The Dark Knight and the State of Nature

I saw The Dark Knight in theaters last night and it was pretty good.  What really struck me was that each of the main characters took on a different position of each different philosopher.

To start, the Joker was all about Chaos.  He structures mankind so that they will inevitably destroy themselves.  I won’t give away the details of the movie, but the Joker sets up a situation where two sets of people have a choice to destroy the other group of people.  And so you would think, “I’d rather kill them because if they don’t, then they can kill me.”  Indeed, the ending really surprised me because I expected one set of people to do something.  Batman tells the Joker that it’s because of the goodness of people.  The Joker replies, “you really are incorrigible Batman.  The reason they are good is because they havn’t been pushed hard enough.  All they need is one push.”  This push will change any person from good to evil.  But I think the Joker’s main point is that it’s not a simple push to become evil.  I think being evil, selfish, and desire for power is easy.  Trying to be good and helpful actually requires work.  In the state of nature theory, this resembles Hobbes.  Hobbes asks, “what would happen if there was no government?”  Or more precisely, “what was the situation like before there was a government?”  I ask my students this and the answer is always the same: chaos, anarchy, everyone is looking for themselves.  Then I ask them this: “and what does that tell you about human nature?”  The Joker is Hobbesian, but a more sadistic version because he is always pointing out that we are naturally selfish, cruel, and perhaps evil.

Batman is the hero; he is considered the good person.  Indeed, his reply to the Joker is that people are naturally good.  The reason why people become bad is because of perhaps environmental reasons.  This resembles Rousseau.  Rousseau says that before there was a government, we were actually good people; we were the “noble savages.”  We didn’t naturally go out and pick a fight.  Nature was full of abundance and so we just happily go our merry way and don’t get in each other’s way.  According to Rousseau, society has messed us up.  For example, in nature, we naturally just seek shelter.  In society though, we are taught that the bigger the house, the better.  In nature, we just naturally just want clothes to keep ourselves warm.  In society, we are taught to get the best clothes and the more expensive or fashionable it is, the better.  Society has kept us aloof and has made us out of touch with our real selves.  This could possibly be the reason why Batman doesn’t really hang out in society; he’s always hiding and only gets involved in society when there’s trouble.

Everyone was raving how great Heath Ledger’s performance was.  It was actually a good performance, but I was actually more impressed with Aaron Eckheart’s performance.  To me, the most interesting character in the movie was Harvey Dent/Two-Face.  As Harvey Dent, he was the hero of Gotham by fighting crime, locking up criminals, and ridding the streets of mobsters.  He lived by rules and the law.  Rules and laws were there to establish justice.  As Two-Face however, he only thinks of himself and it doesn’t matter who gets in the way.  If getting rid of that person helps him achieve his goal, so be it.  Rule and laws don’t apply to Two-Face.  Instead, it’s chance.  This is why he uses the coin toss: his philosophy is randomness and chance.  That’s his view of justice.  To me, this resembles John Locke.  According to Locke, we aren’t naturally evil or naturally good, we are naturally. . . well, neutral.  However, we are rational creatures.  Living in the state of nature, we all end up like Two-Face because people can still break the laws of nature because there’s no incentive to keep the rules.  Indeed, we are aloud to have retributive justice in the state of nature for Locke.  When we enter society however, we live by rules and laws: we become Harvey Dent.  And with that, we give up our right to retribution when we enter society and give up this right to a judge.

So in a sense, there are three alternate ways of looking at the world.  The Joker/Hobbes pushes the civilized Harvey Dent/Locke into a state of nature Two-Face/pre-Locke.  Batman still believes that everyone is naturally good, he just needs to get to Two-Face and “convert” him back to Harvey Dent.

What makes it change in the end is that I think the Joker got to Batman.  At the very end, the community needs a hero and so Batman must let everyone believe that a certain person (I won’t tell so that I won’t give away the movie) is the hero.  If the community doesn’t believe it, then society will turn into chaos.  But wait a minute, Batman can’t believe that because he originally thought that people were all good.  But the Joker got to him: people can easily change to evil just by a simple push.  The Joker is lurking within us all and sometimes it’s screaming to get out–a simple push, if you will–or perhaps it’s buried so deep that people don’t have it.

You can see this with people you see on the street: a slightest thing can piss them off, or perhaps it doesn’t phase them at all.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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6 Responses to The Dark Knight and the State of Nature

  1. Killer J says:

    I want to see this before I comment. I loved the post though, pretty cool stuff. Props to you for having the insight to link characters to philosopher’s ideals.

  2. Jory Francis says:

    Hey Shaun! Great blog! I saw this last night, and didn’t relate any of the actors to philosophy. I was too freaked out by the action and special effects! Holy crap! Anyway, great insights. I really enjoy your take on things.

  3. Killer J says:

    Katchie and I went and saw this movie today. Incredible movie! I really liked it. Anyway, I was thinking about your post throughout the movie and you were spot on.

    So, are you saying you agree with Hobbes then?

  4. shaunmiller says:

    It’s really hard to say if I do or not. If you had to press me, I’d probably say, “I don’t want to, but. . .”

    When it comes to human nature, I’m sympathetic to Sartre’s existentialism: there is no human nature. That is, there is essence to humanity. As Sartre says, existence precedes essence. So we first come on to the scene (we exist), and then we find our essence. We are born “ready-made” following our essence (if that we’re the case, then we wouldn’t be free). Because we’re free, we have the ability to choose our essence, our nature.

    Are there flaws with it? I’m sure. So I guess to sum up, the questions are these.

    Do I believe in Hobbes’ view of human nature, where the Joker in us all is screaming to get out?

    Answer: “I don’t want to believe it, but. . .”

    Do I believe in Sartre’s view of human nature, where there is no human nature and we choose to be the Joker or not?

    Answer: “I’d like to believe it, but. . .”

  5. Pingback: The State of Nature… « Come Think With Me

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