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Within the BBC show "Doctor Who" the protagonist The Doctor has to deal with many different ethical and morally challenging situations, how does the show portray The Doctor's ethical mindset in his decision making when he has the power to choose who should live or who should die. The topic of ethics is one that comes up in many television series on TV today, "Doctor Who" does not shy away from this topic at all. In order to understand the ethical mindset of The Doctor we must first examine many different ethical theories and mindsets that are prominent in our culture today. The different approaches to ethics that will be discussed are Deontological ethics, Consequence based ethics or Utilitarianism, Virtue based ethics and lastly Relational ethics, better know as the ethics of care. All of these ethical theories have been around for quite some time, and have been discussed by scholars for many years. All of these ethical theories are in the forefront of ethical thinking today. By being able to understand these different ethical theories we can be better equipped to better understand the processes that The Doctor must go through in his decision making process. Given The Doctor's age and vast knowledge of the universe it is easy to understand how he has come to the ethical thinking he bases his existence upon, he loves the people he travels with and he seemingly loves all of creation whether good or evil. He seems to base many of decisions off of this. To better understand what has led to the current ethical compass that The Doctor now possesses it is important to first go through a significant amount of background information, as well as back story to give the reader a better understanding of the actual character of The Doctor and why he is the way he is.
The Doctor simply stated is not of our world, he is an extraterrestrial being from a different planet, who seemingly can live forever. To be more specific The Doctor is the last of a species known as the Time Lords, from the now destroyed planet of Gallifrey. The Doctor travels through time and space in his ship called the TARDIS or Time and Relative Dimension(s) in Space. The TARDIS does not look like a traditional space ship, but instead takes the form of a traditional Police Box that could have been seen on the streets of towns across England in the early 1900s. This seemingly small space ship is in fact giant, it is as they say on the show, "Bigger on the inside!"(The Doctor) The vastness of the interior of the TARDIS is unknown(About Doctor Who).
The Doctor never speaks his true name and always goes by the name The Doctor, he also repeatedly changes the subject when his home planet of Gallifrey comes up. His home planet was destroyed in the last of the time wars between The Doctors nemesis, a species known as the Daleks, and the Time Lords. It is insinuated at many instances throughout the series that The Doctor was forced to make a very difficult decision that resulted in the destruction of the Daleks, but along with that came the destruction of his own planet and his entire species(About Doctor Who). The result of this is the perpetual loneliness that he faces and the fury that dwells deep within him. The loneliness he suffers from results in his need to always travel with one or more companions, more often than not a female companion. He cares greatly for all the companions he travels with, but he knows that eventually he will have to leave them behind because they will age and he will remain the same. He is the lonely Doctor travelling through time and space alone, but with friends.
The Doctor may look like a human but he is far from it, he is said to be around 900 years old, he has two hearts and can regenerate his entire body when death is imminent. This regenerating process changes every molecule in his body and he turns into a completely different person, that is as far as visuals can tell(The Doctor, Tardis Index). His main personality traits as well as his ethical and moral high ground remains the same through each of the eleven visually different Doctors. Like stated the personality of The Doctor is maintained throughout each and every regeneration, each Doctor may have some different traits thanks in part to the different actors that play the role, but a few traits remain the same throughout. Every Doctor has an unpredictable, warm, clownish exterior that hides the great bucket of wisdom, seriousness, darkness and even fury that dwells deep within his every being(Tardis Index). This fury can been seen in many cases where he must punish the evil doer for the horrors they have committed. He is always compassionate even to the people who do terrible things, he hates guns, and any weaponry like it, and prefers his go to tool, a sonic screw driver of which its possibilities for usage seem endless. He is very much unlike his deceased brethren who had a strict ethics of non-intervention in there travels. The Doctor finds a need to intervene when injustice occurs(About Doctor Who). Like stated previously, certain characteristics are given to each Doctor because of the quirks and traits of the actor who is portraying him. Certain quirks like the tenth Doctors love for small shops(Kevin Decker, Just This Once! Everybody Lives!), as seen in 2006 episode "New Earth", as well as quirks that the actor Matt Smith who portrays the eleventh Doctor has, like his strange liking for fish fingers and custard in the 2010 episode "The Eleventh Hour". Each actor has something new to bring to the character of The Doctor and that's why fans around the world have grown to love him, even in regeneration.
Ethical Theories To Help Better Understand The Doctor
It is important for us to look deeper into the different ethical theories and mindsets of our society to help better understand The Doctor and his moral compass, like stated by Laura Geuy Akers the author of the article Empathy, Ethics, Wonder, "The key to understanding the Doctor's personality is his ethical stance. The Doctor's sense of right and wrong shapes how he spends his time, how he treats his companions, and how he uses and limits his use of his vast power." This statement by Akers makes it clear that we must better understand the ethical theories in the forefront of our minds today to better understand the Doctor's moral compass. There are four different ethical theories that are prominent today, most of these theories have been around for a long time, some of the great thinkers of the past helped developed these theories, people such as Emmanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham and Aristotle. The first of the theories we will be discussing is Deontological ethics, second will be Consequence ethics or Utilitarianism, third will be Virtue or virtue based ethics, and lastly we will discuss a more recent ethical theory that came out of the feminist movement known as Relational ethics. Each of these ethical theories are important in fully understanding The Doctor's mindset. By going through these ethical theories it becomes possible to choose which approach The Doctor best fits and how his actions relate to each approach.
One of the most prominent approaches to ethics today is rule deontology or Deontological ethics and this is the first ethical theory we will look at. Deontological ethics is an ethical mindset that understands morality and ethics as a duty(Ethical Terms, Defence Ethics Programme), this system is meant to govern and guide our decision making process(Alexander and Moore, "Deontological Ethics"). This means that what makes a decision right or wrong is whether or not it is our duty as decided by a set of rules that has been implemented as a moral and social norm(Alexander and Moore). Deontologists believe that morality and ethical decisions centre upon each persons duty to society, duties that are most important to deontologist are truth telling and promise keeping. For a deontologist "there is something right about truth telling, even if it has consequences that would cause another person pain or harm"(Defence Ethics Programme), and the same goes for lying, it is wrong to tell a lie even if by doing so a good consequence occurs(Defence Ethics Programme). If an action does not abide by the set of rules then it is not our duty and that action should not be acted upon. This ethical approach requires everyone to follow a set of rules, if we are to compare The Doctor's moral compass to this approach towards ethics we may find some similarities.
The Doctor does live by a set of rules that he seems to place upon himself, although at times he does break these rules. For example he hates guns, and he refuses to carry one, however he does not require everyone abide by that rule. For example in the 2006 episode "The Girl in the Fireplace" the 10th Doctor does not bat an eye at his two companions Rose Tyler and Micky Smith from carrying a futuristic weapon to protect themselves from the robotic enemy, in fact he teaches them how to use the weapons. The Doctor also breaks his own rule, that states not to carry a gun. In the 2012 episode "A Town Called Mercy" the 11th Doctor points a gun directly at a mans head to prevent him from moving, he does this knowing that a formidable villain would be coming to presumably kill that very man. Although The Doctor never actually pulls the trigger, he does carry the gun and use it in a forceful nature. He breaks his own rules time and time again. So as stated by Akers "his interpretation of those rules depends on the context." All this being stated The Doctor's morality could be placed within the deontological approach to a certain extent, but as soon as he makes a decision that breaks a rule, therefore not follow his duty. Or when he doesn't require his companions to follow a certain set of moral rules he immediately displaces himself from this approach to ethics and morality.
The next approach to ethics that is prominent today is the ethical system based off consequences, otherwise known as Utilitarianism, this is an ethical approach that gives priority to the value we attach to the results of actions(Defence Ethics Programme). Consequence ethics "emphasizes that the effects of our actions on ourselves and others tend to play an overriding role in ethical decision making"(Defence Ethics Programme). With in this ethical approach people must assess the probable good and bad effects of the different options open to them in a certain situation(Defence Ethics Programme). Then use these assessments as the basis for deciding what should or shouldn't be done. For example if a decision would result in the death of ten people but would save the rest of humanity it is quite possible that the probably good far out ways the bad, so the decision to let ten people die should be made, regardless of the relationship with those ten individuals. This approach requires us to come to the decision based on what we assume might come out of a what we decide. That is to say that the right action is the one that results in the maximum amount of happiness for the greatest number of people(Julia Driver, The History of Utilitarianism). This approach is based solely on what will occur whether good or bad after a decision is made, and it requires us to make the decision that would produce the most good(Driver).
This approach to ethical thinking does not fit in well with the character of The Doctor. He "doesn't seem comfortable with this sort of moral calculation"(Akers), this can be attributed to the fact that he has a vastness of knowledge that would "likely find both good and bad consequences from every action"(Akers). The Doctor would find that the good might out way the bad and vise versa. This ethical approach requires a certain level of calculation, and it has become obvious that The Doctor does not base his decisions off of good or bad consequences(Akers). For example, he has allowed his nemesis the Daleks to live on various occasions even though this would likely result in massive amounts of casualties, he prefers to base his decisions on a certain moral high ground that gives each person whether good or evil a choice to do the right or the wrong thing, as seen in almost every episode. The Doctor's ethics does not fit with this strict approach to decision making.
The third approach to ethics that we must cover in order to place and understand The Doctor's morality is Virtue ethics or Virtue-based ethics. This approach focuses on each persons moral character. This ethical approach goes "with the idea that a person of good character or virtues will strive to do the right thing"(Defence Ethics Programme), no matter what the circumstances, these good virtues might include integrity, courage, compassion, and a sense of justice(Rosalind Hursthouse, Virtue Ethics). This view states that a well-lived life involves developing one's virtues to the utmost(Akers). Instead of making a decision based off the possible consequences of your actions like in the Deontological approach and Consequentialist approach. Virtue ethics rather, focuses on the character of the person making the decision. For example a virtue ethicist when contemplating telling a lie would not look at what kind of consequences would arise from telling that lie, but would instead look at what lying in that situation would say about one's character and moral behaviour(Hursthouse). That makes most decisions in Virtue-based ethics a case-by-case decision making process.
Virtue ethics is another of the approaches to ethical thinking that does not fit with the character of The Doctor. First off Akers states "he doesn't seem interested in contemplating the coherence of his long-term identity", he prefers to live the moment. Another reason that Virtue-based ethics does not coincide with The Doctor's ethical standpoint is because he lives a life that is so incredibly fast paced that it becomes impractical for him to "introspectively reflect"(Akers) upon every decision he has to make, if he was to do this he would have to think about what each decision says about his own character, and he does not worry about those kinds of things. Each moral decision that The Doctor makes "must seem right to him at the time he makes it"(Akers). Therefore virtue ethics does not fit as an approach to ethics that The Doctor would live by.
The last approach to ethics that is prominent today is Relational ethics better known as the ethics of care. This is a moral theory that is rooted in feminist moral philosophers(Defence Ethics Programme). "It emphasizes the rational dimension of our lives and gives priority to the humane treatment that we are all owed as human beings"(Defence Ethics Programme). The ethics of care "values the ties we have with particular other persons and the actual relationships that partly constitute or identity"(Virginia Held. The Ethics of Care). Relational ethics places a premium on keeping the people we care for secure and free from danger and harm. Because this is an ethical approach that came out of the feminist movement and relates heavily towards women and other caring individuals, the prospect of emotion plays an important role in the entire mindset of someone who abides by Relational ethics(Held). A decision will not be made solely because it allows for the greatest amount of happiness for all, it acknowledges that the person making the decision has emotions and these emotions will play a role in all decisions that happen(Held). This is the kind of approach to ethics that The Doctor can relate to, he is incredibly caring and compassionate, and he often makes rash decisions that stem from his strong emotions or emotional responses to certain situations.
Akers states in her article "Our Doctor and Ethics" that, "Rather than a rule-based ethic of abstract principles, a calculated cost-benefit approach, or a virtue ethics of concern for optimizing his personal integrity, the Doctor's ethics are focused on particular others; that is, on being responsive to the needs of others in whatever situation he finds himself. He responds to individuals, not abstractions, and for the Doctor, emotion is the very key to appropriate moral response." This is a statement that sheds light on why The Doctor does not relate to any of the traditional ethical approaches, emotion is so important to him. He fits best with a more modern ethical approach like Relational ethics, where the emotional aspect is the key to the entire process of your ethical thinking.
The Ethics of The Doctor and what is says about society
The Doctor's ethics can be classified as Care ethics, he values his emotions, and these emotions are what help him make difficult decisions when lives rest in his hands. These decisions to him are always the right ones at that point in time and in that certain situation(Akers). Emotions are key to The Doctor's morality, this affects "the relationship dynamics between characters, especially between The Doctor and companions"(Decker). He bases most of his decisions on how he feels about the people who are to be impacted by the outcome, and not of the entire goodness created for society. The Doctor seems to care for all of creation, but even more so for the companions he travels with. He seems to have a "mindful awareness"(Akers) to each person he is with, every relationship and the stage it is at, this is the essence of The Doctor's ethics. He cares, and sometimes to much. He is also extremely compassionate and forgiving even when faced against villains who have killed thousands... he still forgives.
The ethics of The Doctor is also driven by the fact that he does not ever view someone or something living as an "it" he always makes it incredibly clear that every living thing is an individual. Everything whether it be human or Dalek is an individual that can make its own decisions. Problems can arise because of this. The Doctor cares so much for creation and his companions. But he does not want them to reciprocate that care(Akers). He is The Doctor, he is meant to care for the people he is responsible for. This leads to The Doctor always maintaining a certain distance from his companions, he may love them, and care for them, but he does not want that same feeling to be reciprocated upon him(Akers). There are times when he does truly love a companion, and the feeling is reciprocated and he embraces it, this in the case of one of the 10th Doctor's companion Rose Tyler. Although for the most part he keeps a certain distance in the relationship not requiring love/care.
The Doctor also seems to find a sense of wonder in everything he see's, even if to a human eye we might see it as a horrid creature or a monster, this sense of wonderment rubs off on the people he is with and the viewer watching the show. It is so important for The Doctor to travel with a human companion not just so he has someone to care for and feel responsible for but because sometimes his ethics can be askew resulting in rash decision based to heavily off of emotions(Akers). A human companion helps to put things in perceptive for The Doctor and help set his moral compass straight. Within everything The Doctor does, even when his great fury comes to the surface, it is always accompanied by compassion, kindness, and caring. He always offers the wrong doer a safer way out then death, this is in part thanks to his human companions.
The most prominent characteristic of The Doctor's moral and ethical compass is that fact that he cares for what seems to be all of creation, and is forgiving even to those who have done horrible things. Because after all he is, "The Doctor" and as the title would assume, he has an immediate reaction when injustice and pain is occurring, he feels the need to jump in and save everyone, not only the ones that are being hurt, but the dealers of the pain as well. This care even towards the evil doer or villain requires him to be extremely forgiving, even when pain has been done towards him. In the 2007 episodes "The Sound of Drums" and "Last of the Time Lords" and the case of the Master another Time Lord that has imprisoned earth and The Doctor for nearly a year and killed millions of people. Nearing his end the 10th Doctor who has suffered greatly through pain inflicted upon himself by the Master, as well as suffering through witnessing millions be killed. In the end the Master is not surprisingly out witted by The Doctor, and even after the horrors he has committed he still holds the Master, one of the last Time Lords in his arms and forgives him. The Doctor states "Now I have someone to care for." He is forgiving and furious at the same time, he will keep a killer by his side and care for him because he sees someone in need that he now feels responsible for because he is one of his kind. This response to horror and villains is one that the show portrays over and over again, The Doctor always forgives. This is something that the show itself is trying to rub off on its audience, it is a good lesson to be learnt by all audiences. Forgiveness.
"The Doctor cherishes creativity, even eccentricity, and abhors blind conformity and schemes that treat living beings as means towards others' ends." This was stated by Laura Geuy Akers in her article "Paths Not Taken". This statement by Akers sheds light on the fact that The Doctor given his sense of morality treats everyone and everything as a person or individual. He makes this point very clear, and in the episode "Planet of the Ood" from 2008 The Doctor makes it clear to his new companion Donna Noble that the Ood are not an "it" as she referred to them, but are in fact individuals(Akers). Even if they are classified as a "slave" race that lives to serve(The Ood, Tardis Index). This response by The Doctor makes him extremely "attentive to the feelings and uniqueness of others"(Akers), more specifically to the feelings and uniqueness of his companions. Even when faced with situations of incredible stress he still treats each and every person as an individual. "This mindful awareness... is the essence of The Doctor's ethical self-expression"(Akers). The Doctor cares so much for the individual, but he does not wish for them to reciprocate the same amount of care upon him. This causes an imbalance of power between The Doctor and whoever he feels he is responsible for(Akers). He keeps a safe distance in the relationship never getting to attached by allowing them to care for him, he does this because he knows he will eventually have to leave them behind regardless of his love for them.
The Doctor does allow himself to get to attached to one companion specifically, and in fact welcomes the feelings and care she has towards him. That companion being Rose Tyler who travelled with the 9th and 10th Doctors and seemed to have a great need for The Doctor, without him she was a lost girl working in a shop. When The Doctor was forced to leave Rose behind in an alternate universe that he could never reach again in the 2006 episode "Doomsday" he is struck with an incredibly difficult choice, he can be with the woman he loves for the last remaining moments, or he can leave her in the alternate universe where she can be safe and live out her days. This passionate love felt for Rose by The Doctor and him allowing her to reciprocate the feelings is the reason The Doctor must distance himself from the people he loves and cares for. He is to be forever lonely because he will live for seemingly forever and the people he loves will be left behind, die, or simply just grow old. Like he says in the episode "School Reunion" to Rose referring to the "curse of the Time Lords", he states "I don't age. I regenerate. But humans decay; you whither and you die. Imagine watching that happen to someone that you..." For Rose his love is so great that he was willing to stay with her and not leave her behind. Loosing her crushed him and caused his ethical mindset to be askew, as well as reinforcing the need for him to distance himself from his companions care towards him.
The Doctor's ethics can at times become askew, and after loosing Rose he falls behind his quirky wall that distances himself from whoever he meets. He seems happy and still cares greatly for his new companions. But is in great pain on the inside, and the need for the human view point is incredibly important not only after he has lost Rose but whenever a difficult decision arises. The human companion in the case of the 10th Doctor after loosing Rose is Martha Jones, she is important because she helps set the ethics of The Doctor straight. Given Martha's background as being a doctor herself she also finds it extremely important to care for individuals in pain. This care that The Doctor see's in Martha is what helps him snap his moral compass back to where it belongs.
We may not always agree with the ethics of The Doctor but we as an audience can almost always relate. As in the case of The Doctor's sense of responsibility towards his companions. Like the 11th Doctor's need to care for the first person he meets after his regeneration, that being the childhood version of his future companion Amelia Pond. We can relate to this emotional response of care towards individuals, and we often respond the same way in real life. But other actions The Doctor makes confuse us, we find it difficult to understand or relate to why The Doctor repeatedly cares for the Daleks and spares there lives. For they are the reason he is the last of the Time Lords. The Doctor's ethics is so incredibly complex and ever in flux, this is because of the very being he is. He has seen the whole universe from beginning to end, and he has travelled with humans as well as aliens who have varying approaches to ethics. We can not understand the decisions like The Doctor not killing the Daleks because we cannot fully understand what he has witnessed or experienced in his life time. But in the end we can all relate to the feelings that The Doctor has.
The Doctor sees wonder in everything, he shares this feeling with his companions. The Doctor has been alive for 900+ years and seen many things(About Doctor Who), but he still retains his sense of wonderment. He often chooses to travel to places simply because he knows that he will experience a sense of wonder, and hopes to share this feeling with his companion. He goes out of his way in the episode "Midnight" to travel on a long shuttle ride to see the Sapphire Waterfall, he finds it incredible that a waterfall be made of sapphires. But given all this wonder you can not help but think that The Doctor has witnessed so much in his life that almost everything must seem ordinary to him(Akers)... even the concept of a sapphire waterfall. He feels the sense of wonder but not the same way a human would if they were to see such a sight. That is to say that Doctor can experience wonder, but not the sublime(Akers). Sublime being the feeling of "such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe"(Merriam-Webster). This feeling of sublime alludes him and is the reason he takes a human companion to places where this feeling can stem from. He lives the feeling of the sublime through the eyes of his human companions, he experiences great joy when he sees this look of awe on there faces. This is once again another reason he surrounds himself with the human kind, his companions are as he would say "So much more", humans give him access to feelings that he could not feel if he was by himself travelling through time and space(Akers). He may be lonely but being with a human companion "gives his life a meaning"(Akers).
This statement that companionship with humans is what gives The Doctor's life meaning, proves also to be true in society today. We as human beings are always trying to find some form of companionship, whether it be through family, friendship or love. Like seen with the relationships between The Doctor and his companions, the relationships give his life a purpose, the same can be translated over to our day to day relationships, they give us purpose. Without relationships our lives would be empty and more or less pointless. This is one way that the show says something about society not just today, but through the ages. We need relationships to have a purpose, just as The Doctor does.
The morality of The Doctor can most certainly relate to the people viewing the show in today's society. As the blog Unsettled Christianity and the author of the post Leslie states that The Doctor's morals "often reveals this universes moral intuition" that is invariably "guided by a moral code that is never questioned. Love and mercy are always good. Hate and cruelty are always wrong." This statement says something about The Doctor's morality and today's society, we may not all follow the same approach to ethics but we do all follow like The Doctor does that hate and cruelty is bad and love and forgiveness is good. As children we are raised this way, these moral elements are woven into our minds and always come to the surface in situations where a difficult decision needs to be made. The show is simply saying that each and everyone of us in society are all somewhat like The Doctor, we make difficult decisions everyday, we do what we can to help when someone is in need and when someone has done us wrong we forgive. Although maybe not to the same extent that The Doctor does... well he is a Time Lord.
The Doctor's moral and ethical compass and what it says about our society can be summed up in one quote by Rose Tyler. She says, "The doctor showed me a better way of living your life. You don't just give up. You don't just let things happen. You make a stand. You say no. You have the guts to do what's right when everyone runs away." Throughout the entire show, The Doctor's morals rub off on the people he travels with and the people he meets(Donna Smith, Groundwork of a Time Lords Morals). It does not only rub off on the characters but on the audience that is watching, all the difficult decisions that he makes, gives us a sense that we could make difficult decisions in our life as well. The characters in the show and the audience are able to realize what it truly takes to make the right decision, dependant not only on the people you love but on the people who have done you harm. Doctor Who is a show that teaches many lessons and has shaped the audiences mindsets for years.