Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

Star Trek Ethics

The Prime Directive. It was the unbreakable rule. God, I loved it when Picard would break the rules. A few years ago I realized that Star Trek (TNG) had shaped my ethical make up more than my parents, teachers, the bible, Kant, Hobbes, the list goes on. Believe it or not, Star Trek was normative. This became problematic when it came to application, which is the cold-fusion impossibility for any ethical theory. It tells us what ought to be, but does it also enable us to do what we ought?

I was a teenager before I noticed the plot device on which every move in Star Trek found its expression. Di-lithum crystals paired with replicators. Unlimited energy and the means to use it however you needed. No more hunger, poverty–no more natural disasters. The tacit argument goes a little like this:

Injustice was the result of an unresolvable imbalance of wealth and power. Once the human race has the technology to provide a truly egalitarian standard of living, the better parts of human being can be cultivated. There’s the catch. Two catches actually.

First, we don’t have di-litium crystals and replicators. There’s still not enough to go around. Second,–thank you Joss Whedon (Serenity)–the effort to make human beings ‘better’ usually lands us in a some form or other of genocide.

So if Star Trek can’t save us with its episodic platitudes, what is the answer? That’s the big question. Maybe it looks a little like this: Shifting our posture away from one pole of human capacity toward the middle. Balance our self-preservation instinct with out empathy so that your survival and my survival are entwined. And, be careful of making human beings ‘better.’ I don’t think we can make human beings better, nor do I think we can make the world a better place–better in the sense of being something fundamentally other.

So, if we can’t improve our nature, or nature proper, what do we make better? On the surface it’s simple: We improve our superstructure. Our collective efforts should be put toward challenging our culture of consumption, which has become a thinly veiled neurosis: if I buy more I can avoid death.

Not sure we need crystals to change what we can change. Just a thought.


  1. Just one little detail, that unlimited energy. As Socrates taught us, introducing one falsehood can allow you to take an otherwise rational conversation in any direction.

    There have been temporary times in human history when it seemed that cheap energy was nearly limitless — English coal, African slaves, Texas petroleum, Nantucket sperm oil… I would like to see the Star Trek series where di-lithium crystals are in short supply.

  2. I think we’re living it…

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