Exploring the True Nature of Justice through Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy – part 1

The Batman narrative depicts a society, encapsulated in the city of Gotham, that is scarred and deeply burdened by injustice. A survey of the injustices portrayed in Nolan’s trilogy ranges from particular crimes against the innocent (e.g. the murder of Bruce Wayne’s generous parents resulting in the orphaning of a child) to more general systemic corruption characterized by the shameless exploitation of the poor by the rich and the failure of the legal system to punish criminals for their crimes. It is a society where the rule of law has largely collapsed.

It is worth noting that when we watch these films these unjust actions and social conditions are immediately recognizable by the audience. And given the Batman movies’ global success, this response is probably not peculiar to an American or Western audience. Regardless of the degree to which one’s own society is “Gotham-esqe,” people everywhere sense, perhaps intuitively, the injustice portrayed in the story.

One might go so far as to argue that a sense of injustice, or the ability to discern injustice, is an essential characteristic of human nature. I am the proud father of three small children. Nearly from the moment they began talking they have learned to cry out: “That’s not fair!” in response to perceived wrongs against them (they also use this plea when someone does something they don’t like that isn’t necessarily wrong; isn’t it interesting how we make our likes and dislikes matters of right and wrong?)

A recent article in the Science and Technology section of The Economist reports on a study of this universal yet poorly understood (at least scientifically) characteristic of human nature. The study was a psychology experiment that sought to better understand exactly when people judge something as ‘not fair.’ Without going into the details of the methodology (it involved trivial amounts of money being exchanged between pairs of subjects leading to each having different amounts in the end), they tested two different hypothesis: “One is that the desire to punish is simple revenge for an offence. The other is that it is related to the offence’s consequences—specifically, whether or not the offender is left better off than the victim.” Their results suggest that what really provokes peoples’ sense of injustice is “not so much having money taken, but having it taken in a way that makes the taker better off than the victim.”. In other words we are creatures who keep accounts instinctively. When some have more than we think they deserve and others have less, we cry foul.

The renowned British author CS Lewis critically examined his own sense of injustice in view of his belief as an atheist (at one time) that there was no real justice in the universe:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of  a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too–for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist–in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless–I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality–namely my idea of justice–was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Lewis is simply arguing that it would be absurd to have a sense of injustice, a deep belief that something is really wrong with the world, if there was not some real, universal justice (“a straight line”) in the universe.  In other words, if there was no justice in the universe, we should never have known there is injustice.  These categories would be meaningless.  That we all carry in our hearts this sense of injustice is a sign of Real Justice outside of us.  This Real Justice is an aspect of the character of God.

I have found that people agree on what is unjust much more easily than on how to respond to injustice and attain justice.  A central theme in Batman is how to bring it about true justice in a thoroughly unjust society.  In my next post, I will look at some of the competing ideas of justice in Nolan’s trilogy and compare these to what Scripture teaches about the nature of justice.


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