University of Brighton Philosophy Society
Professor Heather Widdows (Birmingham University)
The Sacrifice of John Smith
Thursday 28 January
B4, Pavilion Parade
Imagine this: you're an ordinary young man with an ordinary name - John Smith - working as a schoolteacher. You have hopes and dreams for the future, like anyone else. You've recently fallen in love with the school nurse, Joan, and you want to get married to her and have a family. Suddenly you find yourself in a dreadful situation: you, your friends, your pupils and the woman you love are attacked by strangers for no apparent reason. The strangers are unlike anyone you've ever encountered: they have mystifying powers and equally mystifying purposes that seem somehow to involve you. One of your friends tries to explain what's going on by telling you a preposterous story. You aren't a real human being. Your memories of your childhood, your parents, everything that happened in your life until a few weeks ago are false. You are an alien with astonishing powers and technologies far beyond your comprehension. You even have two hearts. If you could only become that alien - your 'real self' - again, the attackers could be stopped and many lives saved. But in becoming this alien real self, of whom you remember nothing and to whom you feel no allegiance or connection, your current memories, personality, desires, hopes and plans would all be snuffed out. You, as you currently think of yourself, would cease to exist. You are being asked to sacrifice yourself so that another person - a more powerful, capable, heroic person, you're told - can take your place and save the day. All you need to do is to die.
This is the dilemma that faces John Smith at the end of the Doctor Who episode Human Nature and which is eventually resolved in the following episode The Family of Blood. This paper explores the philosophical and ethical aspects of this dilemma.