Doctor Who and the Existential Tragedy of an Ethical Life

I recently came across a thought-provoking article by Andrew Blair about the morality in Doctor Who which has got me thinking about ethics, non-violence in particular.

A few months ago, I would have glanced at the article and passed on by.  For better and worse, I’m the type of person that ferociously avoids anything that looks like a fad. Seeing Doctor Who merchandise everywhere made me wary.  I’m not intentionally acerbic; I just operate on the heuristic that popular material is less likely to have real substance than more obscure stuff.  But this time I was wrong.

I recently graduated from college and needed some down-time and entertainment.  Knowing that my best friend, whose judgment I trust,  l.o.v.e.s Doctor Who, I decided to give it a whirl, starting at episode one of the 2005 revival of the show.  I was hooked.  A few short weeks later I am almost caught up and ready to plunge into classic Doctor Who.  Sure, there were some superficial reasons that kept me glued, like my obsession with Catherine Tate, David Tennant, and British taste in general.  And while it’s true that it has some aesthetic ‘tricks’ to keep a general audience interested (It is a tv show after all), the story lines have real importance and go beyond mere entertainment.  The Doctor and the creatures he encounters face serious metaphysical, existential, and ethical puzzles.

Which brings me back to Blair’s article.  Blair addresses Terrance Dicks’ claim that the Doctor is ‘never cruel or cowardly.’  He points out that the Doctor does sometimes kill creatures or let them die, and his treatment of the Daleks in particular is …less than non-violent.  He seems to be saying that though the Doctor’s aim is non-violence, he often contradicts himself or is inconsistent.  I’d like to contend, though, that the Doctor acts fairly consistently with his principles throughout the show and that it is his contexts which make him seem to abandon his primary principle.

Of course, it is just a show written by various people, so we can’t expect air-tight consistency or pure philosophy.  But I still think we can abstract some important points about what it is to live an ethical life.

Ethics boils down to values.  We act according to what we value.  We abstract general principles for action based on what we think will help us achieve our values.  We choose that which we think is most valuable.  In existentialist terms, when we make choices or when we act, we are affirming what we think humanity ought to be.  We are choosing for all humankind what kind of a thing (essentially) we should be.  According to Sartre, the one thing we are not free to choose is to not choose.  Even our inaction is a choice.

“I am my choices. I cannot not choose. If I do not choose, that is still a choice. If faced with inevitable circumstances, we still choose how we are in those circumstances.”

So when the Doctor finds himself in various circumstances, he HAS to make a choice (actually, a plethora of choices).  Non-violence is not about doing nothing.  Non-violence is about being active towards the goal of being non-violent.  The values that inform the principles of non-violence are life and freedom.  The Doctor deeply cherishes the nearly infinite variety of species and wants them to flourish.

So he has very definite principles and values.  But then the world enters in….

Martha Nussbaum has pointed out that when one tries to live an ethical life, the world enters in and creates tragedy.  If we are attempting to uphold multiple values in life, since the world is neither simplistic nor rational, we will find ourselves in situations in which it is impossible to honor each value.  We will have to choose between two (or more) unethical choices.  This is precisely what creates tragedy.  An immoral person will not experience tragedy in the same way. She will simply throw out one of her values without a second thought.

Nussbaum uses Agamemnon as a case in point.  At war with Troy, Agamemnon faced an excruciating moral choice.  He could either sacrifice his daughter to save the State, or he could save his daughter and let the State fall.  He is caught between two responsibilities, as a father and a citizen.  The purely logical choice is to kill the one for the sake of the many.  If Agamemnon were only interested in rationality without a sense of values or human compassion, this choice would be accompanied with minimal pain, but since he is trying to live an ethical life, his choice to kill his daughter is an absolute tragedy.  There was no good choice.  The world created a disaster for him.

Now, most of us are not faced with such decisions.  Our tragedies will be on much smaller scales.  The fate of nations are not in my hands.

But not so for the Doctor…..

The Doctor has the fate of WORLDS in his hands.  The choices he has to make are even more tricky than those of Agamemnon.  It would be dishonest if he never killed anyone and assuaged his conscience by saying that he was honoring his principle of non-violence.  His inaction WOULD be action, and he would be ignoring his basic values of the promotion of life.  When he is violent, he is not, as Blair suggests,  choosing “end justifies means” over “adherence to principles.”  Rather, he is painfully adhering to principles in a world where no completely right choice exists.

So, I think this amazing show has a lot to say about real-world ethics.  I am a staunchly non-violent person, but I can’t say that I would never-ever use violence to protect the lives of many.  After all, in the face injustice, it would be wrong to do nothing.  We don’t live in a clear-cut world, so our decisions will always be followed by some degree of regret or sorrow.

Happy thoughts….


~ by falleninparadise on January 22, 2014.

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