The Virtues of Robin: On The Ethics of the Sidekick

James DiGiovanna

1. What Should a Batman Do?

In looking at Batman from a philosophical perspective, one of the most pressing questions would be, “is what Batman does ethically permissible?” Ethics is the branch of philosophy that asks, “what should I do? How should I live my life? What sort of person should I be?” So let’s say, for example, that you have a superior intellect, an unsurpassed martial prowess, and a haunting memory of watching your parents being killed by a criminal. You might answer those questions by saying “I should probably put on a cape and cowl and slip into the dark of night to violently stop criminals from engaging in their nefarious deeds.” Or perhaps you might answer these questions with “I should get some therapy. I should become a less obsessed and more humane person. I should be a caring nurturer.” But then few people would write comic book stories about you. Either of these answers could be ethically sound, that is, it’s possible that both of them can be justified in a coherent manner and in accord with acceptable principles of what’s right.

But what about this: suppose you find an orphaned boy living on the streets, and you want to help him? It seems that the morally acceptable answers range from turning him over to Child Protective Services to adopting and caring for him yourself. But what about putting him in a costume, training him to fight crime, and exposing him to constant danger in the name of refining and improving his skills and character? It’s hard to imagine that that would be morally acceptable. And yet, throughout history, many people have taken a similar path in raising children. Ancient Spartans, medieval European royalty, and New Guinean warriors have all exposed young boys to potentially lethal danger in the name of making them into proper adults. While only the medieval European’s dressed their children in capes and insignia, there’s still something rather Batman-like about the behavior of all these people.

So how can we justify this sort of child-rearing, should we justify it, and will it excuse Batman’s penchant for taking young boys and throwing them at vicious criminals who dress up like clowns? These questions form the core of the ethical question of Robin, which, while not traditionally considered one of the classic philosophical problems, is nonetheless related to many such studies.


2. The Duty of The Superhero


First, let’s look at three ways of considering ethics: ethics could be the attempt to live by a set of rules or duties, and that it’s necessary to follow some of these rules or act on some of these duties regardless of the consequences, simply because the duty itself is most important. We call this “deontological ethics,” from the Greek word “deontos,” meaning “duty.” Or, ethics could be the process of figuring out which of our actions would produce the best outcome, and then following that course of action. This is called “consequentialist ethics,” because it’s concerned with the consequences of our actions more so than with their inherent moral rightness. Finally, we can think of ethics not as deciding upon this or that action at some specific time, but as the building of character through long training, so as to produce the sort of person who is most likely to do the right thing. We call this “virtue ethics,” because it’s an attempt to instill virtues, or excellences, into people. While there are an almost limitless number of ways of thinking about ethics, and many ethical theories fall on the borders between these three, or outside these categories altogether, philosophers have tended to lump ethical theories into one of these three categories in order to provide an initial evaluation.[1]

And we can also use them to evaluate actions and attitudes, noting that, for example, Batman seems to violate a duty in his behavior towards Robin (one assumes we have a duty to keep children safe,) but he does so because he believes there will be a good consequence (another crime fighter) and in order to instill moral character into Robin.

So let’s look closely at Batman’s behavior towards Robin, and see if it holds up in any or all of these theoretical positions. The most important of the deontological ethicists is Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who famously held that the most important duties must be universal and categorical. “Categorical” means “without exception,” in other words, I can’t make up my duty, and then think of cases where it doesn’t apply, or choose not to apply it in some particular instance. So, for example, Kant says that there’s an ethical duty not to tell lies. Suppose that Batman was captured by the Joker, and the Joker wanted to know where Robin was. Batman could certainly say nothing, but he could not lie to the Joker and say that Robin was in some location where Batman had set a trap for the Joker unless Robin were actually there, because that would violate the duty to tell no lies.[2] But Batman probably would lie, because the character of the superhero isn’t about absolute honesty, and catching a criminal might override those concerns!

“Universal” means that the rule applies to everyone; in other words, we should ask, of any given act, “what if everyone did this?” or as Kant puts it “Should I be content that my maxim [the rule I’m applying to determine my duty]…should hold good as a universal law for myself as well as others?”[3] It’s assumed that if it does not, then it can’t form a part of an ethical system because the system will be inconsistent, which is to say that it will contradict itself.

So for Batman, in taking Robin off the streets and making him a crime-fighter, if we want to be Kantian deontologists we’ll have to ask: is this in accord with a maxim that is categorical (has no exceptions) and universal (applies to everyone)? Something like “if you see an orphan stealing your hubcaps (this is how Batman found the second Robin, a boy named Jason Todd)[4] you should put him in a bright red-and-yellow costume and send him out to fight the Penguin.” This hardly seems universal. Perhaps reformulated, “do what you can to help orphans,” it makes sense, but “doing what you can,” hardly necessarily includes “send the orphans out to fight psychotic criminals in Halloween costumes.” In fact, we would probably think that it should be a universal maxim to safeguard children from harm. This maxim seems to produce no inconsistency. It’s hard to imagine thinking that we should expose children as a general rule. And it seems that everyone would agree to the maxim “safeguard children,” or at least “don’t expose children to grievous harm.” And yet, Batman does expose Robin to harm.


3. Plato, Crime-fighting and Character


As duty-conscious as Batman is, he might just not be a deontologist. While he strives to uphold abstract moral principles that he thinks are always right, he seems to understand that different sorts of characters demand different sorts of actions. Not everyone should be a Batman or a Robin; in other words, the specific character[5] type needed to be a superhero is not only not suited to everyone, it’s not the case that everyone should be a superhero, because society demands different roles.

Batman’s ethics, it seems, might best be described a species of virtue ethics, because virtue ethics takes account of differences of character and the different roles that are appropriate to different cultures. It’s still necessary to justify turning an orphan into Robin, and we have to decide which virtues should be taught and how they’ll be taught, but it might be possible to ethically justify Batman’s behavior in terms of the instilling of a specific, not necessarily universal character in Robin, a character that, while not for everyone, is still proper and necessary in its relation to the larger culture. In other words, Robin may have a role to play that makes the world a better place, and Batman may be making Jason Todd a better person by turning him into Robin, even if it’s not universally the case that men who dress up like bats should turn hubcap stealing orphans into living weapons of justice.


Plato, often called “the father of philosophy,” was a Greek philosopher who lived in the 4th century BC, and is the first philosopher to write in the tradition of virtue ethics.[6] He believed that different ethical norms applied to different persons, depending on their role in society. Still, universal ethical rules applied to everyone, so on certain questions everyone was ethically the same, whereas in the specific ethical demands of different societal positions, different ethical imperatives would be at play.

While this virtue ethical theory came to prominence in ancient Greece, and then faded into near obscurity in the early modern era, in the 20th century it again arose as a viable way of thinking about ethics. Specifically, philosophers like Michael Slote, Martha Nussbaum and Alasdair MacIntyre[7] showed that there were problems with the deontological and consequentialist positions which were alleviated by the virtue ethical position: specifically, the deontologists and consequentialists could discuss right action, but seemed incapable of saying how it was that someone came to be able to make right decisions. Deontological and consequentialist theories are sometimes called “act” or “rule” ethics, since they deal with individual actions and the universal rules that apply to them. What they don’t deal with, generally, is the training needed to create the sort of character that would be inclined to act morally. They thought that simply understanding the ethical theory should be enough; anyone who knew best would, or should, do best. But it’s clear that we can know something is wrong, and still do it, through, for example, weakness of the will.

Further, it seems clear that certain things that we think are good are not good for everyone. Police officers, for example, arrest people, interrogate people, carry guns, are allowed to commander vehicles, and are authorized to use deadly force in certain situations. But we don’t want ordinary citizens acting like this, so something about the specific role of the police officer requires some specific ethical rules, even if ultimately all the societal roles must abide by certain overarching rules. Importantly, police officers undergo training to learn about their role, and only after they have been properly trained, and, one hopes, instilled with the proper character, are they allowed to behave as police officers. This is why philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, and later, Nietzsche, emphasized the building of character, noting the importance of training someone to be ethical, rather than simply explaining how to be ethical.


Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book After Virtue, made the claim that ethics should be most interested in character, and character, he held, was something that was created in the course of a lifetime by the manner in which we act. Here he agrees with Aristotle and Plato, who thought that first we behave morally, and then we learn morality. Similarly, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who lived in the19th century when there was no fashion for virtue ethics, noted that character is something that is not simply given to us, but is rather something that we create for ourselves. It is also something that is created in us by those who have authority over us. In brief, we don’t explain ethics to a child, we simply say “no.” Only later, when the child has learned to control him or herself, is he intellectually mature enough to understand the reason why.

The idea that Aristotle, Plato, and virtue ethicists in general held in common was this: at first, we learn ethics by being reprimanded when we misbehave, and rewarded when we behave well. Further, if we wish to instill certain specific virtues, like courage, we must test the person to be given this character. Which is to say, courage comes from facing danger. So if a child is to become courageous, they must encounter some dangers. If we see that the child has a natural propensity for courage, he becomes a good candidate for the role of soldier or police officer. We then increase the training in courage, adding other virtues, including gentleness and moderation, to slowly mold the character desired. Only when people are older, and have already internalized virtuous behavior, are they capable of understanding the abstract reasons for behaving virtuously or morally. Only at that point can we fully engage in philosophical thinking about ethical behavior, and perform the kind of ethical thought experiments that deontologists and consequentialists think of as the heart of ethics, i.e. deducing general rules and effectively thinking about outcomes. Without experience in ethical behavior, and general experience of the world, this sort of thought is likely to be misguided, and without the moral character to carry through on our ethical thinking, it’s likely to be ineffective. Without the background training in good behavior, no amount of abstract knowledge of good behavior will suffice. As Aristotle says, “As a condition for the possession of virtues, knowledge has little or no weight…It is by doing just acts that the just man is produced…but most people do not do this, but take refuge in theory.”[8] No matter how much theorizing we do, without the background in action, weakness of the will and our propensity to act selfishly and unvirtuously will overcome our knowledge of better ways to be.

So when Batman takes in Robin, he doesn’t just explain the superhero ethic to him (although that’s certainly part of what he does.) Rather, he trains Robin, teaching him by example and experience the ways of the superhero. But still, we have questions about the moral rightness of this: one could, for example, train a boy to be a thief, giving him the “virtues” of the criminal. So, all the virtue ethicists agree that we must decide what kind of training we should use, what sort of ethical character we should want to create, and for this we will have to, like the deontologists, appeal to general rules, and like the consequentialists, ask “what kind of person do we want training to produce?”


4. Should There Be Superheroes at All?


Aristotle says that human good is “the activity of the soul exhibiting excellence.”[9] But that’s too general for the specific problem of the superhero: we also have to ask: is this role, that of superhero, important and good? Clearly, Batman has answered “yes” for himself.[10] But should he have? Plato thought of the question in these terms: we all want to live in a good society. A good society needs to be orderly, and it needs protection. If anyone steals or kills, the society is threatened, because the trust we have in each other is diminished, the cost of goods goes up, reducing the quality of life, and everyone is diminished morally because they change from people who assume that others are beneficial to them to people who are suspicious of others and are on guard against them.[11] Since some people will try to have more than their share, a good society needs guardians. But if everyone were inherently good, it wouldn’t need guardians! So we need guardians only if we live in a society where there is some evil.

The philosopher H.L.A. Hart noted that we have rules about harming each other because we don’t have exoskeletons; we are fragile.[12] In other words, the form of the world in which we live partially determines the ethics of that world, and the different roles and characters needed for that world. If humans felt the pain of an insult more strongly than the pain of a wound, our justice system and our ethics would look very different.

Batman lives in a world that’s very different from ours. In fact, he lives in a number of worlds, since there are the Batman comics of the 50’s, the Batman movies of the 80s, the Batman comics of the present, etc. In the comics 50s and 60s, Batman lived in a world rife with costumed criminals, more than the police could handle on their own. There was clearly a need for more protectors. But interestingly, in that world, as violent as it was, almost no one ever died or got hurt.[13] So while this world calls for superheroes, it avoids the problem of violating the universal maxim to not endanger children. It’s a world that has few moral problems for the Batman and his tiny sidekick.

However, at some point the comic’s creators got the idea that their world should be more real, in other words, that harm should be a possibility. In the 80’s, the comics more frequently showed characters being injured or killed. Batgirl, for example, was crippled by the Joker and confined to a wheelchair.[14] And Robin (now a different Robin than the one from the earlier comics) was killed.[15] This Robin story, due to the new emphasis on the actual consequences of Batman’s actions, provides the best basis for ethical analysis.

In this more dangerous world, Batman found a young boy stealing hubcaps from the Batmobile. It turned out that this was young Jason Todd. Jason’s parents were dead, and he’d been living as a criminal in order to support himself. Batman took Jason in and trained him as his crime-fighting partner. Jason, already hardened by a life of crime, and made independent by his life on his own, was disobedient and moody. Batman had trouble controlling him, and Jason often overreacted in fight, beating enemies to within and inch of their lives. Ultimately, his brashness lead him to go off on his own to track down a woman he believed to be his real and surviving mother. In the course of this, he encountered the Joker, who kills him.


5. Can a Batman Train a Robin in Virtue?


In The Republic Plato said that, when selecting the people who would be trained to be the guardians of the city, they must choose people “whose nature is suited to that way of life.”[16] Although virtue ethics is about training, it’s still the case that not everyone can receive the training for every role; if someone shows a natural propensity for certain virtues, those virtues can be honed. But if someone strongly lacks certain virtues, it may simply be impossible to train such a person to take on a role that requires those virtues. So Jason Todd must have the virtues of the superhero, in an imperfect form, and then be trained to perfect them. The first virtue, clearly, is courage, and Jason Todd had that. His life as a criminal involved a great deal of danger, and he faced up to it. But, Plato notes, guardians cannot simply have courage. Courage is honed through physical training, but “those who devote themselves exclusively to physical training turn out to be more savage than they should.”[17] They need to moderate courage with gentleness, or instead of being guardians they will be bullies. Similarly, Aristotle notes that all virtues are “means between two vices,”[18] that is middle points; courage, for example, is the middle point between rashness and cowardice.[19] It is virtuous courage only when it’s properly moderated.


So is Jason Todd capable of courage? Yes, clearly. But, Plato would note, he lacks the countervailing virtue of gentleness. We know he lacks this because he beats criminals too severely and he seems to enjoy causing them pain.  “The spirited part of ones’ nature,” says Plato, “rightly nurtured, becomes courage, but if it’s overstrained, it’s likely to become hard and harsh.”[20] So Batman needs to instill gentleness in Jason Todd. And maybe that’s a central failing of Batman himself: he’s not exactly known for gentleness! Further, Jason Todd is rash. He rushes into battles even when he’s overmatched. So both Aristotle and Plato would note that Jason needs additional training: training in moderating his courage, for Aristotle, and in gentleness, for Plato. And, at least partly, Batman fails here: while he is unnerved by Robin’s rashness and brutality, and while he tries to punish these characteristics, he may be incapable of offering Robin the training in gentleness.

Finally, we should note an important mark of virtue ethics, and something that is problematic in Jason Todd’s character: the person who has virtue enjoys doing good. “Just acts are pleasant to the lover of justice,” says Aristotle, and “the man who does not rejoice in noble actions is not even good.”[21] Both Plato and Aristotle agree on this: it is a mark of a good act that it is pleasing to a good person.[22] We can try to encourage these feelings in a person by rewarding certain emotional responses. So when Robin behaves courageously, Batman must reward him with some kind of positive reinforcement, and Robin will come to feel good about courageous behavior. But, says Plato, it is the mark of the good that they already feel good about good acts, and we merely need to hone and enhance this; further, they should feel shame at bad acts, and we also hone and enhance this. Robin, however, feels good when he savagely beats the villains. His natural inclination, his inherent sense of good feeling, is tied to a bad act. And to some extent, he’s modeling his behavior on Batman’s, though Batman is not nearly as brutal as this Robin. But still, virtue ethicists like to point out that we form our characters based on models, and if we have good models, we are more likely to acquire virtues.[23]

Since Batman encountered Jason Todd when Todd had already formed a great deal of his character, it would take a lot of work to change what Jason felt. And in this, too, Batman failed, though perhaps it was a task he was never suited for. So in two ways, in not providing moderating virtues, and in not changing the underlying character of his young ward, Batman failed in the virtue ethical model. As a result, Jason Todd rashly rushed into battle with the Joker and was killed. In the end, the consequences of this act weigh heavily against Batman’s involvement.


6. Sometimes Heroes Fail

Batman faced several difficulties in his training of Jason Todd. First, Todd’s character was already shaped by his life of crime. Second, Batman’s focus has always been on training in fighting, courage, and action. He was simply unprepared to train Robin in gentleness and moderation of courage.

But how could Robin have been saved? For Aristotle and Plato, it seems that saving an adult is very difficult. Simply having Robin perform some noble deed will not save him, because character is not found in individual acts, but in a complete life; as Aristotle said “One swallow does not make a summer.[24]” A set character is thus hard to redeem. But there is still hope. Nietzsche said that character can be changed by those who “survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their character” and then, with proper knowledge of the self as it already exists, begin “long work and daily practice”[25] to reshape themselves. Thus, the most important aspect for beginning in virtue ethics is to know oneself.

But for some, this knowledge is unbearable. Nietzsche notes that some people “must look at themselves only from a distance in order to find themselves at all tolerable or attractive and invigorating. Self-knowledge is strictly inadvisable for them.”[26] Nietzsche is being somewhat ironic, but his point is that there are those who will not be able to make the move of self-knowing needed for growth. In many versions of the Batman story, Batman spends time in a monastic retreat learning not only the skills of combat, but the nature of his character; only in this way is he able to inculcate the proper training.

But not everyone will have the predisposition to know oneself or the wealth to travel the world finding great teachers. Jason Todd, shaped by the death of his parents and his poverty, was not so lucky. And virtue ethics, of all the ethical positions, was the first to recognize, and most consistent in noting, that people like Jason Todd may never rise to moral heights simply because of a lack of luck.[27] Aristotle calls the characteristic of a full moral life “eudaimonia,” sometimes translated (very loosely!) as “happiness.” And he notes that eudaimonia “needs external goods,” that is, it isn’t simply a matter of making a choice. “It is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment”[28] (that line could be the motto for Batman’s utility belt!) But we can’t fully control what external goods we have (that’s the definition of “external goods,” those that are beyond our immediate control.) If we lack Bruce Wayne’s wealth or his innate physical health, we’ll never be Batmen.

In the end, then, sometimes moral character will escape us no matter how good are our intentions or those of our teachers. But virtue is still always worth pursuing; had Batman not made the choice for virtue in his intense training of himself, he would never have become Batman. While the deontologists rules and the consequentialists emphasis on outcomes can help us make moral choices, they make it seem as though morality was simply making that right choice. Sometimes, the virtue ethicist notes, even the best intentions are incapable of producing a morally good outcome because of the multitude of constraints upon the development of character. As Jason Todd discovered, sometimes failure is simply a fact of the moral life.

[1] For example, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), though often considered a virtue ethicist, didn’t self-consciously use this term to describe himself. Instead, he divided ethics up into “slave ethics” and “master ethics,” and perhaps also into a third kind of ethics based on responsibility, in his work Genealogy of Morals (1887). Anthropologists sometimes make a distinction between those ethics based on feelings of guilt, and those based on feelings of shame and honor, which would accord with Nietzsche’s distinction between slave and master morality, respectively. In short, a shame-based ethics looks to the communal response to determine the ethical nature of an act, where a guilt-based ethics is directed more towards immediate, inner feelings.

[2] Kant gives almost this exact example in his On A Supposed Right to Tell Lies From A Benevolent Motive (1797), where he said that you could not lie to a murderer who asked you the location of his intended victim.

[3] Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals, trans T.K. Abbot, Prometheus Books, 1988, pp 28.

[4] I’ll be focusing especially on the story of Jason Todd, the second Robin, because it brings the ethical problems most strongly into relief due to the unfortunate fate that befell this young costumed crimefighter. The story is collected in Batman: A Death In The Family, by Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo, DC Comics, 1995, originally printed in Batman #s 424-428, DC Comics, 1988.

[5] One of the leading figures in 20th century virtue ethics is Alasdair MacIntyre, who, in his seminal volume After Virtue, defined “character” as the fusing of role and personality (After Virtue, Notre Dame, 1984, pp 28.) In other words, in character we have what someone does, which could be their job, vocation or calling, and their underlying inclinations, desires, and attitudes coming together to form a whole. MacIntyre notes that the Greek word that forms the basis for “ethics” and the Latin word that forms the basis for “Morality” both mean, to some extent, “pertaining to character.” (pp 38)

[6] The Chinese philosopher Confucius’s (551-479 BCE) writings, which precede Plato’s, are often considered virtue ethical, but his work doesn’t contribute to the general Western tradition of virtue ethics. Homer (7th Century BCE) also wrote works which contribute to the virtue ethical tradition, but as a poet, and not in the form of philosophical writings which argue for the place of virtue ethics.

[7] MacIntyre’s After Virtue (Notre Dame, 1981, 1984) is a sustained attempt to criticize the ethics of the modern world, essentially accusing ethics of becoming incoherent and emotivist (based on feelings rather than facts) as a result of the loss of the virtue ethics tradition. Martha Nussbaum’s  Fragility of Goodness (1986) is less polemical, and tries to lay out what a virtue ethic that respected human fragility would look like. Michael Slote’s From Morality to Virtue (1992) tries to recapitulate and justify the movement back towards thinking about the virtues in 20th century ethical thought.

[8] Nichomachean Ethics, book I, section 4, trans W.D. Ross.

[9] Ibid, book 1, section 7

[10] It’s also possible that Batman never asked this. He may have simply acted. Sometimes, Batman can lack the kind of thoughtful reflection that the philosopher seeks. As a superhero, he’s more attuned to acting than to thinking!

[11] Plato notes that a city comes to be because “none of us is self-sufficient, but we all need many things,” (Republic 369 C, trans C.D.C. Reeve), but that the desire to have more than our share leads to injustice, and we thus have to create guardians to maintain order in the city so that the benefits of the city are not lost. If we do evil in our own cities, he notes, we corrupt that city and thus harm ourselves, because we’ll have to live in a corrupt city; “If I make one of my associates wicked I run the risk of being harmed by him.” (Apology, 26A, trans G.M.A. Grube).

[12] H.L.A. Hart, The Concept of Law, Oxford, 1997, pp 194-195

[13] This was due largely to the fact that comics had faced boycotts and congressional oversight for being too violent in the 40s and early 50s; the creators responded by toning them down and creating “The Comics Code Authority,” which would reject for publication scenes of excessive violence, bloodshed and death.

[14] Batman: The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, DC Comics, 1988

[15] Batman: A Death In The Family

[16] Republic 374E

[17] Republic, 410D

[18] Nichomachean Ethics, book II section 6

[19] Ibid, book II section 8

[20] Republic 410 D

[21] Nichomachean Ethics, book I section 8

[22] This is not the definition of a good act, because it would be what philosophers call a “circular definition,” which is one where the term being defined or an important part of that term, here “good,” is used in the definition itself. It’s merely a characteristic of the good act, something you can use to identify that act.

[23] In Republic, for example, Plato notes that it is only by having a good model of the soul that we can form our souls for the good. At Republic 592 B he proposes an imaginary model to serve for those who have no human model.

[24] Nichomachean Ethics book I section 7

[25] Nietzsche, The Gay Science, section 290, trans by Walter Kaufmann, Vintage Books, 1974

[26] Gay Science section 15

[27] While the idea of moral luck occurs throughout the tradition of virtue ethics, it was named and brought to modern awareness by Bernard Williams in his essay Moral Luck, collected in Moral Luck: Philosophical Essays 1973-1980, Cambridge, 1981

[28] Nichomachean Ethics book I section 8