The philosophy of Star Trek: how a sci-fi show tackled the toughest questions in the universe

As Star Trek: The Next Generation celebrates its 30th anniversary, we look at what the sci-fi saga tells us about morals, ethics – and our own souls

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Although often reduced to the image of Captain Kirk battling a paper mache lizard-man in a quarry, Star Trek really does boldly go where no show has gone before. And we’re not referring to its advent of ingenious androids or interstellar travel to the final frontier, but the crew’s exploration into philosophical dimensions.

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Yes, a populist TV sci-fi adventure it may be, but since Trek blasted off in 1966, the saga has launched debates into the largest metaphysical conundrums and ethical enigmas going – from questioning the very foundations of society, to the nature of the soul. And with Star Trek: Discovery currently beaming down to Netflix, our brains are likely to be cranked to warp 10 once more.

So, to ease our subspace flight, we’ve energised Star Trek’s biggest philosophical ideas into one handy databank. Prepare to engage…

Is The Prime Directive really ethical?

Also known as the Non-Interference Directive, The Prime Directive commands Starfleet ships to follow one golden rule: don’t interfere with other cultures or civilisations. And all captains are supposed to take this VERY seriously – as Kirk says in The Original Series, “A starship captain’s most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive.”

But is such a rigid policy really in the universe’s best interests? If Starfleet has the power to save civilisations – and countless lives – from extinction, shouldn’t it try? Wouldn’t standing by as innocents die make Starfleet a tad, well, evil?

Not according to the concept of Westphalian sovereignty, a key political paradigm embodied by Starfleet. Born out of the Peace of Westphalia treaties of 1648, this paradigm not only established modern thinking on nation states and boundaries, but also that intervening across borders would only cause conflict.

Such thinking is clearly laid out by Captain Jean-Luc Picard in The Next Generation: “The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy… and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilisation, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.”

At its inception, this philosophy appeared to have led to peace: the Westphalia treaty halted 80 years of war in Europe. But, as you might have noticed from a couple of near-apocalyptic world wars since then, such a simple idea rarely leads to peace in our intricate universe.

And as with every strategy that walks the line between war and peace, the thinking behind the Prime Directive provokes a lot of debate. After all, taken to its extreme, the Directive is a barely-compromising non-interventionist policy, a stance never going to please everyone in every circumstance. Would non-action be the right line to face when threatened by Nazi Germany? Iraq? North Korea? Syria?

Or, to take a less politically-charged example, if a wildlife filmmaker comes across a dying zebra, do they have a moral obligation to help it? Would they be responsible for its death by walking away? And what if aiding the animal inadvertently starves a pride of lions that would otherwise have fed on the carcass?

Star Trek has handled such sticky non-interventionist predicaments head-on during the show, often with heart-breaking consequences. For instance, in The New Generation episode Pen Pals, android Lt Commander Data receives messages from a little girl whose planet will soon be destroyed by volcanic eruptions. Captain Picard’s response? The Prime Directive must stand. The child must die.

Fortunately, Picard reverses his decision in time for Data to save the girl, but at the cost of the Prime Directive. Is it right that he sacrificed this Star Fleet value to save one child? Like most philosophers, the crew are divided.

This issue gets more complicated if you consider the spirit in which the show’s United Federation of Planets was first formed. In the show, the Vulcans reached out to our planet when they realised humans (specifically one of them, Zefram Cochrane) had invented the warp drive. And after the first contact, The Vulcans shared their technological knowledge, thus helping Earth to rise from its post-atomic horror to become a founding member of the UFP.

Yet, if Starfleet was in the same position as the Vulcans, would they have landed on Earth and lent a hand? Would The Prime Directive have saved Earth – a future cornerstone of the UFP – from destruction? We’re guessing not.

What is consciousness?

Or, to put it a bit more clearly, do your awareness, personality and memories come from your physical brain or a non-material soul? It’s a debate that was sparked by René Descartes, who believed that the body is merely a machine-like object which is controlled by a non-material mind, soul or consciousness.

In other words, Descartes proposed that you – yes, YOU – exist outside your body and just happen to be operating your body. And before you ask, no science doesn’t have the answer for this – neuroscientists haven’t yet solved the “hard problem” of how your consciousness is related to your brain. They can’t tell how humans can entertain a mental image or ‘experience’ an emotion. Could Descartes have the answer?

Maybe. This mind-body dualism has a parallel in Star Trek. Vulcans possess a Katra, a soul that can be divorced from the body and inserted into another person or, if they’re really unlucky, a receptacle.

Yes, it’s not just a plot idea that conveniently allowed fan favourite Spock to be resurrected in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock or (SPOILER WARNING AT RED ALERT) allowed Sarek to communicate with Michael in the Star Trek: Discovery opener, but a nod to a major philosophical paradigm.

But a tad confusingly, the franchise also advocates an opposing idea with its most iconic invention, the transporter bay.

It’s a machine that works like this: you step aboard the transporter deck and your body’s matter gets converted into energy, with your atomic blueprint saved in a computer; then the transporter converts that energy into new atoms in a distant place, reconstructing your body according to the computerised schematics.

Think about it: this assumes that there is an innate connection between your consciousness and physical brain. If dualism were true and your soul existed separate from your body then wouldn’t it be risky to go through the transporter? Couldn’t your physical body be transported across space, but your consciousness be unattached? After all, since it’s made up of different atoms (albeit in the same configuration), your body post-transporter isn’t technically the same one as the one before, right? How would your consciousness know that’s the body it can operate?

It’s a thinking that’s backed up by The Next Generation episode Second Chances, in which Will Riker is accidentally duplicated in a transporter accident. However, rather than his consciousness staying with the ‘real’ Riker, both bodies keep the commander’s mind – much to both Rikers’ annoyance.

Instead of the concept of a mind-body dualism, this supports thinking by John Locke, who suggested that the human mind is a tabula rasa, an empty slate that gains consciousness through your body’s senses. And since your grey matter is hooked up to your sensor preceptors, your mind is your brain.

So, does the show settle this battle between dualism and materialist thinking? Has a full theory of the soul been dished out by a TV show? As much as it explores both ideas, Trek never settles on one side of the debate. But hey, there’s every chance that a thought-provoking Discovery episode could finally put your mind at ease – wherever it might be.

Do the needs of the many always outweigh the needs of the few?

Spock’s famous words after sacrificing himself to save the Enterprise in The Wrath of Khan are the heart of perhaps the biggest tear-jerker in Star Trek history. But after dabbing your eyes, you might notice it’s a sentiment that invites a major ethical dilemma: is it really logical for an individual to be sacrificed for others?

John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant would answer this question with a resounding yes given their philosophical model of utilitarianism. This, at its most basic level, supposes that people should be working towards the good of the many – each action should be prefaced with one question: “what if everybody did that?”

At first, it may sound like a caring model to live by – if any member of The Enterprise crew were willing to die to save everyone then you have a pretty strong crew. However, at its most extreme utilitarianism could be deeply inhuman. For instance, philosopher Hannah Arendt warned that solely working towards the greater good would lead to a mechanised society where the needs of the individual were completely sacrificed for society. And, of course, such a society exists in Star Trek: The Borg.

The scariest of Star Trek baddies are a race of mechanised humanoids that demand individuals give up any personal property, emotions and memories for the benefit of the collective – if one person joins then they help all enjoy immortality and technological advancement. In other words, the needs of the many outweigh the few.

So, why shouldn’t we all pack up and join The Borg if it’s for the good of everybody? Is resistance to that logic really futile? Are there times when people should be separate from the many? Stark Trek poses the same answer time and time again: when Spock kills himself to save the crew, he’s the one deciding to do it. When Trip Tucker blows himself up to lure hostile forces in the final episode of Enterprise, he’s doing it out of compassion. And when Captain Kirk’s dad, George Kirk, deliberately kills himself to save his wife and baby in the Star Trek cinematic reboot, it’s his personal choice.

The message is clear: if you want to sacrifice a life for the many, then sacrifice your own life.

Would we be better off getting rid of money?

According to Star Trek, a lot’s going to happen to Earth over the next 200 years. We’ll be subjected to yet another World War, invent the warp drive and rebuild a society that advances far from our own by cutting out one key element: money.

As Captain Picard describes in First Contact, “The economics of the future are somewhat different… money doesn’t exist in the twenty-fourth century… the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

Is this possible? Would emptying our bank accounts and doing away with currency create a post-capitalist utopian democracy such as the United Federation of Planets? Could Fort Nox become, as Voyager’s Tom Harris describes, a museum?

Forgetting about material wealth certainly seems plausible in the Star Trek universe thanks to the invention of the replicator. After all, if you can replicate money then it wouldn’t have any worth at all. And if you can replicate food, clothing, medicine and so on, then you don’t really need money anyway.

According to Karl Marx, these Trekenomics are the goal for humanity. He wrote that once Earth overcame the “realm of necessity” (scarcity of resources), a classless society would create a “realm of freedom”. Writers such as Friedrich Engels developed this idea further, saying scientific advancement was the route to such a utopia. They might not have had replicators in mind, but their thinking is at the heart of Star Trek.

But the show goes beyond Engels and Marx. Although Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry said that there was no currency in the Federation, characters aren’t shown to live in a communist society – they still have individual needs. And these needs are generally fulfilled.

It’s all thanks to the show’s quasi-currency known as ‘Federation Credits’, which make fleeting appearances. In the original series, Uhura is seen buying a space alien known as a Tribble with such credits and in Deep Space Nine Quark occasionally accepts them at his Deep Space Nine bar.

But this isn’t actually money as we know it. As writer Rick Webb brilliantly theorises, these Federation credits may be a private currency outside the control of the Federation. Yes, they’re called ‘Federation Credits’, but in the same way that Yorkshire tea isn’t actually grown in Yorkshire – it’s just a name. So, rather than being a fiat currency (one controlled and incepted by the state), Federation Credits are developed by third parties to facilitate trade outside the Federation – similar to how the bitcoin is used to trade online. This means that the Federation itself technically doesn’t have a currency, but citizens could gain credits from bartering – a rare occurrence in the show.

So, Star Trek realistically acknowledges that individuals have needs, but that Starfleet cadets don’t sacrifice their needs for the community – that’s left for The Borg.

So why aren’t the characters of Star Trek motivated by Federation Credits? The same reason why they’re only a sub-economy rather than one controlled by the UFP – they just don’t matter that much. Due to the emphasis on science and education, humans now gain satisfaction contributing to that. Material wealth simply isn’t as big a talking point – replicators make it easy to get by without poverty.

Of course, it’s not a perfect system. As the show rarely gives us a glimpse into day-to-day life on Earth, we don’t know why anybody would be motivated to go to work beyond scientific intrigue. If somebody simply didn’t want to get out of bed, what would be stopping them?

And what about trading with other races? Surely if humans have no material wealth then they can’t exchange goods? This issue is tackled head on by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode In the Cards, where Jake Sisko – son of Captain Sisko – cannot bid for a baseball card in an auction.

After Jake explains he cannot join in as he has no money (and hasn’t found the need for Federation Credits so far), Ferengi Nog says to him: “It’s not my fault that your species decided to abandon currency-based economics in favour of some philosophy of self-enhancement.” Jake defends humans, claiming humans “work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity,” but is still upset he can’t own the card, intended to be a gift for the captain. Self-enhancement can’t always make you happy.

It’s a classic Star Trek story: one that explores a society that although gloriously optimistic, doesn’t come without its faults.

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Star Trek Discovery is available to watch on Netflix