06 July, 2008

Don't Know If I Wanna Be a Philosopher Now...

I made the mistake of picking up Batman and Philosophy after a night's enjoyable Fourth of July drinking. I thought I'd be able to wallow in happy geekdom. I wasn't prepared for extreme annoyance.

If this is what modern philosophy has come to, I don't wanna be a philosopher.

I'll be deconstructing many of the chapters over the coming weeks: the endless wanks over whether Bruce Wayne should have become Batman, is there a moral justification for what he does, all that rot. There's even a particularly rancid chapter written by a decided Christian that I shall have enormous fun stomping into a pulp - it's about the weakest theology I've read in months, and I'm including Worldnutdaily's nuttaculars. But tonight, I want to focus on Chapter Six, "The Joker's Wild: Can We Hold the Clown Prince Morally Responsible?"

And this might have been a fine chapter if the doofus who wrote it hadn't segued from that moral question into legal ones. A forensic psychologist he's not.

Christopher Robichaud, who may or may not be held morally responsible for a steaming pile of dumbfuckery, attempts to prove the Joker insane with a statement that you might want to swallow your drink before reading:

One example is his attitude toward people: simply put, he often treats them as objects rather than persons. The Joker didn't blink at shooting Barbara Gorden through her spine and stripping her bare. He wasn't "out to get her." He simply had made up his mind that he wanted to prove a point, and she was a useful object to help him make that point, no more or less meaningful to him than the amusement ride he later used for the same purpose. That's a classic psychotic attitude. [emphasis added]

You non-psychologists in the audience may not have done a spit-take just there, but I surely did. If you are going to build an entire fucking argument on the fact that someone's insane, it might behoove you to know the difference between psychotic and psychopathic.

Let's examine some real life for a moment, shall we? Allow me to draw from my extensive reading in forensic psychology and present you with two cases that any idiot philosopher should've gotten acquainted with before he started spouting about the Joker's mental state.

Richard Trenton Chase, the "Vampire Killer," was a classic psychotic. He ran around killing folks because he fully believed he needed their blood to survive. He claimed he suffered from soap-dish poisoning: drinking blood was the only way to keep his own blood from turning to powder due to said poison. His crimes were extremely disorganized, with no planning involved: his victims were all victims of opportunity. He heard voices on top of all this. And when asked why he only killed people who'd left their doors unlocked, he calmly explained, "Because if the door was locked, I knew I wasn't welcome."

Ted Bundy, on the other hand, was a classic psychopath. He was motivated not by voices or paranoia, but by sex and violence. He enjoyed the power he wielded over his victims. He carefully chose said victims, and his crimes were extremely well-organized. Think of his little ruse with the fake cast, where he'd ask pretty young women of his victim type to help him carry something and then bash them unconscious with said cast when he had them vulnerable. People were objects of his pleasure, but he understood the difference between right and wrong, and he wouldn't take unnecessary risks. He had control over his impulses to a great degree.

You could possibly argue that Bundy is suffering from a mental illness just as much as Chase, but I wouldn't buy your argument if it takes you into the "he's not responsible" spiel. A person who has as much control over his urges as Bundy did is morally as well as legally responsible for his actions. A psychopath may be suffering from a mental defect, but it's one that allows them to make decisions about their behavior, and leaves them the capacity to know the difference between right and wrong. We'll return to this in a moment.

To get back to the Joker, I think we have something of a mixed offender: someone who has a few of the traits of a psychotic, but who has a strong psychopathic streak and can control his impulses. He shows the ability to plan ahead. He's not operating under the control of voices that urge him on to his terrible acts. He knows and understands the difference between right and wrong, he just doesn't give a shit. So, while a few of his more outre crimes could get him labeled a psychotic, the preponderance of the evidence leads us to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that he's actually a psychopath, with all of the responsibility that brings.

So that's a huge black eye for Philosopher Robichaud. It puts his entire argument into doubt. If he doesn't even know what an insane person actually is, how the hell are we supposed to trust the rest of his argument? His house has no foundation. No good can come of this.

It does not. He segues into a truly silly section hair-splitting over free will, which is apparently something philosophers feel the need to do (I can destroy that argument by saying that if the Joker has no free will, but commits his crimes due to some sort of predestination, then we're predestined to hold the fucker responsible, so what's the problem?). We'll skip that.

We won't quote the crap about first and second-order desires, but merely summarize. What our intrepid philosopher decides is that an addict is morally responsible for the actions they engage in due to the addiction, because they were aware of the dangers when they took their first hit. He then strikes out for virgin territory, saying that when the Joker made the decision to go into the crime business as the Red Hood, he couldn't possibly have forseen the accident that would turn him into the Joker and thus led to his homicidal mania. He is, ergo, not morally responsible for his actions due to this remarkable piece of reasoning.

I call bullshit on that one. The author in no way proves that the Joker is actually insane to begin with, that he has no ability to contemplate his desires and resist impulses. I seem to recall many instances in the various Batman books I've read wherein the Joker does contemplate his desires, and does appreciate the difference between right and wrong, and moreover sometimes decides not to indulge his first impulse. I suppose I should go through my lexicon and pull out examples, but I'll leave that for the geeks in the audience.

The Joker may do things we'd consider insane, and he may have impulse control problems, but without being genuinely psychotic, there's no fucking way he can evade moral responsibility for his crimes.

Robichaud comes to the opposite conclusion, and this is where I become very grateful that philosophers such as him aren't in charge of determining criminal law and punishment:

For given the Joker's insanity, there remain important questions surrounding what obligations Batman and the city of Gotham have toward the Joker. And there are no easy moral answers to the question of how to deal with a genuinely insane person who performs the most vile of deeds. Pity him? Hate him? Insitutionalize him? Let him die, if the opportunity arises?

Oh, come on. Nothing about this is difficult. The moral answer is astoundingly simple: get the bugger off the streets, and lock him away for the duration of his natural life. If you're feeling all bleeding-heart, stuff him into an institution that, unlike Arkham, is not equipped with a revolving door. Feed him three squares a day. Give him a TV. Treat him with a modicum of kindness and decency, but above all, keep him from killing hundreds if not thousands of innocent people.

You can hate or pity him all you like once he's locked up, all right?

This is why, in legal terms, the definition of insanity is so strict. And before we leave the whole subject, I want to go into that a bit, because it's the most glaring omission in the whole essay.

We turn now to FindLaw for the most important piece of modern legal considerations of criminal insanity: the substantial capacity test:

a test used in many jurisdictions when considering an insanity defense which relieves a defendant of criminal responsibility if at the time of the crime as a result of mental disease or defect the defendant lacked the capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his or her conduct or to conform the conduct to the requirements of the law

In practice, this generally means you're fucked. The Joker certainly would be. You see, he does have the capacity to appeciate the wrongfulness of his acts, and he is able to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law. It doesn't matter that his impulses are nearly irresistable: the fact that he can sometimes resist them pretty much destroys his insanity defense.

We used to have much less strict rules. For a while, America was in bed with the M'Naughten Rules and the irresistable impulse test. Kinky, eh?

The M'Naghten Rules (1843) 10 C & F 200, state, inter alia, that a person may be "insane" if "...at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, arising from a disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or, if he did know it, that he did not know what he was doing was wrong."


There is also an idea of irresistible impulse, which argues that a person may have known an act was illegal but due to mental impairment lost control of their actions. This is a more liberal test than that set by the M'Naghten Rules because it applies to defendants who are fully aware of their actions. The defense was first approved in the U.S. in Ohio in 1834[10] and emphasized the inability to control one's actions. Since then it has been adopted by other States, but is open to criticism since there is no way to identify impulses which could be resisted or controlled, and each case must therefore turn upon its own facts.

This proved to be a clusterfuck for the courts, and bad policy for society. After all, if a person is fully aware of their actions but claims to be unable to resist their impulses, it's easy to claim insanity. A lot of evil buggers were able to game the system. It wouldn't have been much of a problem if there weren't so many psychologists shouting "Cured!" at the drop of a hat. I refer you to the cases of Edmund Kemper and Monte Rissell to see how well that goes. These are, after all, gents who were murdering women while their shrinks were saying they were doing just fine.

A society that can't cure the mental defects that lead some people to murder can't morally allow the insane to walk the streets just because insanity means they had no control over themselves. And if the psychiatric institutions aren't equipped to deal with the criminally insane, society has to buck up and bung the dangerous sorts into a prison cell.

So what are we left with, here? Two things: whether or not the impulse is honestly irresistible, you're morally responsible for your actions if you have the capacity to understand that what you're doing is wrong, which the Joker clearly has. There's an enormous gulf between not knowing that what you're doing is wrong because you're too psychotic to contemplate it, and being so psychopathic that you enjoy causing others to suffer and don't give a shit that what you're doing is wrong. Only a philosopher can conclude that those in the second category can't be held morally responsible for the suffering they cause.

The second thing is, society has a moral obligation to contain what it cannot cure when it comes to homicidal violence. Only a complete and utter fuckwit could possibly conclude otherwise.

Of course, I'm just a cantina philosopher, so what the fuck do I know?


Anonymous said...

Really, the question of the Joker really comes down to a side-question that has little to do with him.

"Why does Batman consider his own moral code more important than the lives of the thousands that the Joker has killed?"

It's a nasty question, but really, Arkham doesn't work. I'm pretty sure they let you out whenever you want to leave now. The Joker has killed how many people?

It's easy to root for Batman, much easier than it is to root for Superman (at least in the comics), but it's rather hard to defend him when he just sticks the Joker into a place where he knows good and well that the crazy little bastard's going to squirrel out and kill a lot of people.

Of course, logic does not belong in the majority of the mainline comic book industry. If one of the big companies doesn't piss you off with some inane thing within their stories, they'll revert Spiderman on you or something, for no reason.

It's a lot like political parties, they piss you off a lot of the time, but they have their moments of sanity. One clearly has a bit more sanity than the other, but it's still bonkers.

So, yeah. Batman? Kill the Joker already. Seriously. There's no justification for keeping him alive that I can see that makes sense considering that as long as he's alive, he'll end up killing someone. You could stick him in the same conditions as Thomas Silverstein and he'd still get out. There's no guarantee that death would stop him either, but at least it would take the sting away from offing the Joker.

But I'm rambling a bit much now. Comics hurt my brain sometimes.

John Pieret said...

Heh! Now you know the downside of being a philosopher -- you keep seeing what stupidity exists around you!

I'd add a further complication though. It is quite possible to hold that a person is not morally responsible for his/her actions while holding that it is a moral imperative for society to restrain them from hurting others. In other words, there is a real question whether passing on the moral capability of a person is necessary to impose "punishments" such as imprisonment (though the death penalty may be a different case). In short, there are dueling moralities involved.

breakerslion said...

Sounds like you got a hold of another one of those books that are better appreciated for their BTU or insulation values like, "All I needed to know I learned in kindergarten."

As for philosophers, this guy sounds like the kind Bea Arthur's character was talking about in "History of the World, Part 1."

Brooks (standing in ancient Roman Welfare line): I'm a stand-up philosopher.

Arthur: You're a bullshit artist.

At least this "steaming pile of dumbfuckery" helped keep Christopher out of the bread line. Probably, "at most" as well.

Lightning Rose said...

"I'll be deconstructing many of the chapters over the coming weeks..."

Dana, as much as I enjoy your writing, I'm starting to suspect you have too much time on your hands. :)

Woozle said...

If Dana had too much time on her hands, I suspect the world would be a far better place by now as a result.

Speaking solely as Dana's running-dog lackey, of course.