Sunday 24 November 2013

Pure utilitarianism in The day of the Doctor - Dr Who 50th anniversary episode


No spoilers coming-up in this, BTW - the following is an abstract discussion. 

I watched the 'Dr Who' 50th anniversary edition yesterday having begun to watch in 1965 with The Web Planet - I use the scare quotes to indicate that although the revived series (since 2005) has many enjoyable aspects - the modern protagonist is not the real Doctor Who since he 1. Behaves like a superhero and 2. Is a sexual being - who makes frequent smutty comments and snogs girls almost as much as did Captain Kirk.

Anyway, the episode was enjoyable in the series's now usual flashy and self-referential way, and with sweetness and depth to it in parts.

But it revealed the inadequacy of the utilitarian ethic that forms the basis for 'Dr Who' and many other similar adventure series: I mean the idea that 'The Doctor''s goal is to save lives and prevent or alleviate suffering, on the largest scale possible.

So the dilemma for much of the Day of the Doctor episode revolved around how many people's lives could/ would be saved if 'The Doctor' does X, compared with if he did Y (when both X and Y led to extremely large numbers of innocent casualties).

I think the starkness with which this dilemma was presented in Day of the Doctor showed very clearly that utilitarianism does not work as an ethical frame and leads to morally unacceptable dilemmas - when both options are wrong - and in which ethical 'deliberation' is reduced to an elite expert combination of knowledge and skill, concerned with numbers, statistics and probabilities.

(I won't say how this specific dilemma was solved/ avoided - but the method is itself specific, not general, because it leaves utilitarianism intact as the underlying ethic, without solving the serious problem of inadequacy revealed so starkly in the earlier plot.)



Crosbie said...

'Moral dilemmas' seem to be rare in real life. In practice we seem to face the choice of doing right or doing wrong. I wonder if this is the way the world is made? I suspect that fake moral dilemmas are constructed to justify doing wrong.

Bruce Charlton said...

@C "I suspect that ... moral dilemmas are constructed to justify doing wrong."

Yes, I think that is usually true.

However, whatever the intention, in this show the thing which came out for me was the actual *style of reasoning* being applied to the moral dilemma - that was what was most revealing, rather than the answer, or even the fact of the dilemma.

Arakawa said...

[Note, I haven't seen Day of the Doctor; my knowledge of the new series is vaguely up to Season 6 (I think?), around the point where I started finding it a bit tiresome.]

A trolley problem on Dr. Who? Yeesh. Maybe the era that gave us stuff like Genesis of the Daleks could have handled that kind of thing decently, but not the latest incarnation.

Particularly since the old Dr. Who was still science fiction (even if it could be wildly inconsistent from story to story), whereas the new series is definitely more of a fantasy in space. And in a fantasy or fairy tale, having a sober metaphysics beneath the handwavy surface becomes far more important. It certainly doesn't have to be Christian, but something; or else there's no real reason for things to be resolved one way or another, and it won't hang together except on a level of pure sentimentalism.

To give the newer writers credit, they are good at coming up with horror conceits. The Weeping Angels, The Silence. Whatever the deal was with the people who copy one another's voices in Midnight. Stuff like that.

asdf said...

I suspect that fake moral dilemmas are constructed to justify doing wrong.

I remember when I was young thinking that problems where good and evil were easy to discern were "boring" because I personally, with my big brain, would have no insight on the matter.

I also think this is an inherent problem with managerialism and mass society. Someone did a study of the majors of Harvard grads and it was loaded in economics and other statistics based studies that turn people into numbers. All to prepare these people to their future of shaping society via spreadsheet, a process that lends itself to crass utilitarianism and dehumanization.

Gerard Mason said...

I agree with Arakawa: Dr Who is no longer Science Fiction: the modern reboot is simply "science panto". In this, Dr Who simply shares the fate of non-fictional science programmes: where once we had Horizon and The Sky at Night, now we have Bang Goes the Theory.

Science, and its Fiction, apparently need to be relentlessly trivialised in order to make them "relevant" to today's busy 16-year-old mums.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GM - I agree the new Dr Who isn't Sci Fi but then neither was the old Dr Who. It has always been the adventures of a character - my objection is that the character has changed fundamentally - into a sex symbol. (I leave aside the crude, didactic and dishonest political correctness smeared over the narratives.) On the other hand, taken as NOT-Dr Who, there are plenty of good ideas and plots, and good writing; and considerable pathos at times.

Arakawa said...

I was discussing the series with someone who said "essentially, the Doctor is a wizard who dresses up his magic in scientobabble in order to keep his companions from going mad".

Just thinking aloud here....

Tangentially, that raises the question of what sort of archetype the Doctor is, now that there are two such characters (according to Bruce, the original doctor and the... uh... sex symbol one). I'm trying to relate the Doctor to other literature or media where the focus of the story is a hyper-competent character who knows more than everyone, and can think his way out of any conundrum. Dr Who is certainly an extreme example of this, though, and on paper it sounds like a recipe for an insufferable character, but the Dr is always far more appealing in practice... a lot of it due to the work the actor puts into being just fun to watch.

Perhaps the deeper appeal is a sort of 'eucatastrophe for the liberal mind'. Not always, but sometimes, the situation seems hopeless but then the Doctor pulls the solution out of nowhere, pulling off a miracle while staying within the secular premise of the show.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ara - I agree that Dr Who is the Wizard archetype - and therefore ought to be asexual - lest, like Merlin, sexuality leads to his demise. The wizard cannot be motivated by sex, nor can he be married; nor can he drink alcohol, or dance or anything like that.

(Tom Baker, the fourth doctor - although in real life a very different character - had the doctor go into a pub and ask for a pint of Beer (pause) Ginger Beer.)

So doctor who should be like a grown-up boy of 9 years old.

Everybody knows this, instinctively, and it is propagandistic, nihilistic Leftism which makes the Doctor Who writers deliberately and knowingly transgress these limits - subversion and inversion.

Thus the modern Doctor is no longer a wizard archetype, but a 'superhero', which is simply an adult wish-fulfillment fantasy - not an archetype. Thus continually being praised in set-piece speeches by his (sexual) companions.

Indeed, the modern Doctor Who is more like James Bond than Gandalf. (Or James Bond combined with Q - who makes the gadgets.)