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What is the Moral Message of Star Trek?

Noninterference in Other Cultures is a Message That Resonates Today

I admit it. I am a Trekkie. Readers know I have committed my professional life to upholding traditional ethical values. This is one reason I love to watch various segments of Star Trek.

We can't talk about the ethics of Star Trek without addressing The Prime Directive of non-interference in other cultures visited by the various Starships in all the seasons, past and current. We should also consider whether America adheres to such ethical values. What I mean is our forays into countries like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, all of which raise doubts about our motives and the way we supported regime change. However, that is a question for another blog.

I love all versions of Star Trek because of its dedication to moral values. If you look online, you will see the following: 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.

I have previously blogged about the link between ethics and different franchises of Star Trek. I can’t cover all such shows in one blog, but I do want to update my previous blog and discuss the newest franchise, Star Trek: Picard. One unique aspect of Picard is it begins with what might be called an unethical action, to be explained below. 

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.

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.

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.

I must pay respect to Vince Scully, the great L.A. Dodger announcer who died last week. When an injured Kirk Gibson pinch-hit a game-winning home run for the Dodgers against the Oakland A’s in the opener of the 1988 World Series at Dodger Stadium, Scully observed, “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.”

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

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 the way 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.

Star Trek, Picard

Picard is about the good in flawed people in an imperfect world. This is part of its ethical message. After all, who among us is free from making errors in judgment and acting hastily?

However, I must point out that the Federation can often neglect its own moral compass and let others suffer. In Picard they abandoned their plans to help the Romulan people in a time of great need. This is what caused Picard to resign from Starfleet, his home for decades. 

Picard is incredibly conscious of the moral issues; it is, in fact, the point of the entire series, as it deals with a Federation in decline and the growing sense of isolationism and fear overtaking principles and ideals.

Picard is also about second chances The crew of his spaceship are, in some sense, castoffs who band together to help Picard accomplish his mission.

After failing to convince Starfleet to help the Romulan evacuation plan in the wake of the synth attack of Mars, Admiral Picard resigned in anger and shame, stunned that the organization he had devoted his life could be so blind to the needs of those in peril.

One online source is quite critical of Picard. It opines that Picard's sin wasn't his failure to rally Starfleet; it was the fact he resigned and gave up, so much the institutionalist that it never occurred to him to help the Romulans in some other way, like with Seven Of Nine and the Fenris Rangers. Picard couldn't make the ideal outcome happen, so he stopped trying altogether, which is an omission of arrogance, one of the few credible characters flaws one could attach to Picard.

As Picard himself said, before Dahj Asha (Isa Briones) crossed his path he was simply waiting to die, having surrendered his career and ambitions. It's a mistake he's had to atone for with his new crewmates, like Raffi and Elnor (Evan Evagora), as well as with the entirety of the Romulan refugee population who largely live in squalor on the outskirts of the galaxy. I look forward to seeing the third season and how the ethics of the franchise evolves.

Have you watched the television show, The Orville? It is best described as a Star-Trek-like show that pays homage to the Star Trek Franchise. The creation of Seth Macfarlane, this show is a must for Trekkies and those who appreciate the humorous side of space travel and multiple cultures trying to work together toward the goal of space exploration. Basically, the show is about The Planetary Union and joining together to fight the bad guys. I love the way they use artificial lifeforms in the show. Watch it if you haven’t yet. The first three seasons are streaming on Hulu.

Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on August 9, 2022. 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.