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Star Trek: Into Darkness--A Commentary on the Ethics of Care

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This paper examines the conflicts between Kirk and Spock's ethical perspectives in Star Trek: Into Darkness. It is argued that the overall message of the film can be understood as a critical analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of the
  Star Trek: Into Darkness —  A Commentary on the Ethics of Care   Bolstering the popular notion that the even-numbered films of Star Trek are the ones truly worth seeing, Star Trek: Into Darkness  ( ST:ID ) delivers an action-packed and dramatic narrative, while simultaneously engaging in serious philosophical — especially ethical — reflections. 1  Nearly every major scene revolves around some morally difficult scenario and/or disagreement, often leading the characters to explicitly defend their moral views. In doing so, they regularly invoke reasoning quite similar to the leading contemporary moral theories (Utilitarianism, Kantianism, ethics of care, and Virtue ethics). 2  In this essay, I develop what I see as the primary ethical tension of the film: a dialectical interplay between the feminist ethics of care and traditional “male” reasoning, represented respectively by the conflicting moral viewpoints of Kirk and Spock. 3  This ethical tension is slowly lessened throughout the film, until a synthesis is achieved — both characters adopt each other’s moral perspective, and appreciate what they have been missing. Thus, the  film seems to suggest that a complete ethical outlook must include both feminine and masculine elements; they are each lacking on their own. 4   1   Star Trek: Into Darkness , Blu-Ray, Dir. J.J. Abrams (Hollywood: Paramount, 2013). 2  The popular philosophy blog Plato on Pop  provides the best ethical review I am aware of so far. William Irwin and David Kyle Johnson. “The Ethics of Star Trek: Into Darkness,” Plato on Pop . Psychology Today. 5/18/2013.  3  There are, of course, many   other examples of reasoning based upon normative theories in this film. Furthermore, not only are major normative theories and their implication put under the lens, the film raises many contemporary applied issues: the right to trial for enemy combatants, permissibility of drone attacks, the morality of public policies like the “Bush - Doctrine,” etc . 4  While the tension between these characters has been analyzed before, in terms of both the earlier films and the TV series, these analyses have tended to interpret the tension as: 1) a synthesis of rationality versus irrationality, towards an Aristotelian mean, or 2) Utilitarian versus Kantian perspectives Judith Barad and Ed Robertson, The Ethics of Star Trek   (New York: Harper Collins, 2000)  2 Opening Dilemma: Duty v. Friendship  The opening act clearly sets up an ethical tension between Kirk and Spock. On a survey mission, the Enterprise  discovers that the planet Nibiru, along with its intelligent yet primitive inhabitants, face imminent annihilation from a “planet -killing ” volcano. 5   Prima    facie , stopping the volcanic eruption seems like the obvious moral response, much like Sing er’s “drown ing child” analogy; however, t he entire crew is sworn to uphold an absolutist   normative value, known as the “Prime Directive” (PD) , which trumps all other values or considerations. 6  As Spock explicitly reminds Kirk, “The PD clearly states that there can be no interference with the internal development of alien civilizati ons.” 7  Not only does this principle respect the autonomy of other cultures, it has further implications when dealing with non-spacefaring (“pre - warp”) peoples — they cannot even become aware of the existence of non-indigenous people or technology. Thus, intervention must be done carefully, or not at all, lest PD be violated. 8  Kirk, having infiltrated the local populace in disguise, steals an important religious relic (a scroll), distracting the natives and leading them on a chase away from the volcano. 9   5   ST:ID (1:00- 9:53 min.). All parenthetical time references below will refer to this film. The name “Nibiru” may have been chosen well, as it apparently refers to a prophetically-predicted cataclysmic encounter between the Earth and some other large planetary body in the future. 6  The PD is the  guiding principle for all Starfleet vessels and crews, with Starfleet being the exploratory/military arm of an interplanetary governing body, known as the “Federation of Planets.” By “absolutist,” I mean a rule that admits of no exceptions. 7 In essence, this guiding principle seems to be a “Kantian - type” rule designed to prevent the interference with the autonomy of alien civilizations outside of the federation — the futuristic version of a prohibition against cultural imperialism. However, it could just as easily be a rule-utilitarian based maxim, and this would better explain Spock’s dedicated af  firmation of it later, taking his consequentialist attitudes seriously. 8  It will later be clarified by Admiral Pike that Starfleet is technically only allowed to observe  pre-warp civilizations, so even stopping the volcano without being observed is a violation of the observance of PD, and arguing otherwise requires appealing to a “technicality”  in the language —the “spirit” of the rule is not to interfere at all with the “natural development” of other civilizations, cultures, or worlds.   9  Note that one could already begin asking moral questions here, such as whether Kirk was justified in stealing the scroll, even though we find out soon that all the natives would have died, when the volcano ejected magma on their cultur al center during the chase…    3 Meanwhile, Spock is lowered into the volcano by a shuttle-craft, with a device that can halt the imminent eruption. 10  However, the shuttle suffers engine-failure due to the heat, stranding Spock inside the volcano. Upon returning to the Enterprise , K irk’s primary concern is evident — instead of worrying about the welfare of the natives, or if the PD had been violated, he only wants to know: “Where’s Spock?!”  Now, can Spock be saved? The anti-eruption device will soon detonate on a timer, and this will also kill Spock. For various reasons, it is concluded that the only possible way to save Spock is to fly the Enterprise  itself directly above the volcano. 11  However, the natives could hardly fail to notice the giant spaceship, clearly violating the PD. Kirk can either: 1) uphold the values of the Federation (the P.D.) and keep everyone else safe, while sacrificing Spock; or, 2) Save Spock, while breaking the rules, culturally contaminating the natives, risking his career, and endangering the Enterprise  and the rest of the crew. 12  Spock, based upon his unswerving commitment to the P.D., ardently argues for his own sacrifice. 13  Kirk admits that while “no one knows the rules better [than Spock],” he insists there must be exceptions to the PD in s uch cases, exclaiming, “ Spock, we are talking about your life!” 14  Spock, unwilling to admit any   exception, makes his first utilitarian appeal —“T he needs 10  The shuttle was apparently hidden by the volcanic smoke plume, and Kirk’s distraction, from native view . 11  Another shuttlecraft obviously will not work. Though there is long-distance teleportation in the Star Trek world, “beaming” Spock to the Enterprise from thei r current location is not possible, due to “magnetic interference” from the volcano. It is speculated that if   the Enterprise were directly above the volcano, the beaming sensors might   be able to “lock on” and rescue Spock . 12   The chief engineer, “Scotty,” argues the Enterprise   could be in great danger if the volcano erupted… but no one else seems to consider this in making their decision to save Spock or not. This indicates S cotty’s gre atest commitment — the safety and functionality of the ship itself. 13  One might wonder whether Spock was also opposed to interfering with the volcano at all, agreeing with Admiral Pike’s later charge that to do so is a “technicality,” not in the spirit of the rule. Spock’s position on this is never made clear in the film. All we can be certain of is that Spock is clearly adamantly opposed to interference where the native population becomes aware of visitors from space, which would affect their “internal development.”   14  A s if someone’s life being in danger somehow negates t he absolutism of an exception-less rule …    4 of the many [Nibiru-ians; Enterprise  crew] outweigh the needs of the few [him]. ” Spock ’s final rejoinder to Kirk’s insistence on saving him  is that “the rule cannot be broken…,” with the rest of his words lost to static. With ninety seconds to detonation, Kirk wonders aloud, “If Spock were here and I were there, what would he   do?” After a deliberative pause, Dr. McCoy answers: “He’d let you die.” Having been saved at the last moment, Spock, rather than being grateful and relieved, is appalled that Kirk would make such an obviously incorrect moral choice. Kirk dismisses violating the PD as problematic — so what if the Nibiru people saw them? —“ Big deal ” . 15  Ultimately, who is “ right ”  and who is “ wrong ”  is left unclear, as both perspectives are intuitively attractive. Spock seems right to think violating the  most important rule, risking far-reaching negative consequences for all the Nibiru people, all to save one person, clearly made Kirk’s action wrong. On the other hand, Spock — Kir k’s friend— and everyone else is alive and well, and it is not at all obvious that the Nibiru people will suffer significantly from the exposure. However, since each is so certain they are morally right, neither can really understand or appreciate the other’s perspective. Spock v. Kirk: The Moral Perspectives   Spock’s unswerving commitment to seemingly absolutist rules  (e.g. the PD), initially seems most consistent with deontology. 16   However, we cannot forget Spock’s consequentialist 15  While those aboard-ship remain ignorant of the consequences, the audience is clued in; the natives discard the scroll and begin worshipping an image of the Enterprise  drawn in the dirt.   The new religious orientation of the natives might seem relatively minor; on the other hand, being mindful of the major (often violent) consequences of conflicting religious beliefs, and considering only a small number of natives have had this new religious experience,   it is worth considering   how this difference might play out in their interactions with other tribes in the future 16   The PD could be a non-anthropocentric, non- individualized reformulation of Kant’s 2 nd  formulation of the Categorical Imperative    5 appeal, that the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” In light of Spock ’s  even more explicit utilitarian arguments later in the film, Spock is best interpreted starting out as a strict rule-utilitarian, one who already has the system of rules well worked-out. 17   No one will accuse Kirk of “rul e- worship.” For him, “the rules” are mere guidelines, to which any number of exceptions might apply. Kirk isn’t willing   to sacrifice Spock’s life for any abstract rule — especially not at when the negative consequences the rule is designed to protect against are so speculative, and will not necessarily be negative. In light of this, it is perhaps tempting to view Kirk as challenging Spock’s “rule - worship” via  act-utilitarianism. Where strict adherence to “the rules ” would get the answer wrong, Kirk’s view is more flexible, and can evaluate particular circumstances. However, Kirk never explicitly invokes consequentialist reasoning, and is generally dismissive of consequences (i.e. effects on the Nibiru people). Furthermore, Kirk doesn’t seem to invoke any abstract, theoretical principles, but seems to reject them all. Finally, the act-utilitarian view of Kirk would require ascribing impartiality to him, clearly overlooking how strongly he is portrayed as caring  for Spock in a quite partial manner. Given all of this, Kirk seems best understood from the s tandpoint of an “ethics of care.”  Under these theoretical interpretations, we can start to see the overall ethical tension to be between Kirk’s   human , emotional partiality, and Spock’s alien ,   purely logical impartiality. 18  Both sides will face further criticism as to their sufficiency as the plot unfolds. 17   In particular, “A sentient being’s optimal chance at maximizing their utility is a long and prosperous life.” (46:59 -47:04) 18  Kirk is, of course, hardly a poster-boy for feminism in general. After all, Kirk’s  character is almost defined as an infamous womanizer, who engages in clearly sexist actions towards women he does not have a valued working relationship with (i.e. Uhura). In this film alone, consider the scenes where Kirk wakes up with twin alien girls in his bed when he is called to Starfleet Headquarters (12:40-12:55), or even worse, his pompous leering and suggestive
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