The question of Deontology 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
- Deontological Ethics
- Immanuel Kant
- The Categorical Imperative
- Divine Command Theory
Worth picking up
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Doctor Who, the Daleks and Deontological Ethics
In this second part of a three part series on Dr Who, the Daleks and ethics, we look at Deontological Ethics and ask whether the Deontologist can exterminate the Daleks, on the sci phi show.
Last time we looked at the question of Virtue ethics and whether it was permissible for the Doctor, as virtue ethicist to commit genocide and rid the universe of the scourge of the Daleks. Not an easy decsion for the virtue ethicist to make. This time we will consider a second school of ethical though, that of the Deontologist.
The word deontological comes from the GReek word Deon which means duty and logos which in this context means study of. This is a fitting name because at its hearts deontological theories of ethics are rooted in moral obligations that a person has a binding duty to honour. There are a number of schools of deontological ethics but I will touch on two of the larger ideas, the Categorical Imperative of Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant and Divine Command Theory.
Unlike virtue ethics, Deontological ethics aim at keeping a binding set of rules and what is important as an over riding concern is the right motives for an act. This distinguioshes it from the other modern ethical framework Consequentialism that determines the rightness or wrongness of an act depending on its consequences. Deontology can care about the results of an act but they are generally a secondary concern if they rate as concerns at all. What matters is an act, founded in duty and done because it is the right act in a given circumstance. What matters is the motive for the action.
This is unusual because it seems there are three facets to any moral act. The motive, the act itself and the consequences. The consequentists likewise reduce morality to one of these three concerns instead of considering all three.
So how does the deontologist determine this set of right and wrong acts? Interestingly the two schools we will look at, although similar on the surface arrive at radically different answers to this question.
Immaneul Kant faced a delimma in ethics and he was confronted with the question of whether ethics could be a scientific enterprise. He thought t could and he formulated two variations of the Categorical Imperative to create a foundation for ethical behavior. The first formultion of the categorical imperative
“Act only according to that maxim whreby you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”,
is quite interesting. Kant thinks he can derive all of ethics from this principle. One thing to note, it is empty of content. This formualtion of the categorical imperative is a purely formal rule. It has antecedents in moral thought, the most obvious of these is the Golden Rule, eihter in its negative formation “???” or the positive formulation “Do unto others as youwould have them do unto you”. This does seem like this might be a workable foundation for morality although it has a few problems.
But first lets consider what works about it, the Categorical Imperative does make sense of why some actions are morally bad. If I lie or steal from you then I am trying to do something that couldn't work or be effective as a universal rule. I could not will that everybody act in this fashion, especially lying. For me to be able to lie to you requires that you think I have some general obligation to be truthful to you. IF lying were the rule it would not be at all useful. Being truthful by comparison as a universal rule is useful. So I think the CAtegorical Imperative is right in seeing that moral wrong doing is where we are carving out e3xceptions to moral rules to suit and advantage ourselves. Although this does reduce being moral to being logically consistent.
There is problem with this formulation though. It can't make sense of acts of what is known as supererogation. Supererogatory acts are acts that go above and beyond the call of duty and these are normally regarded as especially morally praise worthy acts, but they are by definition acts that go above and beyond what is expected morally from people. But the CAtegorical imperative would either command that superogatory acts are obligatory for all, which is impossibly burdensome, or that such acts have no or negative moral worth. This seems like a strange conclusion to reach. That it is wrong to make moral exceptions for yourself in the direction of acts that are better than what duty demands. So it seems to fall short here and run counter to our moral intuitions.
There are another couple of problems that seem difficult to resolve as well. The first of these is that the Imperative as formulated is empty of content. What if everybody willed as a moral law that it was ok to tortue animals or that the best life is one lived in a perpetual drunken stupor. You might object “but nobody would will that!”, although it seems that some people might and it seems logically possible that such things could be willed. How do we make sense of the idea that these are not proper things to will?
Another problem, and I think a more significant one is that it runs counter to some fairly deep moral intutitions that we have. Is duty really all there is to morality? IS that really the only valid motive for doing a moral act? It would seem that duty isn't the primary motication but the final defence against doing the wrong thing. “Do your duty” is the encouragement given to troops as they are scared in the 10th hour of the bombardment and their courage has failed them. Keeping a marriage vow because it is your duty too is the final bulwark when you already are strongly tempted and have started to give into the desire for infidelity. This seems like a poor foundation to build upon. Also consider the following. If my wife asked me, “Why do you stay with me?”, which is the better answer. “Because I love you” or “because I have a binding moral duty according to the categorical imperative”?
A final problem is that it can't really make sense of an observation about a profpund difference between saints and sinners. Saints should be understood and a deeply morally virtious person, a person who by habit tends to do the good, while a sinner should be understood as someone who is generally morally corrupt and have difficulty doing the right thing. Whst we observer is that Saints enjoy doing the right thing. That they derive enjoyment and pleasure from good acts while sinners feel pain and discomfort from doing morally good acts. It does recognize that choosing the riught action is easier and more rewraing for a person who makes a habit of it, but it would seem to rob that act of value as it ceases to be motivated simply by duty. The Philosopher Peter Kreeft told a story to illustrate this idea. St Francis of Assissi and Bluebeard the priate are walking together in Rome when there is an earth quake and a bank vault breaks open and spills gold coins into the street. For St Francis, with his accustomed vow of poverty the gold is no temptation at all, the saint can pass up the opportunity for theft with no difficulty and even enjoys the opportunity. But bluebeard is tempted to steal the gold he sees. But this time bluebeard decides not to steal the gold, that for the first time in his life he will choose the right action and leave the gold where is it.
Who is the better man? Accorind the Imperative, Bluebeard is acting from duty, even though it causes him emotaional turmoil to pass up the gold, Francis is acting from habit. In this instant is Bluebeard really the more moral of the two? That seems like a strange conclusion but if duty is the only motivator then it would seem to follow.
There is another formulation of the Categorical imperative that is different to the first and isn't purely formal. It says, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merel as a means to an end but always at the same time as an end”. In short, don't use people instrumentally, the way you would use an obejct but treat them as an end in themselves. This formualtion is less purely formal, it makes reference to other people specifically and differentiates them from mere onbjects. I'm not sure the reformulation ads much although it is priobbly clearer in intent.
There is also a third formulation, “Therefore, every rational being mut so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislatong member in the universal kingdom of ends”. Although this isn't substantially different fro the second version, it is a bit more general and would cover the case of sentient aliens, which might prove useful when we consider the daleks.
The other large branch of Deontological ethics is called Divine Command Theory and to finds the basis for ethics in a defined set of moral laws that are binding on human beings. The difference from Kant's Catagorical Imperative is that the laws are, as the name suggests, Commands from God. The out working of this idea is similar. God commands a set of moral principles and these are binding obligations for humans as a result.
The most significant difference between Divine Command Theory and the Categorical imperative is that it is heterononmous whereas KAnts idea is autonomoous. The list of rules comes from outside rather than being the product of the self reasons. One of the implications of this difference is quite significant. It means that in Divinve commnad theory men are subject to God's commands, but in Kant's ethical framework men are effectivly little gods themselves, setting out the rules in line with the CAtegorical Imperative. Although on the surface they are similar frameworks, underneath they are as differnet as can be.
There are a number of criticisms of Divine Command Theory and it is subject to some of the same criticisms as Kant's theory, but probably the most significant of these criticisms is known as the Eythrpho Dilemma put forward by Plato . The Euthyphro dilemma asks the question, “Do the gods command the good, or does the gods command make the good” (get the exact wording). Essentially what Plato was gettig at is the idea that either, the Good is something exeternal to the gods, that the gods are not required for the good, or else the good as decreed by the gods is essentially arbitrary. There are a number of different attempts to address the Eythrpho dileramma and they will feature in a future episode.
So where does all this leave the doctor? IF the Doctor was subject to the commands of some particular deity then just checking the deities opinion on the Daleks would make the decision to eliminate them quite simple. However the time lords appear to have no gods as scuh so that avenue will be closed to us. It would seem we are only left with the Categorical Imperative to go on. At first glance it is difficult to see how the Categorical imperative could allow for the genocide of the Daleks. You could never reasonably claim that the eliminaton of a sentient speicies was a binindg moral command that could be willing as a universal rule for all othe sentient beings.
One possible way to deal with the issue is to assume that the Daleks have placed themselves outside the memebrs of the universal kingdom of ends, that they don't qualify as humanity in a suitably broad sense. After all they are bent on exzterminating everyone not like themselves, so a case could probably be made that they have forfeited the right to be considered part of the relevant community. Alternativily, perhap youcould argue you are just doing what the Daleks want and enacting their maxim for them by exterminating them? I suspect this might be just a rhetorical trick though. Perhaps deontology of the Kantian variety can't really help us with this situation. It is one of those ethical corner cases and a hard and fast rule may not be able to deal with that.
Does denontology work for you? I am firmly in the virtue ethics camp myself but the conrete rules of deontology do have a certain simple ethical appeal. It is eaey to follow a set of rules once you understand them and many people in my religious tradition, the Christian one, have subscrined to vartions on the Divine Command Theory Theme. You can find more information on the different ideas contained in this episode in the show notes on sciphishow.com. 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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