Culture

Is It Ever Right To Do The Wrong Thing?

Turns out Batman is the world's greatest philosopher.

batman ethics

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You ever notice how people making big decisions tend to get obsessed with hands?

During the bushfire crisis, Scott Morrison told us he didn’t hold a hose. After murdering the king, Lady Macbeth gets all weird while washing her hands (mind you, post-Covid? Same, girl). Even the Bible features Pontius Pilate going all extra, literally washing his hands to deny responsibility for the subsequent crucifixion of Jesus.

And if those literary and religious references don’t grab you, that’s okay. Alanis Morrissette carried on the theme in her underrated track ‘Hands Clean’, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy also leans heavy on handwashing (I was going to write about the Avengers again, but my editor said no. However, he said nothing about Batman, proving once again that it pays to know the differences between Marvel and DC. Yet I digress.)

Batman: The Ultimate Philosopher

At the end of The Dark Knight (the one with Heath Ledger as the Joker), Harvey Dent — who has gone mad and become the villain Two Face — is killed just as he is about to murder Jim Gordon’s son. However, before becoming a sociopath, Harvey Dent had been Gotham City’s District Attorney, and represented the hope for a crime-free Gotham. News of his turn to villainy would have broken Gotham’s spirit, so Batman and Jim Gordon (that’s Gary Oldman, FYI) hatch a grand plan.

They decide to lie, and say that Batman killed Harvey Dent. The goodwill that results from Dent’s death leads to the passage of ‘The Dent Act’ — a crucial (if morally dubious) law that denies parole to criminals involved in organised crime. This law allows Jim Gordon — now Police Chief — to clean up Gotham City, based on a big, fat lie.

And of course, the lie comes back to bite them. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bane (the guy in the mask who is impossible to understand) reveals the dirty secret. By-the-book cop John Blake, whose name nobody remembers but was played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, confronts Gordon for what he did, and Gordon gives a real good speech. Like, top-shelf comic book cliché material.

“There’s a point far out there, when the structures fail you,” he yells. “When the rules aren’t weapons anymore, they’re shackles, letting the bad guy get ahead.” (By letting them have basic civil liberties like a right to parole, but again, I digress).

Gordon continues: “Maybe one day, you may face such a moment of crisis. And in that moment, I hope you have a friend like I did… To plunge their hands into the filth, so that you can keep yours clean!”

Again with the hands! But here’s the thing: Gordon kind of has a point. And he’s got some philosophical backup in the form of one of the most influential political philosophers of the 20th century, Michael Walzer.

What Does It Mean To Do The Right Thing?

Walzer — way before Christopher Nolan — imagined a scenario where a really good, capable, honest person was running for political office. (I cannot stress enough that this is a hypothetical.) The problem is this would-be honest politician’s opponent is completely corrupt. The only chance our good candidate has of winning is if he does a shady deal, promising some government contracts to a certain influential citizen, who will give a donation big enough to turn the election.

Now, we need to imagine that this politician – if successful – is going to make a big difference: ending corruption, reducing inequality, improving the common good… all that stuff. And because he’s a good person, he doesn’t want to make the deal. He wants to win cleanly. But he can’t. To win, he has to get his hands dirty.

And Walzer thinks he should get his hands dirty. Walzer thinks that when the stakes are high enough, we cannot afford to keep our hands clean. He writes that the absolutist who argues “justice though the heavens fall!” has refused to think about what it really means for the heavens to fall.

So far, this is all pretty straightforward – especially if you think like a utilitarian (someone who decides what’s good and bad based on what will lead to the most happiness and the least suffering). When we’re facing outcomes that are potentially really bad, we should do what it takes to avoid those outcomes – even if that is also bad. Didn’t need a philosophy degree or three to tell us that, right?

Except that’s not what Walzer thinks. He doesn’t argue that the person who gets their hands dirty has done the right thing. He argues that what they’ve done is still wrong, even though it was necessary. That means they should still be punished, held responsible and feel guilty for what they’ve done – even though it was the ‘right’ thing to do.

This is why Walzer says that dirty hands problems are a paradox – a contradiction – because the right thing to do is to do something wrong. But if it’s right, then it can’t be the wrong thing to do.

Solving the Unsolvable

One way to deal with Walzer’s argument is to completely reject it. We can insist either that when the stakes are high enough, we should do what’s necessary — and that it’s okay to do what’s necessary. Or we can argue that doing the wrong thing is wrong, no matter what’s at stake. Either way, there’s no moral problem.

Except that both these stories fail to do justice to the way that the world really is. Walzer’s approach to philosophy is to try to deal with the world as it is, not as our theory demands it should be. That means he’s more comfortable with messy, unlikely solutions than some other theories are. But it’s also what makes his work relatable.

It’s tempting to think of the world as if ‘good’ and ‘bad’ were simple categories and as if there was an algorithm that helped us decide what’s right and wrong. But doing that makes our world so small that it’s basically unrecognisable. Our lives are full of compromises, shitty options and ‘right’ decisions that we desperately regret and resent having to make. That’s what Walzer is trying to capture here. In a weird way, it’s kind of therapeutic.

How many times have you seen someone defend a callous, hurtful decision because it was ‘the best option’?

How many times have you made a tough call that made you feel like shit, only to have someone trying to console you by telling you “you did the right thing”? Knowing that the choice was right doesn’t help us – we know it’s right, but in another sense, it was also wrong. It crossed a line. It hurt someone’s feelings. It compromised on our values… you get the gist.

The point isn’t that it was right, the point is that it wasn’t only right. It was also kind of… dirty (not that kind of dirty, this is a philosophy column).

That’s why the hands thing keeps cropping up. It matters when shitty things happen by our hands. We’re responsible for what happens. We’re connected, caught up in events we don’t like, haven’t chosen and can’t entirely control. But what happens is still on us.

On the flipside, how many times have you seen someone defend a callous, hurtful decision because it was ‘the best option’? Sometimes, we’re so quick to insist on our own rightfulness that we ignore the ways in which our choices were harmful, callous or unideal. People can sometimes pat themselves on the back for people the one willing to get their hands dirty, make ‘hard choices’, or tell it like it is. More often than not, being proud of making the right choice in shitty circumstances doesn’t make you a hero; it makes you a dick.


Overthinking It is a new philosophy column on Junkee that aims to answer the big questions. For more Overthinking It, head here.

Matt Beard is a philosopher and ethicist.