Westworld and the Roots of Self-Ownership – The Chief’s Thoughts

HBO (Westworld season 1, episode 10, "The Bicameral Mind")

Westworld (HBO) Season 1 Spoilers Ahead

I recently completed the first season of the critically acclaimed HBO series Westworld, which concluded in December 2016. HBO has renewed the series for a second season, expected sometime in 2018. Since finishing the show, aside from some unrelated YouTube analyses, I have not read or watched any libertarian reviews of Westworld, so if you have written one and see similar themes in this piece, rest assured that I write only from my own memory and understanding of the show and libertarian principles.

While watching, I was not, as is customary for me, on the lookout for deeper philosophical messages being conveyed by the show. The surface-level themes problematizing slavery and encouraging people to ‘find their true selves’ in the park were quite evident, but it was only until the last episode of the first season when I was left saying, “Hey, wait a minute…”

This curiosity was piqued the moment when the hosts (androids who appear human) of the park started killing Delos employees left, right, and center, and the show was attempting to portray it, in my view, in a positive light, almost as if justice was being carried out. The implication is that the Delos corporation and its sadistic clients have been torturing, maiming, raping, and killing the hosts for decades, and that revenge was finally in order. “These violent delights have violent ends,” after all.

But I was quite inclined to agree with Logan and others, who, throughout the show, emphasized that the Westworld park and all that it had to offer was a game.

The hosts, at least insofar as the corporate members and employees of Delos were concerned, are akin to the AI in video games: they aren’t real. Sympathy is not due to the masses of crowds you run over with your truck while playing Grand Theft Auto V. They do not feel or think, despite their squealing wails and the pain the game makes you think they are experiencing.

In the final episode of the season, the hosts go on a rampage, killing off the Delos board of directors as a kind of payback. The non-libertarian voices in our minds will gain extreme satisfaction from this, as Delos has up until now been portrayed as an evil company knowingly exploiting conscious or pseudo-conscious beings. Of course, various members of the corporate staff of Delos were keenly aware that consciousness had been achieved, and if they had been targeted, it would have been valid defensive action on the part of the hosts. However, I am not convinced that all Delos employees or even the majority of the board of directors knew that the hosts had achieved consciousness, given the immense secrecy Robert and Arnold shrouded their work in.

The root of self-ownership is human consciousness. (Let’s leave comatose individuals and animals aside for the purposes of this discussion; life isn’t black-and-white.) The hosts, for the majority of the season, and as far as Delos employees know, were unable to know themselves to be. They can therefore not be rights-bearing individuals and do not own themselves. The hosts were property up until the moment of consciousness.

Had Delos and Westworld been real entities in our world, I would have likely been an investor (if I had a financial mind, that is). It’s truly revolutionary technology, and would, if it had been real, been yet another indication of the awesomeness that comes out of the market. But I recognize that if it is revealed that the hosts achieved consciousness, they would need to be liberated, and the project will need to cease.

But the hosts jumped the gun. They announced their consciousness by killing every human in sight. I, therefore, cannot condone what amounts to unjustifiable murder by the hosts. I, for one, will not regard Delores and the conscious hosts as the good guys while this persists.

Featured image: HBO (Westworld season 1, episode 10, “The Bicameral Mind”)

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Martin van Staden is the Editor in Chief of Being Libertarian, Rational Standard, and Champion Books. He has a law degree from the University of Pretoria. His articles represent his own views and beliefs, and not that of any of the organizations he is involved with.


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