Monday, January 10, 2005

Modern Aesop’s Fables: The Ethical Relevance of Star Trek PART 3 of 7


After a period of almost twenty years, Star Trek was alive again. When The Next Generation began, it quickly dominated the market and became the most popular syndicated series ever produced. Set in a Federation eighty years beyond that of the Original Series, The Next Generation was a flashier and upgraded Trek—but then, so were the viewers. While holding true to the ideals of its predecessor, Captain Jean-Luc Picard and crew nonetheless operated differently. One need only contrast the two leaders to understand this principle. Picard is much more respectful and, indeed, reverential of the rules than Kirk. The duty ethics that define his life go much deeper than the Enterprise’s original commander. Perhaps this is unfair. Perhaps they do not go deeper but simply manifest themselves differently. Either way, Picard broke the rules only in exceptional circumstances. While Kirk came across as a swashbuckler, Picard portrayed the image of the wise king reflecting his and the series’ ethics of virtue and utter and absolute reverence for the intrinsic worth of all beings. One sees this brilliantly in "The Measure of a Man."

Summary: When the U.S.S. Enterprise arrives at Starbase 173, Lt. Data, an android serving as part of Picard’s senior staff, is ordered to report to Captain Maddox, whose intent is to disassemble and study Data in order that additional androids can be created for use within Starfleet. After discovering Maddox’s goals, Data refuses to submit. When Captain Picard’s efforts to have the orders revoked prove futile, Data's only option is to resign from Starfleet. Maddox counters that Data cannot voluntarily resign, as Data is the property of the Federation, not a person with rights. The Judge Advocate General of the starbase, Phillipa Louvois, is appointed to resolve the situation. Due to a staff shortage, Phillipa explains that as senior officer, Picard must defend Data, while the next most senior officer, Commander William Riker, must take on the role of prosecutor. Phillipa warns Riker that if he does not give his best effort, she will summarily rule in favor of Maddox. Faced with no alternative, Riker insists that Data is simply a machine—the creation of a man, but not a man himself—and vividly emphasizes his claim by switching Data off and leaving him lifeless in his chair. Picard makes an impassioned plea for Data's freedom, declaring that the Federation's desire to create and own a race of disposable androids is tantamount to slavery and that in one manner or another all beings are created, which does not necessarily make them the property of their creator. The JAG agrees with the defense, affirming that while Data may indeed be a machine, he is owned by no one and has the right to make his own life decisions.

The concept of sentiency has been a consistent sermon preached from Star Trek’s bully pulpit. The argument of what constitutes “life” is a science fiction staple and doubtless will continue to be so, the nearer we as a society get to fully functional machines created in our own image. The ability to achieve self-awareness, to differentiate right from wrong, to think independently of encoded algorithms and leap beyond the confines of one’s original programming, are all ways in which Star Trek has argued for the definition of sentiency. This insistence on equality points unswervingly to the supreme importance of life and the individual’s right to possess and control his or her own destiny. “Star Trek can be relentless in its valuation of the single human life” (Richards 69). Autonomy is always paramount.


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