Arrow and philosophy, part two: the morality of killing and violence

It’s not all jumping off rooftops, being a vigilante is rough on the psyche. luizcarlosbv/flicker, CC BY-NC-SA

In the first entry in this series of posts, I argued that “even for vigilante heroes, there are lines that cannot be crossed.” Most frequently, the line that heroes will refuse to cross is killing. No matter how evil their adversary, the heroes will not lower themselves to killing. This theme, which is perhaps most notable in Batman and his conflicts with the Joker, receives interesting treatment in Arrow.

The ethics of killing

Arrow is somewhat unique in its relationship to killing. In the first season, Oliver Queen racks up an impressive body count: killing major criminals and petty thugs alike, and rarely leaving the Starling City Police Department with anybody to interrogate. The only people who tend to be spared Queen’s lethal ire are those who are unarmed.

In this sense, Queen’s rationale for killing is consistent with the approach proposed by the philosopher Michael Walzer in his book Just and Unjust Wars. Walzer believes that in war, soldiers can kill those who pose a threat to them, or to the innocent; namely, other soldiers. Those who are involved in harming are, according to Walzer, legitimate targets of attack. However, there are some issues with the Arrow’s use of Walzer’s justification.

First, Walzer is describing war – prolonged, widespread, armed conflict. Queen’s activities as a vigilante are much more akin to police activity, where – disturbing cases in the recent United States aside – we expect a much higher threshold for lethal force than in the military.

Secondly, Walzer’s account itself is contested within the military ethical literature. Several philosophers – most notably Jeff McMahan – have recently advanced the thesis that being a participant in armed conflict is not sufficient to forfeit one’s right not to be killed. Lethal force can only be utilised when it is used against an unjust aggressor, is_ necessary_ to achieve some morally good objective, and is proportionate to the threat being presented.

Most of the thugs polluting Starling’s streets with crime aren’t culpable of crimes that would justify their being killed as punishment (in fact, as I’ve argued elsewhere, I don’t think there are any crimes that do), and usually their being killed isn’t necessary for the success of the mission, so – even if we assumed that vigilantism is morally defensible and that Oliver is advancing a morally good cause (which we questioned in the last post) on what basis can he kill most of these criminals?

In some cases, the answer is self-defense or defense of the innocent: most of these men present a lethal threat to Oliver, his loved ones, or civilians and so he is justified to kill them if that is required to stop the threat. However, the cases where lethal force is necessary in Arrow are far fewer than the body count would suggest.

Psychological resistance to killing

If the Arrow is guilty of killing people unnecessarily and without justification, he becomes a murderer in the definitive sense of the word. Queen himself denies this reality, believing himself to be doing what is necessary, without the luxury of being about to arrest others. But when his best friend calls him a murderer, and subsequently dies, things change. Oliver commits to stop killing, and “try another way.”

However, although Oliver claims to have stopped killing “to honour his friend’s memory”, there are other reasons why he might have chosen to opt for non-lethal force. Killing is not done easily, and the psychological and moral costs of killing are high. If a person takes another life – even out of necessity – reconciling that action with one’s continuing moral goodness takes a great deal of psychological and moral effort. Philosopher and Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes puts it this way, in the excellent What it is Like to go to War:

Killing someone without splitting oneself from the feelings that the act engenders requires an effort of supreme consciousness that, quite frankly, is beyond most humans.

This is not a new idea. Throughout history, killing has frequently been seen as the ultimate moral crime. This is particularly true in Judeo-Christian cultures where the moral evil of killing dates as far back as Cain and Abel. Even when killing is necessary: in war or self-defence, our moral and psychological resistance to the act is still powerful. In On Killing, Dave Grossman discusses muskets unearthed from American Civil War battlegrounds have been found loaded with multiple bullets, suggesting that soldiers were pretending to fire instead of actually shooting. This isn’t cowardice: it’s almost the opposite – a powerful moral sense that resists killing other humans even in the most difficult circumstances.

Sometimes though, killing and war are necessary, and so modern militaries provide combatants with psychological training and conditioning to make them more ready to kill. Although this might be defensible on the basis of military necessity, it still forces veterans to confront the moral hangover from the fact that they have become killers (even if not murderers), and prompts us to ask the question: if it is so difficult to take a life, what are the costs of conditioning someone to do it?

Arrow _suggests that the cost is one’s soul, or the part of a person that makes them a morally functioning person. Oliver, in a discussion of morality with Barry Allen – whose alter-ego is as the more idealistic, less ruthless superhero _The Flash – explains the costs of his profession:

To do what I do […] takes conviction. But more often than not is the will to do what’s ugly. Every time I do that, I’m… I’m trading away little pieces of myself. So you asked what’s wrong with me. That’s-that’s what’s wrong. Because the part that I’m trading away is Oliver Queen. And lately I’ve been feeling like there is nothing left, except the Arrow.

This – whether Oliver is conscious of it or not – is the other reason why Oliver takes a commitment against killing. When a person acts against their own deeply-held beliefs, they have limited options for dealing with it. One option is to try to integrate their identity with what they have done – but doing this in a healthy way is incredibly difficult, as Oliver notes. His solution is to become the Arrow, who feels none of the tension involved in killing because he is a killer (I’ll explore the question of identity more in the next post).

Another option is to maintain belief in one’s identity as morally good despite what one has done. However, this usually involves being forgiven by the person we have wronged. In a drug-fuelled rage, Oliver’s sidekick Roy Harper kills a police officer. He is so ashamed of what he has done that he claims responsibility for the Arrow’s crimes, and goes to prison where he is almost killed. There is no power that can forgive him for what he has done – a problem that many veterans still experience today. Oliver has similar difficulties. He cannot believe himself to be forgivable and those who know who he is are complicit in his crimes and therefore cannot forgive him either.

Oliver’s only solution is a virtue ethical one: to commit to becoming a better person. He aims to, as a matter of honour, use non-lethal violence to achieve his goals.

The ethics of non-lethal force

Is this really a solution though? Although killing is, for most, the ultimate immoral act, there are others. Maiming, brutal force, and shooting people with arrows will also be difficult to reconcile with being a good person. Indeed, Oliver’s confession about his changing character comes when discussing an act of non-lethal violence, long after taking his vow against killing.

Oliver frequently shoots adversaries in legs, arms, and hands. Some of these may be flesh wounds, but others are likely to occasion nerve damage, muscular injury, and other issues that may permanently disable them (never mind the healthcare expenses). These men don’t die, but the consequences of Queen’s violence are permanent, whilst their crimes may be temporary, or minor.

Oliver occasionally physically beats his enemies until they are unconscious. Again, they don’t die, but if Oliver knew anything about Traumatic Brain Injury, he might find it less easy to reconcile this with his conscience. People left in a persistent vegetative state, in the care and expense of families or the state, can hardly be said to have received the ethical treatment. In terms of consequences (which are not, in my opinion, the entirety of ethics) Oliver’s nonlethal force might sometimes be worse than if he’d killed these people.

In another case, Oliver imprisons a deadly long-time nemesis, Slade Wilson, in an isolated private prison on Lian Yu instead of killing him. Perhaps Wilson would prefer this to death, but is this extrajudicial imprisonment morally defensible? I would suggest not, but it illuminates something important in the oath against killing that Oliver and many other superheroes take. It isn’t about always acting ethically, it’s about their moral identity. Who they are, and how they define themselves.

Oliver decides not to kill as a reaction to how he has been described: a murderer. It isn’t about the act of killing, but about how it has defined him, both nominally and in a real, psychological sense. In the last of these posts, I’ll discuss what Arrow can teach us about the moral experience of those who need to integrate experiences of conflict, death, war, and violence in a way that allows them to function in ordinary society.

This is the second in a series of articles on _Arrow and the morality of vigilantism. You can read part 1 here._