Morality is a tricky subject.
It is also, to an extent, a subjective one, though here, in the Western World, the majority of us, regardless of religion, are guided by a few essential commandments and a purported (I said purported) penchant for law and order.
Morality becomes especially sticky when there are vigilantes involved. Vigilantes such as Daredevil and The Punisher–as presented in Season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil, specifically.
Several different theories of morality and moral development have cropped up over the years. One of the most enduring you’ll recognize from your Sociology 101 class: Lawrence Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development. (I’m using this article on Simply Psychology to refresh my memory, but Google “Kholberg’s Theory” and you’ll get any number of sources, some, of course, more reputable than others.) Unlike Piaget, from whom his theory was built, Kohlberg was less concerned about whether his subjects deemed a particular action right or wrong but, rather, in the reasoning through which each individual arrived at his/her conclusion. Through a variety of interviews and studies, Kohlberg determined that morality develops in most people in three levels, each of which is divided into two stages. (Why not just six stages? I have no idea; don’t make the news, just report it, etc.)
- Level I: Pre-Conceptual Morality (early childhood through early adolescence)
- Stage I: One follows the rules to avoid punishment.
- Stage II: One follows the rules so one might be rewarded with what he/she wants.
- Level II: Conventional Morality (adolescence through adulthood)
- Stage III: One conforms to norms so as to be considered a good citizen and to fit in with others.
- Stage IV: One follows rules/laws to maintain a cohesive society.
- Level III: Post-Conceptual Morality (adulthood, if at all, though there is one notable comic book exception I may have written about on a previous occasion. Kohlberg felt the majority of people are satisfied to remain at the Stage IV Law and Order, happy, shiny society place).
- Stage V: One believes that it is acceptable to violate laws/rules if one is doing so for the greater good.
- Stage VI: One believes he/she has an obligation to disobey unjust laws and to create a new, universal, sustainable form of justice.
What, you’re probably asking yourself, does this have to do with the Daredevil mythos?
Each major character in that mythos, at least as presented in Seasons 1 and 2, represents a different stage of moral development. If, however, you look very closely at the rationale behind character actions, the breakdown isn’t at all what you’d expect.
In the end, Matt Murdock, Daredevil himself, falls out as the least moral character while Frank Castle, The Punisher, Mister Beat-‘Em-Until-They-Bleed-to-Death is the most moral.
Hold on to your brains.
We’re going to leave Elektra out of this conversation because she is, effectively, amoral: she does what she wants, when she wants, with little consideration of the consequences (there are exceptions, but I’m trying to go spoiler-free for those who have not yet had the opportunity to partake).
We’re also going to skip Stage I for now so that I might reach a thunderously glorious conclusion a little further down the page.
Stage II is admirably represented by Karen Paige. How so? Karen is motivated by self-interest. She becomes embroiled in the Union Allied debacle and the S2 conspiracy because she wants the truth. Her truth. She isn’t unfeeling and she certainly doesn’t throw anyone into harm’s way deliberately but she isn’t particularly careful to keep them out of the way either. Her main motivation is her reward: the answers she craves. Without that, it’s unlikely she’d ever have become involved at all.
Stage III’s representative? Wilson Fisk. Fisk more moral than Karen, you ask? But he’s a bad guy. He’s the flippin’ Kingpin. Yup. He is. But he has a code. Yes, he benefits immensely from his methods but his ultimate goal is to be a good citizen. A powerful citizen? Yes. A rich citizen? Yes. A brutal citizen? Obviously. But for the most part, he does follow social norms. He craves conformity. He certainly wants to establish his own empire, but he holds himself to the standards he sets out just as he holds everyone else to them. It may not be a conventional “good” society, but it is clear, orderly, and universal.
Foggy Nelson is my choice for Stage IV: Law and Order. Foggy acknowledges more than once that Hell’s Kitchen needs the Devil but it’s a clear dilemma for him because what Matt does is outside the law while Foggy lives and breathes the very same. To him, despite its flaws, there is no higher power in the land than the justice system and the order it maintains. In the end, he chooses the law over his own satisfaction and friendship.
Stage V is embodied in the person of Claire Temple. While she has issue with a great many rules, regulations, and even laws, while she’ll bend and even break them if it means saving a life, she does have limits as to how far she’ll go. In S1, there was a single situation in which she advised Matt on how to inflict the greatest amount of pain on a man he was interrogating but she regretted it immediately. She helped Matt rather than turning him into the police, but his injuries are the limit of her assistance after their initial meeting. On Jessica Jones, we saw her sneak Jessica and Luke out of the hospital and keep Jessica clear of the police despite the knowledge that Jessica had shot Luke after Luke attacked her (under Kilgrave’s influence). This season she ends up in open confrontation with hospital administration, the job she loves threatened, because she saw an injustice and did everything she could to correct it. Claire will not, however, under any circumstances, raise a hand to, let alone kill, anyone who isn’t directly threatening her life.
Which brings us to Stage VI and back around to Stage I.
Stage I, the most immature stage of moral development and Stage VI, the most mature, a stage that most people never reach but that Frank Castle, The Punisher, does.
Here we go:
Individuals in Stage I of moral development are motivated by the threat of punishment. They limit their actions only to avoid censure or “getting in trouble.” To avoid being punished by a lawful society. Those in Stage VI, however, the universal ethics stage, have no use for a lawful society and focus instead, on a universally just one. People in this rarely-achieved stage feel they have the obligation to actively disobey unjust laws and commit themselves fully to destroying existing social conventions in favor of a new, sustainable, fair across-the-board framework.
What sets Castle above Murdock on Kholberg’s scale?
The Punisher himself explains it when he says to Daredevil (don’t worry, this is from the trailer), “You’re just one bad day away from being me.”
What keeps Matt from crossing that line? Yes, he works outside the law; yes, he hurts people for what he considers the common good. But he stops short of killing. Why? Because he thinks killing is wrong? Vaguely, but there’s a larger issue. Because he’s afraid to kill? Nope, he’s the Man Without Fear. Except that he’s not. There is one thing Matt Murdock fears and that is punishment. Not from man but from his god. Matt stays his hand when he knows the world would be better off without a murderer or a rapist or a drug dealer because he is afraid of damnation and that is the only thing that stops him. All of his concern for right and wrong and sin is based on a system of law and order, ruled over by a single judge who is also jury and executioner.
Frank Castle has no such compunctions. Frank Castle could give a fig for sin or hell or god. The only thing Frank Castle cares about is justice. Justice for his family, yes, but also for the world at large. Are his methods horrific and brutal? Yes. Absolutely. No question. But they are applied unilaterally and without prejudice. There are innocents and there are those who do harm and those who do harm must be eradicated for the sake of those who have done none. The law judges him. The public judges him. He doesn’t care because he knows what he is doing, within his framework, is right. That he is establishing a new justice he believes will serve the people better than the current one. And before you launch a grenade at me, no, Hitler wasn’t Stage VI: he harmed innocents and his justice was not universally applied. The Punisher doesn’t and it is.
Is this reality? Can it be? No. Absolutely not. I in no way advocate a society where one man gets to run around shooting whomever he deems needful of execution even if those people have all harmed someone, stolen, murdered. I, in fact, hate guns and I’m almost unilaterally against the death penalty. Do I think we need a Punisher? No, I don’t. Okay, well, for the sake of full disclosure, there are times I think about children molesters and rapists getting a Frank Castle special to the face or genitals but sadly, if we allow that, then we have to allow the rest of it and I think we can all agree that hip-deep in blood is no way to live.
Maybe The Punisher is a good rationale for most people to fall short of that final stage of moral development. Why our default, if we’re lucky, is Foggy or, if we’re really evolved, Claire. Because we know in the end that we need one another, that to be the last man standing is to be king of all you survey when what you survey is a pile of corpses.
I like my vigilante comic heroes as much as the next geek and, yes, I do think we need them. Nothing wrong with wish fulfillment. In the pages of books and comics and on our screens. Vigilantes are, by definition, outside the law, but if you look carefully Matt Murdock, you’ll see he isn’t above it. Few are. Each of the Avengers has their own motivation. Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, Captain Marvel. Batman wants revenge for the death of his parents. Green-Lantern is a space cop, which puts him squarely at Stage IV. Green Arrow, The Flash… There’s something in it for all of them, be it a personal vendetta or the maintenance of law.
Does that make them any less awesome? Nope. Any less heroic? Nope.
That’s a more difficult question to answer, isn’t it?