Another week has gone by, and I am here to share my (hopefully not to boring) culmination of thoughts. Throughout this week, reflection of the philosophical sort have been running around in my mind. Rather, one question in particular. What began with a sci-fi television episode was brought to the forefront once more at a lecture on “animals, ethics, and the problem of moral inconsistency”. Of course, then there’s the fact that I’ve been listening to Les Mis and that tends to generate some rather deep thinking as well. Right, so the mood was set for pondering…
If you are familiar with the longstanding British show Doctor Who, you then are familiar with the types of moral issues the program encourages discussions of. For those of you who have no clue what I’m talking about, let me explain (or try to – I am a fairly recent Whovian, after all). Doctor Who is a show about an alien called a Time Lord, which we thus far only ever know as “The Doctor”. The Doctor travels around in vessel called the TARDIS. It resembles a blue police box on the outside, but is much more spacious on the inside and takes him on adventures throughout time and space. Through his ventures he meets new people and tends to travel with a companion or companions who are usually humans.
Now this show has been going on for decades! How is that possible, you ask? Simple. Let the main character have to ability to undergo a reincarnation every time he dies. So the show has now reached the Eleventh Doctor, played brilliantly by Matt Smith, and my personal favorite. Granted, I’ve only really seen him and Ten, and just a few episodes with Nine – but I love his portrayal of the character. But that aside (a discussion for another time, I’m sure) there is a very basic overview for you. The show, by having the main character be an alien who often travels with humans, hangs around Earth, and strives to be human (though is something more than human from our perspective) is written so as to create a discussion about the human condition. What does it mean to be human?
The newest season started a few weeks ago and all three episodes have been excellent so far. The first and third episodes were particularly poignant, in my mind (and I still loved the second!). “A Town Called Mercy”, the third and latest, dealt with one question in particular. It is one of the “classic” philosophical questions that has been around for a long, long time: If one person can be sacrificed to save multiple people, does it make the sacrifice morally acceptable?
How does one even go about answering that? There are various issues it raises. Who gets to decide an answer and why? What right does anyone have to say that an individual’s life is worth more or less than any others? When all other options seem to be exhausted, would you do it; would you knowingly throw someone to their death? Could you, even if it saved other lives? Why must death be involved?
Well, I think the head writer on this episode (Toby Whithouse) did a pretty fine job tackling it. First, let me backtrack a bit. The character we are looking at as the “sacrificee” (that works, right?) had a very dubious past as a scientist. He did some terrible things on his planet to fellow men in the name of ending the suffering of war more quickly. We are back at that same question from the start. However, he crash landed on earth in the age of the “Wild West” where he has been attempting to right his past wrongs and do good. His past chases him there in the form of the last surviving being of his experiments. The scene quickly escalates to the point where the innocent people of the town will be killed if this man is not offered up to be killed for his past crimes. What is the Doctor, usually a firm believer in non-violence, to do?
There is a critical moment where he is pushed farther than ever before and it takes one of his companions to stop him from sending this man to his death. She reminds the Doctor that they must be stronger than such people and rise above their level – something I’m sure we’ve all heard before in our own lives. Traveling alone for too long has made him more calloused in which there is the implication that it has made him less human. So what is it to be human?
Today I attended a lecture given by Hal Herzog for my history capstone class dealing with the consistency with which humans applied inconsistent morals to issues surrounding animals. It was quite interesting, but what struck me the most was towards the end when the speaker brought up a the exact same question that had been lingering since watching the Doctor Who episode; is it ok to sacrifice one for the many? We in the audience were asked whether we’d save a dog or a person from being hit by a bus, and then showed us data of what that question had yielded. Except the research went deeper. Would you save a foreign tourist or the dog? A member of your town or the dog? Your sibling or the dog? Answers decreased from saving the dog in that order, sadly in my opinion.
So if we have to sacrifice someone, is it more OK if they are a stranger or foreigner to us? Depending on your view of animals in relation to humans, you may have a varied response to this. My own opinion is that while animals share many characteristics with us, there is an intrinsic difference in intellectual and moral qualities that exists, thus separating people from animals. We can ponder such moral questions and make decisions based on what we perceive as right and wrong. From this perspective, I was shocked that people might go for the animal before the person in any of the cases.
Aw great, now I sound like an animal hater. I absolutely love and admire animals, let me assure you readers (and not just the cute ones either, but that’s a whole other issue I could go on about!). However, who am I to decide that this is right or wrong? Animals retain an innocence that people cannot which is why they cannot be held to our standards. Perhaps this implies that the animal has the right to be saved. Then again, what if the person is a baby who is just as innocent as that animal – are we more likely to save a baby than an adult? A teenager? And in terms of the Doctor Who episode, does someone with a criminal past deserve to be saved less than someone with a clean record? Don’t answer too quickly on that one. Like I said, I’ve been listening to Les Miserables and can’t help but think of the character of Jean Valjean here. So, who has the right to make these decisions? Not me, certainly.
But apply this sacrifice scenario into a more applicable situation. There is an overpopulation of elephants in a marked off environmental reserve and this overpopulation is hurting other plants and animals in the area. Does this necessitate the killing of elephants to solve a problem? Can we morally justify that to ourselves by saying we are saving other species? So many question, I know.
Back to Doctor Who, and the solution they came up with. In an ideal world there would be a solution that did not necessitate any death. However, the world is seldom an ideal place and as “A Town Called Mercy” made apparent, some conflicts run too deep to settle without such drastic retribution. The Doctor spends a long night of pondering and keeping his promise to the now dead sheriff to protect the scientist. In doing so, he saves a young man from becoming a player on that level as well by talking him out of killing the scientist so the Doctor wouldn’t have to. He comes up with a way to let the scientist escape to his ship, and the plan is set in motion. The experiment (a cyborg) who is hunting this man informs the Doctor that it will change nothing. He will continue to hunt his creator and will end up inadvertently terrorizing some other group of people. How could it end without death?
The thing is, it didn’t. But the death was on the terms of the “sacrificee” (well, sacrificed), which I think is probably the best possible solution in such a desperate scenario. Self sacrifice was the answer. Rather than having to justify throwing someone else’s life away, a person has acted heroically to save others and end conflict. This man who was given a second chance, both by the town and the Doctor, chose to measure his own worth, rise above his fear of death, and face his past mistakes with honor. Redemption is such a universal theme in many stories, old and new. The cyborg and the Doctor agree that in the end, the scientist was a good person. Is this what it means to be “human”? And if so, would this scenario given among humans no longer be a moral issue if the person in that position willing offered up themselves for others? What is your own take on this?
As stated before, this can’t hold true for a situation with animals. In regards to an overcrowding scenario, the elephants can’t make that choice as they have the inability to consider the situation in these terms. So I guess we’re back at square one. Great – but that’s philosophy for you! In terms of how the lecture ended, I thought this too had a nice note to finish up on. People will continue to be inconsistent in applying ethics to animals, and in my mind that’s not such a bad thing.
The world is never black and white and different situations will call for different actions and shifts in moral standard. With our inconsistency, we continually evaluate and adjust our view of the world which I think is essential for us to better ourselves. And even though there is inconsistency, we can still strive to live as moral and upright people. We can be meat eaters yet advocate for better treatment of animals, or volunteer at animal shelters, or raise awareness of endangered animals and how we can help protect them.
Perhaps I could just end this saying, at the end of the day what really counts is that we continually strive to better ourselves and uphold our own sense of morality and ethic code. So long as we are reaching to be the best we can each day, we are achieving what it means to be human. I am very interested in knowing what your own thoughts on the subject are.
Though we will probably never settle on a completely satisfactory answer, my hope is that this post will foster some interesting discussion. Oh, and I would also encourage you to check out Doctor Who as it constantly raises such questions while at the same time being very entertaining. The head writer is also the head writer for the show I mentioned last post, Sherlock. Steven Moffat has been highly recognized for his extremely engaging material and characterizations.
I was planning on putting in a recipe down here, but I guess my philosophy-addled brain had a lot to say. So I have made the admittedly much easier decision than the other questions rolling around in this post to do a nice, strictly recipe post tonight or tomorrow. It will be short, savory, and slightly sweet! Again, I’d love to hear your comments and thanks so much for ploughing through this post and reaching the end. You are champs, readers. Thanks for reading, cheers! Until then…