From Kant to Kirk: 'Star Trek's' Philosophical Arguments

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As first officer of the Enterprise, Spock was often called upon to take control of the bridge when Kirk was part of an away team. If the team consisted of Spock, Bones and Kirk, as it often did, the Enterprise was sometimes left with the capable Chief Engineer, Mr. Scott. F ARCHIVE/ALAMY

Star Trek began as a network failure, then became one of the most lauded scienc fiction fanchises of our time. This article, and others that honor the space saga, is featured in Newsweek's Special Issue Star Trek 50 Years: Celebrating America's Original Sci-Fi Phenomenon, by Issue Editor Tim Baker.

For some Star Trek fans, the relationship between Kirk and Kant is obvious; for others (like your humble correspondent) philosophical education more or less begins and ends with Monty Python’s “Philosopher’s Drinking Song.” But whether we can cite pages from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty or only know that according to Eric Idle, “After half a pint of shandy [he] grew particularly ill,” Trekkers are fans of one of the most philosophically minded bits of popular culture ever. In their book, Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant, Jason Eberl and Kevin Decker make it clear that from the very idea of the Federation to the foggy ethics of the Prime Directive, it’s been philosophical quandaries as well as priceless fight scenes that have kept fans hooked for half a century.

Each of Star Trek’s five series has its philosophical guardian angels, informing the conflicts both within crew members’ minds and their struggles with the external world. But according to Decker, two schools of thought run through the entire Trek canon, present throughout both ongoing storylines and one-time episodics. “Every Star Trek series contains stories representing the ethical struggle between utilitarians like John Stuart Mill (who prioritize the maximization of good) and deontologists like Immanuel Kant (who subordinate the greater good to following the right principles),” Decker explains. 

“The series are very much reflective of their times,” says Eberl. “Because the original series came out when it did, Gene Roddenberry wanted to touch on the social issues of the day in a way that you couldn’t in traditional TV formats. By putting things in a sci-fi context where social issues are couched in the issues of an alien world—the censors weren’t immediately able to say, ‘Oh, he’s talking about the Vietnam War’ or ‘That’s about civil rights or women’s rights or population control.’ These are touchy subjects, and they normally wouldn’t have been allowed to be discussed.”

During a time when the idea of “all-for-one, one-for-all” immediately raised red flags of communist suspicion, Roddenberry was able to perfectly balance good, old-fashioned American individualism with a healthy respect for the collective, taking a deeper philosophical approach to the idea than Adam Smith vs. Karl Marx.

According to most commentators, The original series takes most of its cues from classical philosophies like empiricism, and its reading list is heavy on Plato and Aristotle. But Decker also mentions Corliss Lamont, a contemporary philosopher whose eloquent defenses of secular humanism and civil liberties seem to have had a profound effect on Roddenberry’s vision of an ideal future. Indeed, in his The Philosophy of Humanism, Lamont’s prose wouldn’t seem out of place in the mouth of Captain Kirk: “True freedom is the capacity for acting according to one’s true character, to be altogether one’s self, to be self-determined and not subject to outside coercion,” he writes. “[Lamont’s] not read much these days,” laments Decker.

By the time Star Trek was ready to come back to the small screen, Eberl says Roddenberry felt he could expand on his original utopian intentions. “The Next Generation, which came out in the late ’80s, reflected Roddenberry’s personal philosophy of the utopian future we should be striving for,” he says. “By this point he had almost become a mythological futurist figure: There was so much dystopian sci-fi out there, and Roddenberry wanted The Next Generation to embody all of his ideals. One of the rules for writers was that no conflict could be written between the crew of the Enterprise. All of the main characters always got along, and conflict always appeared externally.” These days of wine and roses wouldn’t last into the next Trek, which saw more conflict borne out than the previous two series combined.

Deep Space Nine attempted to stay true to that utopian vision while also “flipping the script,” according to Eberl. It created an incredible amount of internal conflict and huge existential issues. For example, religion is addressed in ways that were seldom brought to the fore in The Next Generation. The titular space station orbits a planet that is incredibly religious in a way that many in Roddenberry’s secular utopia may have viewed as primitive—the political, emotional and philosophical questions raised factor into some of the main conflicts of the show. But the real existential quandary comes into play when Deep Space 9’s commanding officer, Captain Sisko, must mislead the Romulan ambassador so that his empire will join the war against the evil Dominion. With the help of rogue Cardassian Garak, Sisko carefully forges evidence that made it seem as though the Romulans were in danger of attack. This level of ethical lose-lose hadn’t yet been seen on Star Trek, and the way Sisko handled his ethical conflict is one of the primary reasons fans consider Deep Space Nine among the franchise’s best.

By returning to the starship format for Voyager after the stationary action of Deep Space Nine, the show also returned to more classical styles of philosophical conflict. As Captain Janeway piloted her intrepid crew across the unknown Delta Quadrant, Trek’s platonic roots showed up in the form of “people vs. nature” conflict—just about the simplest there is. But more modern thinkers like Immanuel Kant, with his emphasis on principles, still manage to show up, according to Eberl. “I guess you could say there’s an element of survivalism in Voyager,” he says, noting that the main questions faced on an episode-to-episode basis by the crew were “What will you do to get home? Will you betray your principles?” Eberl goes on to point out that Voyager seems to take the kind of crew we saw in The Next Generation—good people of strong ethical character—and force them to face the kind of adversity that the Enterprise-D rarely saw. 

The oft-maligned Enterprise, Eberl continues, is more intriguing than it’s given credit for simply because it gives us a glimpse of where previous series’ ethical constants come from. The most important of these is the Prime Directive, which maintains that Starfleet must keep from interfering with the development of cultures it contacts. To Decker, this principle poses one of the series’ most hotly contested philosophical ideas. Captains in Trek series have always been keen to set the directive aside when they felt it was right, but which party is the ethical one when, for example, Kirk tries to save the inhabitants of a fascist planet? 

“I have come to believe that the Prime Directive is ethically unsustainable,” Decker answers. “The Prime Directive links ethical obligations (not to contact or interfere with certain cultures) with a rule about technology 
(cultures that haven’t developed warp technology are not advanced enough to weather contact with other space-faring species).” This distinction in itself is, to Decker, unethical. “Because of the many examples of cultures we find in the various films and television shows who don’t easily fit the rule, the directive itself should be questioned. Instead of an unsupportable all or nothing contact policy, the Federation should consider a model of international development and investment used in business ethics that keys the type of contact and interference to the relevant stage in the warp-capable culture’s own history of development.” 

Hopefully by the 26th century, the Federation will have figured it out.

07_08_startrekspecialedition_01 Ken Whitmore/MPTV. Digital Imaging by Eric Heintz