Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Doctor Who: Deontologist or Consequentialist?

First, for those who aren’t familiar with the good Doctor: Doctor Who is a British TV series, originally beginning in 1963 and re-started a few years ago after a long absence. It’s about the adventures of a Time Lord (who is rather fond of Earth and humans, and often takes a human companion on his adventures). Early on, the series established his most persistent adversary and arch-villain as the only other surviving Time Lord, known as The Master.

In my view, the third season of the revived series is the best so far. Even so, there are some episodes I loathe, especially the one in which a (human) scientist finds a way to achieve physical immortality. Of course, he is portrayed as evil and power mad.

The last two episodes of Season Three revolved around a conflict with The Master. I found myself thinking about the actions and inactions of the Doctor in terms of two moral paradigms that have historically been popular among philosophers: the deontological and consequentialist approaches. (I have long preferred a virtue-based ethics, but it’s hard to get very far away from elements of the other two models of morality.)

In case you don’t remember those Moral Philosophy classes you took years ago, here’s an exceedingly brief recap:

Deontological ethics: The right is prior to the good. In other words, actions are only good if they are the right kind of actions. That typically means that good actions are those that conform to some moral rule (such as Kant’s categorical imperative). The outcomes of an action do not (directly) determine its goodness.

Consequentialist ethics: The good is prior to the right. In other words, the right action is the one that brings about the most good. (In the utilitarian version, that means bringing about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, or sentient beings.) For consequentialists, actions must be judged morally good or bad solely according to their outcomes, not according to motives or the character of the person carrying out the act.

Doctor Who has always been portrayed as an unyieldingly moral person. In particular, he doesn’t kill, no matter how sensible a move that seems to be in even the direst of circumstances.


In the last two episodes of Season Three, The Master uses advanced alien technology to mesmerize the population, getting himself elected Prime Minister of England, then essentially taking control of the entire world. From this base, he intends to expand outward and conquer other races on other planets. With enormous help from his companion, Martha Jones, the Doctor succeeds in toppling The Master after a year of merciless, murderous, dictatorial rule. Everyone in the vicinity (all of whom have suffered badly) desperately urge the Doctor to kill the master. (Being a Time Lord, the Master can regenerate after being killed. But the Doctor could overcome that ability.)

The Doctor will not kill The Master, even though that might seem an eminently sensible thing to do, to prevent future evils should The Master escape. Instead, the Doctor forgives The Master, and plans to watch over him, imprisoned in a (relatively) secure location. Once again, the Doctor displays an absolute refusal to take (intelligent) life. Given the enormous genius and driven psyche of The Master, it’s entirely possible he will escape and cause enormous misery and destruction, but this seems not to weigh at all in the Doctor’s decision.

This suggests that the Doctor lives by a clearly Kantian or deontological moral code. His actions are limited according to what Robert Nozick termed “side-constraints”. Yet, the Doctor also appears to be something of a consequentialist, in that he travels the universe and time eagerly engaging with trouble and righting wrongs. He’s also clearly a universalist, in that his moral concerns transcend species boundaries. Arguably, this is more a feature of consequentialism that of deontology. Utilitarian consequentialists count the pain and pleasure of all feeling beings equally in their moral calculations. Deontologists such as Kant limit the realm of moral concern to a narrow class of beings, usually those counted as capable of rationality.

The writers of this episode, however, either haven’t taken enough Moral Philosophy classes or else took an easy way out. Consider the Doctor’s great agony at The Master’s last move. The Master chooses to let himself die (after being shot by one of the nearby victims) in order to spite the Doctor. (The Doctor doesn’t want to be alone as the last of his race of Time Lords.) The Doctor’s personal desire not to be the last of his species is not universalist, but strongly favors a species-specific valuation of an immensely evil Time Lord over any number of individuals of other species. Nor is his response consequentialist. No principled consequentialist would put his own feelings above the implications of his actions for potentially billions of other sentient beings. It seems to me that the Doctor’s response in this final episode was a melodramatic one that betrays a quite clear deontic ethics.

The episode I detested, mentioned above, followed a long line of stories by numerous writers in taking exceedingly cheap shots at the goal of physical immortality. What underlies the Doctor’s opposition to immortality? Does it make any sense? He lives a long time himself (perhaps over 900 Earth years so far). What possible deontic objection could he have to a human being wanting to greatly extend his life, and those of others who so chose? Even if the Doctor is a closet consequentialist, merely masquerading as a deontologist, he cites no consequentialist objection.

Among us regular human beings, I strongly suspect much stated opposition to physical immortality (or superlongevity) is essentially rooted in resentment. If I can’t live indefinitely then, dammit, living indefinitely must be a bad thing. Having lived for centuries and apparently having enjoyed most of it, perhaps even Doctor Who lies to himself about this, being unable to face what he takes to be the inevitability of his eventual death.