Friday, April 03, 2015

The Ideals of Star Trek

One of the most appealing aspects of the Star Trek franchise is the philosophical and ethical framework encoded within the fictional world.

I, personally, find those ideals particularly appealing, so I especially enjoy the episodes where the characters are exploring the limits of the various ideals, and the interplay between them.

There are three main ideals: IDIC, "Let me help" and self-determination. Probably the most important instance of the interplay between the three is the Federation's "highest law", the Prime Directive.

Let's examine each ideal, the Prime Directive, and how they all combine to create the Star Trek world we see in the films and TV series.


Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC) is described in-world as a philosophy of Vulcan origin. As the name suggests, it encourages us to be aware of, and to accept, the fact that in an infinite universe, all things can and will happen.

In particular, it reminds us that other people are different to us: in appearance; in culture; in values. And that those differences are something to be admired, appreciated and even celebrated. Under this ideal, diversity is a thing of value to be cherished, not something to be feared or avoided.

"Let Me Help"

Let Me Help is described as an ideal of Human origin, and is given in contrast to the capitalist mantra "What's in if for me?" It's essentially a reformulation of the Marxist ideal "From each according to his ability, to each, according to his need."

The story goes that Human society left war, poverty, crime and disease behind when it changed its guiding principle from "What's in it for me?" to "Let me help." This allowed for a more equitable distribution of resources, thus virtually eradicating the worst aspects on the underbelly of society.

It's a point of some contention that the universal application of communist ideals in Human society in the Star Trek universe has led the Federation (or at least Earth) to become something of a communist utopia. Bear in mind, that the technology of the Star Trek universe allows for virtually infinite resources, so a scarcity-based economy is no longer required. Thus, Star Trek's communist utopia isn't quite as juvenile as one might think: it's the (arguably) logical outcome of the combination of unlimited resources and a culture of altruism.


Although usually described more by its absence than by its presence, the right to self-determination is as close to a moral absolute as we can find within the Star Trek universe. I say it's described by its absence, because we're most acutely aware of it when characters are faced by situations they didn't choose for themselves.

This notion is often explored in the context of non-voluntary relationships the characters must navigate, usually in the form of family. Star Trek is generally scornful of families, and the characters are almost always embarrassed by, or otherwise at odds with, their families. Preferring instead the company of their voluntary associations with their friends and crew-mates. Of course there are obvious exceptions, but the general principle is ubiquitous.

This is most starkly illustrated in the form of the Borg: a society in which all sense of self is erased, thus making self-determination impossible. It's not for nothing that the Borg are generally depicted as the most dangerous and "evil" force threatening the Federation.

One of my personal favourite moments in Star Trek relating to self-determination is one of Picard's famous speeches in the Next Generation episode, The Drumhead:

The Prime Directive

As valuable and laudable as these three ideals are, there are occasions when they come into conflict with each other. For this reason, there exists within the Star Trek universe the Federation's highest law: The Prime Directive.

In short, the Prime Directive compels all Federation representatives to refrain from interfering with other cultures. The exact restrictions on what constitutes "interference" vary depending on the level of technological advancement of the culture in question, but the principle behind it is very strongly adhered to.

The Prime Directive serves as a balancing act between these three ideals. When it comes to dealing with other cultures, Let Me Help compels us to assist them in any way we can. But IDIC reminds us that their situation may be different to ours, possibly more than we may be able to appreciate. And in respecting their right to self-determination, we must allow for them to make decisions we may not like or agree with - even if those choices seem to, on the surface, limit their own self-determination. Failure to respect that autonomy is arrogance and condescension in the extreme.

Of course we've yet to see a Starfleet captain that won't break the Prime Directive when sufficiently motivated, but at the very least those captains must take it into account before making decisions that affect other cultures. The existence of the Prime Directive affects their choices, and they must make their decisions in that context.

What we can learn from these ideals

I, personally, find the right to self-determination particularly compelling. It seems obvious to me that all sapient beings should be afforded the same rights and opportunities. And even non-sapient beings should be afforded some rights, albeit more difficult to determine which beings should be afforded which rights, and based on which criteria. But I think the consideration itself is a valuable one.

I've so deeply internalised this ideal (and its daughters: freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of movement etc) that it seems counter-intuitive and even immoral when I see others using their self-determination to try and limit that of others.

For example, when "social justice warriors" (SJWs) bully artists into withdrawing their artwork from public display, when they publicly shame accomplished, good natured, scientists for what they wear, or when conservatives engage in "slut-shaming", I can't help but judge them as immoral. But that doesn't make me want to silence those sorts of authoritarian ideologues.

I am crucially aware that said bullying, while despicable, is the way those ideologues choose to apply their own self-determination. And it's then that IDIC reminds me that diversity of opinion, even within the context of my own culture, is something to be cherished and celebrated. I may not agree with, or even like, those ideologues, but the fact that they exist and are allowed to continue to spew their authoritarian ideology all over the rest of us ad-nauseum is a manifestation of our diversity as a species, and the self-determination we have the luxury of enjoying.

Although I wish pseudoscientists would stop promoting their harmful nostrums and fake science, it is condescending of me to assume that I know what's best for everyone. I may wish to help people who have been persuaded by the fictions of religions like Christianity or 3rd Wave Feminism, but trying to drag those adherents, kicking and screaming, across to the side of reason would violate their rights to self-determination.

The most I can do, in good conscience, to combat the elements of our society I feel are harmful is to argue, write and speak against them in the open marketplace of ideas. Those who advocate opposing ideas to mine are just as welcome there as I am, and together we can have a species-wide conversation about what we each think the best way is to have a society. A place where the diverse voices and opinions of all can be heard, free from the prejudice of bigoted institutions like the jātis or the progressive stack.

It is due to the lessons of the ideals of Star Trek that I'm able to enjoy long-standing friendships with a diverse array of people I disagree with: Christian fundamentalists, conspiracy theorists, social justice warriors, homeopaths and even people who don't like Star Trek. The respect for diversity and self-determination Star Trek has taught me allows me to appreciate them for who they are, and even celebrate their different opinions. I'll even help them, if they'll let me.

It's regrettable, however, that not all the people I know (not even all the Trekkies I know) embrace these ideals as fully as others. It must be lonely: Being unable to enjoy someone's company, simply because they hold different opinions. That inability to appreciate the diversity of our species must make for a very small world. I prefer a big one, where all are welcome.