What Would Daredevil Do?

What Would Daredevil Do? April 23, 2015


I finally got around to binge-watching Netflix’s Daredevil series and I loved it. The feel of the show is refreshingly gritty, the plot is tight, and the casting is excellent. But what I like most is how the show’s central character deals with moral dilemmas. I find myself wanting to wear a bracelet that says WWDD? (What Would Daredevil Do?).

Daredevil is based on the Marvel Comics character Matthew Murdock, a Hell’s Kitchen native who was blinded in his youth by a radioactive substance during a traffic accident. Though he lost his vision, his other senses have been heightened to an almost supernatural level, and he uses them to fight crime at night and restore the balance of justice to his beloved New York City.

But Murdock’s midnight vigilantism is at odds with his daytime profession—he’s a lawyer who’s sworn to work to fight bad guys within the confines of the criminal justice system. As Daredevil’s showrunner Steven S. DeKnight put it in a recent interview: “He’s a lawyer by day, and he’s taken this oath. But every night he breaks that oath, and goes out and does very violent things.” Murdock is also a committed Catholic who regularly gives confession to and seeks theological advice from a local priest.

This is interesting to me because ever since Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God in 1882, people have been saying that society is just a heartbeat away from a destructive moral relativism, which they basically equate to the end of civil society itself. The fear is that if God didn’t exist, then the worst impulses of humanity would be unleashed, because no one would ever know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil.

But for Murdock, as for most people today, God definitely isn’t dead. And the church’s stance on morality seems pretty cut-and-dried. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Acts that are freely chosen in consequence of a judgment of conscience can be morally evaluated. They are either good or evil.” But questions of good and evil still haunt Murdock as ifGod didn’t exist. He puts his dilemma humorously in an episode where he addresses a jury:

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, forgive me if I seem distracted. I’ve been preoccupied of late with questions of morality, of right and wrong, good and evil. Sometimes the delineation between the two is a sharp line, sometimes it’s a blur. And often it’s like pornography—you just know it when you see it.”

Daredevil shows that whether we’re religious or not, we’re still condemned to making moral choices. At the end of the day, we’re thrown back on our own intellectual and emotional resources. Jean Paul Sartre, in a lecture he gave just after WWII, cites an example that applies pretty well to Murdock’s—and our—situation. He describes the case of a student of his who was torn between joining the war to avenge the death of his older brother or staying home to care for his mother, who is already distraught at the loss of her first son. Sartre explains:

“What could help him to choose? Could the Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says: Act with charity, love your neighbour, deny yourself for others, choose the way which is hardest, and so forth. But which is the harder road? To whom does one owe the more brotherly love, the patriot or the mother? Who can give a definitive answer to that? No one. Nor is it given in any ethical scripture.”

This is the essential predicament in which Murdock finds himself. On the one hand, he has the capability—maybe even from God, as he hints in one episode—to bring real justice to the world, a justice that is questionable at best within the confines of the criminal justice system. On the other hand, he feels compelled to commit violent acts of torture, something that flies in the face of religious sensibility in general and Catholic doctrine in particular.

Yet Catholics, like Murdock, are divided on issues like torture. For instance, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who has previously spoken out about his Catholicism, had this to say about it:

“I think it’s very facile for people to say, ‘Oh, torture is terrible.’ You posit the situation where a person that you know for sure knows the location of a nuclear bomb that has been planted in Los Angeles and will kill millions of people. You think it’s an easy question? You think it’s clear that you cannot use extreme measures to get that information out of that person?”

The Catechismstates that “Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.” Is that unclear? On the face of it, no; but a Catholic could also look to the “just war” doctrine of the Catechism, which says that although we should strive to avoid war, there are circumstances in which it might be warranted:

“The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain; all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; there must be serious prospects of success; the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”

In Daredevil’s universe, it’s known that Wilson Fisk (aka Kingpin) is killing people to get what he wants, and the criminal justice system seems powerless to stop him. So what’s a religious superhero to do? Let’s listen to Sartre again:

“No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world. The Catholics will reply, ‘Oh, but they are!’ Very well; still, it is I myself, in every case, who have to interpret the signs.”

That’s what’s left to Murdock to do. He has to navigate the labyrinth of moral quandaries with limited resources just as much as he, as a blind person, has to navigate the streets of Hell’s Kitchen with limited vision.

Thankfully, none of us will ever find ourselves in Daredevil’s extreme situation. We’re not in the same boat as Murdock, but we’re in the same existential ocean. On the one hand, experience clearly shows us that nothing is ever black-and-white, despite what our holy books say. On the other hand, we feel like we can’t admit this out loud, because it seems to entail giving up the possibility of a final, definitive standard to which we could appeal once and for all to judge others, and bind humanity into one moral community.

The grainy realism of Netflix’s Daredevil is a mirror of our own lives, and Murdock describes the predicament we’re all in when he addresses the jury in his closing comments:

“A man is dead, and my client, John Healy, took his life. This is not in dispute. What was in my client’s heart…whether he is a good man or something else entirely, is irrelevant. These questions of good and evil, as important as they are, have no place in a court of law. Only the facts matter. My client claims he acted in self-defense. Now, beyond that, beyond these walls, he may well face a judgment of his own making. But here, in this courtroom, the judgment is yours, and yours alone.”

Reality is a courtroom and we are all jurors. Ultimately it makes no difference whether we ask What Would Jesus Do or What Would Daredevil Do because even if God does exist, it’s still up to us to make our own judgments. Even if there are signs, we still have to interpret them. Those are the facts, and they are not in dispute, as Mudrock would say.


(Image via Wikipedia Commons)

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