There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands. – Plato
I haven’t written much in the last few weeks – a result of first getting Covid and then going on holiday – but that gave me some time to watch more TV and I came across a series on Netflix called “The Good Place.”
Before I get into that I was also reading Yuval Noah Hariri’s book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, and found it tough going after around 50 pages as it delved into the increasing danger posed by algorithms that learn everything about you and your world.
The Good Place is a comedy series. So far so good. It’s also about philosophy. At this point, someone probably says “Oh.” when they mean “Why?” – the kind of reaction we once got when we said to a friend that we were watching the series “Borgen” – a Danish political drama series in Danish. It just doesn’t sound that exciting – but it draws you in.
The Good Place, then, drew me into the world of philosophical thought and introduced ideas such as the three main strands of Western philosophical thought, as shown in the image above. And the big question is how should you live your life?
One answer is to look to virtue ethics – the idea that there is a “good” way to live. The ancients, for example thought you should show temperance, justice, courage and practical wisdom.
Another way to look at the world is through the lens of consequentialism. Whether an action is right or wrong depends on its consequences. Utilitarianism is a type of consequentialism that says you should make decisions that maximise your pleasure or happiness.
The third approach is deontological ethics which says there are rules – something things are right and some things are wrong and there is never a reason to break these rules. Lying is wrong, for example. Period.
I am almost certainly misrepresenting these ideas but the big idea – that there are three main ways of thinking and they’re called what they are comes from watching The Good Place and the snippets of philosophy that are woven into the story. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy which I have on my desk right now is a harder read and each of these ideas require more study to really understand them. However I might never have come across them in the first place had I not decided to watch a random TV programme that uses these ideas to set up conflict and drama with a group of characters.
When I finished the series I returned to Harari’s book and suddenly that made more sense. The point at which I had stopped had to do with algorithms and decision making and the argument Harari goes on to make is that we will increasingly ask algorithms to make decisions for us and the kinds of decisions they make will depend on the philosophical position we take.
Take for example the self-driving car issue. If you are in your car and you are suddenly in a situation where there are people in the road in front of you should the car swerve to avoid them but kill you in the process or drive into them and keep you alive? The answer will differ based on whether you are a consequentialist or a deontologist. Perhaps you believe there is an absolute rule – you shall not kill, it is your car and you should be prepared to die rather than kill another. Or does it depend on the consequences – maybe you’re a pillar of the community and the person in the road is a convicted murderer who has escaped prison. What if the person is a child with a life ahead of her or an old person with not long to live? How do you get the car to make these choices without knowing what your philosophy is?
Now the rest of Harari’s book is much more accessible and more TV and movies help. You can understand the section on terrorism much better if you watch RoboCop. If you are a power threatened by a smaller, weaker group and you have the ability to deploy killer robots to control their cities would you? Later on Harari points to the value of media using examples like The Matrix to make his points.
If you have an engineering or STEM background it’s possible that many of these questions have never occurred to you but once you see that they exist you also notice that modern media and films ask them all the time. So you have feminism and gender identity in stories of young professionals and their jobs and racial tensions in any show that has fantasy involved. Harari points out that most of us don’t read scientific papers to get our knowledge – we get our values and ideas from what we watch and that’s why it’s so important that what we watch is good – because that’s what we use to learn about how to live a good life these days.