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    Book Review: Ethics Scholar Makes Compelling Points in THE ETHICS OF STAR TREK

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    Posted: 08:54:47 on January 01 2002
    By: Steve Krutzler
    Dept: TrekWeb Features

    The Ethics of Star Trek
    by Judith Barad, Ph.D. with Ed Robertson
    Paperback, 368 pages
    Perennial Press, 2000

    Written for TrekWeb by Alexander Chase
    2002 TrekWeb.com & Alexander Chase

    Upon opening Barad's The Ethics of Star Trek, I was expecting another navel-gazing exercise in intellectual masturbation from the cultural studies department of some American university; much like Harrison et al's 1996 Enterprise Zones. In other words, poorly constructed arguments about Roddenberry's Trek promoting a patriarchal model of an Anglo-Saxon male-dominated society where women and ethnic minorities are little more than "property"; or, Trek as the "messenger" of Euro-centric visions of imperialism and manifest destiny in a era of mass globalization. All of which would ignore obvious counter-examples from episodes in order to wedge Trek like a proverbial square peg into a decidedly anti-Western round hole, and provide numerous points of unintentional humor of the laugh-out-loud variety.

    However, Barad's The Ethics of Star Trek is not only a pleasant surprise, it is an outstanding and substantial piece of intellectual thought.

    The title of the book is something of a misnomer since the book is not really about Star Trek but rather a well-written and reasoned survey of ethical philosophy from Plato and Aristotle's early ideas of ethical virtue to Benham and Mill's concept of utilitarianism ("the greatest good for the greatest number") to Kant ("the end never justifies the means") and Satre's mediations on existentialist angst. What Barad accomplishes is to make the philosophy of moral ethics easily accessible to the layman reader by using examples from episodes of Star Trek as a benchmark and sounding board to explain, illustrate and explore concepts associated with each philosopher's theory of moral ethics. At the same time, the logic of her arguments about the strengths and weaknesses of different theoretical approaches to ethics are weighty enough to maintain the interest of even the most experienced reader.

    The result is a well-written, tightly-argued and eminently accessible book about a sometimes difficult subject matter which beginners and experts alike will find richly thought-provoking.

    A significant portion of the book concentrates on episodes from The Original Series (principally focusing on the characters of Kirk and Spock) and The Next Generation (focusing on Picard) since these series' ethical foundations in Aristotelian virtue would, for the most part, seem readily apparent to both the author and the reader. Barad's take on the ethical foundations of Deep Space Nine and Voyager is slightly more fluid. She identifies DS9's ethical foundations squarely with Satre's concepts of existentialism; a fact Barad seems to view as a divergent tendency in Trek. Personally, this reviewer has always thought that Existentialism sits nicely within the broader Aristotelian ethical framework and Barad makes no argument to counter this idea, though I have no doubt Satre himself would disagree. Barad does briefly mention, but neglects to explore in any detail, how the differing format of DS9 ("stay and face the consequences") compared to the other series ("encounter, resolve, then move on") may play a significant role in its more explicit basis in existentialism.

    When it comes to VOY and her captain, however, Barad explicitly admits that the ethical foundations of the series are "eclectic" at best before settling on a model of Platonic virtue. Of course, this raises some interesting questions - which Barad acknowledges but barely scratches the surface of - since earlier in her review of Plato's ideas about societal ethics (principally detailed in The Republic) the author concedes that the Borg Collective itself would qualify as a Platonic model of societal and ethical perfection. This admission, however, does perhaps begin to bring into focus the rationale behind the increasing personalification of Borg/VOY conflicts between that of the Borg Queen and her 'collective", and the "collective" of Captain Janeway; whom Barad refers to as a perfect illustration of Plato's notions of a philosopher-queen. For many critics of VOY, Barad's observations will provide additional ammunition to question the suitability (and even sanity) of Voyager's captain to lead her crew; even Barad comments that her "decision-making is often brusque" in the extreme.

    Barad's attempt to force all of Star Trek into one universal ethical theory (what she refers to a modified Kantian model) at the conclusion fails to convince but it takes up a minor portion of the book and is an interesting attempt to try to tie everything together nonetheless. However, much like Trek itself, it is the journey itself which is much more interesting than the destination. In discussing several episodes, Barad even manages to add some intellectual weight to episodes such as VOY's Concerning Flight, DS9's Let He Who Is Without Sin..., and TOS' And the Children Shall Lead which manifestly failed to do so on their own in the eyes of many Trek fans. She successfully does the same with a few, hotly debated episodes such as DS9's The Reckoning. Barad constructs a very convincing argument regarding the ethical basis of this episode with reference to Kierkegaardian principles (a Christian forerunner of Friedrich Nietzsche's latter "might is right" theories). Indeed, Barad's analysis of the nature of good and evil with reference to Saint Augustine's mediations on moral ethics in comparing The Reckoning and And the Children Shall Lead is an especially fascinating section of the book which goes some way in explaining why the Wraiths choose Jake Sisko as their receptacle, and later Gul Dukat (given what we learned about him in season 4, especially his feelings for his daughter, Ziyal). For those like the reviewer who think DS9's The Reckoning rightfully ranks with the best of Star Trek, this is a welcomed analysis.

    Another highlight of the book comes early when Barad literally rips to shreds the ideas of cultural relativism with a clarity of writing which is simply devastating in its logic. It is perhaps ironic that the best refutation of cultural relativism that this reviewer has read occurs in a book where Star Trek figures so prominently. Even Spock would find Barad's logic in exposing the inherent contradictions of cultural relativism, and its uselessness as an ethical framework in both Star Trek and real life, extremely impressive.

    Due to the length of the book, there are many intriguing episodes where ethical dilemmas play a central role that Barad has to ignore; DS9's Hippocratic Oath and The Quickening are just two I wish she had discussed. However, near the end, Barad tantalizes the reader by suggesting she will cover more ground "in the next book." I, for one, will eagerly be awaiting its arrival since Barad clearly establishes herself in this book as: perhaps the most substantial thinker about Star Trek to recently be published; and, as a bright talent in the field of ethics. Barad's book is not only a must-read for Trek fans truly interested in the legacy of Gene Roddenberry's creation but also for any student of ethics, Trek and non-Trek fans alike. The Ethics of Star Trek is graced with a depth and clarity of logic which every reader will find a rich and rewarding experience.

    TREKWEB TALKBACK

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