The Boston Phoenix November 30 - December 7, 2000

[This Just In]


What would Kirk do?

by Chris Wright

Trekkie Most of us don't associate Captain James T. Kirk with Aristotelian virtue. Nor do we think of Nietzsche when we hear the words "Set phasers on stun." Certainly few of us have viewed the starship Enterprise as a hotbed of theistic existentialism. At least not until paging through The Ethics of Star Trek, a new book by philosopher Judith Barad and cultural critic Ed Robertson, which uses the long-running sci-fi show as a framework to explore a host of ethical issues. But the authors don't stop at calling Captain Picard the embodiment of the ontological principle of duty. Star Trek, they insist, is nothing less than a "blueprint" for a new code of ethics. The Phoenix caught up with Barad at Indiana State University, where she teaches a course on the philosophy of Star Trek.

Q: How on earth did you come up with using Star Trek as a guide to ethics?

A: I've been a fan since 1966. The moment I saw it I was hooked. In 1998, I was preparing for a sabbatical and somebody I was talking to about Star Trek said, "You ought to write a book." I thought that it might be a lot of fun, but I thought it might do some good, too.

Q: Do you go to conventions?

A: I've gone to one convention in my life. I don't make it a point to go. I don't know every word to every show. I don't wear a uniform.

Q: But you're saying that Star Trek is more than a TV show?

A: Yes. I do think the reason it's survived as long as it has is because it's not meant as simple entertainment. Every episode is meant to encapsulate a moral fable. Some are pure fun, but the overwhelming majority contain important ethical insights -- [about] how we treat others, whether we're going to lie, whether we're going to be considerate, decisions that affect our daily lives. Star Trek supplies a blueprint for a future in which ethics have caught up to technology. This is something I've never seen discussed on any other series.

Q: Do you think the show's creators were aware of the depths they were plumbing?

A: Gene Roddenberry considered himself a humanist, a philosophy that emphasizes the dignity of human beings -- also, a strong belief that we base our choices on reason. The writers tried to be true to Roddenberry's vision, and a unified theory does emerge. There are a number of principles that all four series share, that are all internally consistent. Together they give us a good model of how to make moral decisions.

Q: So when faced with an ethical dilemma, we should ask ourselves, "What would Kirk do?"

A: Well, people like Kirk can be used as models to help us become more ethical. But at some point you must abandon the model. You use Kirk or Picard as a guide, but that doesn't serve as a substitute for reasoning things out. I suggest that Star Trek is a good place to start.

Q: Will Kirk replace Jesus as a moral guide?

A: There are some people who can live their lives by using JC as a guide. But people also forget the message of love that's in the New Testament. Jesus taught nonviolence, but so does Kirk. The big difference is the emphasis on reason. Star Trek asks us to question everything; it emphasizes nonviolent solutions. I'm not sure you get all that from the Bible.

Q: Do you use Trekkian ethics in your own life?

A: To a certain extent, yes. I don't ask myself "What would Kirk do?" But it's fair to say that I use Star Trek as a guide in my life.

Q: What could George W. Bush and Al Gore learn from Captain Kirk?

A: They could learn that altruism should have more importance than egoistic considerations, that we have social responsibilities. Honesty is one of the virtues that Star Trek highlights, and I don't hear either Gore or Bush saying, "Lookit, I want the election to be counted this way so I can come out the winner."

Q: Would Bill Clinton have made a good starship captain?

A: He'd certainly have been more along Kirk's line.

Q: Because they're both horny?

A: Yes, being a womanizer. I think he aimed at compassion, which is one of the Star Trek virtues. He was also concerned with peacemaking, justice. But he was not temperate and not honest either. I think he showed some of the Star Trek virtues and really fell down on some others.