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