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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StF9jrhw-pU

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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  1. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    Amy Schley (View Comment):

    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

    To be clear -I’m not criticizing the show, I’m criticizing the constraints on the thought experiment.  Blowing up a diplomatic meeting is not a trolley problem because one of the defining points of a diplomatic meeting is that we don’t kill the diplomats.  There are no guarantees that blowing up the meeting will have the desired effect -in fact, it could trigger a general war, so the utilitarian calculus is much more complicated, with many second-order effects.  Similarly, government officials are legitimate targets of war, as are collaborators -you choose your side, you take your chances.  The question is whether the Romulan Star Empire’s decision to sign a non-aggression pact with the Dominion represented a threat to the Federation justifying the assassination.

    But more to the point, Utilitarianism is a stupid moral system.  And you cannot hold someone responsible for failing to take actions they had no reasonable obligation to take -nor can you hold someone responsible for taking action to mitigate an evil that was beyond their control.  For anyone on the trolley save the driver, both actions are moral, because this is an accident.  For the driver, the question hinges entirely on whether the driver has caused the accident.

    • #31
  2. Hammer, The (Ryan M) Member
    Hammer, The (Ryan M)
    @RyanM

    Amy Schley (View Comment):

    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.

     

    Well, you’ve got to save the whales.

    My basic rule of Trek is that in order to enjoy it, you have to get over the fact that it is mind bogglingly stupid.

    Kind of like the original transformers with the rules of physics.  “He’s a handgun, now?  Wasn’t he just a giant robot? What happened to all that mass?”

    • #32
  3. Gary Robbins Member
    Gary Robbins
    @GaryRobbins

    An OpEd from the Washington Post about Sir Patrick Stewart coming back to ST:TNNG.  (The Next Next Generation).

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/08/09/why-we-need-jean-luc-picard-in-2018/?utm_term=.dccdec64a8dc

    When the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have a similar article on their Editorial Pages, the conversion will be complete.  

    • #33
  4. Amy Schley Moderator
    Amy Schley
    @AmySchley

    Hammer, The (Ryan M) (View Comment):
    Well, you’ve got to save the whales.

     And not save Edith Keeler, and not prevent Gary Seven from having kids, and keep Malcolm McDowell from blowing up a star, and I’m sure I’m forgetting others. (In Troubles and Tribble-ations, the guys from Temporal Investigations say Kirk violated the Temporal Prime Directive 17 times.)

    • #34
  5. Amy Schley Moderator
    Amy Schley
    @AmySchley

    Sabrdance (View Comment):
    you cannot hold someone responsible for failing to take actions they had no reasonable obligation to take

    I understand this as a legal point, but isn’t this the exact opposite of the point of the good Samaritan parable? That failing to help people when we can, regardless of our legal freedom to refrain from acting, is an unChristian failing to love our neighbors as ourselves? 

    • #35
  6. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    Amy Schley (View Comment):

    Sabrdance (View Comment):
    you cannot hold someone responsible for failing to take actions they had no reasonable obligation to take

    I understand this as a legal point, but isn’t this the exact opposite of the point of the good Samaritan parable? That failing to help people when we can, regardless of our legal freedom to refrain from acting, is an unChristian failing to love our neighbors as ourselves?

    Jesus’ point in the parable is that the Levite, the Priest, and the Samaritan all had a moral obligation to help the person beaten by the side of the road.  Point me to the passage that commands a moral obligation prevent traffic accidents.

    • #36
  7. Amy Schley Moderator
    Amy Schley
    @AmySchley

    Sabrdance (View Comment):

    Amy Schley (View Comment):

    Sabrdance (View Comment):
    you cannot hold someone responsible for failing to take actions they had no reasonable obligation to take

    I understand this as a legal point, but isn’t this the exact opposite of the point of the good Samaritan parable? That failing to help people when we can, regardless of our legal freedom to refrain from acting, is an unChristian failing to love our neighbors as ourselves?

    Jesus’ point in the parable is that the Levite, the Priest, and the Samaritan all had a moral obligation to help the person beaten by the side of the road. Point me to the passage that commands a moral obligation prevent traffic accidents.

    So heretics are my neighbors, but not people who stand in traffic? 

    • #37
  8. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    Amy Schley (View Comment):

    Sabrdance (View Comment):

    Amy Schley (View Comment):

    Sabrdance (View Comment):
    you cannot hold someone responsible for failing to take actions they had no reasonable obligation to take

    I understand this as a legal point, but isn’t this the exact opposite of the point of the good Samaritan parable? That failing to help people when we can, regardless of our legal freedom to refrain from acting, is an unChristian failing to love our neighbors as ourselves?

    Jesus’ point in the parable is that the Levite, the Priest, and the Samaritan all had a moral obligation to help the person beaten by the side of the road. Point me to the passage that commands a moral obligation prevent traffic accidents.

    So heretics are my neighbors, but not people who stand in traffic?

    Those are not the conditions of the Trolley Problem, because now you’ve introduced a motivation to the people.  You are not to run them down, but people playing in traffic who get hit by cars are the only ones to blame -not the people who take every reasonable precaution to avoid hitting people but still hit the idiot playing in traffic.  Which is the reason its a stupid thought experiment.

    • #38
  9. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    When Mrs. Augustine and I get to “Pale Moonlight,” I may have to give it another chance.

    • #39
  10. JosePluma Coolidge
    JosePluma
    @JosePluma

    Amy Schley (View Comment):

     

     

    It looks like ol’ K-9 was not a fan of Mr. Plinkett there.

    • #40
  11. Amy Schley Moderator
    Amy Schley
    @AmySchley

    JosePluma (View Comment):

    Amy Schley (View Comment):

     

     

    It looks like ol’ K-9 was not a fan of Mr. Plinkett there.

    It was actually his idea to hike K-9 and spill some water to make it look like he was showing his opinion of time travel via Deloran.

    • #41
  12. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Amy is that really a robot dog and a Deloran?

    And is that you on the left in the “outfit”?    If it is, what are you? 

    If I saw a group like yours on the street, I would say to my wife, “Marie, did you see that?  Where are we?  Did we get off on the wrong exit?  Do you think we’re in danger from these five creatures, who seem to have little things in their hands that might shoot beams of some sort?  Let’s cross to the other side of the street.”

    “Wait a minute, Marie, perhaps they’re part of some kind of female dress-up empowerment convention and they mean us no harm.”

    • #42
  13. Amy Schley Moderator
    Amy Schley
    @AmySchley

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    Amy is that really a robot dog and a Deloran?

    And is that you on the left in the “outfit”? If it is, what are you?

    If I saw a group like yours on the street, I would say to my wife, “Marie, did you see that? Where are we? Did we get off on the wrong exit? Do you think we’re in danger from these five creatures, who seem to have little things in their hands that might shoot beams of some sort? Let’s cross to the other side of the street.”

    “Wait a minute, Marie, perhaps they’re part of some kind of female dress-up empowerment convention and they mean us no harm.”

    I’m second from the left. Far left is my sister.

    And yes, that is a real Delorean kitted out to look like the one from Back to the Future, and that is my sister’s robot dog K-9. At the time, it was just a plywood shell, but it’s since been robotized.  This was at Stan Lee’s Comicon in Dallas, and the gentleman is the owner of the Delorean.

    We’re all dressed as different incarnations of the Doctor from Doctor Who. My sister is the 4th, I’m the Fifth, the owner of the Delorean is the 9th, blue-suited girl is the 10th, and the one in the fez is the 11th. As for dangerous things in their hands, those are sonic screwdrivers. Well, except for me, because that Doctor didn’t use one. But he did wear celery on his lapel, so I have a piece of felt celery I use for photo poses.  As for meaning no harm, well, modern incarnations of the Doctor make a big deal about his pacifism. But the Fifth Doctor has an episode where he guns down an enemy, throws another out the window, holds another a gun point, and then uses chemical weapons. So … you know … 

    In the photo of me with the little boy, we’re both dressed as the 6th Doctor. And yes, the costume really was that garish. The actor described it as “an explosion in a rainbow factory” and said that the best part of wearing it was that he didn’t have to look at it.

    • #43
  14. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    He built a DeLorean time machine out of a DeLorean!

    • #44
  15. KentForrester Coolidge
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Amy Schley (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

     

    I’m second from the left. Far left is my sister.

    We’re all dressed as different incarnations of the Doctor from Doctor Who. My sister is the 4th, I’m the Fifth, the owner of the Delorean is the 9th, blue-suited girl is the 10th, and the one in the fez is the 11th. As for dangerous things in their hands, those are sonic screwdrivers. Well, except for me, because that Doctor didn’t use one. But he did wear celery on his lapel, so I have a piece of felt celery I use for photo poses. As for meaning no harm, well, modern incarnations of the Doctor make a big deal about his pacifism. But the Fifth Doctor has an episode where he guns down an enemy, throws another out the window, holds another a gun point, and then uses chemical weapons. So … you know …

     

    Amy, I’m so far out of it that I barely know what you’re talking about.  Dr. Who was wearing a sombrero in one of his incarnations (whatever that means).  You ladies are as crazy as bedbugs.  😜 🥜 🐛.  That third thing is a bedbug. 

    • #45
  16. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    We’re watching DS9 and my hot wife notes the connection to the Trolley Problem.  Only it was “Statistical Probabilities,” not “Pale Moonlight.”  And the answer is the exact opposite.

    Is there any argument in “Pale Moonlight” for killing the Romulan which is not rebutted by Sisko or O’Brien in “Statistical Probabilities”?

    • #46
  17. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    We’re watching DS9 and my hot wife notes the connection to the Trolley Problem. Only it was “Statistical Probabilities,” not “Pale Moonlight.” And the answer is the exact opposite.

    Is there any argument in “Pale Moonlight” for killing the Romulan which is not rebutted by Sisko or O’Brien in “Statistical Probabilities”?

    Rebutted, or effectively rebutted?

    • #47
  18. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    We’re watching DS9 and my hot wife notes the connection to the Trolley Problem. Only it was “Statistical Probabilities,” not “Pale Moonlight.” And the answer is the exact opposite.

    Is there any argument in “Pale Moonlight” for killing the Romulan which is not rebutted by Sisko or O’Brien in “Statistical Probabilities”?

    Equating surrender to totalitarianism with assassinating a collaborator in a foreign government is a category error.  (Or: Utilitarianism is self-refuting and wrong, and if you aren’t willing to go all the way to Aristotelian Virtue, then at least use Kantian ethics.)

    • #48
  19. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Frank Soto (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    We’re watching DS9 and my hot wife notes the connection to the Trolley Problem. Only it was “Statistical Probabilities,” not “Pale Moonlight.” And the answer is the exact opposite.

    Is there any argument in “Pale Moonlight” for killing the Romulan which is not rebutted by Sisko or O’Brien in “Statistical Probabilities”?

    Rebutted, or effectively rebutted?

    Just rebutted.  I doubt I have time to consider efficacy.

    • #49
  20. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Sabrdance (View Comment):

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):

    We’re watching DS9 and my hot wife notes the connection to the Trolley Problem. Only it was “Statistical Probabilities,” not “Pale Moonlight.” And the answer is the exact opposite.

    Is there any argument in “Pale Moonlight” for killing the Romulan which is not rebutted by Sisko or O’Brien in “Statistical Probabilities”?

    Equating surrender to totalitarianism with assassinating a collaborator in a foreign government is a category error.

    Maybe.  But no one needs to equate them.  The arguments had the same structure, didn’t they?

    And the same presumptions: We know that this is the only way.

    (Or: Utilitarianism is self-refuting and wrong, and if you aren’t willing to go all the way to Aristotelian Virtue, then at least use Kantian ethics.)

    Frankly, I like them all.

    • #50
  21. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Sabrdance (View Comment):
    . . . assassinating a collaborator in a foreign government . . . .

    It’s not really the same thing as murder, is it?  Sisko shouldn’t have thought so.

    • #51
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