It’s the zombie apocalypse!
What do you do? Where do you go? How do you survive? These are all key questions addressed in modern zombie drama The Walking Dead. As the series progresses we follow the characters as they adapt to their traumatic situation and learn to live with the revolutionary world changes brought with the coming of the zombies (or “walkers”, as they like to call them). Developing alongside the characters are their ethical decisions and perspectives on morality; how do we decide what’s right and wrong in this new, horrific world? This post will use The Walking Dead as an example to examine to what extent morality itself changes with an apocalyptic situation, and how it is interpreted by the people acting according (or in many cases, not according) to it.
Morality: objective or subjective?
Let’s start at the beginning. Where do we get our ideas of what is morally right and wrong from? Philosophical perspectives differ on this; some argue we gain our ideas of morality from our subjective upbringing, so we learn about “good” and “bad” actions from what others tell us, and other perspectives claim there are objective moral values, i.e. there’s an invisible concrete code of which actions are right and which are wrong.
Let’s consider that moral values are down to one’s upbringing, for example one might gain their moral values from the country in which they live. So if Person A lives in a country where the death penalty is standard for crimes such as murder, then Person A might believe that killing someone who is a murderer is permissible. Alternatively, Person B who lives in a country where there is no death penalty might believe that killing someone else, or even allowing them to die, is never permissible, regardless of what crimes they have permitted.
Changing Morality in the Wake of Zombies
In The Walking Dead season 1 we follow Officer Rick on his journey of survival after waking up from a coma during the zombie apocalypse. After encountering a group of people being threatened by hick thug Merle, Rick tackles Merle and handcuffs him to a pipe on the roof of a skyscraper. The group encounters some trouble and end up having to leave the city. Rick wants to go back to save Merle. Now, in current society this would be deemed the moral thing to do; after all, it’s how Rick has been brought up. He is a cop; he’s meant to undertake selfless actions despite personal sacrifice and he certainly couldn’t let anyone die of thirst and exposure like that, regardless of how villainous they are.
Yet as the series goes on we notice Rick becoming hardened by his experiences. He has to murder other, live (i.e. not zombies!) men to “protect the group”, and claims that they are “no longer a democracy”. Surely this goes against how he has been brought up, in regard to moral values? He lived in America, where democracy is respected and adhered to, and now he rebels against that; something he never would have done in season 1. Moreover, he is killing people to protect his group. This is definitely something he would never have done in season 1, where he was willing to give anyone a chance. Now, at the first sign of an attack or any kind of self-defence, such as with the prison inmates in season 3, Rick kills the person.
The most prominent morality change in a character though, aside from Shane in season 1, has to be Carl in season 3. Beginning his story as an innocent child, Carl becomes ruthless with a gun, at first simply attacking zombies but later killing a surrendering teenage boy, clearly scared, who had disarmed himself. Farmer Hershall witnesses the sharp shooting from Carl and alerts Rick, who semi-disbelieves the incident. We see Carl leave behind his father’s sheriff badge when the group leave the jail; symbolic of his loss of innocence and the old moral values. Now, it is kill or be killed. In this way, the stories of The Walking Dead suggest that moral values are dependent upon our upbringing, as the characters’ values of what actions are permissible and impermissible changes dramatically over the course of each season. Just as Rick would’ve given someone a chance to explain in season 1, for example the group of youths caring for the elderly in a shelter, by season 3 he’d rather not take any risks and even suggests to Daryl that a viable option with meeting newcomers is to just slaughter them. Nice.
Interpretations of Morality
Yet perhaps objective moral values do exist; we just interpret them differently in extreme situations such as the rise of zombies in The Walking Dead. This would explain why even when Rick does kill others during season 3, he does it with a heavy heart and clearly feels guilty for his actions, at some stages even border-lining on insanity. Likewise, Rick understands the importance of teaching Carl when killing is justified after Carl kills the surrendering boy. If Rick felt killing recklessly was clearly permissible he would not have emphasised this point to Carl.
So it would seem that although their actions have changed, our characters’ perceptions of what is right and wrong hasn’t necessarily differed. Rather, the way in which they interpret and act on morality has been changed in adapting to their strikingly different living situation. Therefore it might be suggested that ideas of morality don’t depend upon upbringing alone; in fact, there may well be objective moral values, however the way that they are interpreted and influence a person’s actions depends upon the environment in which they live. In such an extreme situation as the one the characters of The Walking Dead face, the strictness under which objective morals are adhered to is fairly loose; characters have to be sceptical to survive, and it is very much a kill-or-be-killed world. We need to remember that really, that’s not necessarily the humans’ fault (unless you’re the Governor and a bit crazy); in fact, it’s because of the horrendous living situation they are facing. Essentially, they have to allow a looser ethical presence not because they’re heartless, but because they want to stay alive. So if you want to blame anyone, blame the zombies: they started it.
The Walking Dead is a TV series currently in development for its 4th season and is available on DVD from Amazon.
Special thanks to master philosopher Richard Playford for a philosophical discussion sparking ideas on this topic.
What influence do our memories have upon who we are and our identities?
For most people, memories make up a large part of who we are. It’s how we identify where and who we are. As evident from many amnesia and Alzheimer’s patients, without our memories we can lose awareness of our surroundings and even our own feelings to some extent.
The film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind delves eagerly into uncovering the mystery of just how our memory makes up our identity in such a way. This post will thereby investigate whether or not we are still able to discover our true path or destiny when having lost memories of key moments in our past by examining the events of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and contrasting them to philosopher John Locke’s idea of identity. I will then briefly examine some of the ethics involved in the events of the film, finally concluding that if such technology existed it would be permissible for it to be used in extreme psychological cases.
The role of memory
Philosopher John Locke argued that what makes us the same person today as the person we were yesterday is that we have memories of being that person yesterday. So we know Buffy in season 7 is the same person as Buffy in season 2 because in season 7 she remembers (and references) events that occurred in season 2 (which I won’t reference so I don’t spoil it for those of you who are yet to watch it).
So if memory is the criteria of our identity, what happens when memories are lost? This is the premise examined in Eternal Sunshine: the idea of the perfect happiness (“Eternal Sunshine”) of a mind without negative memories: a “Spotless Mind”.
Joel and Clementine have a turbulent relationship. Clementine discovers a surgery where people can have all their memories of certain people (or in some cases, animals) erased from their memory, so it is as if that person never existed for them – they become a stranger. In an impulsive moment of anger after an argument Clementine decides to have this procedure undertaken so that Joel is erased from her memory. Joel in turn discovers what she has done and undertakes the same procedure for Clementine.
How does the procedure affect their identity?
Well, from the beginning of the film we see them going about their daily lives… until they meet each other (believing they are strangers) and have an incredible spark. So having had their memories removed, they seem to regress to the people they were before meeting – finding each other attractive and beginning a relationship. This suggests that certainly at least a large part of one’s identity resides in their memories.
This is also evidenced by the fact that when Joel’s memories are being removed he begins to resist the process. He realises that he doesn’t want to have Clementine removed from his memory as she has become a part of who he is; the memories he has of her have helped him get to where he is today – and he still loves her.
An ethical procedure?
From the events of the film, it appears the memory removal procedure is not an ethical one. Both Joel and from what we see, Clementine too, are able to go into the procedure without being fully aware of what the procedure will do and the implications of it for the rest of their life. It is, in a way, the reverse of a mind tattoo… that you’ll never have the evidence of.
Moreover, the Dr in the film appears to use it to his advantage, having his assistant who he had an affair with undertake the procedure so that they could continue working together. This poor girl remains in love with the Dr never knowing that they had already had a failed affair; it certainly doesn’t appear ethical in that those with the power to undertake the procedure are able to use it to their advantage. Further abuse is demonstrated in the clear carelessness with which the procedure itself is undertaken, as the Drs are drinking alcohol, eating snacks and even jumping on the bed of the patient.
Having said that, there may be some cases where it is permissible for such a procedure to be used. For example, in a case where someone is abused and it is seriously affecting their mental health, it could be argued that removing the memories of the abuse is the kindest thing to do and restores them to their original identity. On the other hand, some abuse victims believe that, in retrospect; undergoing such horrific experiences have actually given them a different outlook on life and have made them stronger as people. So how can we know, if we undertake such a permanent procedure, that the patient won’t have felt similarly a few years down the line? We can’t.
Does a Spotless Mind induce Eternal Sunshine?
Having a spotless mind, i.e. a mind without certain negative memories, does not induce eternal sunshine and happiness. Losing memories removes a part of who we are, it kills a part of our lifetime experiences, which accumulated give us a sense of awareness about the world.
Certainly, for some people having a spotless mind might induce some sort of happiness in returning to their former selves, but surely having such a procedure done cannot be kept a secret forever (as we see in the film), and once discovered can only have perhaps even more painful consequences. Therefore if such a procedure was to exist it would have to have strict ethical guidelines as to who could have it undertaken.
As a result, when trying to remove the grey clouds of memory to reach eternal sunshine, maybe we should just let it rain instead. After all, who said a spotted mind couldn’t lead to eternal sunshine too?
In the infamously shocking Game of Thrones series, two characters whose circumstances are easily paralleled but who are poles apart (both geographically and mentally) are Daenerys Targaryen and Theon Greyjoy. I am going to investigate exactly why Daenerys and Theon go such strikingly separate ways in the series when in fact they begin in very similar situations. I will then draw on the works of Plato to explain how Daenerys draws influences from ancient philosopher Socrates to provide an example of how a humble leader is often the most effective.
Daenerys & Theon: Similar Origins
Despite being introduced to them in prominently diverse settings, Theon and Daenerys both begin as outsiders struggling to gain a foothold in a chaotic world. Both have been ousted by those who love them, whether deliberately or by chance. Theon has been sent to live with the Starks in Winterfell as a result of peace terms following his father’s rebellion, and consequently feels shunned by his family. Meanwhile Daenerys’ family were slaughtered by the Mad King Aerys, all but her abusive brother Viserys, hence she feels alone and again abandoned by those who loved her – in this case her would-be subjects if she were to have remained a part of the royal family.
The most important similarity between Daenerys and Theon, though, is that they both strive to regain the power that has been lost to them after experiencing a trigger, or catalyst-like, event. For example, once she begins detaching herself from Viserys, Daenerys realises her capability of becoming a leader and reclaiming the Iron Throne. Similarly, once Rob Stark rebels against the south and claims himself King in the North, Theon begins hungering for his own leadership as ruler of the Iron Islands.
What marks the difference between Theon and Daenerys’ journeys? How do they end up in such different positions, Daenerys with a loyal army and Theon with a failed leadership attempt?
The difference, I believe, is humility. From the moment we first meet Theon he is dripping with arrogance. Despite his helpfulness to the Starks, his interactions with them almost entirely consist of snide comments, bitter remarks and the encouragement of violence, and as soon as he believes the opportunity is available he is frantic to stake his claim to the Iron Islands. Upon his return home he treats his kinsmen like lessers and subsequently fails to gain their respect, in turn leading to drastic, horrific actions to attempt to regain it. The pure conceit Theon displays when ransacking Winterfell and slaughtering its inhabitants is repugnant and marks the clear failure of his attitude in successfully gaining a position as a respected leader of his people.
In stark (excuse the pun) contrast, Daenerys’ attitude towards leadership is one of respect and humility. Despite facing a perilous and frankly terrifying situation in marrying Dothraki Khal Drogo, she faces her fate with bravery, accepting and adapting to her circumstances by requesting her handmaids to help her in pleasing Drogo in the bedroom – something that other female characters of her age would never have dared to do (consider Sansa Stark, for example). After Drogo’s death, her focus is not just upon her own aim to take the Iron Throne; no, Daenerys sets slaves free and attempts to aid the remainder of her Khalasar. She never forgets where she came from and who helped her along the way, providing rewards where they are due, such as Ser Barristan Selmy becoming a part of her Queensguard, and punishing where betrayals are met, for example with Ser Jorah Mormont. She becomes an adored Queen, reflected in that her followers refer to her as their “mother” of dragons, begging her help for which she hears as many subjects in court as possible. Her acquirement of the Unsullied is used to set slaves free and prevent crimes in the cities in which she rules, and she does not abuse her position with frivolous activities or squandering of money.
Daenerys and Socrates: Wise Souls
It is in this way that I believe that the character of Daenerys draws upon some key ideas of ancient philosopher Socrates as evidenced in Plato’s works. Socrates emphasises the importance of humility in wisdom; he believed that he was no wiser than anyone else, despite his reputation as a valued philosopher. In Plato’s Meno, for example, Socrates explains how all humans are born with knowledge; they just require a teacher to question them in order to retrieve the answer. In this way, no human is wiser than the next; it just depends on who has been asked the right questions.
In Plato’s Apology, Socrates investigates the origin of wisdom with his friend Chaerephon, who asks “the oracle” whether there is anyone wiser than Socrates. To Socrates’ surprise, the oracle says no. After investigating, Socrates discovers that although other people appear wiser or to have more extensive knowledge, often they are exaggerating and claim to know more than they do, or to be wise when they are not – in a similar way to Theon, with his broad arrogance in abilities and claimed wisdom in leadership which both prove to be false. From Socrates’ investigation we can then infer that one is wise if they are, in actual fact, wise and with extensive knowledge, but also do not know/are not arrogant that they are so: they are humble.
This theory is successfully evidenced by Daenerys. She accepts, from the beginning, that she has much to learn, and seeks to learn it – the sign of a good philosopher, according to Socrates. She asks debates with those around her such as her maid Doreah and her knight Ser Jorah in order that she might gain knowledge, just as the slave boy does in Plato’s Meno. At no point does she believe she knows everything or is all-wise; she keeps advisors around her who she includes and requests to aid her in her decisions, often debating with them in doing so. One could even argue that she uses Socrates’ “elenchus” method of debating to “get to the truth of things”, as philosophers often do.
Perhaps the main evidence of Daenerys’ wisdom is her dragons. They are her constant focus, and she asks anyone she can about their origin whilst testing her own abilities with fire, such as holding her dragon egg in the fire. She is constantly learning with them after they hatch, asking for others’ opinions and attempting to gain further knowledge of them: never being arrogant in what she already knows. It is this constant curiosity and unquestionable acceptance that she always has more to know, alongside her beliefs that others around her are wiser, that demonstrates Daenerys’ humility, and this is what makes her so loved by her followers: she respects them and does not act as if she is better than them, because she knows she was once one of them.
Daenerys: Winning the Game of Thrones?
Following Socrates’ example, Daenerys is constantly developing her wisdom and knowledge with humility and respect. Contrasting her with Theon Greyjoy has demonstrated how this humble attitude has shaped her as a strong, beloved leader of her followers compared to Theon who repulses those who he hopes to follow him. Since we first met her, Daenerys’ attitude has developed her to become perhaps the most developed character in the series, something which I believe may be putting her in the winning position in the Game of Thrones – a good position to be in, considering “you either win or you die”. However, in this game nobody is safe, so humility remains essential if one aims to win. Good job Daenerys has perfected that, then; now let’s just see if she can keep it up.
For more information on Plato (and Socrates) on wisdom, check out Stanford, or read Plato’s Apology and Meno, available from Penguin or Kindle books.
Game of Thrones is a book series by George R.R. Martin which has been made into a HBO TV series. Seasons 1 and 2 are out now on Blu-ray and DVD and Season 3 begins airing 31st March 2013.
Nietzsche. He’s very much the marmite of philosophy, dividing his readers down the middle in a barrage of differing opinions that equate, well, to marmite.
Whilst studying Nietzsche’s middle period, a concept which particularly interested me was ‘Eternal Recurrence’. If taken as a guide for how to live, I believe this would provide a directive for the actions of renowned Buffy the Vampire Slayer character Faith. I’m going to take a look at this, and consider whether Eternal Recurrence is successful as a guide for living life – firstly in regard to Buffy character Faith, and secondly in respect to humanity in general.
Faith is essentially a slayer gone wrong; the “bad” slayer, the slayer without friends and family – Buffy’s total opposite.
After Buffy drowns and is resuscitated in Season 1, another slayer, Kendra, is called, and later killed by Drusilla. In turn, Faith is called, turning up in Sunnydale in Season 3 to wreak havoc amongst our Scooby gang – and she plans to stick around, too.
Initially working for the side of good (or so we believe at this point), Faith joins Buffy on patrol, their “synchronised slaying” being very much enjoyed by passionate Faith. This develops into a show of power in ‘Bad Girls’, where Faith tempts Buffy on wild wander into the realms of teen naughtiness by stealing, skipping classes and the ultimate bad: murder.
“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’” (The Gay Science S341)
Nietzsche’s thought experiment above is asking us to consider how we live our lives. Are we in the loneliest loneliness, living miserably and not making the most of what we have? If so, we’d be horrified at the prospect of re-living our lives. Or are we living happily, as we want to, elated at the idea of being able to experience all these fantastical things we have done all over again?
Nietzsche wants us to be the latter, living life to the fullest, so that re-living it would be gratifying.
Nietzsche wants us to live life as we’d like, in a way that we would enjoy it the most. Faith is the personification of this idea. From the moment we first see her, she’s oozing with a sexual confidence which leads her to, as she puts it, “want, take, have” whatever she feels she needs, including people. She believes she is “better” than others because of her slayer power, giving her the right to do as she likes.
And she enjoys it, revelling in her ability to abuse her power in any way possible, whether that’s seducing Angel, trying to kill Xander, or even murdering a human being. She’s having fun and she’d be happy to, when confronted with Nietzsche’s demon, re-live it all again and again for eternity. After all, she doesn’t feel guilt:
Buffy: “Faith, you killed a man.”
Faith: “No Buffy, you don’t get it. I don’t care.”
So Faith is a happy, evil bunny, adhering to Nietzsche’s suggestion. But does Nietzsche really mean that we can live however we want to, even if it’s at the expense of other people? There’s not much that suggests otherwise, although I won’t rule out contrasting evidence – I’m not a Nietzsche scholar, after all.
Does Eternal Recurrence work as a guide for Faith?
Well, anyone who has seen either Buffy or Angel, or both, will know that it doesn’t. After her evil alliance with The Mayor at the end of Buffy’s Season 3 episode ‘Consequences’, her definite cross over to the path of evil was confirmed. She later falls into a coma, and once awoken in Season 4, goes after Buffy and co. Upon wreaking havoc yet again in the good slayer’s life, Faith escapes to LA where she finally breaks down to Angel and admits experiencing guilt for her actions: she’s a mess. After Buffy shows up and more drama ensues, Faith finally turns herself in to the police and serves time for her actions.
So although she was “five by five” after committing murders, enjoying being evil, her conscience caught up with her and she began to atone for her behaviour, undergoing significant emotional suffering to do so. Now surely that isn’t something she’d want to re-live in Eternal Recurrence?
For this reason, Eternal Recurrence fails as a guide to life for Faith. She does, however, come out better on the other side, joining Angel in Season 4 to help restore his soul and arriving fully prepared to sacrifice her life for him in ‘Orpheus’. She then joins Buffy and co in the fight against The First, again, putting her head on the chopping block if it means helping to save the world.
Despite a supposed sacrificial nature, we still glimpse Faith’s dark side in Buffy’s Season 7 when she takes the potentials out partying, enraging Buffy (what’s new?) as well as getting flirty with Spike (upsetting Buffy again) and getting kinky with Robin Wood – that one didn’t upset anybody, though. Anyway, despite being “good”, Faith still manages to act in a “want, take, have”, Nietzschean way… to an extent. It appears she has more of an awareness of her actions at this point, being able to exert control and immediately backing down at any point of confrontation. In ‘Empty Places’, she doesn’t argue for her role as leader, it is simply handed to her, whereas Season 3 Faith would have got a power kick from it. Is this a more considered Nietzschean Eternal Recurrence attitude? Perhaps. Or it could just be maturity.
So, does Eternal Recurrence work as a guide for life?
Using Faith as an example, Neitzsche’s idea definitely shows promise. I think to use it as a guide to life would have to be vague; we don’t have much specificity in the concept, which may be why Faith is such a car crash character.
Having said that, the principle does hold down a generally desirable idea – I’m sure most of us would want to feel, at the end of our lives, that we could happily re-live it without a huge amount of regret or negative feeling. Hence if we were to accept Eternal Recurrence as a guide to life, we would need to do so loosely; using common sense and our conscience to ensure we do not undertake actions which may later come back and, well, bite us in the butt (or neck, if we’re dealing with vampires). Exerting superpowers was all very well for Faith, until she remembered she had a soul (and therefore a conscience), and so began an influx of immense guilt. Probably best to avoid that if you’re going to have a life of Eternal Recurrence! Therefore, I conclude that Eternal Recurrence does indeed work as a guide for life, if combined with common sense and a conscience, though not very well for Faith.
Souls. What are they? What do they represent? What is the purpose of a soul?
These ideas are explored at length in the Buffyverse and I’ve noticed a contrast between early/later Buffy and Angel in the way that they approach the concept of a soul. To illustrate these differences, I will draw on some philosophy from John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. I will also briefly draw on certain characters to exemplify the role of souls within the Buffyverse – there’s so many I could bring in, and in such detail, but I’ll just give a brief overview here.
Let’s start at the beginning. In Buffy the idea of a soul is introduced as a condition for good-ness. For example, in Season 1 we discover that Angel is a vampire. Initial response: omg horror, Buffy has kissed an evil thing! Then we find out he has a soul. Ok, this must mean he is “good” then. Generally he is accepted as part of the Scoobies and Buffy’s life goes on.
After he sleeps with Buffy in Season 2, Angel loses his soul and is described as being “evil” again. Again, we generally accept this and Buffy knows she must kill him. Angel is a clear example: having a soul = good, not having a soul = bad.
John Locke’s Souls
John Locke had a similar idea in the concept of a soul. He discussed the differences between a “man” and a “person”. A man, he argued, was simply a living being of a particular shape; i.e. what sets us apart from other species of living thing. What makes us a person, however, is the possession of a soul. This soul possession explains how we recognise a person to be the same person over time – their identity. So for Locke, a soul is the criterion of personal identity – but that’s a kettle of fish for another post! The crux is, a soul is what makes us more than an animal – it’s what makes us human. An animal might behave irrationally, for example killing other animals recklessly, whereas a person has the capacity to think, deliberate and take responsibility for their actions.
Locke & Early BtVS
Locke’s concept of a soul, then, seems to align with the early BtVS idea of a soul. Locke’s distinction between a man and a person is dependent on a soul; Buffy’s distinction between good and evil is dependent on a soul. A person, with a soul, is capable of good, moral actions. A man (i.e. human animal) is not capable of this. This is reflected in Angel’s behaviour. When he has a soul he performs “good” actions: he saves Buffy’s life, he helps the Scoobies beat the bad guys and stakes vampires. When he lacks a soul he acts immorally: he kills people for his own pleasure, plots to destroy the world and follows his instincts to feel satisfied.
However there are limitations to this similarity between the soul ideas of Locke and BtVS. If we are to follow Locke’s concept of a soul being the distinction between a person and a man, then all beings without a soul should be animals, basic creatures without the capacity for complex thought. Evil, soulless beings in Buffy certainly aren’t like this. In fact, most of them have given the Scoobies a definite run for their money in terms of intelligence and mental abilities. I mean, it is for precisely this reason why Angelus is so dangerous – he knows his victims and how to inflict the most pain on them, and uses this knowledge to implement his evil plans. The fact that he has plans alone should be a huge indication that he is far more than just a base being!
So, if we start with Locke, the concept of a soul appears straightforward; however BtVS begins to blur the lines of what its purpose is. Locke would have its purpose as what sets us apart from animals; it gives us a capacity for guilt, responsibility, and humanity. Buffy would have it as the criterion for a good person – potentially. But the concept of a soul gets more complicated as the series develops and spin-off Angel is established. Let’s consider some later Buffy now for even more blurry-lined fun.
Our favourite rouge slayer is the prime counterexample to the soul = good, soulless = evil theory. In fact, we don’t really think about the fact that Faith has a soul until Angel mentions it in “Enemies”, but even then it’s not really addressed. No, Faith is considered in BtVS as evil, the bad slayer. But wait! She has a soul! This should mean she’ll feel remorse, but as she admits herself in “Bad Girls” after she murders an innocent man, ‘I don’t care’. This contradicts everything we had established in the first two series of Buffy – having a soul doesn’t necessarily mean you’re on the good side.
And being soulless doesn’t also necessarily mean you’re on the bad side, either. Spike is the perfect example of this. His obsession with Buffy and the Initiative chip in his head lead him to help the Scoobies in fighting evil in Season 4, and in Season 5 he submits himself to horrific torture to protect an innocent Dawn. So a soul’s purpose isn’t always to be “good”, then. We don’t need a soul to act morally.
But then we see Spike’s darker, evil side in “Seeing Red” when he tries to rape Buffy. This behaviour, from a soulless being, should be unsurprising; however it is his feelings of guilt which propel him to seek out his soul so he can be worthy of her. Yet surely if he was evil (being soulless) he wouldn’t feel this guilt in the first place? Something doesn’t add up here in the soul = good concept.
This is addressed further in Season 4 where we see characters face increasingly more real-life situations of other human beings (with souls) committing immoral actions, for example Parker who uses Buffy for sex, Oz cheating on Willow and even Buffy herself with her treatment of Riley in Season 5. But most crucially, the issue of souls and their real purpose is addressed in Buffy’s spin-off Angel, where we examine the concept of Angel as a vampire with a soul in further detail, and the real role of a soul in the Buffyverse mythology.
Souls in Angel are like a huge murky puddle in comparison to Buffy’s early days of a clear freshwater pool where we knew it was clear-cut that a soul = good. In Angel, Wolfram & Hart are an evil law firm, of whom many employees are human. So they have souls. And sure, they might occasionally feel guilt – Lindsay does in “Blind Date”, but quickly goes back to the dark side, persuaded by the promise of a bigger office. A soul’s purpose in Angel then, is definitely not for someone to be “good” – many (if not most) of the lawyers at W&H are human, with souls, and they’re evil.
Darla’s a funny example because she’s gone through so many changes since we first saw her on Buffy. In Angel Season 2 she’s human, but acting evil. Then she admits she feels guilty. Then she becomes a vampire and is evil (again). Then in Season 3 she gets pregnant with a human baby and the baby’s soul affects her, allowing her to feel soul-like emotions like love, which lead her to stake herself for the baby to be born. The prime example of a murky puddle, Darla straddles good and evil as long as we see her, and we’re endeared to her by the time she dusts. And we didn’t really like her when she had a soul!
So how are we to interpret this? Spike and Darla together illustrate that soulless beings might, actually, be capable of good actions. And Faith and Wolfram & Hart illustrate that having a soul doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good (although Faith does repent so she’s another blurry one).
There isn’t an easy way to reconcile these difficulties. After giving it a lot of thought, I think that in the Buffyverse the presence of a soul simply makes it easier to be good, makes it more likely that you’ll feel guilty for acting immorally, more likely that you’ll act morally, and generally want to work alongside other beings with souls to live in harmony.
I also think that certain characters are more affected by the presence of a soul than others, dependent on their core personality traits. Spike, before he was sired, was an extremely sensitive and loving man. This is reflected once he loses his soul through his affection for Drusilla, and we later see this kind of devotion in his feelings towards Buffy, which would explain his selfless actions in protecting her and Dawn in Season 5. Likewise, a resurrected Darla in Season 2 wants to stick to what she knows – evil – which leads to her confused immoral behaviour. Her sudden change in being capable of love in Season 3 she attributes to her child, however I feel that there must be some part of her capable of feeling this way in the same way that Spike feels about Buffy as an evil vampire. Interesting that both soulless vampires Spike and Darla are capable of love around the same time in Buffy and Angel timelines, too.
So what is a soul’s purpose?
Probably to push its owner in the right direction. The soul is, as Locke suggested, what enables them to become a better man, a person (although to a different extent than he suggested – Angelus wasn’t a base demon). Whether one’s soul direction is towards evil and back towards good (Faith), to finally affirm feelings (Spike), to enable love (Darla) or to facilitate a journey of redemption (Angel), the possession of a soul has been a guiding presence in many of our characters’ journeys. And that, I feel, is the Buffyverse’s soul purpose.
For soul-related Buffyverse fun, have a look at Buffy Season 2 for Angel, Buffy Seasons 3 and 7 for Faith, Buffy Seasons 5-7 for Spike and Angel Seasons 2 and 3 for Darla.
Check out Stanford for more information on John Locke and his idea of the soul.
For fans of Lost, character “Desmond David Hume” was a “constant” favourite, a fitting description considering one of his focal episodes “The Constant” was nominated for 3 Emmy Awards. Named after Scottish philosopher David Hume, Desmond’s character appears to express many of David’s philosophical ideas and rumoured characteristics. Philosopher David Hume was rumoured to be a fun-loving chap who enjoyed socialising, philosophical discussions and a good drink. Similarly, in Lost flashbacks we see Desmond often habits the pub with friends and even whilst on the island he is very social and likes drinking. We see this for example in “Flashes Before Your Eyes” when Charlie persuades Desmond to reveal his secrets by sharing a bottle of whiskey with him.
Regardless of personal characteristics though, does Desmond Hume in Lost really depict David Hume’s philosophical ideas and theories, or are his beliefs and actions in the show an inaccurate depiction of those of David Hume? Is the character Hume a lost cause?
One of Hume’s key philosophical theories is causation, what is considered by many to be a “necessary connection” between two events, event A and event B. Philosopher Hume was sceptical about these necessary connections, believing that if two ideas (i.e. a cause and effect) are separable in the imagination, then they are distinct and not necessarily connected. David Hume took an empirical approach to the world leading to his alternative causation theory, that instead of a cause having a property which entails a certain effect or vice versa (which “necessarily connects” them), it is in fact down to our own psychology that we observe “constant conjunctions” between A-like events and B-like events, and combining this with the assumption that the nature is uniform, we expect B-like events to follow A-like events, mentally projecting the idea of a causal relation between them. So for example, if we see a window smash after a brick is thrown at it, we expect all windows to smash if bricks are thrown at them.
These ideas are depicted in some of Desmond’s behaviour on Lost. When Desmond foresees a storm where Claire’s shelter is struck by lightning, he builds a high tower next to it with a golf club on the top. From previously observing thunderstorms, he believes in the causal relationship between a thunderstorm and lightning striking the highest point. So when the storm hits, it is his tower that is struck by lightning, not Claire’s shelter, and Claire and Charlie remain safe. Similarly, in Season 2 when Desmond once fails to press the button during his time in the hatch, the flight 815 plane crashes. In the final episode when Locke tells Desmond he is not going to press the button, Desmond panics when he remembers that the last time he didn’t press the button, people died. He has projected a causal relationship onto the event of not pressing the button and the effect of people dying or something bad happening.
It should be noted that this causal relationship projection is a result of inductive reasoning, i.e. reasoning from specific examples (such as not pressing the button and 815 crashing) to formulate general propositions (that if the button isn’t pressed, people will die). Philosopher Hume was sceptical about inductive reasoning as it is only probabilistic, in that its conclusion is probable given the evidence, but is not based upon firmly deductive reasoning. Desmond continues to press the hatch button as a result of such inductive reasoning, but he later doubts this reasoning for doing so. Moreover, he also doubts his inability to change the future, attempting to change it at the end of “Flashes Before Your Eyes” by warning the barman to duck when he knew someone was coming into the pub to hit him. Considering the barman managed to duck where he didn’t in the original timeline hints that the chain of events is in fact changeable, although it is suggested that the important results, things that are “supposed to happen” are not. How does that work?
Free Will & Determinism: David Hume
Philosopher David Hume examined the Free Will vs. Determinism conflict: are we free to make our own decisions, or are all our actions pre-determined? He settled on a compatibalist approach, arguing that whilst we are free to make choices and are morally accountable for our actions, the universe and events within it are pre-determined. David Hume proposes two main concepts:
Necessity – “the uniformity, observable in the operations of nature; where similar objects are constantly conjoined together”
Liberty - “a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will”
Hume argues that liberty requires necessity because if actions weren’t necessitated then they wouldn’t have anything in common with our “motives, inclinations and circumstances”.
- If our actions aren’t linked to our will then they can’t be free and are a matter of chance.
- Chance is something which is “universally not allowed to exist” due to necessity and the universality of nature.
- Therefore our actions must be linked to our will.
Since we possess liberty, i.e. the power of acting or not acting, we are free; however our will is determined by our motives, inclinations, circumstances, etc., so we are also determined. David Hume’s proposal is therefore that free will and determinism are compatible.
Free Will & Determinism: Desmond Hume
David Hume’s compatibalist ideas are reflected in Lost in particular during the episode “Flashes Before Your Eyes”, where we discover what happened to Desmond at the end of Season 2 after he turned the key in the hatch: he time-travelled to the past, re-living the events that occurred before his boat crashed on the island. Most crucially, Desmond tries to change this course of events.
When entering a jewellery shop, Desmond asks the assistant for an engagement ring for his girlfriend Penny, which he then tries to buy. The assistant claims that is “not supposed to happen”; he is meant to have second thoughts, leave the shop and break up with Penny, after which he will go on a boat trip around the world, where he shipwrecks and ends up on the island. He is “supposed” to push the button in the hatch. When Desmond tries to dispute what the assistant says, she explains how although we can try to change things, the end result will always be the same: things are “supposed” to happen in a certain way.
This is made clear by the end of the episode when Desmond reveals he has been having premonitions of Charlie’s death. Each time Desmond manages to save Charlie just in time – he creates a tower to prevent Charlie from being struck by lightning, and swims out to sea in Charlie’s place to save a drowning Claire, where Charlie would have drowned in the process. However, Desmond explains, no matter how many times he saves him, Charlie will die: “the universe has a way of cause correcting, and I can’t stop it forever”. As David Hume proposed, despite Charlie’s free will, the event of his death is predetermined. Charlie will die as a result of his circumstances, and there is nothing we can do to stop it. How and when does he die, and what chain of events is his death a cause of? You’ll have to watch to find out, but the important thing to note here is that Desmond’s beliefs concur with those of David Hume.
A Lost cause
So Desmond Hume is not the “lost cause” of misinterpreted philosophical theories; in fact, he seems to portray David Hume’s ideas rather accurately. Of course, a Hume expert might disagree, but from where I’ve seen, in regard to Hume the Lost creators do pretty well in portraying the philosopher’s concepts in the character’s beliefs and actions. Desmond Hume is indeed a Lost cause – for events in the show vital for its progression. Perhaps that’s why creators brought him back for every Lost season since.
This piece focuses on Lost season 3 episode 8, “Flashes Before Your Eyes”, and all Lost quotes are taken from this episode. Desmond Hume features in seasons 2-6 of the show. Other notable Desmond episodes are s2.23-4 “Live Together, Die Alone”, s3.17 “Catch-22”, s4.5 “The Constant”, s5.3 “Jughead”, and s6.11 “Happily Ever After”.
David Hume quotes taken from his work “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding”, available from Penguin Publishing.
Photo of Desmond Hume from ABC, used to promote the character.
Painting of David Hume from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
Photo of Desmond, Charlie and Hurley drinking whiskey is a screenshot from “Flashes Before Their Eyes”.
Why do we love science-fiction? For those of us that engage with it, it’s easy to be immersed in worlds of superheroes, spaceships and vampire slayers. But for those that don’t, it can appear as a far-fetched fantasy only engaged with by children and “nerds”. So for those that believe the latter, here is a bit of a philosophical argument as to why sci-fi is awesome.
Logic – don’t be scared!
During my Philosophy degree, my favourite module was Modal Logic. Logic is the study of reasoning models – in other words, turning phrases and arguments into a sort of maths using symbols. We have specific symbols that stand for certain words, such as ¬ for “not”, and ^ for “and”. We use the logic to establish proofs of arguments or to derive a contradiction (and disprove a premise or set of premises). I won’t go into proofs here, but the next paragraph will give you a bit of philosophical context.
Here’s where it gets technical. Modal logic involves applying operators to statements which affect their meanings and truth values. Specifically, alethic modal operators qualify the truth of a statement, for example ‘possibly’ and ‘necessarily’. So we might have a statement “Superman is wearing a cape”. Let’s call this statement “P”. We can then apply a modal operator to this statement (let’s use “possibly”, which is a diamond symbol ◊), so it becomes ◊P, which means “It is possible that Superman is wearing a cape”. In other words, there is some hypothetical world in which Superman is wearing a cape. So, modal logic deals with necessary and possible worlds.
Possible Worlds & Thought Experiments
Here is the similarity with sci-fi. Science-fiction also deals with possible worlds, worlds in which there are alterations from the actual world. These alterations can be pretty much anything, such as the existence of time travel, vampires and demons, and the existence of accessible galaxies, far, far away.
We talk about these kinds of alterations in philosophy, too. Possible world examples are used to illustrate issues and arguments. We call these examples “thought experiments”. A thought experiment is a hypothetical situation which takes place in our minds, like a “what if” statement, and we then consider the consequences of this “what if”. Consider 2 examples.
- What if brain transplants were possible? Then if we put Brown’s brain into Robinson’s body, who would the resultant person be?
- What if our senses are deceiving us, everything we encounter is an illusion and we haven’t actually experienced the real world?
What’s the difference between 1 and 2?
Although it sounds a lot like sci-fi, example 1 is actually a thought experiment from philosophy known as the ‘Brownson case’, from philosopher Sydney Shoemaker’s book Self Knowledge and Self Identity. As you may have guessed, it’s about personal identity. It’s also similar to the concept of TV show Dollhouse, where questionable identities come into play and body-swapping becomes the source of a variety of dramatic, hilarious and compromising situations.
Thought experiment 2 was the synopsis of the movie The Matrix, as well as being a popular concept in philosophy, under a branch called ‘epistemology’ concerning theories and questions of knowledge. It is also an issue investigated by René Descartes in his Meditations, where a ‘method of doubt’ is investigated.
Yet sci-fi isn’t always based on philosophy. In fact, some of the best philosophers have drawn theories from interesting scenarios in sci-fi, such as Derek Parfit, who based his teletransportation thought experiment on events in Star Trek in his book Reasons and Persons.
Clearly then, there are noticeable parallels between academic philosophy and “nerdy” sci-fi, to the extent that they share concepts and theories; just expressing them in different ways: academics through writing, lectures and seminars, and sci-fi fanatics through TV, film, novels and magazines. Whatever the means by which it is comprehended, however, the fact remains the same: people are interested in this stuff. It says a lot that academics are interested. It says even more that everyone else is interested – we know this as they watch the shows, read the books, and, well, buy the t-shirts. Sci-fi is making difficult philosophical concepts accessible to everyone else who isn’t an academic, and for that reason I wholeheartedly applaud it.
Why do we love sci-fi so much?
Throughout my entire first year at university I really struggled with my course. For anyone who has any misconceptions, I will tell you now: philosophy is hard. Sci-fi really helped me to get through that. Reading Buffy and Philosophy was a great introduction to some of the topics I studied, and Dollhouse inspired me to do my dissertation on personal identity.
The reason we love it is escapism. Obvious I know, but I mean it in more than just the usual sense. We escape not only into a thought experiment, but into philosophy. Worlds where scientific rules don’t matter and we aren’t constantly debating pragmatisms, convention and legalities. We investigate possible worlds in which an 11-year-old boy finds out he’s a wizard, a teen photographer gets bitten by a rare spider, or a young woman discovers she has a destiny fighting ‘the forces of darkness’. And we deliberate about these situations, really considering what is going on here. We discuss it in person, in social media online and on paper in magazines and novels. Debating issues and considering thought experiments. Now that’s philosophy.
So when people tell me sci-fi is childish, well, they’re contradicting the reality that thousands of academics are engaging with it as we speak, and even more non-academics, too. And yes, it’s nerdy, but it’s worth it to be able to say “I’m just doing some philosophy” when you’re watching TV! So what are you waiting for? Get watching!
Photo from newsbiscuit.com. Clark Kent: the ultimate Sci-Phi symbol – nerd on the outside (like sci-fi), awesome superhero on the inside (like philosophy).
‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ is action-packed, full of heroics, history, and hot men (namely, the man himself). There have been a variety of philosophical responses to the film, mostly ethical, and seeing as I haven’t written anything on ethics yet I thought this might be a great sci-fi story to start us off.
What’s the story?
World War 2 America. Steve Rogers, our main man, is rejected from the US army for being unfit. Dr Abraham Erskine, after seeing Steve attempt to enlist a second time, decides he is the ideal candidate for a certain “super-soldier” experiment. Steve accepts, the experiment is a success, and Steve becomes said “super-soldier”. The serum is destroyed in the process though, so Steve is the only one of his kind. He goes on to become “Captain America”, a role model and celebrity to inspire army recruits and America in the war effort. He performs a variety of heroics in the war and has a fair few adventures, later joining “The Avengers” – but you’ll have to watch the film to find out more specifics on that!
What’s the issue?
Enhancing a human being into a “super-soldier” to give one party an advantage in a war. Can we justify this? Waging war in itself is a controversial decision. Creating a race of super-soldiers capable of wiping out the lives of others en masse seems extremely immoral. Aside from the motives of creating Captain America, the issue of altering the natural state of a human being might be considered controversial. How do we monitor such alterations? In the wrong hands, they could easily become out of control, leading to a divide in the human race between normal humans and super-humans, with the latter in control of the former.
To illustrate these issues, let’s draw on some of the ideas of philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant’s theory of morality has 3 main concepts.
Can we universalise the action? I.e. would it be ok if everyone did it? Well, probably not. If everyone became a super-human, we would be equal in power, but thereby more capable of destruction. Humans fight: this will inevitably lead to more battles and more wars. With everyone as a super-soldier, we’d be capable of destroying our entire living environment and plunging the human race (or what’s left of it) into an apocalyptic chaos. So in this respect, no, we can’t universalise the experiment which changed Steve. Luckily for us though, the serum formula was lost before it became widely distributed.
But what about the results of the experiment? Once the serum changes him, Steve (now Captain America) performs countless acts of good for the benefit of his country, such as risking his life to save fellow soldiers from Nazi captivity. Surely these selfless actions can be universalised? If everyone did something kind for someone else the world would surely be a much better place. But then, can we really consider the morality of the ends (Captain America’s actions) despite the means (the experiment on Steve)?
Means to an End
Kant proposes that to act morally we should not treat humans as a means to an end, i.e. a way to achieve some ulterior motive: we should treat each human being as an end in themselves. In Steve’s case, he is definitely being used as a means to an end: winning the war. So we can’t condone his enhancement into Captain America.
Kingdom of Ends
This is the idea of all humans acting by universality, which we discussed above. In this true kingdom of ends, acting virtuously leads to happiness. So if everyone were to become a super-human like Captain America, we would all be acting morally and be happy. Now, as we also discussed above, this probably isn’t likely. In fact, it’s more realistic that we’d be left with chaos. So really, can we justify turning Steve into Captain America?
Steve’s Enhancement: Justifiable?
According to Kant, probably not. Still, can we ignore the amount of good that came from the results of the experiment (Captain America)? Do you agree with Kant? Can we justify the scientific enhancement of human beings? Perhaps it depends whether you think Captain America’s heroics were worth it, although Kant would disagree.
For more information on Kant’s morality, read his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, or check out the Stanford article on his moral philosophy.
Picture (above) from the domestic release of the film ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’.
Throughout Buffy’s seven seasons we’ve seen our heroine face various challenging situations: dying, killing her boyfriend, blowing up her high school, destroying a Frankenstein-robot-demon, defeating a God, dying (again) and facing the First Evil in the show’s epic finale.
Yet what guides Buffy in her actions?
Many might say her genetics, personality and experiences. But if we dig deeper, there could be a more philosophical guide to her choices, namely: Aristotle’s virtue ethics.
Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that the key to flourishing (“arête”) in life was to practice certain virtues with temperance (moderation). For example, one could practice the virtue of generosity, but only in moderation – if one is too generous, they might be taken advantage of, and if one is not generous enough, they might be considered selfish. The most virtuous action is the one that is a balance or median between the two extremes. Through living in moderation like this, one can reach their divine “telos” – their ultimate purpose, or happiness.
Why does Buffy act according to this principle?
Buffy’s responsibility as the Slayer requires maintaining the balance between good and evil. Specifically, minimising as much evil presence in the world as is within her power to prevent it from overcoming the world. She is the moderator of the good/evil balance in the universe. Buffy allows a certain amount of evil in the world, but only to the extent that she can slay it.
Yet Buffy is also human, and therefore prone to the influence of evil herself. We see the lines between good and evil blur, leading to Buffy’s straying from her path of moderator, in the later seasons of the show. Season 6, particularly, is a prime season for our characters being drawn towards evil. In the opening episodes Buffy explains her numbness to reality and her belief that the world is hell, following her departure from heaven after being “torn out of there, by my friends”. This physical movement out of heaven and into the world, which she describes as “hell”, is a metaphor for her progression towards evil and away from the virtuous.
Blurring the Boundaries between Good & Evil
Buffy’s beginning indifference to virtue is highlighted through a lack of responsibility towards her sister Dawn, a stark comparison to her behaviour in season 5, where she faced a God, and subsequently died, in order to save Dawn’s life. Now, in season 6, Buffy shows little to no interest in her sister, frequently relying on others to take care of her, for example when she turns to Giles to discipline Dawn after her misbehaviour on Halloween.
The musical episode “Once More with Feeling” is a key stage in depicting Buffy’s diminishing temperance, where she sings “I will walk through the fire”, a metaphor for her progression towards evil behaviour, and away from the good – also signified through her being “torn” out of heaven. Soon afterwards, this manifests into further physical movements towards evil when she begins a sexual relationship with Spike, a soulless (and thereby evil) vampire who fell in love with her in season 5. Her reasons for rejecting him at the time were “you’re an evil, soulless thing. You’re beneath me”. In season 6, however, she becomes drawn to him for this very reason. Spike becomes a symbol of evil, emphasised by his constant efforts to tempt Buffy into sleeping with him, to which she consistently gives in.
Is Buffy Virtuous at this point?
In many ways, no. She persistently deceives her friends, putting on a display of loathing towards Spike whilst in their company, yet secretly sleeping with him. She neglects her duties towards her sister, her friends and her calling as a Slayer in favour of short-lived pleasure with a soulless creature who effectively represents everything she has been trained to hate and fight against.
Yet despite her numbness to feeling anything, Buffy still keeps on “going through the motions”: she maintains a slaying routine and continues to fight the forces of darkness. Granted, she neglects her slaying duties in terms of her lack of interest in it, not attempting to further her skills or develop under her watcher Giles, but she continues to slay vampires and generally keep her town Sunnydale safe, thereby fulfilling her duty of maintaining the balance between good and evil. Surely this warrants some credit?
Moreover, one might consider that Buffy is in fact being as virtuous as she can be given the circumstances. She has just been ripped out of heaven, and anyone exposed to such traumatic and extreme circumstances could be expected to have some kind of drastic behaviour changes, surely?
In the context of Aristotle’s virtue ethics though, the most important thing to consider is whether Buffy is practicing virtues, and if so, whether she is practicing them with moderation. There are many virtues and vices we could consider here, but I will focus on a few which stand out to me in this season.
Frugality – Buffy gets a job at dire fast-food chain the ‘Doublemeat Palace’ in order to support herself and Dawn. She doesn’t earn much so she must maintain a frugal attitude towards money. She is not overly generous with money but she does not appear to squander it, either. Temperate in this respect, then.
Courage - Buffy doesn’t tell her friends that she was in heaven for a long while after she is resurrected. This could be seen as cowardly because she is too afraid of their reactions to be honest with them. At the same time though, perhaps courageous as she is isolating herself from them to protect their feelings. Yet in ‘Once More With Feeling’, where she faces the dancing demon alone, she quickly offers herself up to save her sister (didn’t we already do this in season 5?!) rather than return to her friends and ask for help despite their refusal earlier in the episode. This suggests a certain amount of rashness, the excess of courage. Yet still, she faces the demon alone, which is courageous. So perhaps she is acting temperately.
Compassion – Buffy cares about her friends. We can see this as she keeps her reality of being torn from heaven a secret to protect them – they think they saved her from hell by resurrecting her. We know Buffy cares about Dawn – she died for her – and she worries about how she will support her, particularly with the money issues she faces following her return from the dead. Yet her dishonesty towards her friends at the same time shows a lack of compassion, perhaps more extreme than the compassion in hiding her secret from them. Is she swaying more towards the vices of selfishness and dishonesty than the virtues of compassion and truthfulness here then?
Is Buffy the virtuous person in season 6?
Well, I suppose it depends what part of the series you are considering. I have only considered the first half of season 6 – perhaps your thoughts might be different during the later parts of the season. Also, what about other seasons of Buffy? I focused on season 6 as it has a complex good/evil character arc for Buffy, but there are other characters we might focus on in different parts of the show’s progression that might also demonstrate the practice of interesting virtues, vices and temperate behaviour. To investigate further, you’ll have to watch the show!
For more information on Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics, read his Nichomachean Ethics or check out Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.
Picture from smrt-tv.com, a screenshot from the episode ‘Once More With Feeling’ in Season 6.
Personal Identity. What is it? Our conception of ourselves? How others perceive us to be? Is it to do with our “soul” (if we even have one), or our bodies, or something more than that? Is it, esentially, what makes us who we are?
In philosophy, personal identity concerns the criterion of what makes us the same person over time. So what makes me as I was this morning the same person as me as I am this evening?
The topic has been one of intrigue to many a philosopher and contemplative person for a long time. We can date it back to the 1600s, where John Locke wrote about it in his ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding’, forming one of the first theories on the subject, the ‘psychological approach’. This is the idea that what makes someone the same person over time is their psychology – their memories, personality, attitudes, etc. Most importantly, this approach has the consequence that a person’s sameness of body is not necessary for their identity to persist over time. So if my psychology were to exist in a different body after I die, I would survive.
Dollhouse, created by Joss Whedon, takes this idea and runs with it. The concept of the show is the following:
The human race possesses more technology than most of us know about. Human brains (and the psychology contained within) can be “uploaded” onto a computer system, where they are stored on a disc. Once a person’s psychology is uploaded in this way, they are then in a state of “tabula rasa”, a blank slate state, known in the show as a “doll state”. People in their doll state possess a child-like simple mentality, where only the simplest concepts are comprehended, like eating, sleeping, and simple human functions (except sex, which isn’t comprehended but urges still occur. It’s never fully explained in the series).
These dolls can then be “imprinted” with the psychology of other people, or combinations of such psychologies, devised and formulated by advanced scientist Topher Brink. By this technology, we could have a doll become anyone we want them to be. We could construct the psychology of a super spy, a master criminal, or the perfect girlfriend or boyfriend (the latter of which most of the dolls are used for – perhaps somewhat unsurprising considering modern Western society).
But where do the bodies come from to be imprinted? People “volunteer” to go into the Dollhouse and become a doll for a contracted amount of time, after which they will be re-imprinted with their original psychology and set free into the real world with lavish amounts of compensation money. Understandably, not many people want to volunteer into such a scheme, however the company who own the technology, Rossum, essentially blackmail people into joining, or headhunt emotionally vulnerable people to recruit. (Yes, I know, there are already plenty of ethical issues at play in this – part of the reason it’s so intriguing!) Many of the volunteers, however, do actually want to have some time away from being themselves due to extreme emotional torment, so in some respects they genuinely volunteer into joining the Dollhouse.
The question then arising from all of this is, are our bodies really able to “forget” the psychology of the person who originally inhabited them? The main character in the series, the doll Echo, used to be a girl called Caroline before her psychology was wiped. As the series progresses, Echo starts becoming self-aware, remembering pieces of who she was before. Is Whedon then suggesting that our bodies also have a key part to play in our personal identity? An alternative view of personal identity, known as the Animalist approach, is the claim that our identity in fact depends solely on our bodies: our psychology is irrelevant. So a person in a vegetative state is still the same person. Then all our dolls, having had their psychologies wiped, are still the same people. Is this right? Do you agree?
I guess to make a more informed decision you’ll have to watch the show.
- Picture courtesy of Fox, used in their advertising campaign for the series. -