The question of Virtue Ethics as an ethical framework and how this would apply to a decision to eliminate the Daleks is what we will consider on this episode of the Sci Phi Show.
- Doctor Who
- The Daleks
- Virtue Ethics
- Chinese ethical traditions
- Hindu Ethical traditions
- Ethics in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism
- Ancient Greek Ethical Theories
- The Natural Law Tradition
- Sci Phi Show on The Good Life
- The Golden Mean
- The Cardinal Virtues
- Aristotles Minor Virtues
- The Theological Virtues
- Augustine of Hippo
- The Meno by Plato
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau
- Thomas Hobbes
- Niccolo Machiavelli”
- Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
- The Fall of Man
- Genesis of the Dalkes
- 9th Doctor meets the last Dalek
- The Dalek Crucible
- Raygaun Sound effect by Mike Koenig
Worth picking up
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For the recent 50th anniversary of Doctor Who we will consider the question of the Doctor, the Daleks and what to do about them on this episode of the Sci Phi Show
I have enjoyed Doctor Who since I was a kid growing up with Tom Baker, Peter Davidson And Sylvester McCoy as various regeneration's of the Doctor and I have been enthralled by the new series as well. The Doctor has may foes and has found himself locked in life and death struggles with them over the years, but his most implacable and deadly foe has been the Daleks and there chilling screeches of “exterminate”. Time and again the Doctor has saved the universe from these mechanical menaces. The Daleks are genetically engineered creatures that are the products of the scientist Davros from the planet Skaro. More than once the Doctor has been confronted with the opportunity to rid the universe of the Daleks forever. Should the Doctor do this?
This will be the first of a three part series to look at this question and how the three broad approaches to ethics, Virtue Ethics, Deontological Ethics and Consequentialist ethics approach such a question. This time we will consider it from the perspective of Virtue ethics.
Before we get to the Doctors choice we will need to determine what Virtue Ethics are. The basic conception of virtue ethics goes back, as so much in Western philosphy does, to the ancient greeks and specifically the philosophers Scorates, Plato and Aristotle. There is also a strong virtue ethics tradition in Chinese and Indian philosophy.
Virtue ethics is differenet to the other two ethical frameworks we will look at because it doesn't concentrate on trying to construct a list of rules but is more interested in the soul and character of the person who is called to an ethical life. What matters in virtue ethics is that a person cultivate a virtious character and the virtious person will know how to act in an ethical way in a given situation. There are three basic concepts that lie at the heart of virtue ethics, arete, phronesis and our old friend eudaimonia. Arete is a word that means excellence and carries with it the idea of being the best person you can be. In this context it carries with it the idea of moral excellence and being virtuious, not simply a skilled athelete or the like. Phronesis is a word that means “practical wisdom” and is distinguished from the other greek word “sophia” which is usually translated as “wisdom” but sophia generally denotes “theoretical wisdom”. Phronesis concerns itself with the ability to make practical everyday choices and in a virtue ethics concerns itself with the ability to reason morally and apply what Aristotle terms the first principles of Practical Reason and the Stoic's called The Natural Law. We will return to the idea of the Natural law in a future episode. Finally we come back to eudaimonia. If you remember from the episode about the Good Life, Eudaimonia is a word that is translated happiness or blessedness and in this context carries with it meaning that include human flourishing. Virtue ethics is inevitably a teleological moral enterprise, there are proper ends for human life and ways for a life to be well lived or a life wasted. This stands in contrast to modern notions of “happiness” that see it as just a subjective emotional state.
EAch of the different virtue ethics traditions has a slightly different list of what are the virtues that should be cultivated and I will look at the Greek version of such a list but you will be able to find links in the show notes to the Eastern varieties and we will have a look at those in a future episode.
Before we get to a list of the virtues we need to touch on an important idea from Aristotle. He called it, “the Golden Mean” and it refers to the idea that all virtues are a mid point between two vices. That it was possible to fail to be virtuious in two different ways, either by an excess or a deficiency of the trait. The virtious person will sit on the mean between the two vices. A simple example is courage. There are two mistakes that can be made when it comes to courage. The first is familar and it is cowardice. The coward runs when they should stay and fight, but there is an opposite error that a person can fall into and that is rashness. The rash man will run headlong into danger even when it achieves no good end. The couragerous man is the one who knows when to stay and fight and when it is right to withdraw, to live to fight another day. When to make that decision in any partcular circumstance varies and this is where phronesis comes it. This idea of the Golden Mean appies to all of the classical greek virtues.
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato identified what is known as the 4 cardinal virtues, Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Courage. His student Aristolte identified a further collection of minor virtues in addition to Plato's cardinal virtues. Some of ARistotles minor virtues include Anger, Shame, Self-Expression, Honour, both receviing and giving, conversation and confidence. We could add the modern virtue of tolerance to this list as well. Although the modern idea of tolearance as the only good, and tolerating pretty much anything as a good would seem to be slipping from the golden mean.
The early Christian church adopted Plato's virtues and gave them the name Cardinal virtues and added three Theological virtues to this list in the form of Faith, Hope and Charity. The Chuch theologican and philosopher St. Augustine of Hippo (or was it Aquinas?) said that unlike the 4 Cardinal virtues there was no Golden Mean of the theological virtues. PRovided you understand charity correctly, which in this context means rightly ordered disinterested love for other people then I think this is true.
So how does a person acquire virtue? Plato, in his dialogue, the Meno listed 4 possible approaches to acquring virtue. Although all of them are listed by the Ancient Plato, it seems that of the 4 ways two are steadfastly ancient approaches and 2 are more modern approaches.
The four possible ways to be virtious are, by nature, by instruction, by habit and against nature.
The two modern approaches are the first and the last. The first is the claim that humans are basically good and if left unmolested will live virtuious lives, it is commonly described in the idea of the “noble savage”. That men would be good and virtious but our upbringing in civilization spoils us. This was an idea made popular by the French Philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. I have to wonder if he reconsidered his position towards the end of his life as he lost his head to the guillotine during the (great?) Terror that followed on the heels of the French Revolution after he fell out of favour with the Jacobins (check this).
The fourth option, Against Nature, is an idea we find in Machieavelli and Hobbes. That man left to his own devices is not a noble savage but a little barbarian that needs to have civilization beaten into him, that being virtuous runs counter to mans nature. You find this idea underlying Hobbes ideas in the Leviathan. That man, if not made virtuious against his nature can expect life to be “nasty”, “brutish” and “short”, in Hobbes memorable words.
Finally we have two similar but distinct ideas favoured by Plato and Aristotle. Plato though that virtue was something that was taught. That if you instructed people on how to live virtious lives then, knowing the right course of action, they would undertake it. Virtue was primarily taught by instruction, in school.
Aristotle disagreed with Plato. Although he agreed that Virtue needed to be taught he th9ought that was insufficent and that virtue also needed to be built up by habit. That learning the right choice was not enough, it also need to be practied and become ingrained as the right way to act.
I think Aristotle had it right, that man is capable of being virtious, that it is in line with his nature, but that there is a competing nature that seeks to pull us in the other direction as well. This idea is summed up in the Judeo-Christian story of the fall of man, that we once were virtious as Rosseua thought but that we fell and now have a competing nature that is of the sort Mcheialvellui and Hobbes recognized. How typical of the ancients to find the mid point between the two.
So where does all this leave us with the Doctor? Although the Doctor never quite manages to wipe out the Daleks entirely, he has had opportunity to do what he believed would wipe them out. The question is, should the virtious man do it? In the 4th Doctor story, Genesis of the Daleks, the Doctor is sent by the TIme Lords of Gallifrey to wipe out the Daleks at the time of their creation because the TIme Lords have seen a point in the future where the Daleks have conquered the entire universe. The 9th Doctor confronts what he believes to be the last survivign Dalek of the TIme War and the 10th Doctor faces a simiiar situation in the Cruicible when he can again wipe out the Daleks and rid the universe of them forever.
Should the Doctor do it? Should he take the opporunity to rid the universe of the Daleks forever? The question is complicated by his knowledge that as one of his incarnations observes, the existence of the Daleks will make for many bad things, many tragedies, but it will also allow for great good and cooperation as species are united in the struggle against the Daleks. The choice is not a simple one. BUt then again, it is probably for the best that we struggle with the idea of commiting genocide.
So what would be the virtious choice for the Doctor to make? One time when the Doctor is confronted with the choice, Davros, the seemingly indestrubible crippeld creator of the Daleks challenges the Doctor when he is trying to work out what the best course of action is. Davros tells the Doctor that to flip a switch and destroy the Daleks, to commit the genocide, would mean the Doctor is no better than the Daleks and their genocidal ambition to be the superior lifeform in the universe. In a disturbing comment on human nature, the decision is removed from the Doctor, when the half human regenerated hand of the Doctor, a hybrid timelord human that looks like the doctor but with only one heart, flips the switch and destroys the Daleks without hesistion.
So how should the Doctor decide? How would you decide? Would the virtious man choose to annihliate the Daleks given opportunity? You can find more information on the different ideas contained in this episode in the show notes on sciphishow.com and if you have never seen Doctor Who you can find links to purchase it from Amazon in the show notes. I can be reached with comments via firstname.lastname@example.org, you can leave comment in the show notes at sciphishow.com and you can also leave comments on our Facebook page Facebook.com/sciphishow, you can also follow the show via thesciphishow on twitter. If there is a topic you would like me to look into please don”t hesitateeee to ask. And don't forget, it's Phi with a P H.
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