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?