You don’t have to be a Trekkie/Trekker to appreciate the subtextual contents of this most famous science fiction television franchise. I’m not a Trekkie/Trekker by any means. I can tolerate the original series and the last series, Enterprise. I wouldn’t watch an episode of Voyager if you paid me. The Next Generation often reached the sublime, but all too often revealed the Federation’s fascist tendencies. And Deep Space Nine remains one of the best science fiction series of all time, right up there with X-Files.
I am a fan of philosophy, however, and the book The Ethics of Star Trek by Judith Barad can probably even be enjoyed by hardcore fans of Voyager, provided they can tear themselves away from downloading images of Seven of Nine off internet porn sites.
The Ethics of Star Trek should not be mistaken for a fan guide. Indeed, it’s as far away from the typical TV-show based book as possible. It’s much closer to the excellent series of Philosophy and (Seinfeld, Simpsons, Buffy) books published by Open Court. Barad is a Ph.D and though the book is written in an accessible manner, there is no mistaking its academic credentials.
Some may question the validity of approaching Star Trek from the perspective of Immanuel Kant and Plato, but then again Shakespeare is the most analyzed writer in history despite the fact that he was the Neil Simon of his day at best. Cultural studies and postmodernism in particular have opened the door to sincere philosophical analysis of all genre and all levels of media creations. Besides, the topics covered by the best Trek episodes-in particular those of Deep Space Nine-are on par with the worst of Shakespeare, i.e., The Winter’s Tale.
The formula for this book is simple. Each chapter starts off with a plot synopsis of one or two or three episodes from any of the Trek series-except for Enterprise which postdates the publication of the book. With these particular episodes as starting off point, Barad and contributor Ed Robertson delve into a variety of topics having to do with ethics.
For instance, anyone who has watched any episode dealing with the big-eared, razor-teethed Ferengi will instantly recognize this species as the epitome of capitalists run amok. In fact, the Ferengi bear a much closer resemblance to Americans than the human members of the Federation. The starting point of the chapter dealing with the Ferengi is The Nagus, a DS9 episode guest starring the brilliant Wallace Shawn as the Grand Nagus, the Pope of the Ferengis. (A Pope who worships money, that is. Hmm, I guess he’s really not that different…). Barad’s essay compares the Ferengi’s devotion to accumulation of wealth at the expense of all other moral concerns to philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Lest you’ve forgotten, Hobbes was rather dubious on the concept of human morality, questioning the very existence of altruistic behavior. In addition to Hobbes, the Ferengi also get treated to Platonic comparison which ends with the crux of the chapter, how the Ferengi ethos bears a marked similarity to the theory of the “social contract” put forth by Hobbes.
Among the other ethical considerations covered in the book are cultural relativism, always an important component of Star Trek in particular and alien-based science fiction in general. This chapter focuses on a minor episode in the Trek canon, but takes that minor episode as a great leap forward which covers in many ways the entire book. Cultural relativism is an important subject in America, indeed the world, right now. We are quick to jump to judgment on Muslim terrorist actions while we’re blinded, at least apparently the majority of voters are blinded, to what terrorism is when our own country’s leaders engage in it. This may be a simplification of cultural relativism, but the fact remains that we judge other cultures based on our own standard of values and morals and then steadfastly refuse to apply those standards to ourselves when they threaten to show us in an unfavorable light.
Ethics is often confused with religious morality and the most spiritual of all the Trek series was Deep Space Nine, so it’s not surprising that this underappreciated show gets quite a bit of ink in this book. In fact, an entire chapter is devoted to the question of whether religion alone stands as the basis for all ethical considerations and, not surprisingly, the jumping point episode for this chapter comes from DS9, an episode called Accession. The classical philosophical locus which comes in for comparison here is Plato’s Euthyphro. The chapter eventually takes as its argument the paradoxical notion that religious beliefs often get in the way of ethical decisions. This chapter provides a good example of how cultural relativism permeates the entirety of this book. Religion may well be a guide to ethics, but let’s not forget that the ethical imperatives of one religion are the ethical anathema of another. Again using terrorism as an example, how many words have been used to decry Islam as a religion of hate due to suicide bombers, etc., while conveniently forgetting just how many millions of people have died in the name of Christ?
Many more aspects of ethics are covered throughout this volume, including the problems of evil, hedonism versus stoicism, duty and honor, slavery and whether the good of the many always outweighs the needs of the few. As well as many other topics. The Ethics of Star Trek may sound like heavy reading from the examples I’ve given, but in fact you hardly need to have a background in either philosophy or Star Trek to enjoy the book. While it certainly would be difficult to understand much of the book without having viewed at least a handful of episodes, it wouldn’t be impossible. And if you don’t immediately recognize the names of philosophers or the titles of certain works of philosophy, a reader need not panic. Cursory explanations of plots and theses are given, enough so that the average reader won’t be left treading waters.
After reading this book, you may just become a Trekkie/Trekker.