Ethics of Star Trek

Ethics of Star Trek

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by Judith Barad, Ed Robertson

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For Trekkies everywhere, a fascinating look at the philosophy of Star Trek, from Kirk and Spock to Janeway and Seven of Nine

For four decades, Star Trek has been the obsession of millions of fans. But real Trekkies know that the show is more than just riveting entertainment. Its complex moral dilemmas present a view of the future that holds important


For Trekkies everywhere, a fascinating look at the philosophy of Star Trek, from Kirk and Spock to Janeway and Seven of Nine

For four decades, Star Trek has been the obsession of millions of fans. But real Trekkies know that the show is more than just riveting entertainment. Its complex moral dilemmas present a view of the future that holds important truths for us in the present. Drawing on episodes from all four Star Trek generations, this unique book explores the ethics of the series in relation to the theories of the world's great philosophers. Questions about good and evil, right and wrong, power and corruption are discussed in language that,is both readable and compelling as the authors show, how the program has evolved over the years to address society's changing values. For this century and beyond, The Ethics of "Star Trek" is an intriguing look at a brilliantly imagined-world and what it can teach us about how to live.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"One reason why Star Trek has endured... is that most of the stories... are indeed moral fables," say Barad, professor of philosophy at Indiana University, and Robertson, author of The Fugitive Recaptured. Using episodes from the four Star Trek TV series, they travel through various universes of ethical theory: in chapters with titles like "Kirk Finds the Golden Mean" and "Kirk and Kira Battle Evil: Christian Ethics," the authors offer useful and evenhanded introductions to the ethical theories of Aristotle, Epicurus and the Stoics, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and contemporary ethicist Tom Regan (known mostly for his writings on animal rights). For instance, Plato argued that the four virtues of temperance, courage, wisdom and justice would be the hallmarks of the ideal republic. Barad and Robertson contend that Spock and Kirk exhibit courage in an episode called "The Savage Curtain" when they fight off shadows of four of history's most evil creatures to prove that good is mightier than evil. "The Original Series most clearly reflects Aristotelian virtue;" the authors contend, The Next Generation exemplifies "the ethics of duty... Deep Space Nine, existentialism; and Voyager, Platonic virtue." Their effort to popularize a difficult subject occasionally results in egregious misreadings. Nietzsche, for instance, did not base his philosophy on the concept that "might makes right," as he abhorred every system of subjugation and suggested that we are all continually engaged in overcoming such systems. Overall, philosophically inclined Trekkies will want to beam this book up to their shelves, but it is hard to imagine that this book will boldly go where no other introduction to ethics has gone--among the broadest range of students and general readers. (Dec. 1) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Star Trek captains have to trade off the lives of their crews against the lives and plots of assorted aliens whose poorly repressed hostilities and devious personal arrangements would keep a planet-full of Freudian and Jungian analysts occupied for centuries. Barad, who chairs the philosophy department at Indiana University, and collaborator Robertson (The Fugitive Recaptured) explore the ethics of these encounters. They paint Captain Kirk as a devotee of a 20th-century English philosopher, Sir David Ross (The Right and the Good, 1930), who focused on "the supreme worth of conscientious action." Thus, Captain Kirk acknowledges Kantian universal duties but bends them a bit after studying the facts and assessing the consequences; later captains have become more rigidly Kantian. The authors face some difficult questions. How can Captain Kirk admire the pluralism of morals and politics in the galaxy without becoming a cultural relativist? And how can one both believe in rules and bend them? But they mostly ignore the fact that many good deeds depend on overt or threatened force wielded by a fleet of star ships roaming the galaxy in the name of a rather mysterious federation whose political arrangements are only vaguely sketched, though it has an American flavor. (Evil groups are "empires.") Can such force be justified? Can there really be galactic democracy? Is it just an accident that the ship was named Enterprise? A large public will take this book from the shelf. Some of them will find it worrying.--Leslie Armour, Univ. of Ottawa, Ont. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-For 35 years, Star Trek has been a popular vehicle for exploring social issues. Its humanistic values and optimistic view of the future have inspired many young people in their career choices, and the ethical dilemmas that drive much of its drama have provoked debate among generations of fans. Other authors have explored the physics, metaphysics, and "meaning" of the series; here, a philosophy professor uses the ethical content of its story lines to present a survey of Western philosophy. This method of conveying information might be rather convoluted, but anyone reasonably familiar with the series should be able to follow the authors' arguments. It is a little harder to accept the authors' assertion of a "unified theory" of Star Trek philosophy-a format in which each of the four Star Trek series embodies the ethical values of a particular philosophical system (Aristotelian virtue, Kant's duty theory, existentialism, and Platonic virtue). Spock fans might be disappointed by the authors' sketchy treatment (and sometimes faulty use) of logic, while others could be irritated by the occasional intrusion of the authors' personal beliefs, their sometimes condescending tone, uneven literary style, rambling digressions, or failure to cite sources. Still, autonomous young people voyaging boldly into an ever-changing future, and seeking an ethical system to steer by, could do far worse than to follow the Star Trek model as Barad and Robertson interpret it. And even if they aren't looking for a course in philosophy, serious aficionados of the series will find plenty of intriguing material here to sink their humanoid teeth into.-Christine C. Menefee, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial Series
Edition description:
First Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.87(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Cultural Relativism

"Cost of Living"
TNG: Episode 120
Stardate: 45733.6
Original Air Date: Week of April 20, 1992

Ship psychologist Deanna Troi's efforts to help Lieutenant Worf teach his young son, Alexander, the value of responsibility are immediately undermined by her irrepressible mother, Lwaxana, who spirits the young impressionable boy off to a holodeck community"where there are no rules.'" Deanna barely recovers from the havoc her mother wreaked when Lwaxana drops a bombshell: she's marrying Minister Campio of Kostolain -- a man she's never actually met. Lwaxana also announces that she will be going against her own Betazoid wedding customs by wearing a traditional Kostolain wedding gown at the ceremony. That shocks Deanna even more. After all, in an orthodox Betazoid wedding ceremony, the bride appears completely nude.

If you were Lwaxana Troi, what would you have done? Should you "go the full monty," just because that's what your family expects you to do? What if you knew it would make your husband-to-be feel uncomfortable? What if it made you feel uncomfortable? What's more important, honoring a wedding tradition or laying the groundwork for a happy marriage?

We all know that from ancient times right on through to the 24th-century world of Star Trek, ideas of love, marriage, and right and wrong in general have differed from culture to culture. Many people happen to believe that the customs of diverse cultures are what forms the basis of morality for those cultures. This is known among ethicists as "cultural relativism." No one culture's customs can everbe evaluated as right or wrong, the theory goes, as that would suggest the existence of some universal standard of morality independent of people's opinions. Because ethical judgments do not have a standard of morality, any belief about right or wrong is entirely arbitrary and therefore relative.

Cultural relativism has its good points. For one, it warns us against the danger of ethnocentrism, an attitude that assumes the values of our own particular society are also best for everyone else. There's a lot of ethnocentric thinking going on in "Cost of Living," mostly on the part of the Kostolains. It's not enough that Lwaxana is abandoning ancient Betazoid tradition for her upcoming nuptials -- they expect her to adopt all of their customs without giving any consideration to her own.

Cultural relativism also tells us that a custom that we personally find offensive is not necessarily immoral. Perhaps some of you who are parents were momentarily put off by the erotic dancer who entertains Lwaxana, Alexander, and the other "free spirits" at the end of the "mud bath" scene in "Cost of Living." Not that you have anything against erotic dancers or communal mud baths. It's just that the idea of an impressionable young boy lounging buck-naked with several equally nude adults might strike you as odd. Fair enough. But just because it's odd to you, a cultural relativist would say, doesn't necessarily make it wrong for everyone.

Which, in a sense, is basically what Star Trek is all about. Gene Roddenberry a man who was very open-minded about the customs of different cultures, said so himself: "[By the 23rd century, we] will have learned to take a delight in the essential differences between men and between cultures. [We] will learn that differences and attitudes are a delight, part of life's exciting variety not something to fear."

Facts Versus Values

Now, you might say, "Sure, some aspects of cultural relativism are a recurring theme on Star Trek. But does that make cultural relativism the basis of the ethics of Star Trek?" It would certainly appear to be. Perhaps the best way to find out for sure is to look at what cultural relativism really is, so that we can easily identify it when we see it.

According to James Rachels, a contemporary American ethicist, cultural relativism is a theory that makes six basic claims:

  1. Different societies have different moral codes.
  2. There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one societal code better than another.
  3. The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is merely one among many.
  4. There is no "universal truth' in ethics-that is, there are no moral truths that hold for all peoples at all times.
  5. The moral code of a society determines what is right within that society; that is, if the moral code of a society says that a certain action is right, then that action is right, at least within that society.
  6. It is mere arrogance for us to try to judge the conduct of other peoples. We should adopt an attitude of tolerance toward the practices of other cultures.

According to Rachels, these six propositions are independent of one another, in that some of them might be true even if others are false. Using "Cost of Living" as our model, let's see how each claim is important in not just understanding but also evaluating cultural relativism.

1.Different societies have different moral codes. We see at least three examples in this story alone: the Betazoids, with their unique wedding custom in which the bride appears nude; the Kostolains, with their rigid adherence to protocol, procedure, and ceremony; and the colony of free spirits, where no rules apply (other than the pursuit of happiness).

It's important to note that the claim itself ("Different societies have different moral codes") is a descriptive statement -- that is, a statement that addresses the facts without making any value judgments. When Lwaxana tells Deanna she's adapting to Kostolain custom because she knows Campio would not approve of a traditional Betazoid wedding, she's merely stating a fact about Campio to Deanna. Sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and others trained in the social sciences rely on descriptive statements because they provide important clues in learning how different people behave in a given society...

The Ethics of Star Trek. Copyright © by Judith Barad. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Judith Barad, Ph.D., is chairperson and professor of philosophy at indiana State University, where she teaches ethics courses and acourse on the philosophy of Star Trek. She is the author of several scholarly articles as well as two books. A Chicago native, she shares her Terre Haute, Indiana, home with her husband, daughter, and grandson.

Ed Robertson writes extensively about popular culture. He has written three books on classic television and has appeared on more than sixty-five radio and television shows as an expert guest in this area. He lives in San Francisco.

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Ethics of Star Trek 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
PiggityPig More than 1 year ago
As I read this book, I logged onto Hulu and watched the episodes in question. This is not necessary, but it was a lot of fun, and I truly think that it enhanced the book. Barad does an excellent job if explaining complex philosophical schools and teachings, so that anyone could pick up this book and understand what she is saying. You dont have to be a fan of Star Trek or of philosophy to enjoy this book. Its important for people to realize just how much ancient philosophy has guided our culture, and still does. Knowledge of this facet of our history will enlighten you everytime you watch a show, read a book, or go to see a movie. Barad's book illustrates that perfectly. This book is fun for Trekkies and philosophy students a like, or if you just want to learn a little more about the basics of philosophy.
Illyrah More than 1 year ago
What an excellent piece of work! Not only is it fun for every Trekkie (Barad definitly knows her stuff there!), but I believe that she does a great job of defining and re-explaining the philosophy of others so that its understandable even to someone without a lot of background. She breaks down Aristotle, Kant, everyone to a level that people can understand without losing too much. Her chapters and her thesis are well defined. Its especially fun to read and then watch the episode that she is tlaking about! Oh goodness, imagine what she could do with the new movie?!
Guest More than 1 year ago
As someone who has watched a lot of Star Trek, I find myself constantly noticing that the 'normal' rules often don't quite apply in the various shows. Captain Kirk was always violating the Prime Directive. Starfleet Academy gave Kirk a commendation for breaking into the computer to change the programming of an 'impossible' assignment (looks like cheating to me). Spock was always sacrificing himself for the good of the many (or the one, in the case of Captain Pike). Captain Janeway often risked the whole ship to try to help one crew member. On Deep Space Nine, the Federation is involved in maintaining an alien religion. Other cultures get a lot of respect, but the ones that are like the Nazis are opposed. If you are like me, you often feel upside-down, inside-out, and topsy-turvey all at the same time in these stories. What is the right thing to do in the 24th century? Professor Barad teaches Ethics at Indiana State and has a course on the philosophy of Star Trek. That attracted me to the book right there. I never took a philosophy course when I was in college that sounded nearly that interesting. We studied Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, and symbolic logic. Well, you'll be pleased to know that this volume has plenty of Star Trek, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Kierkegaard. But you'll also be relieved to know that at least the symbolic logic is missing! The purpose of this book (its Prime Directive) is to 'stimulate greater awareness of the many ethical issues and concerns in daily life.' Using famous Star Trek episodes from all four series (The original series, Next Generation, Deep Space 9, and Voyager) as the foundation, classic ethical issues are first examined in terms of the leading sources of ethical thought: such as cultural relativism, religion, Greek and Roman philosophies, the social contract, Kant's notion of duty, utilitarianism, and existentialism. If you are not familiar with all of these, Professor Barad provides just what you need to know. So its meaty, but not heavy. Then Professor Barad considers whether or not all four series are consistent with any of these ideas. Her conclusion seems right when she says that Star Trek has created a new synthesis of Aristotle's idea of the golden mean (too much or too little of any character quality is a vice while the balance in between is a virtue), Kant's idea of operating 'from duty,' and Kierkegaard's concept of individual freedom and responsibility. The classic Aristotelean virtues are all present: courage; temperance; friendliness; gentleness; cooperation; justice; open-mindedness; compassion; mindfulness; respect for others; honesty; and loyalty. She leaves us with the idea that perhaps we as a society can evolve in this direction and leaves us with a thought from Captain Pickard: 'Make it so.' What makes these thoughts interesting is that Professor Barad points out that 'noble as they are, none of the Star Trek characters are saints.' Gene Roddenberry himself seems to have set out to establish a new world that 'strives to be free of racist, sexist, and xenophobic attitudes.' In developing the challenging philosophy described here, obviously he succeeded mightily. It's also fun to revisit all of these old epsiodes and to squarely focus on their ethical content. That element was always there, but it was a bit submerged. After you finish reading and thinking about the book, I suggest that you take some issues of contemporary society such as the right way to deal with world hunger, establish peace, and protect the environment appropriately and consider what actions would be most consistent with the Star Trek philosophy as you now understand it. Live long and prosper! Donald Mitchell, co-author of The Irresistible Growth Enterprise and The 2,000 Percent Solution