“Doctor Who” and the Pacifist Argument


By David K. Johnson, Ph.D.King’s College

To explore the arguments against militarism, let’s view the opposite end of the philosophic spectrum: pacifism—the notion that military intervention, and indeed violence of any kind, should always be avoided. And let’s do so by exploring the pacifism of perhaps the most famous pacifist in science fiction: Doctor Who or simply, the Doctor.

A child in military uniform, holding flowers.
Pacifism and militarism are seen as opposite ends of the spectrum, in terms of approaches to violence. (Image: polya_olya/Shutterstock)

Who is the Doctor?

A Time Lord from Gallifrey, who regenerates when he dies—turning into a new kind of person—the Doctor travels through time and space in his TARDIS helping those in need. One thing that remains constant, regeneration to regeneration, is that he never carries or uses a gun—a practical and symbolic gesture which demonstrates his commitment to nonviolence.

That’s why he’s called the Doctor. He doesn’t kill his enemies; he outsmarts them, almost always giving them a chance to renounce their violent ways first. If they do die, it’s almost always because the Doctor figures out a way to turn their violence against them.

This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as PhilosophyWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Time War

A previously unknown regeneration of the Doctor, who had renounced pacifism to fight in the Time War, is faced with a choice. He can destroy the genocidal Daleks, preventing them from killing all life in the universe—but only by using a doomsday weapon called ‘The Moment’ which will also destroy his home planet of Gallifrey.

Killing millions would seem to be better than neglecting to save trillions—the entire universe. Yet, because he’s still a pacifist at heart, the Doctor hesitates. The episode serves as a pacifism manifesto because of how the plot resolves.

Two of the Doctor’s subsequent regenerations appear, and help him realize there’s a third choice: with the help of all other regenerations, they can pull Gallifrey into an alternate dimension. And since the Daleks are attacking Gallifrey from every angle, Gallifrey’s disappearance will cause the Dalek ships to destroy each other.

Pacifism and Duty

From this, we can derive the two main arguments that motivate pacifism. One is based in duty. Because humans, and Time Lords, have a right to life, killing and violence are always wrong. Even if using ‘The Moment’ would save more lives than it costs, it would still be wrong to kill. This is called deontological pacifism, and is grounded in Immanuel Kant’s second categorical imperative: “One should not treat others merely as a means to an end,” even if that end is saving lives.

The other argument is based in consequences. The idea is that violent solutions always do more harm than nonviolent solutions. The choice, the pacifist argues, is not between violence and doing nothing—it is between violent and nonviolent action, and that there is always an effective nonviolent solution.

One can derive pacifism’s critique of militarism from this argument. Militarism jumps to using violence as a solution far too quickly, without a full appreciation of its costs or even considering the possibility of nonviolent action. And even if you are not a pacifist, this seems to be right; it’s not good to rush into violence

Learn more about Doctor Who and time travel.

Justifying Pacifism

Absolute pacifism can be difficult to defend on the individual level, however, because defending the innocent (including oneself) is morally justifiable. For instance, if someone is trying to kill another person, and you can stop them, then you should, even with violent means. This may often be the only immediate possible solution.

Absolute pacifism about war is easier to defend. For one, regardless of whether war is intentional, it always involves killing innocents. In addition, war causes a lot of harm both immediately and in the long term. But can’t a country rightly defend itself or innocents by waging war on an attacker?

Flowers in gun barrel representing pacifism.
Pacifism in the context of war can be justified much better than in the individual context. (Image: goodmoments/ Shutterstock)

Critiques of Pacifism

To paraphrase Jan Narveson, pacifism is hypocritical; if life is an absolute good, as the pacifist suggests, it must be worth defending. Derrick Jensen suggests that voluntary pacifism is something possible only for those who are not oppressed. By voluntarily advocating for pacifism, the pacifist forces nonviolence on the weak, enabling the strong to oppress them.

From a consequentialist point of view, war can be justified. Take World War II for example. Most agree the Allies’ war to stop Hitler was justified. Think about the consequences of allowing Hitler to conquer Europe and quite possibly the world. Of course, the pacifist would argue that there was a nonviolent solution to that we simply weren’t considering.

Learn more about the possibility of time travel.

Journey’s End: The Doctor Meets Davros

Another criticism of pacifism is that it is hypocritical because the only way you can have this freedom to be a conscientious objector is by others fighting to guarantee that freedom.

In the Doctor Who‘s episode, Journey’s End, one of the Doctor’s oldest foes, Davros (the creator of the Daleks) has kidnapped the Doctor. To ensure the Doctor’s release, his companions—the humans the Doctor has traveled with over the years—unite to rescue him by threatening to use a weapon of mass destruction called a Warp Star.

Davros then makes a keen observation:

The man who abhors violence, never carrying a gun. But this is the truth, Doctor. You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons. Behold your Children of Time, transformed into murderers. I made the Daleks, Doctor. You made this…How many have died in your name?

Problematic Pacifism

Davros’ point is spot on. The Doctor doesn’t carry a gun, but he aligns with those who do. The Doctor can only practice pacifism because others do the necessary dirty work of violence for him.

In the same way, it seems real-world pacifists could never practice pacifism had it not been for past wars fought to guarantee them that right. As an absolute, the notion that violence and war are never justified seems indefensible.

Common Questions about Doctor Who and Pacifism

Q: What is Doctor Who’s perspective on violence?

Doctor Who is committed to nonviolence. He doesn’t kill his enemies; he outsmarts them. If they do die, it’s almost always because the Doctor figures out a way to turn their violence against them.

Q: What are some objections against pacifism?

There are many objections against pacifism: defending innocents or yourself is a major objection. But the major criticism is that pacifism is hypocritical, as the freedom to object to violence requires others to maintain it.

Q: What does the episode Journey’s End note about Doctor Who and pacifism?

The Doctor Who episode Journey’s End highlights the fact that Doctor Who, like real-world pacifists, can only practice pacifism because others practice the necessary violence for him.

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