Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Ethics of Star Trek

The Ethics of Star Trek
© 2000 Judith Barad with Ed Robertson
368 pages

Captain Picard: There is perhaps no greater challenge than the study of philosophy.
Wesley Crusher: William James won't be on my Starfleet exams.
Picard: The important things will never be. ("Samaritan Snare")

Star Trek is perhaps the most philosophically edifying series of television shows that I've ever watched. Without question it's shaped my own world-view, and I'm no stranger to trying to explain philosophy through examples from the show. Thus, The Ethics of Star Trek immediately appealed to me. Essentially, author Judith Barad takes the reader through the long history of Western ethical philosophy, beginning with Socrates and ending with the Existentialists, illustrating competing ideas through Star Trek episodes, examining them for their worth. This philosophical journey occupies the majority of the book and served as an introduction to men like Kant, whom I'm not familiar with.

Each topical chapter draws from at least two Star Trek episodes, using them as case-studies. A few episodes do double-duty. Some Trek episodes explicitly addressed philosophical ideas, especially in the original series: in later shows, the ideas must be gleaned out. The human and Vulcan Starfleet crews are not the only subject of Barad's interest: she also explores the Klingons, Ferengi, Malon, Borg, and more. Bajorans in particular enjoy a lengthy period in the spot-light, having the only explicitly religious culture seen on a regular basis.

In part five, Barath attempts to arrive at come conclusion in figuring out what philosophy of ethics most amply covers Star Trek's then-four television shows and movies. Her conclusion is that with the exception of Voyager, each series pays homage to a particular philosophy, but that all of the series can be unified under a coherent ethical tapestry.

Although the topic is endlessly fascinating for me and I enjoyed the book in a general manner, I must confess to being a bit disappointed. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but parts of the Star Trek legacy seem ignored. Gene Roddenberry's Humanism, for instance, is conspicuously absent. The author gives a passing mention in the introduction, promising to look for it, but never does. Star Trek may have grown less active in its championing of those ideals as it aged, but that idealism can't be ignored in the first two shows*. Overall, I suspect I may remember this book more for reminding me of some of Star Trek's most interesting shows and the introduction to various philosophies than for its ending conclusion.

*It seems to me that the more Star Trek ages, the more it is robbed of its idealism. I saw little of it in Enterprise, for instance, and not a trace of it in the newest movie.This is a shame, given that the franchise's core fanbase is composed of the idealists. It is they who have keep the flame alive. People can get science fiction anywhere, but Trek's stubborn idealism is hard to come by.


  1. I agree. The idealism is all that mattered, really. The futuristic aspects and technology helped us contemporary men to better suspend disbelief in a way mythic stories did in ancient times. I especially enjoyed the DS9 series and the issues it discussed: totalitarianism, religion, fate, the nature and ends of life, etc.
    I have not read the book, but have at times felt that the original humanism of the series' creator didn't come out in any of the series very well. There was a sense of hopefulness for humanity in the age of the Soviet Union and MAD, there was the sense of the wonder of exploration without the motives of exploitation, etc. I suppose this is the humanist legacy Gene left that is most evident.

  2. Humanism is never explicilt in Trek, nor does it need to be. The faith in human potential and goodness is always there, of course. The Federation crews strive to do do the right thing -- not because God or slavish obedience to the Federation demands it, but because their own spirits demand it. They use reason to find the truth and form their ethical approaches -- with some exceptions, in the case of Worf (tradition) and Kira (religious faith).

    My favorite episodes of Star Trek see humans triumphing over all-powerful beings who are abusing them. The Squire of Gothos, Q, the aliens from "The Observer Effect", and Platonius in "Plato's Stepchildren" are all good examples. Weak, common, flawed, humanity is exhalted over the powerful, intelligent, but morally bankrupt gods. I LOVE that: noble defiance in the face of power.

    One of my favorite Trek quotes is from "Who Mourns for Adonis", when Kirk's crew is captured by Apollo. Apollo promises to take care of them if they'll worship him. One of Kirk's crewmembers is wooed, and Kirk talks to her:

    "Give me your hand ... your hand! Now feel that: Human flesh against human flesh. We're the same. We share the same history, the same heritage, the same lives. We're tied together beyond any untying. Man or woman, it makes no difference, we're human. We couldn't escape from each other even if we wanted to. That's how you do it, Lieutenant. By remembering who and what you are: a bit of flesh and blood afloat in a universe without end. And the only thing that's truly yours is the rest of humanity. That's where our duty lies. Do you understand me?"
    —Captain Kirk

    That's my Trek.

  3. Interesting review. As a *huge* Star Trek fan - and as someone who's philosophy was heavily influence by the show - I'm surprised that I haven't heard of this book. Despite your reservations I think I'll add it to my Amazon Wish List.

    BTW - I have a few related books in my 'read soon' pile. I'll be interested in your take on them (when I get around to reading and reviewing them).

  4. CyberKitten: I enjoyed it, but it didn't meet my rather elevated expectations.
    "I have a few related books in my 'read soon' pile."

    I look forward to seeing them, then. A friend of mine recommends "Philosophy and Star Wars", but I've not read that one yet.


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