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The Grotesque, The Carnival, and The Joker

Please check out this link to my essay in the inaugural issue of Mantid Magazine! They’ve just published the first issue and hope to do more! It’s a brand new e-zine featuring weird fiction and art with a focus on diversity in media. It’s a passion project for many artists and writers, and we’d really appreciate the support! Thanks!

The Joker: Weaponized Nihilism

Friedrich Nietzsche left an indelible mark on modern philosophy by challenging the ideologies built on a morality that he felt were antiquated. He saw history as a cycle of dynasties dominated by ethics that existed merely to justify the authority of those in power. He sought to expose this reality through his writings on nihilism, specifically in his essay “On the Genealogy of Morals.” This philosophy has shaped much of the 20th century, even invading popular culture with characters espousing Nietzsche’s calls to defy the ascetic priest and fight the restraining power of civilization.

One particularly famous disciple of this perspective is The Joker, maniacal nemesis to the comic book superhero Batman. The character was created in 1939 as the hero’s primary antagonist but has been utilized for philosophical discourse in more recent iterations. The most prominent of these are the 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke and the 2008 film The Dark Knight; both of these works use the conflict between Batman and the Joker to embody the philosophical clash between the ideologies of a strict justice system and extreme nihilism. We know that the man himself would not approve of the actions of this character. Friedrich’s beliefs were life affirming, but the Joker isn’t the first psychopath to be inspired by his writings and won’t be the last. By studying how the Joker has been used as a cipher for nihilism in modern culture, we can learn more about the negative practical applications of Nietzsche’s philosophy.


In Batman: The Killing Joke, writer Alan Moore portrays the characteras a dark and twisted psychopath with a message to convey. The graphic novel tells the Joker’s origin as a man physically and psychologically scarred to point of complete insanity. He plans to prove that anyone can easily lose his or her grip on sanity just by being exposed to life’s simple and harsh realities. Moore’s Joker monologues about the random injustices of everyday life with examples like World War II being started over telegraph pole disputes. He disparages morality as a cheap excuse to construct a society on. These beliefs echo Nietzsche’s words about noble morality defining “good” simply as things the noble class embodied. He accuses Batman of holding a slave morality that views criminality as evil just on the condition that it exists.

The Joker represents the complete liberation of animalistic urges in protest against civilization. His insanity is meant to be a symptom of society having strained his mental state by imposing ethics that stress and harry him to the point of breaking. Once his sanity does break, he resembles the ruin of modern civilization’s attempts to tame humanity’s true nature, which is purely immoral by society’s standards. He must conform or be considered insane, which he’ll truly be in he is forced to conform. The fire in his words about this maddening catch-22 reflects the passion in Nietzsche’s writings about morality and its failings.

The nihilism in the character’s (figurative) makeup more clearly shows in the political agenda of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. This version of the character, portrayed by actor Heath Ledger, paints on his clownish grin as a parody of the smiles we are all expected to paste on for society. When the Joker revels in chaos, he mocks the happiness that order is supposed to bring us. The grayness of morality is a major theme in the film, especially concerning Batman’s vigilantism, and the Joker takes the role of foil to Batman’s moral authority. Nietzsche hoped to wake people up with his ambitious words, and the Joker tries even harder through ambitious and deadly actions targeting society itself. Rather than simply killing a target, the Joker threatens to blow up a hospital unless someone else kills the target. People come in droves to assassinate the man, and they feel justified in their bloodlust without realizing they are playing into the Joker’s sick social commentary on the inherent goodness of people. To save the hospital, they rush to end another man’s life, proving the Joker’s point that morality is pointless. He wants everyone to take up social and ethical anarchy: humanity’s natural state.


In one moment of pontification, the Joker reveals that everything he does is intended to show futility in attempting to control life. We are born inherently corrupt and build systems of order and ethics to bury that corruption under the worlds we create for ourselves; the Joker wants to prove that we will abandon those systems and burn those worlds in times of crisis. He goes about proving this by bringing about the crisis. In the film, Batman represents the reverse of that, and sets out to prove people can be inspired to fight for good in the face of chaos. Batman views his code of ethics as noble morality because criminality is a weakness in society and must be corrected. Despite the violence, his justice is life affirming and transcends the orthodox laws of Gotham City. Joker sees him as a hypocrite for breaking the law while punishing lawbreakers. He aspires to show the hypocrisy of all the goodness that Batman claims to protect.

These stories are full of action and menace but also an equal amount of philosophical commentary. Moore and Nolan recognize that this character poses a physical and metaphorical threat to society. A threat that Nietzsche dreamed of being; he called himself the Anti-Christ and wanted to upset the systems that he railed against in his works. The Joker takes a similar stance, but with more murder and explosions. He claims to be a product of the paradox of morality and aims to expose the reality that everyone is being driven insane by it too. Taming our animal selves has actually stunted our human growth, just as Nietzsche preached. Our morality developed into our own prison, and it took a murdering psychopath to show us the truth. The Joker is Friedrich Nietzsche’s ghost come back to haunt society for not heeding his words.

Bentham, Kant, and Batman


Everyone knows who he is. He’s famous worldwide as the Dark Knight of Gotham City who deals out justice to the criminal underworld on a nightly basis. Whether he’s painted on the page or portrayed on the screen, the character has always upheld a steely moral code defined by one ultimate rule: he will not take a life. As an extraordinary vigilante, he finds a way through every impending crisis and hostage situation, always (sometimes) coming out the hero with no blood on his hands. However there is a questionable aspect of this code when it comes to his affirmation of life: keeping the Joker alive. Batman’s arch nemesis has been responsible for a catastrophic amount of deaths in every interpretation of their rivalry for decades, and in many notable stories these include the Caped Crusader’s closest companions as casualties.

The 2010 animated film, Batman: Under the Red Hood, calls back to an important event in the Bat-mythos: the Joker brutally murdering Jason Todd who was Robin at the time. At the end of the film, Batman himself explains that even with that on the Joker’s track record – with the graveyards he has personally filled and the chaos he exclusively causes – Batman refuses to end the murderer’s life because it would be too easy and make Batman a murderer himself, and there would be no coming back from that. The act of killing is too wrong to recover from, and Batman simply will not go there in order to obtain justice. Instead he locks Joker back up in Arkham Asylum, from which he’ll inevitably escape to wreak havoc again in another story. Is Batman culpable for these future deaths, or is he just following his own moral code, disregarding the consequences?2206113-batman_under_the_red_hood

In order to answer this question with a morally discussed solution, we must first analyze the perspectives on this argument. The Principle of Utility has been a strong moral instrument for people searching for answers to ethical issues for decades; it advocates for actions that result in the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people and the least amount of suffering. The entire belief system that stems from this philosophy, called Utilitarianism, produces minds like Jeremy Bentham who developed a hedonistic calculus to better predict the consequences of actions and determine how much happiness or pain would come out of it. After all, as Bentham says, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters. They determine what we ought to do and shall do. They govern us in all we do, all we say, and all we think.” These are our natural instincts to seek pleasure and avoid pain, and there is no escape from their influence because we are just sophisticated animals in the eyes of Bentham. To him, a science of morality can be developed to help us make decisions that create the most pleasure and least pain, thus perfecting our natural inclination. Bentham claims that this urge begins psychologically, and we have a moral obligation to expand the happiness we create for others. The political principle defines the need to produce the most happiness for the most people, and in general people follow this reasoning in moral quandaries. But the problem with this path is the contradiction in Bentham’s principles; when considering self-sacrifice for the pleasure of others, how can the psychological principle allow personal pain to be an outcome of a decision? Bentham himself says that humans are not born with innate empathy for the feelings of others, and giving up happiness for them negates our nature. Yet he also claims we are obligated to perform self-sacrifices for the good of the many simply just because it’s moral.

While flawed, the philosophy still runs strong in arguments as proponents put moral focus entirely upon actions and their consequences. The circumstances surrounding an action determine its moral value, and intentions rob no moral worth from an action as long as it produces more pleasure than pain for the parties involved. Seeking things like Heaven or karmic gratification is still a pleasurable motivation to do things that produce pleasure for others, and even if the action were deplorable under different circumstances, the happiness produced by it then would outweigh the act itself morally. From Bentham’s standpoint, moral deliberation for an action requires intense calculation of the quantity of pleasure in the outcome; this includes analyzing the seven dimensions of pain and pleasure to find out how intense, long, certain, pure, near, the pleasure is and what the chances are that it will be repeated. Continually using this process for each moral choice, keeping in mind the welfare of others, will lead to a happy life filled with pleasurable results. That’s what Bentham says, at least.

Jeremy Bentham

If a Utilitarian like Bentham looked at Batman’s choice to let the Joker live after all of his crimes, he might slap the Dark Knight upside the head. Looking at the consequences, killing the Joker would be an absolute act of service to Gotham; with his history of mass killing sprees and no prospect of getting healthier, it only makes sense to rid Gotham of his filth when you think of the lives it could save. If Batman had done it sooner, he could have saved Robin among countless others of his comrades and citizens who depended on him to protect them. To a calculating Utilitarian, the happiness that results from the murder would certainly outweigh the pain, as only the Joker would suffer an obviously deserved death and Batman may regret the decision, but the citizens of Gotham would be free of his reign of terror forever. The numbers seem to play out but only immediately, for the philosophers who focus on consequence don’t consider the prolonged effects of this action and what kind of pain it could cause in the long run. Look at Batman’s reasoning for not killing the Joker: he says that once the decision is made to go into that dark place, there’s no going back. This shows that Batman does think of the consequences of this potential action and has decided that his personal suffering would be too great and it might cause more. Batman can’t allow himself to be as bad as the Joker, or else everything he fights for would become meaningless. Utilitarianism would call this sense of morality antiquated because bloodshed becomes necessary when a thousand more lives are at stake, and Batman’s moral state is of no concern because he would be doing it only for the purpose of saving them. And even if that isn’t his intention and he just wants revenge for the death of his partner, the result would be saving all the Joker’s potential victims, and that’s all the justification Bentham needs to approve of such an act. Bentham would analyze the direct effects of it using the seven dimensions of this theory: the intensity of pleasure would be the continued living of the people of Gotham, and the fear of death would be removed. This continued living would continue understandably until the citizens die, which will hopefully happen after many happy years as they are free from Joker’s terror. When it comes to certainty, Bentham can argue that Joker was certain to kill more people, and putting him down saved those lives, which will certainly enjoy the pleasures of living. The propinquity of pleasure is immediate to the killing and the suffering he causes ends immediately. It’s the purity of the pleasure that needs to come under more question, for Batman openly believes that the pleasure he’ll experiences from the act will turn into pain without a doubt. He can’t live with the decision even if it does save lives. The fecundity of the pleasure should also be analyzed, as killing one villain to save lives could very easily lead to another; if the Joker deserves death because of his track record, then the other villains would be deserving as well. This would logically cause a chain reaction of vigilante murders all justified by the result of saving more lives. Bentham and Utilitarianism would say it’s all morally righteous, but the issue can be looked at in different ways, which make it more complicated than pain and pleasure.

Immanuel Kant defined pure reason as the capacity to extract from sensuous experience to get at the underlying invisible laws that determine the phenomena. Human beings have used pure reason for centuries to extract underlying scientific laws from nature like gravity and quantum mechanics, but Kant believed if properly applied, humans could also discover universal moral laws using practical reason. This means that laws can exist that hold regardless of the contingencies of the situation; to understand the morality of an act we have to forget the irrelevant circumstances around it like consequence. Fed up with the disputes over “the good life” and how to find happiness, Kant began his project by simply trying to define a moral act and what it would look like. The primary condition for the possibility of an act having moral worth or value is that it has to be the result of freewill. There’s nothing immoral about natural disasters because they’re governed by natural laws, but we have freewill and our decisions can have moral worth based on our intentions. In fact, by simply using our freewill to make decisions we make them moral because so many things can constrict our choices. Kant saw animals as slaves seeking pleasure and pain, and to be moral beings we need to use the reason we were granted to see moral choices over wanting pleasure. We can bend our will to do the right thing especially if it’s not exactly what we want. Kant did exactly this to discover a universal moral law: the Categorical Imperative, which stated that humans are ends and not means because they are moral agents each independent of each other and free to make their own choices. To Kant, there is nothing in the world or out of it that is good without qualification of limitation without the goodwill (or the desire to do the right thing); intelligence is good but can be used for even purposes, just as riches or good health can. It is only when the goodwill is infused with will that it can have moral value, but the will can be blind so reason must be employed to discover the right thing to do. If we discover that we don’t really want to do it, we have to bend our will to accomplish it simply because we have reasoned it to be just. Any undesirable consequence or conflicting force (like doubt or even instinct) should be neglected in favor of the intention of doing the right thing because you ought to. Kant has a system for distinguishing a “moral act” from a “beautiful act” (act that looks moral but has no actual value), and with it people can find the elusive “truly moral act” that Kant doubted even existed. One must attempt to universalize the maxim of the action in question without logical contradiction, and if one is not found then it has moral worth. For example when the Joker steals a valuable diamond, we put forth the maxim, “It is morally right for the Joker to steal a diamond right now because he’s greedy.” When we universalize it we get obvious logical contradictions: “Everyone ought to steal anything at any time for any reason.” In a world like this, chaos would run rampant, so we must break down every decision we make to find the moral laws underneath.


Kant would definitely make a good comic book villain

A lie is a lie and stealing is stealing, doing it under any circumstances is merely trying to justify an immoral action, so in the case of Batman and the Joker killing is still killing, no matter who does it for whatever reason. Just as any other action that can’t be logically universalized, Kant would claim there is no moral value in killing the Joker because the intention is to end the life of an independent moral agent. No matter how crazy the victim may be, The Categorical Imperative itself states that human beings should not be used as means, and murdering the Joker for the happiness of Gotham turns the victim of the murder into a means to their end. To Kant, there is a fundamental distinction between persons and things: things (like a knife) have use value and if they become useless (like if the knife becomes dull and can’t cut) then they lose their value. Things can be replaced and bartered for based on their value, but people have inherent value that makes them irreplaceable. Human beings are infused with reason, which make them capable of decisions, so it is the obligation of every other human to allow them to make those decisions. Putting any influence on the freewill of another human is the ultimate crime against their nature. The Joker is capable of making decisions; he chooses to murder and terrorize using his rationality that becomes immoral because it lacks goodwill. Batman chooses to protect the innocent and hunt down and bring justice to criminals; his intentions to preserve life at every turn make his acts imbedded with goodwill and therefore of moral worth. But in Under the Red Hood when faced with the option of killing the Joker in order to bring peace to Gotham, Batman refuses on the grounds that doing so would make him just as bad and there would be no going back. Batman shows a strange moral contradiction here; he is bending his will against the external force of the temptation to end the clown’s life, but does so because of the consequence it would cause for him. He doesn’t speak for the victim’s independence nor for the happiness it would cause the masses, but rather the moral toll it would cost him to drop to the immoral level that the Joker occupies. This reasoning wouldn’t satisfy Kant, and while the act of preserving life is beautiful, it is not entirely moral (at least in this interpretation of Batman). But he can universalize the maxim proposed in the act without logical contradiction: “everyone ought to preserve life at all times.” This in fact is Batman’s overarching maxim for crime fighting, and he has never regretted it.

In my opinion, Batman is entirely morally justified in his reasoning for abstaining from murder because of the middle ground he treads between Utilitarianism and Deontology. To Batman, killing is an immoral act that hurts not only the victim, but also the killer himself. Every murder is a crime because it removes one more person from the world and adds another murderer to it. Batman ruthlessly pursues killers and finds their actions irredeemable, and it is precisely because of that that he refuses to become like them: there would be no return from the path of a killer. It’s the consequence that Batman avoids, but he does so because of how he values human life. In taking a life, a murderer soils his own, and even if the life has been tarnished to the point of being inhuman (as with the Joker), it’s still a human life that deserves to be preserved, just as the killer’s life should be preserved. When Batman prevents murder he is not just protecting the potential victim, he is protecting the would-be killer. Many stories involve Batman talking young criminals out of committing their first murder; he would not have the same influence, if he were known to murder his own enemies. He sees this as doing more good. He views the consequence of death as essential to avoid (Utilitarian value) but refuses to perform it to bring about a good consequence (Kantian value). As a character that is meant to be realistic, he is able to tread the line between two strict ethical schools. Utilitarian values are well intentioned, but to demand Batman to sacrifice his own moral code for the benefit of society turns him into a means, which is unacceptable to that code. Batman is able to create happiness for the citizens of Gotham with all of his crime fighting, and to soil his soul with the mark of a murderer would only do bad. Kant demands that pure reason should drive all our moral actions, but if Batman universalized everything he did, he would be advocating dangerous vigilantism for everyone in Gotham, which is not what he wants. Batman pushes himself to the moral limit of his very soul breaking many rules, but never makes the decision to jump into the life of a killer. He pleases Kant with a beautiful act, and does enough work to satisfy Bentham, but in the end it is his moral code that takes from both philosophers that drives him. It is that code and the good it demands from him that separates Batman from the Joker.