Politics & Policy

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.”

But after we put down the foundation, the vandal was free to say: “Hold on. You started off with the idea that I get to choose, right? Even before all that stuff about what goods I seek, what counts as rational, blah blah blah. Well, then: I reject your goods. Or if you prefer, I choose to be irrational.”

“Do you not understand the argument?” we sputter.

“Oh, I understand it perfectly well.”

“But that makes no sense! You’re like someone who claims to understand the proof of a math theorem but refuses to believe it!”

“No,” retorts the vandal. “To understand the proof of a math theorem is to believe it. We’re not talking here about what I believe. We’re talking about what I choose to do. And I choose to act irrationally.”

If you like, you may dismiss this as a problem not with the making of rules, but with the motivating of people to follow them. And in a certain sense you would be right. In another sense, though, this is a problem of justification, and it is insoluble. The question what one should do springs from the presupposition that choices are free — even of the reason that seeks to determine them. From this point of view, ethical propositions are only conditional imperatives. “If you choose to pursue this good, perform (or not) that action.” “If you choose to act rationally, do (or not) thus and such.” A yawning gulf sunders reason from action, and reason alone is powerless to cross it. It merely stands on one side, a collection of lonely little shoulds evoking pictures of possible realities and conjoining them with the implicit statement: “Here’s a way we might make the world. Take a look and see what you think. But it’s up to you. I told you at the start that you didn’t have to heed me.” *


I would like us conservatives to understand this, because I worry that we occasionally waste time giving people the wrong pictures. This is not to say that our pictures have no use, or correspond to no reality (when they imply claims about reality). It is not to say that we should no longer offer them. It is rather to say that a picture is no good when someone is not prepared to accept it.

Conservatives have two very good reasons not to shy away from moralistic and religious pictures: First, they believe in them; second, so do many of the people who have traditionally formed part of the conservative coalition. But that fact of history guarantees nothing about the future, and “moral relativism” is the regnant doctrine among the most important shapers of popular opinion: Hollywood, the music industry, the media, and the otherwise übercool.

The world is full of those in thrall to the übercool. These people tend to be skeptical of moral absolutes. They tend to have nowhere to go of a bright Sunday morn when the birds sing sweet and the carillon doth chime. And they tend to say: “I’m sorry, but I don’t see the rules your way. I don’t think your 18th-century professor got it right. Or your 13th-century monk. Or your very dead Greeks and your even deader Hebrews. Of this, at least, I feel sure. And I feel pretty sure that your rules are silly and old-fashioned, and can’t be proved unless you assume part of what it is you’re trying to prove. And I’d like you to shut up now, because I’m going to close my eyes and listen to my iPod.”

Instead of telling them to go to church or review their Kant, we may find it more effective to say: “Sure, no rules, you win. Go to sleep now. But don’t forget that you have preferences about what you see when you wake up.” These words are admittedly no reason to do what we should like to call “moral”; but if deployed the right way, they point very clearly to the absence of any reason to do what we should like to call “immoral.” And we might be surprised how far that can go.


A picture of a moral philosopher: In these parts, people like to kick him. Some kick him because he wrote in metaphors, a few of which sound anti-Semitic or bellicose when taken literally. A whole lot of us kick him for three little words he wrote about God. But we rarely bother to look at the pictures that went with those words. We get so carried away in the kicking that we ignore the answer he gave to the problem of God’s death (and it was, for him, a problem). That answer was roughly: “Yes, all is permitted; now go make something beautiful.”

We also forget to look at his life. If we did, we might notice that he denounced a famous anti-Semite and German nationalist precisely because he was repulsed by anti-Semitism and nationalism. We might recall his morbid sensitivity, and that his creative impulses were directed toward music and poetry before philosophy. We might think on his end, wasting away in a lunatic asylum; and we might note that, by some accounts, what put him there was the sight of a man beating a horse. He is said to have thrown his arms around the horse in an attempt to stop the beating, and then to have collapsed.

Whenever I see him being beaten, I feel inclined to offer the story about the horse. If true, it is highly suggestive of the degree to which his heart was full of compassion, and of the way he should be read.

It is also useful against idiots who worship him on their way to destroy things.


Let me end on a personal note. I hate vandals. My friends ask what makes me a conservative, and sometimes I wonder myself, but there is an answer, and it’s that I hate vandals. The problem with vandals is not that they are wrong about a conceptual matter. The problem is that they smash beautiful things. They couldn’t care less about your rules or your God or your conception of the good. You have to stop them with tools that work.

One of those tools is the very large group of souls hiding in the shadows, hearing things get smashed, maybe a little afraid, maybe a little amused, maybe wanting to smash up a few things themselves — but not quite knowing what to think or do. These are people we want on our side. And you know what? A lot of them don’t believe in your rules, or your God, or your conception of the good. They’re not going to, either. They’re going to stop listening when you thunder against “moral relativism.” That’s the world we live in.

But they have preferences, and there are things they find beautiful. If you want them on your side, you need to trust that there is some overlap between your preferences and theirs — and then you need to give them a picture that is right for them. I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s neither a stone tablet nor a logical operator.

What it might be is a movie in which a lunatic does something dramatic with a knife and somebody’s mouth, while two groups of ordinary people independently choose to do, not the right thing, but “the right thing.”

* A more jargony way of saying this: Moral absolutes are decision procedures or exclusion criteria applied to all possible cases of action. But no decision procedure or exclusion criterion justifies its own application (in contradistinction to the application of other possible decision procedures or exclusion criteria). A separate level of justification is required, if the application is to be justified; and this is just the level at which we assume that the will is unconstrained (i.e., that it may choose freely among logically incompatible decision procedures or exclusion criteria). Even if we offer it a reason to choose one decision procedure or exclusion criterion rather than another, it will be free to call that reason into question; and so on ad infinitum.

– Jason Lee Steorts is managing editor of National Review.


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