On Saturday 23rd November, the BBC broadcast its latest Doctor Who special, ‘The Day of the Doctor’ to a world record 94 countries simultaneously. Generating 500,000 tweets during the broadcast, and grossing over 10 million viewers in the UK alone, there is no doubt that this was a major TV event.
For many fans the episode will be summed up by a single moment of reflection. Not wanting to provide spoilers, it revolves around a deliberation upon the main characters guiding principle:
“Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up, never give in.”
This single line illuminates the reason for the show’s popularity over the last 50 years; the same reason that allowed the BBC to put faith in the show’s ability to fly its flag around the world. ‘Never cruel or cowardly’ speaks to our wish to be better, to always do the right thing and not settle for that which imparts suffering – no matter how easy it would be to do so. ‘Never give up, never give in’ explains our will to follow this principle however hard it is, or however long it takes to find a solution.
It is no surprise that Doctor Who, and the array of other superheroes we have seen in media over the last 50 years, capture our imaginations with such uncompromising principles and seemingly fantastical abilities. Our real lives are mundane in comparison; most of our social responsibility seems to lie in picking the ‘least evil’ group of politicians to rule the country. There lies the great appeal of fiction, in being able to follow principles of simple heroism and make decisions that are unflinchingly right.
But what if this didn’t have to be fiction? The Doctor may have the ability to time travel, which sadly eludes us non-fictional human beings (though our understanding of time and space appear to be unlocking the knowledge to say once and for all whether time travel is ever going to be possible). But that guiding principle is well within our reach. The reason it seems so heroic and out of reach to us humans is because we’ve settled for systems that don’t work. Our society may have improved with each scientific leap it has been heir to, but it is still living in the relative dark ages of politics, economics and morality. As a result we are fairly powerless to enact a principle the likes that superheroes could make: the systems of capitalism and democracy which we live within are not up to the idea of actions which allow us to be ‘never cruel or cowardly’ without shifting that same cruelty somewhere else.
It is, poetically enough, in the final part of the principle that the answer resides: ‘never give up, never give in.’ 6 very simple words, yet how do we resiliently enact them if we do not live in a system where ‘never cruel or cowardly’ is a realistic possibility? Like most people have already done, the logic might lead us to a conclusion that the world is far from perfect and thus we must settle. Therefore to solve the problem more rationally and heroically, our only option for progress it to change the system itself.
We’re not in need of revolution, overthrowing capitalism, or beheading politicians. Progress lies first in acceptance that we probably don’t live in the best kind of society we could possibly hope for, and secondly by rigidly believing in the idea that we must change things if there is a chance for improvement. ‘Change’ in the modern world relies on a much smarter and more succinct form of revolution: one of the head, not of the sword.
We each live our own lives with a set of beliefs and values, many of which we have held dear our whole lives. Views on politics and morality, or on finances and culture. It is values like these that underpin our society. Our values, different as they are among different people, are at the base of all of our societal systems. Politics, economics and law work the way they do because we put them in place based on views we once held, and amended them slightly to work better given newer views which we have developed.
Yet at no point was there a serious analysis of these whole systems, given what we now know, with a view as to whether they still fit our society’s best interests. We have managed to fight off some other political systems from taking hold of us (we fought two world wars to stop the spread of different types of fascism) and we have spent huge amounts of money (and caused untold suffering) by diverting funds from potential use in public services to bail out the financial institutions that uphold the kind of capitalism we want. Yet, strangely, no significantly large group of people ever ask ‘are we lusting after the right systems in the first place?’
This is not to say people don’t question at all. Soldiers did not voluntarily sign up to war to defend their freedom from Nazism, for example, without questioning the value of that freedom. Likewise, many individuals question our love of capitalism and big corporations (occupy wall street, for example). But why aren’t more people questioning why we don’t have a system where we can live out even our most basic of moral principles?
The most common answer, of course, is that apathetic view which supposes that things are not perfect but that we are already living in the best of worlds for which we can hope for. This kind of apathy is nothing new. In 1759, Voltaire wrote the wonderful short satire Candide, describing the journey of an extremely unfortunate man – who suffers more than one can believe in a single lifetime, time after excruciating time – but who still believes, in the face of all he has known, that this is “the best of all possible worlds”. Voltaire is reminding us of something that is more relevant today than ever.
We live in a world where 22,000 children a day die due to poverty, around 843 million people are starving or severely under nourished, around 100 million people are homeless, 60 billion entirely sentient animals are slaughtered for food every year, where the ability to wage war is in the hands of people completely removed from their civilian targets and where large, organised religions routinely advise people against sensible scientific developments such as contraception and vaccines. As someone with a passion for scientific neutrality and flexibility, I very often shy away from universal statements but here I will not. This is not the best of all possible worlds.
The reason for my confidence in this statement is simple: everyday terrible things happen which could have been avoided. We could have spent our national defence budget on helping people out of poverty, or we could have taxed organised religion like the business which it parades itself as, using the profits to help the homeless back into society. We don’t because our political and economic systems won’t allow it. We quickly give up on these obviously better uses of resources due to concerns on national security or political popularity. Rather than question why we have a system in which middle class, fundamental religious beliefs can be counted as more important than not being homeless, and rather than ask why we live in a world where national security has to involve monumental amounts of money which we really need to spend on other things, we simply accept these issues as road blocks which stop our moral progress. We cannot follow the principles of our superheroes, we believe, because the real world is not like in fiction.
I disagree. At the bottom of all our problems lies our difference in values. of course our values underpin our humanity, and can be wonderfully complex and individual. When our values merely encompass different tastes – like people who would rather watch reality TV than sci-fi – then they rarely do harm. Arguably this is humanity at its aesthetic and indivualistic best. But when those values are about really important things (sorry sci-fi fans, Doctor Who is important just not this important!) like morality and ethics, we end up having to settle for pleasing everyone – no matter how rational or well thought through their values, or how irrational or self-defeating.
Thus my theory goes that if we were to come up with a basic value system which we all agreed on – one which took on our basic beliefs, and each of our vital interests in life and freedom – then we could theoretically forge the beginnings for a societal organisation which was much more solid and reliable than those we currently have. This would be a rational form of morality; one which did not need to cave to personal preferences or spiritual beliefs, but was instead thought through based on rational extensions of the values we all more or less agree on (like the belief in not causing unnecessary suffering). This was the theory I wrote on and expanded to the best of my ability in Rational Morality: A Science of Right and Wrong.
Rational Morality was a theory designed to give us a foundation for improving the state of things: no doubt it will have critics, but it is better than basing our entire society’s belief system on whims, myths or personal bias. However, it stayed purposefully neutral in areas like politics and economics, so as to stand alone as its own theory. But once this theory of rational values has been put into place, it is then possible to theorise entire systems of politics and economics with which to improve society in reference to our own values. We can use the shared knowledge acquired from the great political minds and economic theorists of all time, along with our rich knowledge of history, to form a blueprint that the forefathers of our economic and political systems could only have dreamed about. This will be the subject of my second book, A Social Science Theory of Everything, which I am currently completing. The idea is to form an objectively testable blueprint for a theory of politics and economics that is capable of solving the great moral issues of our time.
I believe we need to be working hard on these areas as it is the effective method of fighting poverty and homelessness, global warming and animal abuse. These are not insurmountable and ever lasting problems which we suffer, as much as it may seem like they are. We are simply suffering from following the blueprints for a society which was never informed enough to solve them.
All the fundamental problems of humanity which we are odds to deal with under current systems are problems caused by our inability to define rational and agreeable values from which to build on. True progress lies in firming up the foundations of our society so as to build a progressive yet fundamentally simple structure that we would all be the better for; one that not just changes based on modern evidence, but that is founded based on it too.
If you’ve ever wondered why we have to pick between the lesser of two evils at general elections, or why we have to put up with irrational, irrelevant or insignificant decision making by the leaders of our society, then you see the problem I am aiming at. If you agree that the great moral problems of our time are important enough that they should bother us to change, and that the systems we have in place limit our ability to solve them, then you also see why I propose a rational solution.
Never cruel or cowardly. Never give up, never give in.
As a new author I’ve spent the last 6 months agonising over the best way to explain my work to friends, family and colleagues. Who’d have thought the Doctor would have the answer?