“You know, Jim, if it really comes down to it, we could just kill Edith Keeler ourselves”: the progression of consequentialism in Star Trek

Mr. Spock never said that, and chances are it never popped into your minds either.  Certain things were unthinkable in those innocent days, and it was counterintuitive enough that Kirk and Spock have a mission to make sure the damsel in distress doesn’t get saved.  Edith Keeler isn’t evil; she’s just dumb, and her ditzy pacifism is going to lead to Hitler taking over the world.  She must die, but of course we can’t kill her.

The original Star Trek was sincerely but naively anti-consequentialist.  For example, all the characters are convinced that eugenics is just wrong, but nobody explains why it’s wrong.

Then there was the episode where Captain Kirk tracks down Kodos “the Executioner”.  As Memory Alpha explains

Governor Kodos, also known as Kodos the Executioner, was a male Human politician in the 23rd century. In 2246, he governed the Earth colony Tarsus IV.

In 2246, an exotic fungus destroyed most of the colony’s food supply, and its 8,000 inhabitants faced starvation. Kodos, implementing his own theories of eugenics, selected 4,000 of the colony’s residents to be put to death, so that the remaining 4,000 might survive on the limited food supplies available. Among the dead were Kevin Riley‘s parents. Among the survivors were Riley, James T. Kirk, Thomas Leighton, D. Eames, and E. Molson

Supply ships from Earth arrived earlier than expected and found a burned body. Kodos was presumed dead, and the matter was closed.

Kodos was not dead, but in hiding.  No character will give him an explanation for why what he did was wrong beyond a vague “history has made its judgement”.  Given how easy the utilitarian argument for his actions is–better than half should die quickly and painlessly than that everyone should starve–I thought poor hounded Kodos deserved more than that.  Is the only issue that he didn’t pick people at random?  In fact, you’ve got to be an explicit anti-consequentialist to understand why Kodos was wrong, and even explicit anti-consequentialists like me have a lot of pity for people who find themselves in these situations.

Star Trek:  The Next Generation was the closest Starfleet ever came to putting Immanuel Kant in charge of a starship.  Captain Picard embraced deontological ethics even when the costs were immense.  He could have eliminated the Borg, humanity’s most lethal foe, but wouldn’t because it required using a single stray captured borg as a mere means rather than also as an end.  He won’t approve lethal force even where I thought it completely justified, e.g. against the Crystaline Entity.  He exposes Starfleet’s development of a phasing cloaking device to the Romulans because it violates a treaty with them, even though this technology would have given the Federation an enormous military advantage.  One hopes he’s just pretending to be angry when Worf kills the anti-Federation claimant to the Klingon chancellorship in a personal dispute.

In Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine, the Federation finds itself in a protracted war with the Dominion.  The political order Starfleet protects has come to seem a very vulnerable thing, and subjugation a live possibility, so that the ethics of Captain Picard begin looking to some like a luxury from more secure times that can no longer be afforded.  Captain Sisko is, I admit, my favorite of the Star Trek leads.  He’s the one I’d prefer to have leading me into battle; none of the other captains match his gravitas.  But he himself realizes that the moral clarity of his predecessors has receded from him.  In one episode, he collaborates on a plot to trick the Romulans into entering the war on the Federation side by fabricating evidence that the Dominion is planning to attack the Romulans.  The major deception ends up requiring additional minor illegalities and bribery.  Reflecting on this at the end of the episode, Sisko is troubled but decides that the fate of the Alpha Quadrant is more important than his personal conscience.  That Sisko wrestles with these questions makes him an interesting character, but it is the start down a dark road.

To see where it leads, look at Star Trek:  Enterprise.  Captain Archer and his crew are just evil; there’s no other word for it.  In one episode, they speed-grow a clone of Trip explicitly to kill him and harvest his organs.  In another, they have a chance to save a whole intelligent race from a deadly plague, but they decide not to because, hey, that’s natural selection, baby.  Archer helps track down a mad scientist and his group of genetically engineered “superior” humans, but he isn’t sure himself what’s wrong with what they’re doing.  One might say that DS9 is Star Trek being tempted by consequentialism, and Enterprise is Star Trek no longer remembering that there was ever anything else.

3 Responses

  1. Oh that natural selection episode it was like televisual mustard gas! I had never seen anything so morally revolting, it killed Enterprise stone dead for me and yet so few people see the problem with it.

  2. Interesting.

    The original TV series shows humanity much further along toward immanentizing the eschaton than we are now (were when it was produced), but with many remaining “earthy” cultural remnants. The scrappy rebellion against authority is still taking place, with the womanizing rascal Kirk breaking silly rules to get the right outcomes. But the rules he breaks are authority based rules: as you say, it was a more innocent time deontologically.

    TNG shows the eschaton almost fully immanentized: we have become angels ourselves as embodied in the holiness of Picard and the crew in particular, and the Klingon crew member keeps his decorative culture while being fully liberalized. This reaches fever pitch in the movie “Generations”, where Kirk is redeemed by mortal death, literally giving up Heaven (the “Nexus”) to save a world from destruction — destruction by a man attempting mass murder as his means to get into Heaven.

    I haven’t seen more than an episode or two of the later shows. But I did find it interesting that DS9 had a transparently Jewish race, the Ferengi. Even in the world of sci fi fantasy the immanentized eschaton is unsustainable.

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