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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