Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Ethics of Star Trek: Exclusive Interview with Judith Barad

The Ethics of Star Trek, by Judith Barad, Ph.D (with Ed Robertson) is by far the most readable and well-argued scholarly work on philosophy and Star Trek. Readers will come away from this text with a deeper understanding of classical and Western philosophy, as well as a deeper appreciation of how the "messages" of Trek remain relevant today. The book demonstrates, quite forcefully, how Trek has risen above the mainstream of television entertainment by seriously exploring the ethical, moral, and philosophical dilemmas of our world.

The author, Professor Judith Barad, graced us with an exclusive interview about her work and her perspective on the Trekverse. Enjoy!


Trekdom: Your book, The Ethics of Star Trek, is a wonderful text, because, while delving into the complex teachings of many philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, etc.) the chapters are very readable and accessible, especially for those of us lacking a strong background in intellectual history. Was it challenging to present these complex philosophies in a way that a general audience would understand, or did Star Trek make it easy, considering that so many episodes explore philosophical issues, ethical dilemmas, and existential choices?

Judith Barad: Since I started teaching these philosophies in 1982, I have tried to explain them in a way that a college freshman would understand. Star Trek made it easier to explain the philosophies because it illustrated the concepts and theories in a concrete yet entertaining way. The first time students are exposed to philosophy, many find it quite daunting. Like others who don’t have a background in intellectual history, beginning students won’t always “see” the importance of philosophical reasoning because it deals with issues from an abstract perspective. But Star Trek enables people to “see” for themselves the importance these issues have in the lives of characters they grow to care about. In contrast to the abstract concepts of philosophy, the Star Trek episodes are much easier to follow since they have a plot and characters that engage the viewer’s emotions. These episodes are designed to be interesting, designed to be entertaining. Moreover, Star Trek dramatizes ethical dilemmas in almost every episode, a fact I became aware of in 1966 when it first aired. It was and still is, to the best of my knowledge, the only prime-time popular series designed to motivate people to think about ethical decision-making. Roddenberry, who considered himself an amateur philosopher, said that underneath all the action and special effects, he was creating moral fables. As a result of his influence, Star Trek has continued to reflect the ethical issues current during each of its five series.

Although I found it easy to apply the philosophies to the episodes, Ed Robertson helped to make the book even more entertaining to a popular audience.

Trekdom: While reading your book, I was surprised by how different the ethics or “messages” of each series are in your analysis. Can you tell our readers more about the changing ethics of Trek, from the original Star Trek to Star Trek: Voyager?

Judith Barad: One very striking change from series to series has to do with the issues that were addressed. In the late sixties, Star Trek confronted racism, war, genetic engineering, and drug usage. Later, The Next Generation dealt with euthanasia, assisted suicide, and terrorism. In the nineties, Deep Space Nine and Voyager tackled sexual harassment, homosexuality, homelessness, animal rights, the injustice of HMOs, dumping toxic waste, and other environmental issues.

Another dramatic change involved the way women have been depicted in the various series, which is itself an ethical issue. In The Original Series, sexism was rampant, expressed in everything from some of the story lines (“Turnabout Intruder”) to the way actresses were clothed. In The Next Generation, women were clothed, generally, more in keeping with their professions. However, Doctor Crusher and Deanna Troi weren’t in the top tier of leadership positions. By the time of Deep Space Nine, Star Trek gave us a female first officer and the evolution was completed by Voyager’s Captain Janeway.

As I argue in The Ethics of Star Trek, The Original Series emphasized virtue ethics in a way that values the free choices of individuals over the dictates of machines or other kinds of more powerful beings. The Next Generation, while not abandoning virtue ethics, highlighted the ethics of duty. At the same time, it continued The Original Series concern that the free choices of individuals should triumph over that of machine cultures, like the Borg, or more powerful beings, like Q. Deep Space Nine wasn’t as concerned with virtue ethics or with affirming the choice of the individual over machines or more powerful beings. While it continued The Next Generation’s interest in the ethics of duty, its primary ethical principles are drawn from existentialism. Although The Next Generation did feature some existentialist principles, Deep Space Nine applied them far more regularly. Voyager, in contrast with the two earliest series, is more comfortable with the collective good and the Platonic notion of a philosopher queen.

TD: Were those differences a reflection of the broader cultural context? Would you say that Cold War beliefs in moral certainty gave way to existential doubts in the 1990s and that Star Trek reflected those changing perceptions?

Barad: Certainly, the changing issues were a reflection of the broader cultural context. This was also true of the changing role of women in Star Trek, although the positions of Kira and Janeway may still be a little ahead of the time.

If I were to grant that the early series expressed moral certainty, I must stipulate that this moral certainty wasn’t that of the traditional values found in the culture. For example, The Original Series was opposed to racism and war, unlike the traditional, conservative culture of the time. Yet it’s true that Kirk wouldn’t have violated his personal ethics, the way Sisko did in The Pale Moonlight. Kirk doesn’t feel such existential doubts about his actions as Picard does (Conundrum), and Picard isn’t as extreme in his existential doubts as Sisko. Janeway, on the other had, doesn’t seem to go through any more existential doubt than her two earliest counterparts. Since Deep Space Nine and Voyager were very contemporary with each other, I don’t see a clear progression from moral certainty to existential doubt.

TD: Despite the different outlooks of each series, you write about a “moral tapestry” of Star Trek, which unites seemingly contradictory philosophies into a coherent ethical system. Can you please say a few words about that?

Barad: The Ethics of Star Trek contains a list of principles, drawn from the great ethicists, which are used in most episodes in each of the series. These principles include the following:
1. Choose to do that action that you could rationally will everyone else to do.
This principle helps us to determine which actions are our moral duties. In deciding what to do, we should always ask ourselves as honestly as possible: (1) What’s the principle behind our actions? and (2) Is this a principle everyone should follow? Would we rationally want everyone to do what we intend to do? What we think is right (or wrong) for one person to do in certain circumstances must be right (or wrong) for any other person to do in relevantly similar circumstances.
2. Act so that you treat sentient individuals as an end and never as a means only.
A sentient individual is one who is capable of perceiving and feeling. The principle means that we should never use the services or skills of sentient individuals simply as a means for our own purposes. We must always recognize them as individuals with intrinsic value over and above our needs.
3. The intention motivating an action is more important than the consequences of an action. It’s not just what we do that matters, but also why we do it. In “The Measure of a Man,” Louvois ordered Riker to prosecute the case against Data for Starfleet. She warns Riker that unless he gives it his best effort, she will automatically decide that Data is a “toaster” and should be turned over to commander Maddox. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Riker does his best in the courtroom. Doing the right thing doesn’t always guarantee a good outcome. At the end of the story, Riker is devastated by his part in the trial. Yet the long-term outcome was that there won’t be a race of android slaves and Data was saved. Recognizing Riker’s intentions, Data tells him, “That action injured you, and saved me. I will not forget.”
4. The goodness of an action is assessed in terms of both its means and its end.
A bad means can’t justify a good end. The term ‘end’ refers to someone’s goal or purpose. If there’s something morally objectionable about either the end or the means to accomplish it, the action isn’t a good one. If alternative means are necessary, we must choose among them rather than an ethically objectionable means. For instance, in Insurrection, the Federation discovered a virtual fountain of youth, but to utilize it, an entire population would have to be displaced. There’s no other means available to achieve this benefit. While the end of prolonging people’s lives is a good one, the means necessary to accomplish it, in this case, is unethical. Seemingly conscious of this principle, Picard strongly opposes the Federation’s attempt to use the “fountain of youth.”
5. Freedom cannot be separated from responsibility. We should exert control over our inner life and our outer life, accepting authority and accountability for making decisions affecting ourselves and others. We’re personally responsible to set rules and limits for ourselves. No matter how tempting it is to shirk our responsibility, we can’t blame anyone else for the choices we’ve made—not our parents, not our bosses, not our friends, not television, not our economic system, nor any other aspect of society. If we say “I was just following orders,” we’re just as responsible as the person who gave the orders, even though we’re trying to fool ourselves into thinking that we had no choice in the matter.
6. Moral decisions are made by reason—not emotion or tradition. Reasoning, rather than emotion or tradition, gives us the tool we need to review, evaluate, and revise our ethical decisions. Good ethical reasoning requires us to recognize and go beyond self-deception, uncritical conformity, and ethical intolerance. Only by reasoning can we question our assumptions and objectively consider alternative ways to address problems.
7. Altruism has priority over egoistic concerns. When faced with a situation where we must choose between doing the unselfish thing or acting selfishly (all things being equal), we must act unselfishly.
8. We must not injure or harm others.
9. We must deal justly with others. The formal principle of justice states that no one should be treated differently from someone else unless it has been shown that there’s a difference between them morally relevant to the treatment at issue. This is why the question of Data’s sentience in “The Measure of a Man” is important. If he’s sentient, then the formal principle of justice requires us to treat him as equal to everyone else. If he isn’t sentient, then that fact would count as a relevant difference, justifying unequal treatment. Sentience, is this instance, is a relevant difference for whether someone should be treated as a disposable item.

TD: Fascinating! Lastly, do you have any advice for graduate students and colleagues who, while trying to write dissertations on Trek or use Trek in the classroom, have faced resistance from advisors or committees?

Barad: Not only had my Star Trek and Philosophy course been approved as a standard course within philosophy at Indiana State University, but I also had it approved by committees for general education credit. At first, there was some resistance because the notion of the course seemed to have nothing to do with philosophy. However, committees are required to look at a proposal more deeply and not abide by their first superficial impression. My syllabus and rationale for the course made it clear that students would be required to read standard primary sources. Then I argued that the value of philosophical material (or any academic material) is in its application. Star Trek shows students how the principles enunciated by the greatest philosophical minds can both be illustrated and used in interesting situations. Although I didn’t appeal to the increasingly recognized field of philosophy and popular culture, I also recommend that this be part of someone’s argument arsenal. There are several popular book series by publishers like Open Court that appreciate the marriage of popular culture and academic subjects. Finally, the best way for an academic work to receive attention is to appeal to people beyond the halls of academia. If the work is capable of receiving this attention while simultaneously edifying people who wouldn’t otherwise read such material, the work is far more successful than a work that only has other Ph.D.s for its audience.


*Purchase The Ethics of Star Trek here. Visit Ed Robertson's site here. Trekdom highly recommends this book for all Trek fans and students of philosophy. We also encourage Indiana State University students to take her Star Trek and Philosophy course when offered.

Also read TrekWeb's review.

Comments at Trekdom

Comments at Trekbbs