In the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode “Thine Own Self”, Commander Riker presents Deanna Troi with a test of command she must pass in order to gain a promotion to Commander. The test requires finding a way to save the Enterprise from a catastrophic explosion. Every attempt Troi makes fails, until she finally understands the solution, to order the holographic version of Geordi LaForge to die repairing the ship. That Riker tells her is the basis of command. Sometimes you must sacrifice people.
In “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan” the Enterprise under Kirk, faces annihilation by the expansion of the Genesis effect from the Genesis Torpedo detonated by Khan, unless the ship can somehow manage to reach Warp Speed. Spock leaves the bridge and sacrifices his life to start the Enterprise allowing the ship to escape, but dying of the severe radiation. In his parting words to Captain Kirk, Spock informs him that his decision to die was logical, “The Needs of the Many Must Outweigh the Needs of the Few or the One.”
In the “Battlestar Galactica” episode “Dirty Hands”, the workers on board the refinery ship that refines the fuel that keeps the Galactica going function in miserable conditions, children working side by side with adults on dangerous and downright lethal assembly lines. The refinery ship is crucial for providing the rest of the fleet with the fuel it needs to continue onward toward Earth and escape the Cylon fleets following behind them.
Chief Tyrol attempts to hold a worker’s strike to demand better conditions and fairer labor assignments and in response Admiral Adama orders a gun held to Cally, his wife’s head, and informs Chief Tyrol that if the strike is not called off, Cally will be executed. The result is the following dialogue.
Adama: I’m gonna put her up against a bulkhead and I’m gonna shoot her as a mutineer.
Tyrol: Are you out of your frakking mind? Cally was just following my orders.
Adama: She’s a ringleader, so she goes first. And then the rest of your deck gang. Figurski, Seelix, Pollux.
Tyrol: You won’t do this. We have a son.
Adama: Understand me. The very survival of this ship may depend on someone getting an order that they don’t want to do. And if they hesitate, if they feel that orders are sometimes optional, then this ship will perish. And so will your son. The entire human race. I don’t want to do this, Chief, but I will put ten Callys up against a wall to make sure that this ship and this fleet are not destroyed.
While this position seems much more extreme than the one articulated by Riker or Spock, but it in fact is the logical extension of it. If the needs of the few can be sacrificed for the needs of the many, than in the name of the survival of the human race, the virtual enslavement of a group of people is perfectly justifiable.Once you accept the moral principle of the needs of the few over the needs of the many, then the equation inevitably continues rising. If you can sacrifice one person for a hundred, a hundred for ten thousand, ten thousand for a million, a million for a hundred million and so on and so forth.
By contrast the movie “Star Trek Insurrection” took the opposite position arguing that the needs of the many, the Federation and the Son’a did not justify abrogating the needs of the few, the Ba’ku. Instead Captain Picard confronted Admiral Doughtery with this ringing exchange over the needs of the few balanced against the needs of the many.
Jean-Luc Picard: We are betraying the principles upon which the Federation was founded. It’s an attack upon its very soul. And it will destroy the Ba’ku… just as cultures have been destroyed in every other forced relocations throughout history.
Admiral Matthew Dougherty: Jean-Luc, we’re only moving 600 people.
Jean-Luc Picard: How many people does it take, Admiral, before it becomes wrong? A thousand? Fifty thousand? A million? How many people does it take, Admiral?
Even with life itself at stake and having experienced what the Baku planet has to offer, Captain Picard still makes the argument that the rights of the individual cannot be sacrificed to the needs of the many.
In the “Star Trek Voyager” episode “Tuvix”, when Neelix and Tuvok, two crew members, were merged into one in a transporter accident, resulting in an entirely new being, who names himself Tuvix. Tuvix possesses his own personality and individuality. He joins the crew and works hard until a way is found to revert the original accident and restore Tuvok and Neelix, at the expense of the death of Tuvix. Tuvix refuses to undergo the procedure, wanting to live instead. Janeway and the crew force his death, with only the Emergency Medical Hologram refusing to participate in his murder. In this case the life of two, abrogated the life of one, even though the one was already living and the two could only potentially live.
In Ursulla LeGuin’s classic short story, “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas”, the moral dillema is posed of a utopia that is perfect in every way, except that its very existance requires that a child be caged and live in absolute and unrelenting misery. The residents of this utopia accept this state of affairs as part of the price of having a perfect way of life. By contrast those who walk away from Omelas in the title of the story are those who reject this sacrifice of the needs of the one for the needs of the many and instead depart leaving utopia behind.
By contrast in the classic short story, “The Cold Equations”, a girl who has snuck on board a space vessel delivering a desperately needed vaccine to a planet bound expedition in order to see her brother, has added an unacceptable amount of weight to a ship with only enough fuel to carry the specified amount of weight of the pilot and his cargo to the planetary destination. With the girl on board the ship must inevitably crash. The pilot cannot depart the ship without the ship crashing and the equation that must be solved requires the death of the girl by stepping out into space and dying horribly. The message of the story is that the cold equations of space are unforgiving and require a human sacrifice to be balanced. The mechanistic limitations of the universe itself enforces a cruelty that limits the rights of the few at the expense of the many.
The result is a moral breakdown between pragmatic ruthlessness and an idealism that respects human rights. The split cuts across moral and political philosophies in Science Fiction, transforming approaches into moral dilemmas. It raises the question of how much freedom we are willing to give up for safety and how many of our individual rights we are willing to sacrifice on the bloody altar of a collective welfare. It cannot ever be simply or easily resolved. There is no simple answer, only the attitude with which we approach the question, and that attitude also defines us.