Vigilante Scenario #1- The State has enacted good laws, but is failing to enforce them.

Now that we have a definition of vigilantism, it seems apparent that an individual or group’s actions as a vigilante must take into account the context in which the individual acts.  Any look at the efficacy of a vigilante’s actions must first consider who should defend the values being violated as well as the quality with which they accomplish that task.  First, society has appointed a group of men and women for the purpose of creating just and fair laws as well as a trained and controlled force for the purpose of enforcing those laws, the government and the police.

Both have their sillier moments....

It is not the vocation of the individual citizen to create laws or enforce them.  Whenever possible, enforcement of values and laws should be left to those who society appoints to enforce them.  For example, if I learn two criminals are on their way to beat up my neighbor, the proper course of action is not to wait on my neighbor’s doorstep with a shotgun.  Instead, I should contact the police in order that they might stop the attack.

See? All better!


While I have no doubt that the police would respond to the aforementioned situation with appropriate vigor, let us imagine two improbable situations.  First, let us imagine that, when I made the call, the police responded, “I’m sorry, but, according to the law, we can’t even acknowledge this call until shots are fired” or even, “it’s not against the law for them to attack your neighbor.”  In this case, it is not only ethical but required that I do everything in my power to stop the attack, including the threat of violence and, if no other solution will do, the use of violence.[1]  Next, imagine a situation in which the police say, “we’re coming, but we won’t be there in time.”  In this case, the police are willing but simply unable to provide any assistance.  Once again, it is not only ethical but obligatory to provide assistance in any way possible, although the array of options includes somehow delaying the attackers until the police arrive or moving my neighbor to a safe place.

Try not to be there when they get loose, though...

These two examples show that the efficacy of vigilante action depends first on the ability of lawmakers to fulfill their vocation of legislating fair and just laws and second on the ability or motivation of the police to enforce them.  Although a vigilante action may be justifiable under one set of laws and police enforcement, it may be unethical or even criminal under another.  Travis Dumsday suggests vigilante actions should be evaluated under the following four categories:

1. The state has enacted good laws but is failing to enforce them.

2. The state has failed to enact certain good laws.

3. The state has enacted evil laws.

4. The state has enacted good laws and is enforcing them. [2]

I propose we examine the ethics of each of these categories by selecting a well know superhero movie which faces each of these contexts.

1. The state has enacted good laws but is failing to enforce them.

In the movie Batman Begins, we see a metropolis rotten to the core.  There are laws on the books against murder, corruption, etc, but those laws are not enforced due to a corrupt police force.  In fact, one of Batman’s struggles early in the movie involves locating a police officer who can be trusted, which proves to be a difficult task to say the least.

Yep, the Prisoner of Azkaban himself...


This Batman movie concerns itself with the problems inherent in the context of a city with good laws, but poor enforcement.  Batman knows about a plot against the city and knows the police have been paid to look the other way.  He knows that inaction on his part will result in the deaths of thousands.  Finally, he knows the political process required to replace the police force with one able to deal with the problem at hand will be too slow to stop the attack.  In light of other options, there seems nothing unethical about what Batman does, However, Batman shouldn’t stop there.  Ideally, Batman’s quest for justice should include an aspect in which he takes the burden of fighting crime from himself and moves it back towards the proper actors, ideally by drawing attention to the need for better policing through the democratic process.  The ideal vigilante’s job continues until the proper actors have resumed their roles.

Or until this happens....

The second of the recent Batman movies, The Dark Knight, displays the problems involved with encouraging the proper actors to assume their proper roles.  Batman discovers that ordinary citizens, instead of changing their city through the polls, have taken up arms as “Batmen” and fight crime as vigilantes.  Batman tries to wave them off, but to no avail.  At the same time, however, an up and coming District Attorney named Harvey Dent begins to take down crime in the proper fashion: through the justice system.  Batman/Bruce Wayne embraces the newcomer, and attempt to promote him through Bruce’s money and Batman’s crime fighting.  Unfortunately, Batman’s attempts to promote the aspiring District Attorney are corrupted by the villainous Joker, who corrupts Harvey and turns Harvey into the villain Two-Face.  Batman defeats both the Joker and Two-Face, but in the process ends up killing Harvey Dent/Two-Face.  Batman at this point faces a dilemma.  Either he identifies Two-Face as a villain, thus admitting that the justice system under Harvey Dent failed the city, or he takes the blame of Two-Face’s evil deeds onto himself, making Batman the villain and sparing the reputation of Harvey Dent and thus, the justice system.

Aaron Eckhart's reputation mostly consists of being seen shirtless

Batman’s action at the end of the film is certainly in the right spirit, even if it isn’t necessarily the right action.  Batman sacrifices his status as a hero in the eyes of the public in order that the city might regain faith in the institution charged with protecting them.  While this is certainly the correct way to end a vigilante career, I believe there are two negative consequences associated with Batman’s action.  First, while his decision to place the blame on himself restores faith in the Gotham justice system, why is Batman confident Gotham will not need his crime fighting prowess again?  After all, the Gotham police department has already shown itself to be powerless in the face of the Joker, so why should Batman assume they are prepared for future threats?  Batman should be virtually assured that his help will be needed again, yet when he arrives to help the public will see him as an enemy, making them feel less secure, not more.  Second, there appears to be no replacement for Harvey Dent in the District Attorney’s office, meaning that even though faith is restored in the police and in the District Attorney’s office, there only basis for that faith is that there was at one point an elected official able to handle the crime in Gotham, a sentiment which is actually false.

Good job, boys, you made a difference today

Potential consequences to Batman’s decision aside, Batman provides a good example of ethical conduct in the context of a state which passes good laws yet fails to enforce them.  Batman should step in and protect the citizens of Gotham.  Moreover, Batman should use his role as a vigilante to draw attention to the problems facing Gotham to promote political action.  Finally, when a viable, political solution presents itself, Batman should retire the role of vigilante and place the burden of enforcing the law on those whose vocation it is to enforce the law, the police and the district attorney’s office, and let his example inspire the police and the government to the most heroic behavior possible.

That guy totally has my vote!

One down, three more categories to go!


[1] This assumes, by the way, that I cannot hide my neighbor and that I even know how to use a gun.  As I mention earlier, having a chance of success is the part of an ethical violence.  It is not ethical for a person with no ability to use a weapon to attempt an action with complete certainty of failure.  For example, if I knew the criminals were coming with a gun with the intent to kill, it is not ethical to stand on the porch with a tennis racket to try to fight them off.  We’ll talk more about the ethics of violence in the next chapter.

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  • Jake  On April 4, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    That picture is of Thomas Jane, not Aaron Eckhart, although I think it’s from the Punisher movie, so you’re on the right track

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