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The Ethics of Star Trek

What Can We Learn From Star Treks' Mission and the Beloved Spock? 

I have previously blogged about the link between ethics and segments of the popular television show, Star Trek. In this blog, I update that blog and expand the discussion, focusing in part on the overall constraining factor on what the Starship Enterprise and crew can and cannot do as it explores the universe and encounters new races and cultures.  We can't talk about the ethics of Star Trek without addressing The Prime Directive.

The Prime Directive

The Prime Directive is a prohibition on interference with the other cultures and civilizations representatives of Starfleet encounter in their exploration of the universe. It is the guiding rule of the Federation in the Star Trek universe. It stands as one of the most famous ethical rules in all of science fiction. According to Professor David K. Johnson from Kings College, the Prime Directive of Starfleet is The USS Enterprises' number one rule and sets forth its restrictions for interacting with civilizations that have yet to develop warp drive technology. They can study them, but they cannot interfere with them in any way—especially with their development.

As Johnson points out, once a civilization develops warp drive, interference from an outside civilization is inevitable. By striking out into the galaxy, one could argue that they are inviting interference. They are joining a larger community that will provide access to advanced technology and expose them to new ideas. But before such interference is inevitable, when a certain civilization is confined to its solar system, the Prime Directive demands that interference should be avoided.

Is There a Parallel With the U.S. Role in Afghanistan?

There is no doubt that the U.S. interfered with the social and cultural development of Afghani people. Some of it was for the good: crafting a better life for girls and women, for example. A lot of it went against the prevailing culture over many years: Afghanistan is a fractured, tribal society that has been that way for hundreds of years, with waring groups, and countries like the U.S. (i.e., The Soviet Union), have found that fighting the culture tendencies of groups like the Taliban is an uphill battle.

The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan got me thinking about how we interfered in the culture of Afghani's, at least as embodied by the Taliban. Perhaps the chaotic withdrawal from that country is sort of karma for such interference.

The Ethics of Spock

Trekkies like myself still mourn the death of Spock, the beloved Vulcan character in the original Star Trek series, incredibly played by Leonard Nimoy who died on February 27, 2015. Spock left 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 and global warming; 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. As I point out in my book, Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior, 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 re-form in the "new" Afghanistan following America's withdrawal. They are bound to recruit new soldiers in a way and in large numbers that most of us would never have believed back on 9/11/2001.

One of my favorites sayings is:

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

--SPOCK, Star Trek (2009)

This expression was first stated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the Sherlock Holmes "The Sign of the Four." The exact quote is: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." To me, this is an approach to logical thinking (what else would be expect from Spock?). Once we rule out the impossible, the next step in making a logical decision is to think through what the most likely outcome would be to get to the truth. Star trek ship

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.” 

We can learn much from Nimoy and Star Trek that provide a way of thinking about the challenges in today's society.

Star Trek, Discovery

One of the recent spinoffs from Star Trek is Star Trek: Discovery. It has been pointed out that ethical quandaries exist for the crew of the Discovery, and its Captain in particular. Here is a brief summary of one such challenge as recounted in "These Were Some of Starfleet's Most Challenging Ethical Quandaries."

A respected officer and diplomat, Captain Philippa Georgiou sat in the U.S.S. Shenzhou’s center seat when Starfleet dispatched the vessel to examine the damaged communications relay. Unaware that the equipment had been sabotaged by the Klingon leader T’Kuvma to lure the Federation into an ambush, Georgiou found her ship caught between a rock and a Ship of the Dead. Having consulted with Sarek, Spock's father and a Vulcan philosopher of sort, about in which the manner in which Vulcans had dealt with the Klingons, Georgiou’s trusted first officer Michael Burnham recommended an unorthodox course of action: the Shenzhou must preemptively fire upon the alien vessel.

While Burnham stood as the captain’s chief advisor, greeting the Klingons with unprovoked violence went against Georgiou’s Starfleet vision. In a choice between betraying her values and dismissing her protege’s counsel, the captain adamantly argued that the use of force was not an option. Although Georgiou’s decision significantly impacted the Federation-Klingon War’s opening battle and influenced both societies, her tough call did not sway T’Kuvma’s intentions one way or the other. The Klingon messiah intended to instigate hostilities regardless of his opponent’s maneuvers so that he could unite the Great Houses in a common cause.

It's nice to see the ethics theme live on and prosper in the Discovery series. There are many learning opportunities about ethics and rational thought in it, something college and university students need more of today than ever before, and the Discovery Series brings it up to date.

Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on September 7, 2021. Steve is the author of Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.