Without giving away too much, suffice to say the nature of those interactions have shattered Ford’s dream. No, he still believes in the power of a good story, and the creators of “Westworld” wink at the audience here as they do throughout the series with allusions to Shakespeare, the Bible, Greek mythology and Kurt Vonnegut. But Ford no longer believes human beings can be ennobled through stories. Our brokenness seems permanent. Like the story of the ring of Gyges in the mouth of Plato’s Glaucon in The Republic, a world without consequences and accountability reveals a depth of human depravity that would unsettle the most hardened Calvinist. The first two seasons of “Westworld, ” and presumably the ones still yet to come, explore Ford’s attempt to rewrite the narrative of this new world he has helped to create.
Whatever one makes of the dramatic narrative, characters and, at times, maddening chronology of “Westworld, ” one cannot fault its creators for being intellectually timid. This show is ambitious, asking its viewers to wrestle with the big questions: free will, God, morality, love, consciousness, eternity, personhood, family and life’s meaning. Fiction, particularly science fiction, offers us an alternative way to wrestle with these big questions at a sort of remove, or from a different angle. One crucial element for all these big-ticket questions, and for development of the plot(s), is the line between subject and object, person and thing. So much of our everyday morality is wrapped up in this distinction that we can miss it, much like the proverbial line about the fish who responds to the question “How’s the water today?” with “What’s water?”
When attuned to look for it, we find the importance of the distinction between people and things everywhere. It is there in the opening of the Hebrew scriptures, where everything is good, but human beings are somehow set apart as made in God’s image and stewards of everything else. We see it in Martin Buber’s distinction between an I-thou relationship and an I-it relationship. We see it in perhaps its most pure philosophical form in one of Immanuel Kant’s articulations of the categorical imperative to “treat humanity . . . never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” In other words, don’t treat people merely as things to be used, but as people, beings who have value in and of themselves.
The notion is as simple as the application can be complex and controversial. We see it at work in the marketplace, where we must determine what, if anything, should not be commodified as something to be bought and sold. Slavery is the quintessential example, the (now) most obvious violation of the norm that people should not be treated as usable things. But the principle is there in several other areas as well. When we consider the moral validity of practices, goods or services, we ask ourselves whether the practice crosses this particular line. Most of the time it does not, but sometimes it does. Does creating new human beings through in vitro fertilization treat those future persons too much like products made in a lab or factory? Renting a room in one’s house seems like it does not touch upon the principle, but surrogate motherhood seems somewhat closer. We allow the market to regulate how we sell our labor, though we make certain exceptions. A few jurisdictions excepted, we do not sell sex. We do not sell kidneys. We do sell our time and our effort, but we are ambivalent if not suspicious about jobs that depend on us selling, and damaging, some part of ourselves that is intrinsic to who we are, whether we think of the pornography industry or professional sports that leave athletes mentally and physically disabled by middle age. The closer a practice comes to treating people merely as things that can be used up the less comfortable we are. Or the less comfortable we should be.
Within the story itself, the basic appeal of Westworld as a theme park is the opportunity to escape that discomfort. Customers can take on another persona entirely, enjoy their side story and return home to normalcy after living vicariously through a version of themselves. An old tagline about Las Vegas comes to mind. Ford’s chief antagonist, Ed Harris’s Man in Black, tells us the tourists “wanted a place hidden from God. A place they could sin in peace.” This only works if the mistreated aren’t really ends in themselves but merely things to be used. What if those “things” woke up and turned out to have souls? That’s the basic appeal of “Westworld” for us as viewers; we get to see this hypothetical question played out.
“Westworld” certainly isn’t the first to draw from the fascinating possibility of inanimate objects coming to life. From Disney’s “Pinocchio” to a slew of previous AI-themed science fiction films, such as “Blade Runner, ” “A.I., ” and “Ex Machina,” this genre provides a rich narrative vein to mine for stories about who we are, how we should treat one another and what, if anything, we are meant to become. One difference between “Westworld” and those stand-alone films is HBO’s series has the luxury of addressing these questions over the course of twenty, thirty or even fifty hours instead of just two.