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Spock Was A Shitty Logician, Like The Rest Of ‘Em
January 3, 2009, 7:58 pm
Filed under: Culture, Ethics | Tags: , , ,

So I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan the other day.  It’s arguably the best of the movies, but that’s not an argument I’d defend.  Strangely, I’m rather partial to Star Trek V.  Anyway, in Star Trek II, Spock says something like

Logic clearly demands that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.

I’m quoting from memory, but I’m sure that’s nearly word for word.  This idea plays a central role in the climax of the story.  Spock sacrifices himself (‘the one’) to save the crew of the Enterprise (‘the many’) from certain death.  With his last dying breaths, Spock explains his actions to Kirk by referring back to what he said earlier about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few.  

The idea seems to be that his actions were not the result of compassion or a kind of heroic commitment to the good of others even to the point of death.  No.  He was merely acting according to cold, dispassionate reason. But, for the life of me, I can’t figure out how cold, dispassionate reason can get you there.  I can’t see how how logic teaches us what Spock seems to think it does.

Logic demands that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?

Maybe it works like this:

(1) Utility (i.e. happiness) can measured, and the total utility of a community can be summed.

(2) A good world is to be had by raising this sum.

(3) A good person is committed to advancing the goodness of the world.

(4) Attending to the needs of the many will raise the sum.  Attending to the needs of the few at the expense of the many will reduce this sum.

(5) So all good people will act such that the needs of many outweigh the needs of the few.

(1) seems false.  (2) then topples with (1).  (3) is not a dictate of reason, at least in the cold dispassionate sense of reason that Spock subscribes to.  (4), as a kind of formal calculation, seems right.  (But there are technical reasons why it’s wrong.  The argument against it is called the utility monster argument.  Look it up if you like.)  (5) is irrelevant.  Cold dispassionate reason doesn’t tell me to be a good person, and so it doesn’t tell me to act such that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  It might tell me to choose according to my rational self-interest.  Maybe.  But self-sacrifice in the manor of Spock clearly ain’t in my rational self-interest.  (Unless Spock was rewarded in the afterlife for his moral heroism.)

  Actually, isn’t it true that the needs of the many don’t outweigh the needs of the few?  At least sometimes they don’t, right?  What about minority rights?  If you are against Bush using torture, then — as Ricky Ricardo used to say — you got some ‘splaining to do.  

Anyway, Spock wasn’t being the grand-champion of cold logic by sacrificing himself, was he?  I don’t see how you can get there from here.

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1 Comment so far
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Ya, cool
Spock is the Anti-Keirkegaard

The only logic that I can see in it is if he’s thinking about species preservation, or that the crew are a group of something so important that logic dictates that it should be preserved….
I don’t know…

Comment by Craig




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