Monday, May 13, 2013

Spock wisdom

Spock: Don't grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many, outweigh...
Kirk: The needs of the few.
Spock: Or the one.

A moving scene for all those Star Trek fans if ever there was one.  But for such a logical creature who embraces pure reason and rationality it is a strange choice of views.   Essentially Spock is espousing a consequentialist view.  I.e. that an act or deed is measured on the outcomes and in this case a utilitarianism angle based upon pure numerical outcome.  Exchanging one life for many.  John Stuart Mill defended the utilitarian view of ethics in his book of the same name.

But it is a difficult position to defend traditionally and largely remains an unsupported theory.  The issue at hand is of course one of right and wrong.  Is an act or thought right if the benefit to many outweighs the benefit of the minority.  I.e. one goes with the option that produces the most happiness or best outcome for the majority.

It is clear to see where this can work (democracy is one obvious area) and of course it does not.  One obvious outcome of utilitarianism is perhaps the fact that we should kill innocent healthy people to take their organs to save the lives of say 10 ill people.  Nobody would consider that right to take an innocent life to save 10 or we would have regular snatch squads on our street and donor cards would bring a new level of meaning.

Its a big subject to discuss but the reason why I raise this is actually the Spock scenario here differs slightly from the standard objections.  In Spock's case he is giving his life to save others (courageous at some level but do not forget he would die anyway if he had not saved the ship).  This changes the argument.  It is clearly seen as right to take a utilitarian position provided the only down side is then taken by the person making the decision.

The next question is of course the one of proximity.  Spock gives his life to save those around him.  But even Spock's reason prevented him from say giving his life to provide organs for dying people.  What is the difference.  Proximity in time and space to the people who will benefit clearly makes a difference.

The act undertaken by Spock was not a random sacrifice to save random strangers lives but his friends and colleagues.  He had not, half way through the film, nipped out to the medical centre to be cut up and have the organs transported back to vulcan to save 10 people's lives.  But what is the difference?

Clearly we are more prepared to sacrifice (even if not our lives) for the people we know and care about than strangers.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Its a purely emotion position and not one backed by reason or logic.  Spock's final act then being an emotionally driven one.


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