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The Ethics of Star Trek
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am 3. August 2007
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!
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