Moral Lessons from Star Trek
Ethics are inescapable. I learned that watching Star Trek. Now I’m learning it again reading articles like “Guidelines for the Chaplain’s Role in Health Care Ethics.” One of those sources is far more entertaining than the other to say the least, but I’ll try to talk about them both.
There have been five Star Trek televisions shows to date (six if you count the cartoon) and eleven movies, but let’s forget the latter for the moment. Each show was comprised of a “crew” of disparate individuals fulfilling various roles. Over time it became clear that on each crew, no matter how different or unique they tried to make the characters, someone always served as the moral compass.
On the original series, there was “Bones,” or Dr. Leonard H. McCoy. Bones was passionate, argumentative, even cantankerous, but he was also the conscience of the crew. Kirk went to him for advice, to express his deepest fears, and to seek compassionate moral balance against Spock’s cold logic.
On Star Trek The Next Generation, it is the captain himself who is most concerned with ethics. Captain Jean-Luc Picard had the logic and intelligence of Spock but the deeply moral sensibilities of Socrates. Although aided by the ship’s counselor, Deana Troi, with her empathy and expert knowledge of psychology, it is clear that he stands at the moral center of this crew. Yet even he had someone he relied upon for guidance and to unburden his soul, Guinan, the ships bar-tender. Upon watching episodes of The Next Generation again via Netflix after not having seen them since I was a teenager, I am amazed at how many of the conflicts and dilemmas faced by the Enterprise are not physical battles but moral ones. This particular iteration of the show spent more screen time agonizing over ethical dilemmas than shooting at each other than any other version.
On Star Trek Deep Space Nine, they left the starship behind entirely in exchange for a space station, but they could not escape the need for that moral center, this time filled by the reserved and aloof Dax. Lieutenant Jadzia Dax is the member of a species called Trill, who pass sentient symbiotes with the accumulated wisdom of many lifetimes from generation to generation. In essence, you get a beautiful, compelling woman with several hundred years of accumulated wisdom. Moreover, she also fulfills the role of counselor and confidant to the leader, Commander Sisco.
On Star Trek Voyager, we see a partnership, creating a moral balance between Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay, the second in command. Janeway herself is supremely moral, but also driven by her duty to save her people after then are stranded in a far quadrant of space. Janeway is a scientist and a humanist while Chakotay brings in a uniquely spiritual worldview as part of his Native American heritage, but also a certain tough practicality. He often served as a foil against Janeway’s sometimes reckless drive to get her crew home no matter what.
Finally, on Star Trek Enterprise it is once again the ship’s doctor who stands at the moral center, Dr. Phlox. Although the cheerful Phlox has a less central role than Bones, he is frequently the voice of reason and compassion. This last iteration of the franchise is perhaps the least interested in morality, each episode being more or less a battle for survival, but nonetheless frequently deals with where the boundary is between what is right and what is necessary. I sometimes wonder if this is reflective of it’s post-September 11th run. (The first episode aired on September 23, 2011, and the show finished in 2005.)
I offer this list not merely because I enjoy Star Trek (some versions more than others), but to demonstrate that even in the most fantastical of settings, ethics are inescapable. And where there are ethical dilemmas, there is always a moral compass. Interestingly, each person who serves that role is amazing different from the next. Passionate, logical, aloof, tough, or cheerful, they all demonstrate the capacity to provide that extra little bit of conscience when things start going wrong, as they inevitably do.
In addition, I found a fun little video with clips from several of the iterations of Star Trek which explores the philosophical and moral question of whether or not the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, a classic Trekian dilema.
The chaplains article points out that “Advances in medical science and technology, the evolution of integrated delivery systems, and the changing economics of health care present benefits and ethical dilemmas.” It lists principles for the chaplain to fulfill, duties and roles she should aspire to. The principles outlined in the text at first seemed daunting. You mean a chaplain has to do all that in addition to her work with patients? It seemed like an extra burden, a second full-time job.
Then I thought a little about some of the models of a moral compass I had observed in my life. (The ones who came to mind just happen to be fictional thanks to the ready availability of streaming media. I tend to believe fiction often reflects basic human truths, so no matter.) They did not go through the actions of providing moral guidance like making marks on a check list. It was not really their “job.” Rather it was who they were, their character (not in the fictional sense), that allowed them to stand at the moral center.
When we can cultivate our spirit in such a way, ethics come naturally and people will automatically look to us the way the crews (and script writers) looked to these people/characters (in the fictional sense). Nor do we have to cultivate ourselves to be or act a certain way we think is expected or a “ethical guide.” We need only have integrity in who we already are and cultivate a strong inner moral life in all our thoughts, speech, and actions. In order to be genuine, ethics must be lived. They are part of life. That’s why they are inescapable.