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Guest Post: The Needs of the Many

(Today's post is a guest post by longtime reader Matty P. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.)

I've always enjoyed Star Trek in its many forms because Gene Roddenberry used a vision of a more peaceful and advanced future for mankind as a conduit to discuss current socio-political controversies. Whether it was civil rights or the Cold War or creating super soldiers we cannot control, he attempted to provoke our preconception as well as entertain.

One of my favorite quotes was: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one." It seemed a simplistic and honorable logic to live by.

Star Trek in its newest conception as a reboot seems a far departure from the original. The emphasis now on action and combat as opposed to the cleverly hidden mirroring of our own fears and social issues. I began to wonder how Star Trek as a concept has changed and how a concept like the aforementioned quote can so easily be adapted to fit our times.

I wondered about our needs; most prevalent among them, the simple need to continue to exist. I could begin to fit the needs of the many to different aspects. The need for security, per se. For example, we give our secret police power to restrict civil liberties or even take lives in the effort to keep us safe. It may sound like hyperbole to call the FBI, NSA, CIA, SS, etc. secret police, but in effect, are in point of fact, organizations that police our state while operating on principle of clearance levels and locked files and a need to know basis. Is this not an example of the needs of the few being outweighed by the needs of the many?

I apply the concept to torture and interrogation because it is logically the ultimate test of the absolutism of the axiom. Causing immense pain, basically destroying a human being in the service of a collective. Having a silent protector willing to bloody his hand and his soul by torturing a potential threat theoretically keeps me from harms way. Two men are sacrificed to protect tens, or hundreds, or more. Statistically, this is a net gain.

Now I say two men because two people are sacrificed in the name our sound sleep. We take the life of not just of the suspect but the interrogator as well. We've done something by asking this man or woman to inflict unbearable amounts of pain on a fellow human being, no matter what acts that the suspect has committed or plans to commit. We've allowed them to dehumanize themselves.

I put it this way: is a person humane if he or she beats a rabid dog to death for biting a child? No, it is in fact inhumane. This is an objective truth. However, it must be noted that this is my position based on the fact that the hypothetical child is not mine. Undoubtedly I would be far more outraged and apt to violence other than humanely putting the dog down if I had an emotional investment in who the dog attacked as my objectivity is compromised. Regardless, that act of beating a dog to death is inhumane objectively, and if I attempt it, it dehumanizes me.

This is of course only an analogy, an oversimplification to pose a moral question. It fails to encompass the scale of terrorism and war and human rights. A rabid dog is unlikely to kill and maim dozens or have information about the location of other rabid animals intending to harm to countless civilians. Nor is a dog a human being.

With regards to the quote that began me thinking, I want to conclude by placing a context on the quote above and hold this idea of "the needs of the many" to this context.

The character who states this, Spock, gives his life in order to save the lives of others. He gives it freely and without hesitation believing that his death results in the greater good. He did not, and I believe this is key, ask or command another to die. He forfeited his own life, not another's. If he were to do this, to order the death of subordinate the same principle begins to lose moral ground. Logically, it has the same effect; one dying in the place of many, but now Spock must take responsibility for a life. He must take responsibility for sending a man to his death.

Now for the loop-hole. As a society, I would say we should not condone torture to protect us. But what if we didn't? What if we punished and abhorred it? If we did this and individuals still took it upon themselves to dirty their hands without our consent or our thanks and even faced criminal punishment in an effort to protect the peace; would they then be justified? Would that be the needs of the many out-weighing the needs of the few?

ten comments

I love watching the older Star Treks for precisely that reason. As campy as they are, they serve as an effective portal for examining many of the issues of our day.

Just don’t forget that at the end of the next movie, Kirk claims that he and the crew of the Enterprise risked everything to save Spock because “sometimes the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many”

Forgive my ignorance, but who was the guest poster? I can’t see his/her name.

@ Starbuck – It is by Matty P, who I believe has a bio on our about page. Also, good trekkie come back.

I love Next Generation, because it makes you think, but man some original Trek episodes, like the one where they go to the gangster planet, are just embarrassing.

By embarrassing I hope you mean “awesome,” and my awesome I totally mean “drinking game.”

Nice post Matty P. Longtime Star Trek nerd over here; there’s a book on Star Trek and Philosophy that influenced a lot of my early interest in the subject.

Nerd-fest! I’ve got a book on leadership lessons from Star Trek TNG. Captain Picard, be still my

Starbuck – but Kirk’s decisions are based less on objective logic than emotional attachment.

Karaka – do you remember the author/title?

Eric – as awkward as those episodes may seem, they were huge issues then.

Argh, the rest of my comment got lost behind my cute attempt to visually show a heart. sigh. Ok one more time.

Matty P., I question the existence of your loophole. Your set up makes torturing comparable to an act of civil disobedience. However the justification of an act of civil disobedience is derived from the unjustness of the law being broken. I am not sure there exists any unjustness in a law against torture. I want to argue that the innate wrongness of torturing automatically negates any utility.

If we do accept morality determined by utility (side question, utility to whom … me? Americans? Humanity? The Planet Earth?), how then do we avoid unsavory moral outcomes like approving of forced abortion to control population?

@ Matt – No, this episode, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oRNqYdg6M.., is still awkward.

Long live Picard!

I read (The Ethics of Star Trek) thoroughly, and there’s also Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Khan, though I haven’t read it yet.

(Also, your spam filter wouldn’t let me put in more than one url.)

That is true (about the spam filter)