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The Ethics of Star Trek by Barad & Robertson
Ken Marsalek is confronted by a bunch of Socratic starship captains in The Ethics of Star Trek.
As a cultural phenomenon, Star Trek seems to have been with us always and forever. It is sometimes forgotten that the original television series was cancelled in its third year. Even to older fans, it seems incredible that there was a decade (1969-1979) when Star Trek existed only in repeats and as a brief cartoon series. The latter was evidence of network executives’ view that no adult could possibly take Star Trek seriously. How wrong they were.
Following the success of several feature films beginning in 1979, The Next Generation (1987) was the first of four related television series. The others were Deep Space 9 in 1993, Voyager in 1995, and the new Enterprise series which began this year. Together with the films and various novels, the hundreds of episodes of these programmes form ‘the Star Trek universe’ enjoyed by fans in their hundreds of thousands. The Ethics of Star Trek is a welcome addition to a line of books examining various aspects of that universe including physics, metaphysics and biology. By analyzing episodes through the eyes of major philosophers, the authors provide a fresh perspective even for the veteran viewer.
The moral foundation of the original series is found to be “a hybrid of Aristotelian virtue and prima facie duty principles” which simultaneously respects Spock’s “Stoic utilitarianism.” The series’ three principal characters, Captain Kirk, Spock and McCoy, are seen as representing Plato’s threefold nature of the soul – spirit, reason and irrational desires, respectively.
The ethics of The Next Generation are found to reflect “a solid foundation of Aristotelian virtue ethics, existentialist sensibilities, and Kantian principles that nonetheless allow for prima facie exceptions.” Captain Jean-Luc Picard is more willing to follow Starfleet rules, and is seen as more Kantian than Kirk in his concern for duty. However, The Next Generation characters move beyond strict Kantianism by recognizing the intrinsic worth of nonrational animals and by adopting an equitable, rather than absolutist, approach to justice.
Deep Space 9 is a remote outpost commanded by Captain Benjamin Sisko who, according to the book, takes a different philosophical direction: “As existentialists, Sisko and his officers presuppose that human(oids) have the power to decide about their lives”. Kierkegaard’s analysis is used to examine Captain Sisko’s religious awakening and to understand his decisions and conduct. In the episode ‘Accession’, Sisko finds he is uneasy having been made the leader of a messianic movement. He is guided by “the Socratic position that good actions can be discerned through reason alone”. By contrast, another episode (‘The Reckoning’) sees Sisko abandon reason and choose to trust in the divine, becoming “a man who exists purely on a religious level.”
Another character in the same series, the shapeshifter Odo, feels attraction to humans, despite their absurd and petty nature. This is compared to Kierkegaard’s attraction to Christianity because of its absurdity. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who believed true altruism is impossible, “would have found a kindred spirit in the Ferengi”, the alien race that exemplifies capitalism.
Voyager’s ethics is “an amalgam comprised of existentialism, various duty principles, and both Aristotelian and Platonic virtue.” Captain Janeway is also a Kantian who employs situation ethics. Like Sisko, Janeway “shows a streak of Kierkegaard’s philosophy, surrendering all reason and taking a leap of faith in order to save Kes” despite her ship’s instruments warning of danger.
The authors comment that the suicidal Heaven’s Gate cult members were avid Star Trek fans. However, “their final action clearly flew in the face of its creator’s underlying message: that only with critical thinking can we solve the problems facing us.” The authors might have drawn parallels between Janeway’s leap of faith and that taken by the members of Heaven’s Gate. In neither case, however, should irrational leaps of faith be admired or emulated, but recognized for their potentially disastrous consequences.
The authors also identify another character who they feel undergoes spiritual enlightenment, the former Borg drone called Seven of Nine. They claim that in the episode ‘The Omega Directive’, Seven “is momentarily stupefied upon seeing how mistaken she was about reality, in this case spiritual reality.” In my view, this interpretation is wrong. Like The Next Generation’s Ensign Ro Laren, Seven concludes that she should not have discounted myth. However, while Ro was reconsidering whether the myths were true, Seven seemed to consider only that myths may have value in providing meaning and assisting in our understanding of the world.
Star Trek’s most intriguing villains, the Borg, absorb other races by assimilating them into a mass collective. The authors find that the Borg embody “the Platonic idea of suppressing individualism for the good of the Collective.” They note that Star Trek’s championing of individual freedom is at odds with many of Plato’s views. Star Trek frequently depicts societies that initially seem like paradise, but are ultimately revealed to be unnatural, illusory or flawed. The conclusion is that hedonism is not part of Star Trek’s ethics.
While the authors acknowledge Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s humanism, they dismiss it as “a vague philosophical view that emphasizes a move away from God and toward the importance and achievements of the human being.” They acknowledge that humanism’s appeal to reason, and the impulse to discover the universe and human nature through our own efforts, permeate Star Trek, especially the first two series.
I would argue that Roddenberry’s conception of humanism is far broader than this, and can be seen throughout the many aspects of the Star Trek universe. This is in itself a celebration of diversity. Star Trek advances a commitment to self-determination, independence, freedom, equality, individual rights, responsibility and creativity. It promotes a naturalistic worldview, dedicated to using reason, science, and logic in understanding the universe, solving problems, and improving the human (and alien) condition. It accepts universal ethical norms that transcend religion and culture. These represent Star Trek’s humanist principles and ethics. While most fans may not identify them as such, they are a large part of Star Trek’s attraction and have contributed to making it more than just a TV show for many fans.
The authors have succeeded in identifying the influence of various schools of philosophy and ethics in Star Trek. Still, they fail to identify humanism as the unifying element. For example, in discussing Kierkegaard they state that “The ‘meaning of life’ is not something we can find in a book or glean from anyone else; it doesn’t ‘exist’ in a rational sense. Since that’s the case, we cannot really find the meaning of life unless we find it within ourselves”. Captain Picard advises Data on this point in an episode of The Next Generation. In discussing the Borg, the authors paraphrase Kant in saying that an autonomous being “is capable of discerning what is right and wrong without needing to rely on outside authorities, such as government officials or religious leaders.” Finally, as the authors note, Star Trek rejects absolute morality All of these are humanist sensibilities.
The authors comment on “Star Trek’s overt hostility to organized religion” while observing that at the same time it contains numerous references to Christian ethics. As philosophical naturalists, humanists reject the supernatural. It does not follow that humanists or Star Trek are hostile to religion. It is more accurate to say that they share an opposition to authoritarianism, dogmatism, irrationalism, and stagnant, outdated moral codes. Humanists do not reject all aspects of Christian ethics simply because they are religiously based. For example, humanists embrace the Christian concept that all men are brothers, as do Kirk and Spock in the episode ‘Whom Gods Destroy’.
After Roddenberry’s passing in 1991, Star Trek reflected 90’s values by discovering spirituality. This was beneficial to the extent that it allowed further examination of religious issues. Unfortunately, Voyager too often degenerated into promoting a New Age spirituality that is anathema to humanism.
Despite the book’s failure to identify humanism as Star Trek’s underlying ethic, it is an informative read. I would welcome a sequel which examines other aspects of Star Trek, including the ethics of Starfleet and the principle which states that alien civilisations must be left to develop by their own lights, the Prime Directive.
© Ken Marsalek 2001
Ken Marsalek is a member of the board of directors of the Council for Secular Humanism and a founding member and former president of Washington Area Secular Humanists.
• The Ethics of Star Trek by Judith Barad with Ed Robertson. (HarperCollins, $23.00/£10.45)