Thursday, November 28, 2013

Philosophy and Dr Who

In the 50th anniversary special of Dr Who, The Day of the Doctor, there was a very intriguing philosophical moment that I thought might be interesting to unpack here. It occurred during a negotiation between shape shifting aliens and humans: the aliens had assumed human form and the negotiations between the two parties were going nowhere. The Doctor arrived and wiped their memories with his magic wand (er, sonic screwdriver) so neither party knew whether they were human or alien and they had to negotiate with one another from a position of ignorance. Thus the treaty that would be hammered out between humans and aliens would have to be scrupulously fair, because when your memory came back you wouldn't know which side you'd be on. 
Anyone who has studied political philosophy over the last 35 years will immediately recognize this scenario. It is the so called Original Position from John Rawls's book A Theory of Justice. Much of contemporary political philosophy has been a critique of Rawls from either a communitarian, liberal or libertarian standpoint. What Rawls says is this: imagine you had a bunch of people who were a designing a brand new society - now what if these people didn't know if they were going to be rich or poor, man or woman, black or white, disabled or abled, gay or straight, etc. - what would that society actually look like? Rawls's thought experiment allows a "veil of ignorance" to descend over the negotiators (rather like the Doctor's memory wipe) so that they would end up designing the most "just" society that they could possibly come up with. Rawls's Just Society that comes out of this Original Position has universal healthcare, laws against discrimination, equality for women, enhanced social mobility, protections for minorities etc. - To me it looks a lot like Canada or Denmark. And although what Rawls produced was only a thought experiment he says its a useful one. (Other political and ethical philosophers dispute both the idea of the veil of ignorance and what the laws of the just society would look like.) Rawls claims that we can use this conception of the Just Society to criticize cultures that are very far from his model - societies where there are great disparities of wealth, where minorities and women are not treated well etc. 
You can get A Theory Of Justice at all good university bookshops or online. My favourite critiques of Rawls are by the philosophers Michael Sandel, Alasdair MacIntyre, Robert Nozick and Ronald Dworkin.