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Sunday, January 07, 2018

Spock And The Battle Of The Mutara Nebula: A Brief Reflection In Moral Theology

In one of the more memorable events during the lengthy career of Starfleet Admiral/Captain James T. Kirk, the USS Enterprise was under the command of Captain Spock, as a training vessel for Starfleet Academy cadets, in the year 2285. In the course of overseeing those exercises, the crew discovers that someone is attempting to interfere with communications between the Enterprise and space station Regula One, in the Mutara sector. The director of the secret project on Regula One had contacted Admiral Kirk about an unusual order regarding control of the project, allegedly issued by him. Unable to establish communication, and after determining that the communication breakdown was the work of a malevolent third party, Starfleet Command orders the Enterprise to investigate, and places Kirk in command. Upon further investigation, it is determined that an old foe, Khan Noonien Singh, had stolen the overseeing vessel, the USS Reliant, marooning her crew on Ceti Alpha V, the place where Kirk had sent the enhanced human and late-20th century autocrat Khan, after his deadly attempt to commandeer the Enterprise in 2265. Khan also stole the secret project, in the hopes of luring Kirk there. Khan wanted vengeance for the death of his wife, a former Enterprise crew member, who chose to go with Khan and his associates when their exile was imposed. She died on Ceti Alpha V, and Khan blamed Kirk. After a series of battles, the Enterprise is badly damaged, and the Reliant is nearly destroyed. Khan uses the project as a kamikaze time bomb, knowing that the Enterprise is too badly damaged--or so it appeared--to escape the explosion.

Captain Spock surreptitiously decides to enter the central engine compartment--sealed off because of lethal radiation levels--to repair the damaged warp drive, which would allow the Enterprise to escape. He succeeds, and the Enterprise leaves the area. He later dies, after poignantly suggesting to Kirk that he had undergone a real-life "Kobayashi Maru" simulation (an unwinnable simulation scenario administered to Starfleet Academy command officer candidates). Spock said, "I never took the Kobayashi Maru test...until now. What do you think of my solution?"

In a personal axiom that helpfully serves to explain his moral reasoning in this situation, Spock noted, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." Provided that we exclude more utilitarian readings of the statement that would instrumentalize the few or the one, let us analyze the moral action itself.

Firstly, in the abstract, it would be wrong of course for Spock to directly kill himself for no reason at all. It would be wrong of him to take a mysterious and likely lethal "mineral supplement" in the hope of winning the ship-wide chess tournament. This action instead is proportionate to the great good of saving his shipmates. He does not intend his own death, but rather, to rescue the ship and crew. No other less harmful options are available at the time. So a good suitably proportionate to his own certain death is present. He is laying down his life, not someone else's. He's not directly doing an evil act to bring about a greater good; he's doing a good act, and its result is his death. Its object is repairing the ship. His intention is to save his crew. The circumstances foreclose other options, and a failure to act would cause the death of everyone aboard.

We should say that Captain Spock's death is an evil--a privation of a good that should be there--but it's not a moral evil, a morally blameworthy act. Quite the contrary.