The Morality of Star Trek – A Libertarian Perspective

The Morality of Star Trek – A Libertarian Perspective
   The reason why consuming art is a good way to learn history is that it gives even better window into the way a society thinks at certain point in time than studying history. I clearly remember when I was in 9th or 10th grade and we had to write an essay on Don Quixote. A girl in my class wrote a wonderful essay arguing that Cervantes never understood what he wrote. He died believing he wrote a fun story which mocked novels about knights. However, the spirit of the time often leaks into art even without the author realizing it. Don Quixote turned out to be full of renaissance ideals. Art also works its way around censorship a great example being Bulgarian movies from the communist era. The censors just did not think of censoring certain elements because they were just everyday life.

   Motivated by this I spent like a year falling asleep to an episode of Star Trek every night. I wanted to become familiar with the cultural icon and see how people thought back then. I watched The Original Series (TOS), The Animated Series and The Next Generation (TNG) as well as all the feature films. TOS is objectively bad and The Next Generation is probably good for the time but these days there are TV series of much greater quality. That being said the cultural impact of Star Trek makes it worth investigating. In this article I am going to comment on the libertarian issues in Star Trek.

   To begin with I would like to point out that I am no expert on Star Trek and I have not seen Deep Space 9 or Voyager where the moral decisions might be different. More importantly Star Trek is not some philosophical work. It is a TV show meant to be fun and restricted by budget constraints which were severe in the TOS timeframe. It is inconsistent, the characters behave inconsistently, and you can see equivalent moral dilemmas being resolved in a different way in different episodes. You can certainly find examples in Star Trek lore that contradict my comments, but I believe I have captured the general sentiment of the show.

Note that this article is full of spoilers

   Star Trek is undeniably leftist. On multiple occasions it is said that in the 23rd (TOS) and 24th (TNG) centuries humanity has outgrown selfishness and the lust for money. In TOS it seems like money are still used in the Federation while in Next Generation it seems they do not have money inside the Federation or at least between Earth and human colonies but there is definitely some form of money for trade between governments and there are freelancers. Obviously like all lefties Gene Roddenberry didn’t understand that the free market and money is not just a motivator for humans to work but also a tool for optimally distributing resources. Even if humanity becomes so noble that we are no longer motivated by riches we would still need money to distribute resources the same way big companies have internal budgets not because teams are competing and not working towards a common goal but because there is a need to prioritize effectively. Interestingly arguably the greatest Star Trek movie Star Trek: First Contact contains an acknowledgement that money is an effective motivator for innovation and human progress. In this movie the Next Generation crew travels back in time where they meet Zefram Cochrane the inventor of faster than light travel who seems to be cherished as the greatest inventor in the Star Trek universe and considered a hero. Turns out the guy is a drunk and invented the warp drive because he wanted to make money and retire on an island surrounded by naked women. The movie does not really criticize him, in fact it acknowledges his behavior with the following quote – 'Don't try to be a great man, just be a man. And let history make its own judgments.'

   Maybe the most serious attack on capitalism in the Star Trek universe is the introduction of the Ferengi race. Data describes them as practicing 'the worst form of capitalism'. Despite that the Ferengi have technology fully on par with the noble Federation and for some reason their definition of capitalism includes total disregard for private property and commercial contracts – they tend to steal and marauder all the time. The writers realized pretty fast that they made their critic of capitalism so absurd and unbelievable that they dropped their plans to make them the main antagonists and pushed them into a comic relief role.

   While Star Trek is super left in its misunderstanding of capitalism and economics the franchise is strong proponent of individualism. I guess even Roddenberry could not escape the fact that he was an American. In my favorite episode called The Measure of a Man, a Starfleet scientist wants to dismantle Data and use the knowledge to construct more androids like him. There is a good chance that the procedure would kill Data. The scientist argues that because androids like Data would be so useful sacrificing him makes sense. Data refuses to undergo the procedure but the scientist argues that Data can’t refuse because he is property of Starfleet. A trial is set to determine if Data is indeed property. Captain Picard is Data’s defense and tries to prove that Data is sufficiently human but this doesn’t go well. He then switches his strategy and argues that any intelligent and self-aware being has rights (i.e. he argues self-ownership). While it is obvious that the episode is a critique on slavery there are some interesting details here. On multiple occasions Data has chosen to risk his life for members of the crew (spoiler: he eventually dies to save Captain Picard). Despite that Data refuses to sacrifice himself for the abstract notion of humanity, he clearly puts the lives of his friends above the lives of people he doesn’t know even though there are many more of the latter.

   Lefties like to quote the Vulcan saying 'The need of the many outweigh the needs of the few'. However, in the Star Trek universe this is just a logical argument. It treats people the way players treat StarCraft units – you prefer to lose less rather than more of them. Star Trek never accepted it as moral imperative and in fact explicitly disagrees with it. The whole movie Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is meant to defy this logic. It is described as something that humans would not accept. In addition, in various episodes humans due to their morality and feelings are able to achieve better results than the logical Vulcan implying that human morality is in fact superior to pure logic.

   The Borg – the scariest enemy in the Star Trek universe are a representation of pure collectivism. The episode I, Borg is where most of the moral positions are established. At first the captured Borg is lonely and does not understand how humans can live without a Collective but the crew of the Enterprise convinces him in the virtues of individualism. As a matter of fact when he is reconnected to the Borg Collective his individualism almost destroys it.

   Another notable example where the individual is put above society is the episode The Masterpiece Society in which a genetically engineered and perfectly balanced society needs help to save their planet but in the course of action some people request asylum (i.e. to leave the society). This would disbalance the society and ultimately destroy it. Picard must choose whether to take the asylum seekers or preserve the society. He chooses to take them which is a clear indication that Star Trek morality embraces individualism and the right of self-determination.

   Speaking of self-determination, Star Trek comments on that quite often. There are several episodes involving forced relocation. In Journey’s End a group of people on a planet need to be relocated because of a peace treaty that puts the planet in the territory of the opposing Cardassian Union. They refuse and the issue is eventually resolved with the secession of the people together with the planet and them joining the Cardassian Union.

   In a very controversial episode The High Ground characters are wondering about the use of force and even terrorism in the fight for self-determination. They not only fail to condemn it but Data claims that it is effective. In the Star Trek universe Ireland is united in 2024 thanks to the actions of IRA.

   The most libertarian Star Trek story is the film Star Trek: Insurrection. In this movie a very small group of 600 people has settled a planet with rejuvenating properties. They are to be relocated (without their knowledge through the use of holograms and transporters) to another planet and their planet is to be destroyed and the rejuvenating materials harvested which would allow for billions of people to be cured of deadly diseases. Data's ethics program is activated and he rebels against the orders. Later the crew of the Enterprise openly defies government orders and joins the side of the people on the planet. When an admiral says that these are just 600 people against the interests of billions Picard asks the How Many Men? question. What is the number at which it is no longer OK to violate their rights?

   My conclusion is that despite the significant left leaning and (ridiculous) criticism of capitalism Star Trek could not escape being a product of American culture. It definitely embraces individualism, self-ownership and self-determination.
Tags:   english movies 
Posted by:   Stilgar
18:07 24.03.2020


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