This is the final part of our three part series on Dr Who and the Daleks, we are looking at the ethical theory known as Consequentialism.
- Doctor Who
- The Daleks
- John Stewart Mill
- Jeremy Bentham
- Raygaun Sound effect by Mike Koenig
Worth picking up
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If the Doctor was a consequentialist would it be morally permissible to exterminate the Daleks given the opportunity? That is what we will consider this time on, The Sci Phi Show
This is the final part of our three part series on ethical theories and we are going to finish with the broad class of ethical theories that fall under the banner of consequentialism. Will the Doctor as consequentialist be able to decide what to do about the Daleks?
So what is consequentialism? As the name suggests what is important to the consequentailist is the consequences of an act. That is the primary if not over riding concern of any moral act according to the consequensialist. You might describe it as an ethic of “the ends justify the means”. This makes it almost a mirror image of the Deontological approach to ethics.
One of the most well known systems of consequentialist ethics is known as “utilitarianism” which finds its recent origins in the ideas of the Philosophers JOhn Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. The idea behind utilitarianism is that you need to define some measure of utility or disutility and then the ethical is whatever maximizes that measure of utility or minimizes that disutiltiy. What is chosen as the specific measure can vary but what is important is the idea that it can be use used to determine the value of an outcome. Bentham and Mill chose pleasure as their measure of utility, others have chosen the ability to experience pain and you could conceivably choose anything as the measure of utility. The purpose of all this measuring and weighing outcomes is to try to place ethics on what was seen as a scientific foundation. IF you can measure it then you can do calculations and this provides you with a science of ethics.
One of the interesting differences between Bentham and Mill when they choose pleasure as a measure of “the good” was that they disagreed over the nature of pleasure. Benthan thought that one pleasure was as good as any other. At the time he lived there was a simple childrens game called “push-pin” and Bentham remarked that “Push pin was as good as poetry” provided it made you happy. Mill disagreed and divided the pleasures into higher and lower pleasures. That poetry, the arts and higher pleasures were of a different order than more sensual pleasures. Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied as it were.
Obviously these approaches differ radically from Deontological approaches to ethics but in a sense they are an attempt to do the same basic thing. Like deontology, consequentialist seek to “boil ethics” down to some single basic principle that can be applied universally and provide a guide to living the ethical life without all that bother about character and soul making that infests virtue ethics.
There are other schools of consequentialist thought but they all generally trace roots back to this classical utilitarianism and seek to refine the original insight and deal with some of the problems associated with it.
So what are some of the problems Consequentialist ethical theories have? We will look at some of the challenges utilitarianism specifically, as this will provide a good summary of the sorts of problems that can be encountered and many consequentialist ethical system that came after the original Utilitarianism has sought to answer these objections.
The most basic criticism of classical utilitarianism is that the calculation it wishes to perform is impossible unless you are God. It seems difficult to see how any individual human being or group of human beings could ever do the utilitarian calculation, it seems like it requires omniscience to be capable of doing it. How can we possibly know the exact consequences of an act or series of acts? Without an exhaustive knowledge of all possible futures how can we choose one act over another?
There is a term in philosophy called a counter-factual. A counter factual is a set of circumstances that could have been the case but was not. It could have been the case that I had toast for breakfast instead of cereal but I did not. That set of events in which I had toast did not come to pass.
IT seems for utilitarianism to be workable then I need to be able to know these exhaustively. There may always be one I have yet to consider that might bring about more utility. Without a property like omniscience how can I ever know? There is an answer to this criticism and it is a reformulation of the basic idea called Rule-Utilitarianism. This seeks to avoid the problem by avoiding the case by case calculation and instead seeking to find a general purpose set of rules that will tend on average to result in consequences that lead to greater utility. This would seem to solve the basic problem of decision paralysis that accompanies classical utilitarianism but t does seem to have the same basic problem that it is difficult to determine what that set of rules should be. In one sense the task is simpler because every action is relieved of the burden of having to everywhere and always increase utility provided they do on average result in this increase, but it is simultaneously more difficult because it seems difficult to see how calculating a set of general rules that applies to myriad circumstances and overage increases utility is simpler than the original task.
IT seems that some simply cheat and claim that the basic ethical framework we have inherited from our forebears provides a set of rules for which the calculation has already been done by trial and error over the centuries but it seems illegitimate to simply appropriate someone else very different grounding and foundation for ethics and claim that this is how yours would work out if you did the calculations.
There is also the more seriously problem, that rule utilitarianism tries to address as well, that utilitarianism leads to some very immoral conclusions. In its basic form it seems that utilitarianism would say on an island of 100 people, with 99 cannibals and 1 non-cannibal, the maximum amount of happiness could be achieved by the cannibals killing and each eating 1/99th of the non-cannibal. This seems an odd conclusion for an ethical framework to reach but it does seem to be the correct one based on the utility of maximizing pleasure. The school of utilitarian thought that seeks to minimize pain and suffering as a measure of utility does provide a resolution to this dilemma though.
However this criticism suggests something interesting. Perhaps the whole enterprise is misguided. If you remember an earlier episode on epistemology there was a very simple way to either maximize the number of true beliefs or minimize the number of false beliefs a person has. You either believe everything you are told or else disbelieve everything you are told and this will work perfectly to insure you have either the maximum or minimum number of true or false beliefs as required. But this was defective because the goal in practice is to minimize one while maximizing the other. Perhaps the same is going to need to be true for utilitarian ethical systems. That you need multiple measures that need to be balances against one another rather than just one measure.
There is a utilitarian framework known as desirism that seeks to balance the satisfaction of desires with the thwarting of desires and attempts to fomulate a set of rules based on insuring that the most number of desires can be fulfilled while simultaneously minimizing the number of desires thwarted.
IT seems for all these consequenctalists theories though, there are two major criticisms that are difficult to over come and are probably fatal to them or at least are going to be very difficult to overcome.
The first of these is the observation that this isn't really an ethical system at all. Moral mistakes are reduced to miscalculation. Was the holocaust evil or just a bad calculation? It seems to reduce moral wrong doing to an intellectual mistake, bad ethical arithmetic. Does this seem reasonable? It would appear that consequentialism removes the ethical dimension from life entirely by reducing it to something else entirely. Whatever is meant by “ethics” it is entirely reducible to something other than ethics. It has been criticized as being a thin ethical system but upon closer inspection it seems that it isnt an ethical system at all. I;m not sure how a consequentialist can deal with this problem? I'm not even sure they would want to, it would seem that such a reduction is actually the goal. To show that ethics is “nothing but” something more basic.
The second serious problem is more subtle but I think a far greater problem. Good people aren't utilitarians. The more saintly and morally perfect you are the less likely you are to buy into a consequentialist framework, its “the ends justify the means” approach to moral reasoning. None of the great saints that I have seen reason in this fashion. Some might be deontologists and most are virtue ethicist, none are consequentialists. But this would suggest something profoundly strange if consequentialist ethics are the right approach. It means that the more morally perfect a person is, the less intellectually perfect they are because they are moving away from the truth. What do we make of a human nature that is wired in such a perverse fashion? There is an interesting question of philosophical anthropology here and we will return to the idea in a future episode.
So can the Doctor as consequentialist decide what to do about the Daleks? In one sense the decision might be simple, the outcome will be better if the Dalek's are gone, although perhaps it isn't that simple. On basic Utiliatairismism it seems that the Daleks will derive an enormous amount o pleasure from exterminating everyone else and setting themselves up as the supreme beings in the universe. Of course there is a negative set of displeasure on the other side of the scales. So how could the doctor balance this? Perhaps the choice is simple? I suspect not, but that is because regardless of the ethical framework you employ an act like genocide can never be a simple one. We all seem to recognize in the Daleks a great moral evil precisely because they are so comfortable with the idea of genocide.
Ultimately, regardless of the ethical framework that is adopted it seems that they all reach a difficult decision in dealing with the Daleks. It isn't simply to decide what to do about them and we see the Doctor agonize over it every time he is confronted with the possibility. Perhaps the Doctor is a better man than many of us that find his dilemma strange. 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 you do enjoy the show please go over to our facebook page and click like. 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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