The Dark Knight & the Autonomy of the Self

For my first post, I’d like to delve into my thoughts on The Dark Knight (2008).  Initially, I was reluctant to watch the film because of its reputation for violence.  I’m typically uninterested or unamused with gratuitous violence and sex in film.  Luckily, The Dark Knight lacked the gratuitous sex.  And, being well hardened to images of violence, I wasn’t altogether overwhelmed with what violence was present in the film.  I suppose I’ve transcended into a more profound state of ‘numb’ than I thought.

What I did come away from the film with was, however, a lesson about ethics and the autonomy of the self, especially in relation to our upcoming Presidential election. 

The Joker attempted to remove true ‘choice’ from the people multiple times in the film.  Most notably on the two ferries by giving them the choice to either push the button to blow up ‘the other’ boat, or run the risk of having the other boat blow them up.  The dilemma was clear:  be selfish and save yourself, or be riteous and save someone else (or rather, a lot of someones).  Based on the Joker’s instructions, if they didn’t do the deed themselves, he’d intercede with his own detonation device and do it himself.  When the Joker’s deadline comes and goes, and neither boat has blown up the other, it becomes clear that the people on those boats decided on a somewhat silent choice:  to make a true choice for themselves rather than be forced to choose between the seemingly lesser of two evils.  Their choice was to not push the button ‘for’ killing the others, but to make the choice that they would not participate in the mass-killing of other human beings and therefore be blown up themselves.  Collectively, separately, they decided to not be forced into a moral-ethical dilemma, and to take the Joker’s consequences with a clear conscience. To die with a clean conscience is purportedly better than to die with a guilty conscience. 

At the heart of ethics is the treatment of others.  Treating others ethically entails allowing others to make choices and decisions for themselves, as well as not mistreating them.  If an individual is autonomous, he or she has the ability to make choices on his/her own.  That requires that the forces around the individual be conducive to the individual’s ability to make choices.  When ‘others’ act unethically, and attempt to remove one’s ability to choose for him or herself, the autonomy of the self is compromised.

When giving the contrived choice of kill them or yourself (or choose between the lesser of two evils: life or death) the Joker made a profound mistake in judgment.  He assumed the people would seek self-preservation over the moral-ethical ramifications of mass-murder.  He assumed the people would naturally choose to blow up the others: they die, we live.  While both ferries full of people initially struggled with the choices they had been given by the Joker, both eventually came to the same conclusion: that they wouldn’t pull the trigger on the others, no matter who they were or whether they would themselves be ultimately blown up by the Joker. 

It is better to make the choice for yourself than to be forced to pick between contrived choices, come what may.  In that case, the autonomy of the individuals on those two ferries was left intact because they made a choice for themselves, though the Joker attempted to usurp that right from them. (Luckily, Batman detained and overcame the Joker and he wasn’t able to fulfill his end of that wicked deal). 

Earlier in the film, the Joker said that people could deal with chaos and maniacal plots as long as they knew what the chain-of-events and the outcome(s) were; in other words, if they knew the outcome (that was to their own benefit), they’d do whatever it took to make sure it happened.  This scenario is played out relatively well when the Joker notifies everyone that the hospitals would be blown up unless someone murdered the Batman snitch.  The Joker blows up the hospital, as planned.  But in the meantime, it was a race for Bruce Wayne to save the snitch because when ‘forced’ to choose between the snitch and their own loved ones, a few individuals had taken the Joker’s bait (as he predicted).  This sets him up to think he can predict what the people on the ferries will do.

So the Joker was banking on the people on the ferries to do the same thing:  take the bait.  Choose the lesser of two evils: their own lives at the cost of their mortal souls.  The Joker monopolized on his belief that the people would do whatever they were told, no matter how insane, in order to live.

Where this is all going is this: When we, as individuals living in our own world, are ‘forced’ to make the contrived choice between the lesser of two evils, we are being just as unethically treated as the innocent citizens of Gotham were by the Joker.  We typically think of unethical treatment as being torture, racism, sexism, etc. We (read as: the general public) tend to not think of unethical treatment as the literal removal of our ability to choose for ourselves.  Yes, we may have two choices and we may legitimately decide between those two choices, but we have still been ‘given’ those choices and may not necessarily like what’s left over to choose from. 

It’s been this way with all of the Presidential elections I have been old enough to pay attention to.

If I’ve learned anything from The Dark Knight it’s that we shouldn’t be forced to choose between the lesser of two evils.  I acknowledge that to many, our choices now are perhaps a little less ‘evil’ than in times past.  However, like the convict on the ferry, stranded, I too want to toss the detonator out of the window and make a true choice for myself, and not jump on the bandwagon of propaganda and contrived consequences.

5 thoughts on “The Dark Knight & the Autonomy of the Self

  1. True, in a way, but which is worse, the Joker stripping both ferries full of people of their individual and collective autonomy, or the one convict doing it for his ferry? The difference is that the convict (and his business-man counterpart on the other ferry) end up standing up for the group, so to speak, rather than being the oppressor of the group(s) like the Joker is. No one else on either ferry stands up against the decisions that both individuals make for the group, thereby, in a way, each group accepts that individual’s decision as their own individual decisions. After those individuals make the choice, everyone else seems to calm down and resolve themselves to the idea that probably the Joker will blow them to smithereens–but at least they have a collectively clear conscience. At the very least, they’ve made the choice for themselves that they’re not going to let the Joker force them into making an immoral choice.

    Certainly though, it’s not a pure situation because all of their choices are technically “given” to them. But, in my mind, this situation brings up the general idea of contrived choices being given to us in the real world that we live in today. I see that as highly problematic, in general. For me, that scene is indicative of our “choices” in Presidential elections–pick one OR the other, where the political machine wants to convince the people that there’s no other legitmate choice. It’s just part of the ongoing discussion about the down sides of a two-party system. But, I doubt it’d be any better with a three- or four- or five-party system…who knows.

    Thanks for my first legitimate comment on this blog!

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