Ethics of Star Trekby Judith Barad, Ed Robertson
As every fan of Star Trek knows, even in the brave new world of the 24th century, the/i>
How would Immanuel Kant's insistence on autonomous altruism have impacted the Federation's dealings with the Borg? Did Aristotle's concept of equity account for why Kirk and Picard often violated the Prime Directive? Would Nietzsche have made a good starship captain?
As every fan of Star Trek knows, even in the brave new world of the 24th century, the deepest questions of morality and ethics will still need to be answered. In this enjoyable and engaging book, Dr. Judith Barad uses characters and plots from all from of the Star Trek television series to illustrate how our earthbound philosophers would handle the most challenging ethical questions in the universe. The perfect book for dedicated "Trekkers," or anyone looking for an approachable introduction to the teachings of the world's preeminent thinkers, The Ethics of Star Trek takes the matter of ethics and makes it practical, understandable…and fun.
- HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt
TNG: Episode 120
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:
- Different societies have different moral codes.
- There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one societal code better than another.
- The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is merely one among many.
- There is no "universal truth' in ethics-that is, there are no moral truths that hold for all peoples at all times.
- 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.
- 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).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.
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...
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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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.
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?!
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