Lessons from the Joker
A little “relativism” might go a long way.



So you all liked the new Batman movie. Me too.

What I liked was the part where the Joker puts a knife in someone’s mouth, delivers a monologue, and then does something dramatic. I’m not a movie reviewer, and I won’t tell you what the Joker does. I will tell you, though, that the director chooses not to give us a clear view of it. I take this to mean that he is both good at his craft and a compassionate man.

I’ll say another thing, too. When you are sitting there waiting for the Joker to be dramatic or not, how you feel — what you want to see, and how much of it — might tell you something interesting about yourself.


The Joker tells us only a few things about himself. We can’t understand his motives because we’re not like him. We play by rules. He plays by no rules, which is another way of saying he acts with no plan. “Do I look like a man with a plan?” he asks one of his victims. “I’m like a dog running after cars — I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! I just do things.”

But that’s not right, because the Joker doesn’t do just anything. What he does is destroy. He is not chance, for chance might treat you well. He is, rather, a vandal. Why he wants to vandalize is not clear. Beyond question is that he thinks there is no such thing as right or wrong.

The movie as a whole plays with ambiguity on moral questions: Good guys break the law; the best guy goes bad; sometimes you have to do the “wrong thing” because it’s the right thing in a broader context; etc. None of this entails that there is no morality. To me what the movie seems to be saying is rather: It can be hard to tell. And when the plot needs morality, look, there it is. As when, toward the end, two groups of people choose independently to do the right thing. That there is a right thing allows the moment to work dramatically. That it does work was clear in my theater, where much of the audience burst into applause when the right thing got done.


I wondered after the fact how many of the applauders would, in other contexts, agree without qualification to the assertion: “There is no right or wrong.” I think the answer is: a lot, and that this lot would instead advocate something called “relativism.” If pressed, some might give arguments which revealed that they were confused about the terms of debate. Their “relativism” might be nothing of the sort, and simply point to the need for rules precise enough to be universalizable.

But some would really mean it. They would insist that there just is no right or wrong, period. They might justify this by saying there is no God, or no soul, or no free will. They might say other things, too. And if they did, how would we respond?

Well, we could agree: You’re right — there is no good or bad, no right or wrong, no rules, no accountability, nothing. You figured it all out, and congratulations for that.


But you still have preferences as to what sort of world you like to live in, don’t you? I mean, even setting aside the idea that some things are right and others wrong. So what is your preference?

We could then show them the Joker, and the knife, and the mouth.

Take a look at this. The details are a little blurry, but you get the idea. Here is a picture of a man making a choice. Do you like the choice he makes?

Let me tell you about another choice, and this one isn’t from a movie. It happened in western Canada last month. A 22-year-old guy sits down on a bus, puts on his headphones, and goes to sleep. Another guy, apparently a stranger to the first, is sitting next to him. This second guy has a butcher knife. He too has figured out that there are no rules . . .

And would you like to see what he did with that butcher knife?

Would you like to see what the other people on the bus looked like when he started doing it? (Some of these people should be imagined as children — going by the news stories, anyway.)

Would you like to see the last things the first guy saw before his screen went black?

And would you like to see where his head ended up?

There are of course no rules; we agree on that. I’m just offering you some pictures and saying: “Here’s a way things could be. We can have them any way we like — because there are no rules. Shall we have them this way, then?”


Maybe our interlocutor is a vandal, in which case he answers yes and there’s nothing left to say. Because, curiously enough, he has a point. We began with the question: What should one do? We then devised a system of rules to answer that question. Maybe we said that following the rules was necessary to attain some good, which we mistakenly assumed the vandal sought. If we were clever, maybe we found a way to show that our rules were built upon the foundation of “reason itself.”