The Punisher Problem
By Wil Forbis
March 1st 2019
There's a particular scenario I've often observed in comics, film and TV and it goes a little something like this: Our hero, an "outside the law" vigilant type, has a particularly heinous multiple murderer on the ropes. Our hero readies the killing blow/bullet/sword swipe and some other character - the voice of morality - says something like, "No! If you kill him* you'll be as bad as he* is!"
*Yes, occasionally the vigilante or victim is female so adjust your terms appropriately.
And I've always been like, "What?" The ethics of vigilante killing may be up for debate but I don't see how it’s on the same level as wanton murder. If nothing else, the killing of a repeated killer has a good chance of preventing future murders. (If Bat-Man had just killed the Joker in 1940 or so, thousands would have been saved.)
Recently I've been exposed to several instances of this debate in modern entertainment. For instance...
Marvel's The Punisher TV show. I've been a fan of this character since discovering him on the comics pages as a kid. Obviously drawn from classic men's adventure fiction like "The Destroyer" or "Executioner" series, Frank Castle, the Punisher, is a battle-hardened war veteran with no qualms about killing the thugs, henchmen and bad guys of the underworld. On the TV show, there's always some character seeking to bring Castle in for his crimes.
The show Dexter which focuses on a serial killer who follows a code that allows him to kill only other serial killers. Dexter himself seems largely unperturbed by the possible immorality of his actions (at least up to season three where I’m at) but occasionally a character does bring up the "you're as bad as them" argument.
Another Marvel show, Daredevil. On season three Daredevil, who for the most part is a "by the book" vigilante, seriously contemplates killing his nemesis, the Kingpin.
So what arguments can be used to condemn our various vigilante heroes? Many can be made, I will explore three here.
The Moral Argument
This argument is ultimately many arguments bundled up in one and getting to all the relevant nuances is beyond the scope of an acid logic column. But the gist of it is something we're all familiar with; it supposes that there are certain core rules - imposed by a God or some moral absolute that somehow permeate the universe. One such rule is that you should not kill unless doing so will prevent the murder of an innocent.
One can critique this from various angles. Obviously one can ask what source gives this moral axiom its power. If the claim is "from God", then we have to dive into the "is there a god?" debate. If it's from a more ethereal source - whatever secular humanists claim as their source*, for example - then you need to dive down that rabbit hole. (I won't get into all this here though I have touched on this before)
*I was curious enough on this point to look it up and determined this: secular humanists practice a consequentialist morality e.g. they judge whether actions are right or wrong based on their consequences, as opposed to whether these actions are sanctified by a higher authority. How secular humanists know whether a consequence is good or bad was not discussed in the material I encountered and further research is too much work.
For now I'm going to simply walk pass those interminable conversations and explore another angle. As I defined it above, the rule states, "you should not kill unless doing so will prevent the murder of an innocent." As such, killing someone who is readying a death blow to a crying infant, for example, is permissible. But let's say you can pull the trigger on someone who is not about to kill but has in the past and likely will again. That should be fair game. The question, of course, if how certain the vigilant can be that their target will kill again. Can they ever be confident the killer won't find Jesus tomorrow and dedicate himself to feeding the homeless for the rest of his days? Answer: no, but one can make extrapolations based on other people whose lives have followed similar trajectories. This might work for a vigilante like Dexter who does apply some due diligence to confirm his target's guilt and propensity for recidivism, but not so much for the Punisher who kills a lot of his targets about ten seconds after he meets them.
So, in exploring this line of argument against vigilante-ism we run into some classic philosophical quandaries (e.g. does God exist?) but also encounter a line of reasoning that provides at least some justification for the actions of characters like Dexter and the Punisher. Let's move on to...
The Law and Order Argument
You've seen this argument before in many of the scenes I discussed at the beginning of the article. The vigilante is about to kill an offender and someone - usually a cop - says something like, "We can't take the law into our own hands. It leads to CHAOS!!" This argument is brought to life in season three of Daredevil when Daredevil and his best friend, Foggy Nelson debate killing the Kingpin.
The argument here is that power of deciding who's guilty of a crime - and who should be punished for it - cannot rest in one person's hands. It needs to be controlled by a system, preferable one with various checks and balances, because only a system can objectively suss out the truth.
This argument makes a lot of sense. It seems unavoidable that a vigilante character will eventually make a mistake and kill the wrong guy*. The counter argument here is that sometime "the system" doesn't act quickly enough or goes too far in protecting the rights of the accused.
*A footnote character to the DC Comics universe named The Vigilante did in fact make such a error early in the run of his self-titled comic, though he didn't kill his victim, merely beat him severely.
But perhaps this isn't an either/or situation. Can we theorize a system in which the government takes care of most of the bad guys and vigilantes take care of the stragglers? That is effectively what happens in the Dexter show. Of course, in reality the scales of justice would never be so satisfyingly balanced.
This line or argument offers some interesting food for thought with no clear answers. Let move onto our third and final one.
The "Psychological Damage" Argument
This is our most interesting possibility. In this scenario, we consider whether people should avoid becoming vigilantes to protect their own mental health. Does the pressure and power of killing killings take its toll on one's psyche? It seems very possible that the onerous weight of what a vigilante does could build and build with each killing, eventually causing some sort of mental collapse. This point is also considered the character Karen Page in "Daredevil's" season three when she says, "killing anyone - even [the Kingpin] - will change everything that you feel about yourself."
Usually, however, vigilantes are driven to their actions because they were made helpless by an act of violence in the world. Their psychological drive is to right wrongs and inaction is not an option. The Punisher, for example, lost his family to mob violence (similar to what drives the brutal but ultimately non-lethal Bat-Man.) In the minds of these vigilante's, killing the guilty is restoring their psyche, not damaging it. One of the most intriguing vigilantes of the comic book page, Rorshach from the Watchmen comic, expressed this in his contemplations after discovering and killing (his first use of lethal force) a child murderer:
"Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us. Streets stank of fire. The void breathed hard on my heart, turning its illusions to ice, shattering them. Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world."
As usual, I have no real answers here. None of the defenses or condemnation of vigilante-ism rest on flawless, easily understood blocks of logic. Rather they tend to fade and reappear in a moral fog that is hard to cut through.
One question did strike me while working on this. Why are there so few vigilantes on real life? To the best of my knowledge, all serial killers have been killers of the innocent with nary a Dexter among them. I've never heard of a Punisher like soldier of war who stalked the underworld. And I'm not convinced that's a good thing.
Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - email@example.com
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.