Batman, Plato, and Meritocracy: Who Should Hold Power?

Thomas DiGennaro | United States

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is loaded with elements of philosophical theory and undertones of libertarianism. One that stands out, in particular, is the mass surveillance used to track the Joker in the ending of the film and the resulting ethical questions that arise.


Lucius Fox is the CEO of Wayne Enterprises by day, technical assistant and supplier to Batman by night. When Lau–an accountant for the mob–flees to China after hiding all of their funds, Lucius meets with him personally in China to inform him that Wayne Enterprises will not be continuing business with them. However, the underlying motive for this visit is to plant a device in Lau’s building that will later aid Batman in capturing Lau.
This device uses the response of sound waves to map out a location, quite similarly to sonar. Ironically this device works the same way that bats see. Later, Batman turns this sonar device into mass surveillance technology, by “turning every cell phone in Gotham into a microphone and high-frequency generator-receiver”. Batman needs to find and capture the Joker and this is his plan to locate him. Aside from the obvious reference to the modern day NSA surveillance state enacted by the Patriot Act, there is a very close connection to Plato’s Republic.
The idea from Plato’s Republic that comes into play here is that of meritocracy. The idea that the wise and capable should be rulers, which does not always coincide with democracy by popular vote. There is a distinguishment from those who rule and those who deserve to rule. This is widely interpreted to encase the idea that is generally agreed upon; Those who want power should not have power.
However, I believe there’s more to the qualification for power that merely not wanting to be in power. The thought I propose is very well illustrated by Lucius Fox’s reaction to the mass surveillance device.
When Batman tells Lucius he needs to catch the Joker, his response is “At what cost?”. Lucius clearly displays his belief that this is wrong, unethical, and “too much power for one person”. This is precisely why Batman designed the database so it could only be accessed by one person; Lucius. Lucius is the only one capable of using such power, not simply because he does not want it, but because he is aware of the dangers and disagrees that such power should even exist. He is morally appalled by such concentrated power.
Government is often regarded as a necessary evil. The necessary part is debatable, but the evil part is damn well true. If it is, in fact, a necessary evil, it is a dangerous, dangerous thing. So dangerous that only the wisest and most qualified people could ever hope to use it properly. Therefore, only one who is aware of such dangers, who fears anyone holding such power, who are disgusted by the thought of such power existing, could ever be considered qualified.
This is not to say that many politicians are not educated and intelligent people who wish to obtain political power to use it for the common good or the benefit of others. Rather, they would not be able to exercise such power in a restrictive manner that would constitute it being a necessary evil. Even the most conservative/libertarian members of Congress are not “qualified” to hold such power, because they believe the right people (they and other like-minded people) can use this power properly, and thus believe in such powers.
This thought is somewhat of a logical fallacy, seeing as how the qualified would never put themselves in a position of power, and if they do seek such power, they are not qualified. The fact remains that the power to make decisions that will be enforced by the will of the government with the most powerful military on the planet has to be regarded as very very dangerous.
Only those who are disgusted by power could ever use it properly. So to speak, proper execution of such power may very well be an impossibility. Lucius Fox and the mass surveillance technology in Nolan’s The Dark Knight provides excellent insight as to how a person must possess such qualifications in order for proper use of power.


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