically right or wrong; for example, violence and murder could always be considered wrong, there doesn’t necessarily need to be a law or a rule for a moral absolutist to follow, it is not duty-bound but rather a moral obligation to what they believe are definite moral standards. (, n.d.). Yet there is a twisted irony to his views since he himself constantly breaks them. His way of stopping crime is by crushing it with violence and sometimes even death. He is willing to break the law in order to achieve his goals, breaking people’s bones in order to gain information, murdering criminals without allowing them to face trial and operating as a masked vigilante after the ‘Keene Act’, a law which passed in their Universe in 1977, outlawing masked vigilantism. Rorschach is himself a criminal but either doesn’t think his actions fall under the same rules as others, or that his own immoral actions are justified since he only ever takes violent actions against other criminals, despite this reasoning he is still a hypocrite, since as stated previously, there is evidence of his views being rooted in moral absolutism, with no room for manoeuvring in terms of justifying actions, therefore by his own standards and code of morality he is morally wrong in his operations. Throughout all of this, his quote “...there is good and evil and evil must be punished, even in the face of Armageddon, I will not compromise on this.”(Rorschach's Journal #2, 2014) is something he tries to uphold during his life and however disturbed Rorschach’s own interpretation of justice was, and despite being hypocritical in overlooking his own actions, he tried to carry out whatever he deemed justice and refused to waver from his views when facing criminals, even when it cost him his own life.


Rorschach and Batman share similarities in a sense as both believe they have (or should have) the right to pass judgement to those around them as if they are the true moral compass and salvation of the masses. They both do so with the intent of protecting the innocent, but by allowing themselves to become their own twisted version of justice, they instead only pervert their ideals. Thus showing us their true flaw, that these characters are humans, they are not omnipotent gods with the power of bestowing universally sound moral judgements, they are just people. People who despite perhaps wanting to uphold justice, shape their own definition of good and bad and can be forced into action by circumstance, Sometimes, even they are unable to uphold what they believe to be their own moral standards. Whilst the evidence points towards Superheroes being unjustified in a moral sense, it is an ultimately futile venture to either vilify or justify their actions morally. Whilst laws do provide us with rights and wrongs intrinsic to our own societies, people often argue about what should and shouldn’t be laws, with laws being reworked, recreated and retracted based on the evolution of the masses own sensibilities, therefore, showing even morality based upon upholding the law as rule is flawed and could eventually begin to betray the public’s own views or values over time. Therefore, since even legality of actions can’t always be considered moral or ethical and the masses opinions of what is moral legality wise can change and adapt based on circumstances, time and information, there truly is no way to say whether these characters are moral when applying legality.

Since both can be shown to betray their own moral standards neither one can be considered morally justified from their own point of view. Rorschach murders with the intention of peacekeeping, despite believing that murder is wrong no matter the outcome and Batman constantly breaks the law and disregards the police when he feels as though they are in his way, or limiting him, despite wanting to uphold justice based upon the duty of the law. Whilst their actions may lead to positive outcomes, what does this matter in terms of one's own moral compass? Is betraying what they themselves stand for able to be ignored based upon results.

Ultimately there really is no concrete, full-proof definition of morality, only a person's own moral compass and ethical standing and how well this applies to the beliefs of the masses. Since there are such broad and varied definitions of what can be considered morally or ethically right or wrong, there really is no way to apply a universal truth onto either of these words. In conclusion, the only way to judge if anyone’s actions are morally justified lies with your own beliefs and sensibilities in regards to morality and applying these onto each individual, and your own actions.

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