How far we’ve come (Things I’ve Learned From Star Trek)

How far we’ve come (Things I’ve Learned From Star Trek) November 4, 2007

To get a sense of just how much has changed in the past half century, just watch these bloopers from the original Star Trek series. The part that made the biggest impression on me is the way Capt. Kirk and others keep walking into doors. The automatic door Star Trek led us to hope for has become so common that we easily forget that, when Star Trek originally depicted the idea, someone had to pull the door open to simulate a door that opens automatically.

Of course, there are other Star Trek inventions. It is interesting that the list of the “Top Ten” that appeared recently included Star Trek caskets but not the automatic door. Nevertheless, it is good to see that progress is still being made on turning some appealing bits of science fiction into science fact. (I’m talking about things like the cloaking device, and not the casket, in case you were wondering).

I recently mentioned our moral progress since Biblical times. When I think seriously about the issue of torture, I am struck by the fact that it simply wasn’t an issue back then – those in power could do what they liked, and rarely were there even prophetic criticisms of what we would call war crimes after the fact. The fact that it is an issue today is encouraging.

When I think about the issue in more detail, I find myself wondering whether I am wholly opposed to all forms of torture on principle regardless of circumstances. I certainly oppose its application to people who have been rounded up merely on suspicion of wrongdoing. But would I really be sorry if the authorities tortured someone known to be part of a terrorist organization, and who can reasonably be suspected to know the whereabouts of a nuclear device hidden (and set to go off) in a heavily populated city? Would I really put my principles, and the suffering without permanent physical damage of one individual, before the lives of hundreds of thousands and the serious injury of many more? What if there were members of my family in that city? Do not the words of the most famous Vulcan apply here – “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few“?

It nevertheless troubles me that many churches and Christian organizations simply trust the government to use its power wisely in this area. It is the loss of ability to be a voice of conscience to our society that is disturbing. It is very much in keeping with the ironies of the ‘Pro-Life’ position. It really ought to be renamed ‘Pro-Breathing’. Just make sure someone has the chance to be technically alive, merely existing, and then show no interest in whether they are living in squalor, or wrongfully detained and tortured, or anything else that has to do with the quality of their life.

The most ironic part of it all is that this position is content to leave human beings merely existing as all animals do, yet it is a viewpoint that claims that human beings are fundamentally different from other living things on this planet.

If Star Trek has taught us anything morally, it is that one day the concept of ‘human rights’ may not be wide enough. We accept that other human beings are conscious by analogy. One day, we may find we are sharing the world with being that are technological or extraterrestrial in nature. Before we reach that situation is the time to reflect on the broader issues and ask ourselves just what it means to be a person, what rights they should have, and why we are persuaded of this. I am not suggesting that we be absolutists who do not allow for exceptions to many of our ideals. But we shall never be ready for further interaction beyond the human, if we do not first figure out some basic guidelines that we can persuade all human beings, of every culture and religion, to abide by at least in principle.

Before there can be a United Federation of Planets, we have a long way to go in achieving even a rudimentary stability merely on one planet.

These are but a few of the things I’ve learned from Star Trek. To include more would make this post too long. But I must mention just one more. Don’t forget: Gok is best eaten live.

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  • George

    I appreciate all Star Trek has done for our society. 🙂 I just don’t think it’s very good as entertainment. Maybe we’re being naive when we agree that modern Western society is morally superior to societies of generations past, and maybe I’m just being naive when I suggest that the recent crop of sci-fi shows (Battlestar Galactica, Firefly) are cinematically superior to those of the past- but I don’t think so.With SF in the printed medium, however, it’s a whole other story. Hollywood still hasn’t caught up what SF was doing in the seventies (IMHO most of the best SF comes from that decade).

  • BSM

    I came out as Jean-Luc Picard. Interesting.

  • curiouser and curiouser

    George what are some of your favorite SF novels and stories from the seventies?Curiouser and curiouser

  • Aside from the fact that torture is designed to produce confessions, not information, I see two problems. One problem is the boundary issue. If I agree that the ticking nuclear bomb scenario would, indeed justify torture, do I also agree that that a ticking car bomb justifies torture? A stick of dynamite? Why limit it to international terrorism. If it is a useful technique for ensuring the “good of the many”, what do we do with a suspect involved in a child sex ring? The second problem is a boundary issue in similar sense. Once torture is legal in only one situation, how do you limit it bureaucratically. As one soldier said, how do you tell a sergeant in Anbar province that his squad’s safety does not justify the same technique being used by the CIA?As we have learned, America’s reputation for NOT torturing was one of our greatest assets in our dealings with the world. Once that was gone, our influence and interests suffered in ways that no amount of military force or threat have been able to repair.

  • All important points – yet having rejected the ‘slippery slope’ argument in some areas, I don’t want to utilize it too readily in others.In abortion as well a similar argument is used: if we don’t define life as beginning at conception, then we have nowhere else to draw the line. But legal lines are often arbitrary, and I have no particular problem with that, any more than with defining an adult as someone 18 or over (even though we have all either known or been people that were not quite adults at 18).What if it was necessary to get a torture warrant in the same way one needs to get a search warrant? What if one had to provide evidence that there was crucial lifesaving information this person could reasonably be expected to have? Would that provide a sufficient safeguard?I’m not recommending this – I’m not recommending anything. I’m just trying to avoid the hypocrisy of making a blanket rejection when I can imagine myself, in practice, tolerating exceptions.