Spock and the Needs of the Many

Is there a more famous scene in all of Star Trek than the death of Spock? In an entertainment franchise that has more than its share of emotionally sterile moments, this one is an unforgettable gut-punch, especially if you’d already spent years enjoying those characters.

Kirk and Spock are one of the great fictional duos. Kirk is creative, resourceful, and passionate, and above all, he never accepts defeat. Spock is the stoic, rigorously logical empiricist who occasionally checks his friend’s impulses before harsh reality does. Their fundamentally different attitudes allow them to complement each other, which is why the loss of one of them felt so tragic.

One thing always bugged me about the scene though. While saying his goodbyes to Kirk, Spock repeats, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” It sounds almost like a mantra. I think it sucks the honor out of his choice if he did it because a rigid, utilitarian Vulcan dogma drove him unthinkingly in that direction. It can’t be that. If it were, it wouldn’t be remembered as the most heroic event in all of Star Trek.

But I think I’ve got a good answer now. His self-sacrifice was poignant not because it was logical, but because you know deep down that the rights of the many do not outweigh those of the few or the one. The most coldly utilitarian move would have been to order some anonymous redshirt in there to die saving the ship, but Spock went in there himself. He submitted his own right to live to the reasoned virtues his people taught him. The chain of command might have allowed it, but morally he had no right to sacrifice anyone else.

There’s a giant clue in the dialogue that this is really what it’s about.

SPOCK: I never took the Kobayashi Maru test …until now. What do you think of my solution?

Spock links this moment with the “Kobayashi Maru” test. Cheating on this test is treated throughout the movies as the single most important fact about Kirk. When faced with an intractable problem, Kirk bends or breaks every rule in sight until he circumvents it. Breaking free of boundaries and limitations in order to excel is one heroic trait which Kirk has in spades.

This scene is telling you that there is a virtue higher than that. In a crippled starship, in the blast zone of an exotic bomb, there was no more room for scheming. Nothing left to cheat. Resourcefulness, talent and grit weren’t going to solve the problem. The only escape from this no-win scenario would be for someone to accept it voluntarily, on behalf of everyone else. And that’s what Spock did.

Spock’s calculation didn’t involve just weighing needs of two quantities of people against each other and deciding the bigger number won. He weighed the virtue of self-sacrifice against the good of survival, and he was heroic for choosing the former voluntarily. Where his captain twists every which way to avoid paying any pipers, Spock willingly accepted the price of the Enterprise‘s survival.

Virtue doesn’t come naturally. Like the Vulcan, you have to train yourself into it. One day you’ll be tested. You’ll be presented with a choice to do what benefits you (or avoid what hurts you) at other people’s expense, or to voluntarily accept some unnecessary suffering so that others won’t have to. What will you do?

Cruelty and Compassion in Ender’s Game

My introduction to science fiction came at the age of 14 in a one-two punch of Clarke and Card. Arthur C. Clarke teased my imagination, but Orson Scott Card left an imprint on my soul. I read Ender’s Game three times before finishing high school, and at least another two after that.

I can remember one reviewer on Amazon dismissing it as an indulgent tale for the moody kid who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else. Regarding how my teenage self read the story, I can’t say they didn’t have a point, but Ender’s status as a gifted outcast was never the profound part of the story to me. The first few times I read it, I was brought to tears in the opening scene of the book, in which Ender, desperate to avoid future and ongoing torment by the school bully Stilson, lashes out and beats Stilson until he’s bloody and unconscious. Even though Ender’s barbaric retaliation against the bully could be justified as an act of self-preservation, he was immediately overwhelmed by guilt.

Ender leaned his head against the wall of the corridor and cried until the bus came. I am just like Peter. Take my monitor away, and I am just like Peter.

Peter, by the way, is Ender’s older brother who is such a sadist that he jokes about killing his siblings, and peels the skin off live squirrels for fun in the back yard. The scene with Stilson establishes the main questions about Ender: Is he evil? Knowing what he is capable of, and what the adults are pressuring him to be, is it even possible for him to be good? Is goodness a weakness? The reader has to watch Ender (and the monstrous adults manipulating him) wrestle with this conundrum. I believe every person ought to wrestle with this about themselves.

Because here’s the disturbing fact: We are all capable of being Peter.

For a long time I read this story as one about guilt and redemption, and the permanent change that happens inside you when you manage to fully empathize with a perceived enemy. There’s plenty to go on if you take that approach. In the series, Ender is able to take responsibility, and then atone, for the genocidal act he is maneuvered into committing in the first book. He didn’t have to; he could have laid all the blame on the adults, but he sets out to right the wrong himself. There’s a line that repeats that goes something like, “when you truly understand the enemy, you can’t help but love them.”

But in the past year Dr. Jordan B. Peterson has gained some notoriety for his psychological analysis of the stories in Genesis, and something he pulled out of the Garden of Eden story and the fall of man drew me back to Ender’s Game and why I found it so compelling. One of Peterson’s aha! moments in the story of Adam and Eve is how self-consciousness and the knowledge of good and evil are necessarily linked. When Adam and Eve take a bite of the forbidden fruit, they simultaneously become knowledgeable about good and evil, and mortified at their own nakedness. That part about nakedness isn’t arbitrary. There’s something about an awareness of your own vulnerability that opens the door to both compassion and cruelty. Knowing how you can be hurt means you can imagine how you might be able to hurt others. Ender’s Game touches these concepts too. Ender’s older brother, Peter, was such a savant at hurting people personally that he was expelled from the Battle School. His sister Valentine was too compassionate, and flunked out for never striking against the enemy in simulations.

Ender was bred to be a medium between those two, and until I encountered this insight from Peterson that’s how I read it. Ender’s ability to empathize with others is constantly linked in the book with his ability to outwit his enemies. It is a talent he eventually uses in order to inflict on the alien enemy the exact thing the humans feared could happen to us: total annihilation.

But now I think Valentine and Peter are both opposite sides of the same thing in human nature: we can empathize like no other creature can, and that makes us capable of both good and evil. Peter is the one who uses this unique power to inflict pain for his own perverse enjoyment. Valentine, to protect and create. Ender wasn’t better for being a “moderate” position between extremes. I hesitate to use the word “better” or “right” because Ender was manipulated into being a mass murderer, so he’s at least tragic, maybe a little bit of an antihero. But he was effective because he was both Valentine and Peter simultaneously. He could understand an enemy so well he thought he loved them, yet at the same time wipe them out completely because survival demanded it.

It seems to me that being good has something to do with having a healthy sense of how evil you can be, but choosing good instead. Doing no evil simply because you’re harmless and powerless isn’t as praiseworthy as knowing you’re a monster and choosing righteousness anyway. Once he knows the full story, Ender does become good. He’s no less capable of leading world-smashing armies the day after the Bugger war ends, but he instead sets out to create and restore.

Get the hardcover edition of Ender’s Game here, because you should have durable copies of the books you love.

An Economic History of the Fall of the Galactic Empire

My dear brother,

I’m sending you this message from a small settlement on Kashyyk. For whatever reason, these Wookiees tolerate me for now. I can cook an excellent bantha surprise without getting hair in it. That seems to please them. I’m thankful for sanctuary in relatively neutral territory. A coalition claiming to be the New Republic lists my name among the thousands they wish to capture and try for war crimes, because I once worked for the Empire as an economic adviser. I also hear rumblings of a so-called First Order, fanatics loyal to the defunct Empire who would flay me alive for treason.

So for now I stay hidden.

But even if I have to stay in exile, the truth about the Imperial downfall doesn’t. Whoever comes next to rule the galaxy needs to know: the Empire was not defeated by a self-taught Jedi or a pathetic fleet of misfits, but by its own towering hubris.

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