Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Batman and the Social Administration of Risky Enforcement Procedures

So I saw the latest Batman movie over the summer, and immediately wanted to write this post; I wrote a note to myself, and never got around to it. But I really, really wanted to make this point, so here it is (several months too late to be relevant).

In the movie, Batman uses surveillance technology to spy on a whole bunch of people in order to save the city of Gotham from certain doom. The interesting thing that happened when I watched the movie was that at first, I recoiled at the suggestion that Batman would be justified in spying on these people, but as soon as I did, I immediately felt like I was being unreasonable. As far as Batman knew, his actions could save a lot of lives, and since he was the one doing the surveillance, he knew that he was going to be acting as uprightly as possible. He could end up being wrong, and that would make his invasions of others' privacy extremely regrettable. But I think that most of us would do the same thing if we found ourselves in Batman's situation, and would not think ourselves evil for doing so. And I really had trouble thinking that Batman was evil while I was watching the movie.

So there I was, a staunch opponent of government programs which engage in precisely the sort of surveillance that Batman was engaging in, and for precisely the same sort of reasons, yet feeling like Batman's actions were not illegitimate. What gives?

Immediately, I took comfort in the idea that the sorts of government programs that I'm accustomed to opposing have nowhere near the sort of evidential grounding that Batman's actions did. Batman wasn't trying to stop "criminals posing a danger to America/Americans any time they should decide to pose a threat." He was trying to stop a very specific criminal in a reasonably specific place at a reasonably specific time. But because I was still uneasy about a government with a mandate for surveillance on its citizens' private affairs, this didn't quite satisfy me.

So here's what I decided: Batman was justified in what he did, but he could not claim the kind of moral authority on behalf of his actions which seems implicit in government action. Of course,

It seems difficult to say that Batman was clearly wrong to do what was necessary, given the importance of his mission. But it seems important that it be Batman who do something like that, and not someone who was explicitly entrusted with acting as the agent of justice. The idea here, then, is that someone believing that Batman was acting wrongly would be justified in trying to stop him, whereas standing in the way of the police or security forces is in some sense only legitimate when they are acting outside of their social roles as enforcers of justice. I suppose that people might object to the idea that there can even be people who are The social enforcers of justice, but whatever. If that's the thing that gets people up in arms about this post, then so be it. I think I'm as happy with this as I'm going to be.

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