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Of Trek and Trolleys

 

I am a geek (If this is news to you, Hi! Welcome to Ricochet!) and the recent announcement of Sir Patrick’s return to Star Trek (in some manner we know nothing about and that inshallah won’t be an amalgam of Star Trek Nemesis attempts to make a 70-year-old man an action star and early seasons of TNG that gave Picard “here’s how we’re so much better than you” speeches) has got my friends all in a tizzy. We’re reexamining best captains, best series, best seasons, and best episodes, and I noticed a theme that crops up over and over again in Star Trek: how to resolve the trolley problem.

The trolley problem is a thought exercise in ethical philosophy: a trolley is barreling toward five people on the track. You can’t stop it, but you could switch the tracks so the train hits one person instead. Is it ethical to deliberately act to kill one in order to save five? Well, we know the toddler solution to the problem:

But Star Trek, over its hundreds of episodes and dozen movies with scores of writers spanning 55 years, has also tackled the problem, leading to some of the best and worst moments of the franchise.

The Original Series’ (TOS) “City on the Edge of Forever” is perhaps the best known episode dealing with this. Written in part by Harlan Ellison and winning a Hugo, Dr. McCoy travels back in time to 1930 and saves a woman named Edith Keeler from a car accident. This causes a peace movement that results in the Nazis winning WWII and prevents the creation of Star Fleet. Capt. Kirk and Comm. Spock travel back as well and must decide whether to prevent McCoy saving her or allow history as we know it to unfold.

It’s well-written, well-acted, and reinforces one of the themes running throughout Star Trek: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or one. Its only two flaws — and they’re quite minor at that — are that by being a time travel to the past episode, we know what Kirk will choose, and that we’re merely told and not shown what happens in the timeline where Edith Keller lives.

Deep Space Nine’s (DS9) “In the Pale Moonlight” addresses the first of these flaws. The episode is told as a recollection of Capt. Sisko’s thoughts and actions into his log, trying to make sense of the choices he’s recently made. The Federation is in a desperate losing war with an alien slave empire known as the Dominion. The Romulans, the Federation’s traditional enemies, have a powerful and fresh fleet, but also have non-aggression treaties with both sides. Capt. Sisko, with the help of a former Cardassian intelligence officer Garak, manipulates them into believing that the Dominion is about to break the treaty by murdering a Romulan senator and planting false evidence of Dominion plotting. At least, that was Garak’s plan all along; Sisko finds himself pulled one agonizing step into criminality after another. Sisko is wracked with guilt until Garak lays the situation out in almost exactly trolley track terms: the Dominion was going to murder and enslave the entire quadrant of the galaxy, but because of Sisko’s actions to kill one convicted forger and one senator (unmentioned are the senator’s security guards, but they presumably died too), the Alpha Quadrant at least has a fighting chance.

This is an extremely controversial episode in Trek fandom. Fans of it, such as myself, appreciate the brilliant acting by Avery Brooks and Andrew Robinson, the riveting writing that leaves you wondering how it will end — will Sisko’s conscience stop him from making the plan work as one principle after another is sacrificed? — and the rather unusual acknowledgement in Star Trek that winning wars require doing things that will stain one’s conscience. Detractors note, with justification, that Sisko’s actions are a betrayal of the “superiority of the future man” idealism of Gene Roddenberry. What makes this episode so controversial is essential what makes the trolley track problem so thorny — what should one sacrifice to save others?

The Next Generation’s (TNG) “Yesterday’s Enterprise” adds another twist on this theme. Rather than a person from the future going back in time, here a ship from the past, the hitherto unknown Enterprise C, travels to the TNG present in the middle of a fight defending a Klingon colony from the Romulans. This causes the TNG peace treaty with the Klingons to never exist. In the new timeline, the Federation is close to losing a war with the Klingons, and unlike in “City at the Edge of Forever,” we actually see the crew dying due to this wrong future. The only salvation for the Federation of the present is if the Enterprise C returns to her certain destruction. Here, we have the problem of needing some few people to die so that others may live, but we have the added punch that Picard refuses to simply order them to do so. Yes, they’re part of Starfleet and have volunteered (at least, based on everything we’re shown about the Federation) to lay down their lives if that’s what it takes, but Picard insists that they specifically choose to be hit by that trolley. (We’re later told that the survivors were executed save one, who became a concubine to the Romulan commander and was later killed attempting to escape.) Of course, dying for others is a possibility that all military personnel face, and we see that over and over in Star Trek. Think Spock’s sacrifice in “The Wrath of Khan,” as just one example.

DS9’s “Broken Link” has Garak and Worf explore how military personnel might make that self-sacrifice. Under a flag of truce, the main cast has arrived at the headquarter planet of the Dominion’s slave masters, a species of shapeshifters with no other name than “The Founders.” Garak attempts to seize control of the Federation ship Defiant to obliterate the entire species on the basis of “better for the few of us to die killing all of them than the entire Alpha Quadrant to go to war.” Worf, a Klingon driven almost entirely by his sense of honor, disagrees. (It’s worth noting this episode is a couple of seasons before the aforementioned “In the Pale Moonlight.”)

Of course, it’s one thing to die for others and another to kill for others. But Star Trek also had a principle called the Prime Directive, which enshrines the notion that the Federation should never switch the trolley tracks, no matter how many people are die as a result. Frankly, the episodes which adhere to that notion are some of the worst of Trek, culminating in Enterprise’s “Dear Doctor” where the “ethical” decision was to let a space-faring (though pre-warp drive) civilization requesting medical help die of a preventable disease because … evolution wanted the other humanoid species on the planet to become dominant.

So what’s Star Trek’s verdict? The trolley’s on its way, and don’t you dare touch that switch. Except when you should, because as Picard asks in Insurrection, “how many people does it take, before it [forcibly relocating a culture so another culture can terraform their planet and render it uninhabitable] becomes wrong?”

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Published in Religion & Philosophy
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There are 45 comments.

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  1. Contributor

    To Malthusians there is no trolley problem.

    • #1
    • August 8, 2018 at 3:01 pm
    • 3 likes
  2. Member

    Amy Schley: Well, we know the toddler solution to the problem:

    LOL, ah the Almaric solution – Kill them all, God will know his own.

    • #2
    • August 8, 2018 at 3:07 pm
    • 2 likes
  3. Member

    A very thoughtful and well written post with great film clips. Thanks, Amy!

    • #3
    • August 8, 2018 at 3:26 pm
    • 4 likes
  4. Member

    Star Trek is philosophy in space. That’s why it’s awesome.

    Alas–it’s not always good philosophy in space.

    • #4
    • August 8, 2018 at 4:01 pm
    • 17 likes
  5. Coolidge

    Amy, with this post you’ve attained total geekatude. 

    I bet you sew one of those geeky costumes to wear to Dork Conventions. What do they call it? Oh yeah, cosplay. Don’t deny it. I know you do. Do you go as Princess Leia with a metal bra and a chain around your neck? Or perhaps you wear a Wookie suit. 

    Well, as Spock was fond of saying, “Peace and geek on.” 

    • #5
    • August 8, 2018 at 4:02 pm
    • 2 likes
  6. Coolidge

    Amy Schley: Star Trek also had a principle called the Prime Directive, which enshrines the notion that the Federation should never switch the trolley tracks, no matter how many people are die as a result. Frankly, the episodes which adhere to that notion are some of the worst of Trek, culminating in…

    Star Trek: Voyager.

    • #6
    • August 8, 2018 at 4:03 pm
    • 7 likes
  7. Moderator
    Amy Schley Post author

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Amy, with this post you’ve attained total geekatude.

    I bet you sew one of those geeky costumes to wear to Dork Conventions. What do they call it? Oh yeah, cosplay. Don’t deny it. I know you do. Do you go as Princess Leia with a metal bra and a chain around your neck? Or perhaps you wear a Wookie suit.

    Well, as Spock was fond of saying, “Peace and geek on.”

    Like this?

     

    • #7
    • August 8, 2018 at 4:14 pm
    • 16 likes
  8. Coolidge

    Amy Schley (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Amy, with this post you’ve attained total geekatude.

    I bet you sew one of those geeky costumes to wear to Dork Conventions. What do they call it? Oh yeah, cosplay. Don’t deny it. I know you do. Do you go as Princess Leia with a metal bra and a chain around your neck? Or perhaps you wear a Wookie suit.

    Well, as Spock was fond of saying, “Peace and geek on.”

    Like this?

     

    Oh my goodness!

    • #8
    • August 8, 2018 at 4:20 pm
    • 3 likes
  9. Coolidge

    The Prime Directive was Star Trek’s answer to the problems that happen when a technologically superior civilization encounters one that is significantly more primitive. The writers didn’t want the Federation to be going and destroying the “noble savages” with their corrupting technology the way Europe did with Africa and the Americas. It’s one of those nice progressive ideas that completely falls apart when it runs into the real world because the truth is it’s a horrible idea. Consigning whole civilizations to poverty until they figure out the technology on their own is incredibly immoral. That’s why all the shows about it are hot garbage. 

    • #9
    • August 8, 2018 at 5:31 pm
    • 18 likes
  10. Member

    The worst part about “Dear Doctor” is that there is no moral, ethical, or even legal justification for Archer’s decision. He just goes with Phlox because this is “The Origin of the Prime Directive” episode, and thus has to, despite everything in the episode leading up to it, and Archer’s actions in previous episodes. It’s otherwise a decent episode. 

    • #10
    • August 8, 2018 at 6:28 pm
    • 3 likes
  11. Moderator
    Amy Schley Post author

    :thinking: (View Comment):

    The worst part about “Dear Doctor” is that there is no moral, ethical, or even legal justification for Archer’s decision. He just goes with Phlox because this is “The Origin of the Prime Directive” episode, and thus has to, despite everything in the episode leading up to it, and Archer’s actions in previous episodes. It’s otherwise a decent episode.

    As one of the comments on video I posted said, it’s a real pity that an episode so well acted ends up being so morally awful.

    • #11
    • August 8, 2018 at 6:46 pm
    • 5 likes
  12. Member

    :thinking: (View Comment):
    The worst part about “Dear Doctor” is that there is no moral, ethical, or even legal justification for Archer’s decision.

    The moral reasoning there is absurd, at least coming from the contemporary Star Trek crowd. The rights of a merely possible future group of people outweigh the right to life of the people we currently see before us?

    There is that line in Lewis’ Abolition of Man about possible future children, in an offhand remark about birth control. Moral premises like that really could be a big problem for birth control. Also, for those who doubt the humanity of the unborn child, this sort of premise could overrule the doubt and condemn abortion.

    Perhaps some Catholic moral reasoning takes those possible future people into consideration. Good Catholics could do it consistently. Not the contemporary Star Trek crowd.

    • #12
    • August 8, 2018 at 6:46 pm
    • 3 likes
  13. Thatcher

    Nick H (View Comment):

    The Prime Directive was Star Trek’s answer to the problems that happen when a technologically superior civilization encounters one that is significantly more primitive. The writers didn’t want the Federation to be going and destroying the “noble savages” with their corrupting technology the way Europe did with Africa and the Americas. It’s one of those nice progressive ideas that completely falls apart when it runs into the real world because the truth is it’s a horrible idea. Consigning whole civilizations to poverty until they figure out the technology on their own is incredibly immoral. That’s why all the shows about it are hot garbage.

    And note that in TOS, Kirk repeatedly violates the Prime Directive.

    • #13
    • August 8, 2018 at 7:51 pm
    • 6 likes
  14. Member

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Nick H (View Comment):

    The Prime Directive was Star Trek’s answer to the problems that happen when a technologically superior civilization encounters one that is significantly more primitive. The writers didn’t want the Federation to be going and destroying the “noble savages” with their corrupting technology the way Europe did with Africa and the Americas. It’s one of those nice progressive ideas that completely falls apart when it runs into the real world because the truth is it’s a horrible idea. Consigning whole civilizations to poverty until they figure out the technology on their own is incredibly immoral. That’s why all the shows about it are hot garbage.

    And note that in TOS, Kirk repeatedly violates the Prime Directive.

    As someone else noted recently, the Prime Directive didn’t exist through most of the run of TOS.

    • #14
    • August 8, 2018 at 8:02 pm
    • 3 likes
  15. Member

    We have some articles on some of this stuff in Science Fiction and the Abolition of Man. Only $10 on Kindle.

    • #15
    • August 8, 2018 at 8:25 pm
    • 3 likes
  16. Contributor

    Great post. I just watched “Pale Moonlight” a few days ago as part of my DS9 rewatch initiative. Garak saved the Alpha Quadrant – at the mere cost of a collaborationist Romulan. Writing the story so Sisko had to live with sacrificing someone from his own side would have given it a darker twist, but I’m not complaining.

     

     

    • #16
    • August 9, 2018 at 12:04 am
    • 9 likes
  17. Member

    When Garak tells Sisko that the cost is the lives of the two dead men and the self-respect of one Star Fleet officer, I love love love how Andrew Robinson, even through the prosthetic mask on his face, makes it clear that he has lost his own self-respect through the things he has done long ago, but that he is willing to continue doing the things that need to be done.

    Garak is such a great character. Sisko is the best captain, in part because he has Garak, and Weyoun, and Dukat to play off. Not to mention Nurse Ratchett…

    • #17
    • August 9, 2018 at 5:07 am
    • 11 likes
  18. Member

    Because it is a binary decision that must be resolved within a limited time, the solution to the trolley problem is to flip a coin. Heads: pull the switch, tails: don’t. A wrong choice isn’t the worst outcome, the worst outcome is indecision.

    You might say, “Well what if I don’t have a coin on me when I visit the trolley yard?” My reply would be, “You’re visiting a trolley yard and not bringing a coin? That’s poor planning on your part.” (But between you and me, you could also flip the coin before you leave the house in the morning and adhere to the results throughout the rest of your day.)

     

    • #18
    • August 9, 2018 at 5:35 am
    • 3 likes
  19. Member

    Dear Doctor has too great a faith in the determinism of evolution. What if the “evolving” specie had developed into something like the Borg as time passed? Archer’s first thought that doctors tamper with nature all the time was the correct one. If not, why should we be concerned about “endangered” species at all? If they are going to die off, let them go. I have enjoyed Trek in all its forms except for the latest series, which I have not seen. It is entertainment. I would not take any of it too seriously.

    On a side note, our family met John Billingsley (Dr. Phlox) years ago in the hotel restaurant at a tiny convention in Ohio. He was quite gracious and it was a delightful experience.

    • #19
    • August 9, 2018 at 5:59 am
    • 3 likes
  20. Coolidge

    JoelB (View Comment):
    “evolving” specie

    They have alchemy on Star Trek? = )

    • #20
    • August 9, 2018 at 6:11 am
    • 2 likes
  21. Member

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Nick H (View Comment):

    The Prime Directive was Star Trek’s answer to the problems that happen when a technologically superior civilization encounters one that is significantly more primitive. The writers didn’t want the Federation to be going and destroying the “noble savages” with their corrupting technology the way Europe did with Africa and the Americas. It’s one of those nice progressive ideas that completely falls apart when it runs into the real world because the truth is it’s a horrible idea. Consigning whole civilizations to poverty until they figure out the technology on their own is incredibly immoral. That’s why all the shows about it are hot garbage.

    And note that in TOS, Kirk repeatedly violates the Prime Directive.

    As someone else noted recently, the Prime Directive didn’t exist through most of the run of TOS.

    As I recall, the Prime Directive was taken pretty seriously during Season 1, was kind of given a wink and a nod during Season 2, and disappeared completely by Season 3. I believe it was Harlan Ellison who said that the real “Prime Directive” of the Enterprise was to roam the galaxy as a kind of cosmic Mary Worth, helping whoever was in need.

    • #21
    • August 9, 2018 at 6:44 am
    • 3 likes
  22. Member

    Michael Brehm (View Comment):

    Because it is a binary decision that must be resolved within a limited time, the solution to the trolley problem is to flip a coin. Heads: pull the switch, tails: don’t. A wrong choice isn’t the worst outcome, the worst outcome is indecision.

    You might say, “Well what if I don’t have a coin on me when I visit the trolley yard?” My reply would be, “You’re visiting a trolley yard and not bringing a coin? That’s poor planning on your part.” (But between you and me, you could also flip the coin before you leave the house in the morning and adhere to the results throughout the rest of your day.)

    Relevant xkcd

    • #22
    • August 9, 2018 at 6:49 am
    • 3 likes
  23. Moderator
    Amy Schley Post author

    JoelB (View Comment):
    Dear Doctor has too great a faith in the determinism of evolution.

    Sadly, it’s only the worst example of “evolution is fated.” Voyager’s “Threshold,” where Lt. Paris undergoes an “accelerated evolution” that makes him unable to breathe and turns him into a mute salamander thing, is also so breathtakingly stupid when it comes to evolutionary theory it hurts.

    JoelB (View Comment):
    On a side note, our family met John Billingsley (Dr. Phlox) years ago in the hotel restaurant at a tiny convention in Ohio. He was quite gracious and it was a delightful experience.

    When I took the Texas bar exam, I unknowingly booked a room at the convention hotel during a major convention. It was rather a shock to walk into the lobby to see Garrett Wang, Tim Russ, and Kate Mulgrew hanging out.

    • #23
    • August 9, 2018 at 7:33 am
    • 4 likes
  24. Member

    “We’re not here to play God.” ??? Uh, I think you just did.

    I don’t qualify as a Trek geek, but it seemed to me back in the day the Prime Directive was one of the rules meant to be broken as far as Kirk was concerned. Because it’s stupid. Later Trek series seem to miss that. 

    • #24
    • August 9, 2018 at 8:05 am
    • 2 likes
  25. Moderator
    Amy Schley Post author

    Larry3435 (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Nick H (View Comment):

    The Prime Directive was Star Trek’s answer to the problems that happen when a technologically superior civilization encounters one that is significantly more primitive. The writers didn’t want the Federation to be going and destroying the “noble savages” with their corrupting technology the way Europe did with Africa and the Americas. It’s one of those nice progressive ideas that completely falls apart when it runs into the real world because the truth is it’s a horrible idea. Consigning whole civilizations to poverty until they figure out the technology on their own is incredibly immoral. That’s why all the shows about it are hot garbage.

    And note that in TOS, Kirk repeatedly violates the Prime Directive.

    As someone else noted recently, the Prime Directive didn’t exist through most of the run of TOS.

    As I recall, the Prime Directive was taken pretty seriously during Season 1, was kind of given a wink and a nod during Season 2, and disappeared completely by Season 3. I believe it was Harlan Ellison who said that the real “Prime Directive” of the Enterprise was to roam the galaxy as a kind of cosmic Mary Worth, helping whoever was in need.

    All the good Prime Directive stories end up with someone breaking it. 

    That being said, I tend to agree with the Temporal Prime Directive — when you’ve traveled back in time, do your best to not change anything. And of course Kirk broke that one all the time too.

     

    • #25
    • August 9, 2018 at 8:07 am
    • 1 like
  26. Member

    I confess that I have never understood the moral quandry that is supposed to be the Trolley Problem. Accidents do not have moral value, so far as I know. And if it isn’t an accident, then an entirely different set of moral guidelines apply. Blowing up the Dominion during a diplomatic meeting isn’t a trolley problem, nor is assassinating a foreign dignitary. Both may be permissible or impermissible depending on the circumstances, and the analysis does not hinge on how many people die in either outcome.

    However, I am not a utilitarian, so of course I would consider the Trolley Problem to be dumb.

    • #26
    • August 9, 2018 at 9:39 am
    • 2 likes
  27. Member

    Sabrdance (View Comment):

    I confess that I have never understood the moral quandry that is supposed to be the Trolley Problem. Accidents do not have moral value, so far as I know. And if it isn’t an accident, then an entirely different set of moral guidelines apply. Blowing up the Dominion during a diplomatic meeting isn’t a trolley problem, nor is assassinating a foreign dignitary. Both may be permissible or impermissible depending on the circumstances, and the analysis does not hinge on how many people die in either outcome.

    However, I am not a utilitarian, so of course I would consider the Trolley Problem to be dumb.

    I like the kid’s solution. Anyone too stupid to get off the tracks deserves to die. 

    Okay, not really, but it was hilarious.

     

     

    • #27
    • August 9, 2018 at 10:08 am
    • 3 likes
  28. Member

    Larry3435 (View Comment):

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Clavius (View Comment):

    Nick H (View Comment):

    The Prime Directive was Star Trek’s answer to the problems that happen when a technologically superior civilization encounters one that is significantly more primitive. The writers didn’t want the Federation to be going and destroying the “noble savages” with their corrupting technology the way Europe did with Africa and the Americas. It’s one of those nice progressive ideas that completely falls apart when it runs into the real world because the truth is it’s a horrible idea. Consigning whole civilizations to poverty until they figure out the technology on their own is incredibly immoral. That’s why all the shows about it are hot garbage.

    And note that in TOS, Kirk repeatedly violates the Prime Directive.

    As someone else noted recently, the Prime Directive didn’t exist through most of the run of TOS.

    As I recall, the Prime Directive was taken pretty seriously during Season 1, was kind of given a wink and a nod during Season 2, and disappeared completely by Season 3. I believe it was Harlan Ellison who said that the real “Prime Directive” of the Enterprise was to roam the galaxy as a kind of cosmic Mary Worth, helping whoever was in need.

     Based on my years of watching the various incarnations, not to mention hundreds of pages of background reading, I can state with metaphysical certitude, the Real Prime Directive was “Make popular TV shows under budget!”

     

     

    • #28
    • August 9, 2018 at 10:16 am
    • 13 likes
  29. Moderator
    Amy Schley Post author

    Sabrdance (View Comment):
    I confess that I have never understood the moral quandry that is supposed to be the Trolley Problem. Accidents do not have moral value, so far as I know.

    Accidents do not, but failing to act can. Obviously, one has no legal obligation to save others, but does one have a moral obligation? 

    Sabrdance (View Comment):
    Blowing up the Dominion during a diplomatic meeting isn’t a trolley problem, nor is assassinating a foreign dignitary.

    Failing to act in the morally reprehensible way Garak suggests will lead to countless deaths; taking action to kill a few will save countless lives. Sounds like a trolley problem to me. 

    I’m not saying Garak’s strict utilitarianism is right. DS9 itself seemed unsure, having different characters respond to his schemes differently. But I do think the writers used him to explore the fundamentals of the trolley problem: is personally virtuous inaction that causes many deaths better or worse than personally reprehensible action that saves many lives? And “In the Pale Moonlight” ups the ante because for two weeks after his actions, he didn’t even know if he had managed to accomplish what he had intended, which is an awful lot more like real life 

    • #29
    • August 9, 2018 at 11:14 am
    • 2 likes
  30. Reagan

    The Sir Patrick Stewart announcement: “Jean-Luc Picard” is back.”

    .

    • #30
    • August 9, 2018 at 11:15 am
    • Like
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