The Philosophy and Economics of Dollhouse

I’ve just finished watching the first season of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. Overall, I really like the show and think it deserves a second season. If it doesn’t get one, though, I won’t be nearly as bitter as I remain about the cancellation of Firefly. Dollhouse raises some interesting questions of moral philosophy and economics. My thoughts, containing spoilers, below the fold.

The most obvious question is whether a contract selling oneself into slavery is legitimate. In the final episode, Echo states in no uncertain terms that it is not:

I have 38 brains. Not one of them thinks you can sign a contract to be a slave, especially now that we have a black president.

I fail to see the relevance of a black president, but the sentiment that one cannot voluntarily enter into a contractual relationship which takes away future liberty is widely shared, even among libertarians. Nozick famously argued in Anarchy, State, and Utopia that slavery contracts were valid and enforceable. Roderick Long disagrees, arguing that certain rights are inalienable and cannot rightly be disposed of through a voluntary transaction. I generally side with Nozick on this point, but agree with Long that granting legal control over your actions to another does not release you from the moral obligation to treat others decently. I cannot sell myself into slavery and then murder an innocent person at my master’s direction and take none of the blame myself. This is a problem in any employment contract, however, and doesn’t seem to much weaken the legitimacy of slavery contracts.

Perhaps we can say that it is never legitimate to enter into a contract that would require you to do absolutely anything your master commands, but limit contractual obligation to morally permissible acts. In the case of the Dollhouse, though, the voluntary slave gives up the capacity to refuse to perform immoral acts. This problem, however, can be solved with a contractual clause. The Dollhouse has a policy of not permitting their dolls to be used for criminal acts (though, as with any policy, it is sometimes knowingly or unknowingly broken). From memory, it’s never made clear whether the contractors are made aware of this policy, but it seems safe to presume they are.

I don’t see any moral problem with the Dollhouse’s business model of voluntary short-term slavery, though of course there may be specific acts the organization performs which are immoral.

Things are slightly more complicated in the Dollhouse universe, however. The fact that fully-fledged personalities can be created and imprinted on a body has important implications for our ideas of personal identity. Even though the person inhabiting the body of each doll at the time of the contract consented to future events, the synthetic* minds subsequently inhabiting that body offered no such consent. The most obvious example where this becomes a moral problem is the case of Dr. Claire Saunders. Saunders is a synthetic person apparently based largely on her predecessor. She believes herself to be a ‘natural’ person, and is understandably very upset when she finds out that she is not. She has certainly been misled into performing services for the Dollhouse. This seems like a clear example of fraud and is a real moral problem.

Of course, these people would never have existed were it not for the Dollhouse. Generally speaking, they enjoy the missions they are assigned – they are, after all, designed specifically for them – and their short and disjointed lives seem to have positive moral worth. Is it permissible to defraud a person if that act of fraud is a condition for bringing them into existence in the first place? I don’t think our moral intuitions are well-suited to dealing with this question. (And why would they be?) That of which we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence.

Turning now to economics, I think there is a big problem with the enforceability of the contractual relationship between the Dollhouse and its contractors. On the commencement of work, the contractor gives up the ability to demand the Dollhouse complete its contractual obligations by releasing them after five years and paying their fee. In itself, this isn’t necessarily a problem: lots of contracts with large power asymmetries are completed without apparent trouble. Firms often honour contracts when they could easily defect in any particular instance. Concern for their reputation keeps them in check, since a firm which does not honour its contracts will not be contracted with in the future. This is normally enough to outweigh the short-term gains of defection.

The problem with the Dollhouse’s ability to use reputation to credibly commit to contracts is its high level of secrecy. There is no word-of-mouth information flow on the organization’s integrity. The contractor’s decision, then, must be based on pure trust, since the firm has little incentive to release them after five years. It could just as easily keep a doll in its employ indefinitely. If they were worried about someone noticing that a doll had been active for longer than five years (which is unlikely given their level of secrecy), but didn’t want to pay their fee, they could simply send them to the attic after five years, or imprint them with personalities unaware of their contractual rights.

Potential contractors know the contract is unenforceable, and should rationally choose to avoid entering into it. Of course, the Dollhouse has a strong incentive to find some way of making the contract enforceable. If the organization has found such a mechanism, it wasn’t revealed in the first season. The only means of making the contract enforceable I can think of would involve letting non-contractors with the interests of the contractor at heart (a friend or family-member, presumably) know the details of the deal and act as an agent. This would, of course, put the secrecy of the operation at significant risk.

The difficulty of enforcing the contract is a direct result of its illegality. Drug traders cannot rely on standard contract law, and must frequently resort to more costly and grotesque means of contract enforcement. Similarly, our moral queasiness over voluntary slavery means that mutually-beneficial trades are plagued by huge transaction costs which will always waste resources and often prevent an agreement from being reached.

*Synthetic in the sense of being constructed from parts of other people. Synthetic people are still ‘real’ people, morally speaking.

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