Book Review:
The Ethics of Star Trek


The Ethics of Star Trek
Book written by Judith Barad and Ed Robertson
New York: HarperCollins (2000)

This isn't the first book to contemplate the philosophy, and philosophical implications, of Star Trek (a short but helpful bibliography at the back points to a few others). But The Ethics of Star Trek is the first book to do exactly what its title suggests: The authors attempt to discern what, specifically, are the ethics of the copious body of television episodes and movies that comprise the Star Trek cannon. Rather than simply surveying all Star Trek episodes and films and attempting to distill what ethical principles are operative, the authors take an interesting, and educational approach, to the subject.

The book discusses, in roughly chronological order, the major ethical systems that have been proposed by influential thinkers and philosophers throughout history. They start with Platonism and Aristotelian ethics, move to other classical systems such as hedonism, epicureanism and stoicism, then move to later systems such as Christian ethics (as espoused by Augustine and a few others), Kantian ethics, existentialism, and the contemporary Animal Rights writings of Regan. There are a few others, such as contract ethics, exemplified in the Trek universe by the Ferengi. Each major ethical system is explained from the beginning (no prior knowledge of ethics or philosophy is required to read this book). After each ethical system has been explained, examples of how it has been exemplified (or rejected) are drawn from Star Trek episodes. One does not have to have seen the episodes being discussed, because the relevant plot points and issues are fully explained.

The authors' approach makes this a surprisingly fun, interesting, and educational book to read. This is a great book for any Star Trek fan who enjoys reading discussions of Trek in greater depth, as well as for any fan who would like to know more about philosophy and ethics, but isn't interested in reading a typical text book just for fun. Most people are probably vaguely familiar with names such as Plato, Ross, Aristotle and Kant, but if it's been some time since they studied these topics in school (if ever), most people probably couldn't really tell you what each of these people stood for. The Ethics of Star Trek, which covers the basics of ethics and then brings Trek into the discussion, can serve as a very good primer.

The down side of the authors' approach is that on occasion, the examples from Star Trek seem a bit forced into interpretations that fit with classical ethical systems. This happens rarely, but there were a few analogies which seemed dubious.

The really questionable analogy, and the only part of the book that annoyed me, was when Barad tried to use a few Star Trek episodes to illustrate Reganist Animal Rights philosphy. For one thing, it seems strange to give the ideas of Tom Regan equal coverage with such historical thinkers as Kant, Plato, Socrates, Sartre, etc. But Barad never seemed objective when discussing Regan's ideas. It was clear, from this chapter, the conclusion, and the author's biographical sketch on the book jacket, that Barad is herself a devotee of Regan. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, and I don't think anybody's religious beliefs should preclude them from writing a book about philosophy and ethics. But while other philosophers and their systems were described very professionally, the material about Regan seemed almost like an N-Sync fan raving about a new album.

Furthermore, the book draws support for Reganist ideas from Trek where such support simply isn't warranted. It is probably true that Star Trek's philosophy regarding the treatment of animals is very close to Regan's. However, The Ethics of Star Trek appears to err when it compares repeated examples of reverence for and ethical behavior toward other sentient beings, even at personal sacrifice, with Regan's notions of extreme animal liberation and equality between humans and other animals. Even though most people in Star Fleet are vegetarians (meat-like foods are merely replicated), there are numerous examples from Trek illustrating a clear demarcation between how characters treat sentient versus non-sentient lifeforms. Too many episodes have centered around a starship crew ready to harm an animal form, only to become reluctant when they recognize sentience, to reasonably compare Star Trek's philosophy to that of Regan. Nothing in Star Trek (which is very pro-science) repudiates all animal research and the historic use of animals as food products the way that Regan does.

Throughout most of this book, the authors seem very balanced and objective. They handle the potentially volatile differences between religious and non-religious, theistic and atheistic, positions well. They do an admirable job of covering, for example, the clearly religious experiences of Sisko, and they discuss Janeway's rare leap of religious faith in "Sacred Ground." They also point out the many areas where Star Trek is mainly non-theistic, and discuss Roddenberry's antagonism toward organized religion. It is only with the Reganist Animal Rights material that I felt the book was preaching rather than informing. But this is the book's only major flaw.

In the final chapter, the book concludes by fitting each of the Star Trek series to a different ethical system. The ethics of "Deep Space Nine", for example, are said to be primarily existentialist. The Original Series' ethical system is said to be Aristotelian virtue ethics. It's an interesting intellectual exercise, and the authors do an admirable job backing up what they say.

But, realistically, I suspect these conclusions shouldn't be taken too seriously. The creators and writers of the various Star Trek series, including Gene Roddenberry himself, never based any of the Star Trek series on a single classical ethical system. Also, the authors base their determinations on the ethics displayed by the key characters in each series, but conveniently ignore very important characters. They say that Deep Space Nine's main characters to consider are Captain Sisko, Worf and Odo, thus ignoring Kira. The ethics of Voyager are exemplified only by Captain Janeway and Seven of Nine, thus ignoring Tuvok and Chakotay. The inclusion of these additional characters, and their often conflicting philosophies, would have muddied things considerably. The simple fact is, the Star Trek shows have been written by writers (not philosophers) as entertainment. These writers have produced entertainment far more thought-provoking than nearly any other television drama. But in the end, Star Trek is a collection of stories, and is not a cohesive work of scripture or an ethical treatise.

Even having said that, I would agree with the author's conclusion that at some level, despite its complexities and often disagreeing characters, there is a single, coherent philosophy and ethical system that can be distilled from Star Trek as a whole. In essence, Star Trek is a religion. But I would disagree with the authors' attempt to map the ethics of Star Trek so precisely to existing classical systems. I don't think the fit is as good as they conclude. The bulk of the book, introducing major ethical systems and illustrating them through Trek, is excellent. The final chapter is certainly thought-provoking, but a little over-reaching in its attempt to merge Trek and classical ethics.

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Web page created 23 March 2001. Last modified 23 March 2001.