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Do the Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few?

The Logic of Spock

Trekkies like myself are still recovering from the death of the beloved Vulcan character in the original Star Trek series, Spock. Incredibly played by Leonard Nimoy who died ten days ago, Spock leaves us with many philosophical statements that cause us to reflect on the value of a human life. The most memorable, of course, is: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. This statement was made by Spock in The Wrath of Khan.  Spock says, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Captain Kirk answers, “Or the one.” This sets up a pivotal scene near the end of the film.

With the Enterprise in imminent danger of destruction, Spock enters a highly radioactive chamber in order to fix the ship’s drive so the crew can escape danger. Spock quickly perishes, and, with his final breaths, says to Kirk, “Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh . . .” Kirk finishes for him, “The needs of the few.” Spock replies, “Or the one.”

I’ve been thinking about this classic statement from an ethical perspective and now realize what Spock was doing is applying the method of ethical reasoning known as Utilitarianism. It is a logical approach that weighs the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action and leads the decision-maker to act in a way that maximizes the net benefits to the various stakeholders involved. In this case, Spock considered that to save the lives of his shipmates and the ship, he should sacrifice his own life. Humans might argue in rebuttal that Spock had an inalienable right to live and while dying for one’s cause might serve the greater good, it doesn’t justify sacrificing a life.

Regardless of one’s predisposition towards ethical reasoning, the logic of Spock has made an indelible impression on millions of fans. The beloved character has broadened our philosophical perspective through sayings such as:  

Change is the essential process of all existence.

--SPOCK, Star Trek: The Original Series, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"

Who can deny the wisdom of adapting to changing environmental conditions; responding to new challenges; learning from one’s mistakes and growing as a human being?

You may find that having is not so pleasing a thing as wanting. This is not logical, but it is often true.

--SPOCK, Star Trek: The Original Series, "Amok Time"

Spock's statement about desire profoundly reminds us that many people can't accept what they have and be happy. Instead, they seek out more; more money, more fame, and/or more power. We need to learn to be happy with our circumstances and not to want more simply for the sake of wanting more without any discernible improvement in the quality of our lives.

Without followers, evil cannot spread.

--SPOCK, Star Trek: The Original Series, "And The Children Shall Lead"

How true this is today as we watch Islamic terrorists recruit new soldiers in a way and in large numbers that most of us would never have believed back on 9/11, or even a few years ago.

One of my favorites is:

Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

--SPOCK, Star Trek (2009)

As Rick Lewis points out in Philosophy Now, the goal of studying the structure of arguments is to think more clearly. This is the aim of critical thinking. The idea is to look at the argument for some position, see if you can identify its precise logical form, and then examine that form to see where it might have weaknesses. Just as philosophy in a sense underlies all other branches of human enquiry, so logic is the most fundamental branch of philosophy. Philosophy is based on reasoning, and logic is the study of what makes a sound argument, and also of the kind of mistakes we can make in reasoning. So study logic and you will become a better philosopher and a clearer thinker generally. The aspiration of logicians is to find rules of thinking that apply everywhere, under all circumstances, even on the USS Enterprise. Whether they have done so, or can do so, is itself an interesting philosophical question.

Spock was in life just as in death -- a prophet of sorts. His final tweet was:

A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP

Leonard Nimoy ended most of his tweets with the signature sing-off: “Live long and prosper.” Our lives have been enriched by the memorable character he portrayed as Spock. We will miss him but his legacy lives on in reruns of the television series and Start Trek movies.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 10, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: