Monthly Archives: May 2014

Spock’s Creed: Dissecting the Vulcan Ethic

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I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of Star Trek. My father is a bit of a fan and we had some of the old movies lying around as I grew up (not to mention regularly watching Voyager and Deep Space Nine on TV). Because of this I don’t know the first time I watched Wrath of Khan. However I can remember the first time I heard Spock say that famous line:

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. “

In many respects this is an extremely noble and admirable creed. It is noble when it reminds us that our own comforts must sometimes be sacrificed for others. It is noble when it drives a man to give to the poor, help his fellow neighbor, and build up his community. It is perhaps best of all when it inspires someone to risk their very life in order to rescue others: when it sends soldiers running back into the firefight to carry back the wounded, inspires doctors to travel to outbreaks of deadly and contagious diseases in order to help the sick, or even that iconic moment of heroism where Spock sacrifices his life in the warp core in order to save the lives of everyone aboard the Enterprise.

Yet the same idea can also be deadlier than any radiation that Spock received. It can reduce moral obligation to a calculus of needs, and with that calculus those in power can excuse a mountain of evil. The Romans may or may not have enjoyed the sack of Jerusalem in 70 AD, where legionaries put every man woman and child they could catch to the sword; but in their minds the Jews were rebels and troublemakers, and the needs of the many (the Roman Empire) outweighed the need of the few (Jerusalem). The hangman at Salem may or may not have enjoyed killing the 20 who were executed for witchcraft; but he and all the judges and magistrates involved knew that the needs of the many in Salem outweighed the needs of a few old men and women. The slave owners of the American South may or may not have enjoyed beating their slaves and denying them education, opportunity, and basic human rights; but the South ran on King Cotton and without the slaves their economy would collapse. The needs of the 10 million free Southerners outweighed the needs of the 4 million slaves. In all of these cases the oppressive, cruel, and destructive actions of those in power are justified by Spock’s creed.

So how can we rescue what is good in Spock’s creed without also accepting its capacity to rationalize great evil? Notice what sets apart the good from the bad in the examples above: when we use Spock’s creed for good we consider ourselves as part of the few, while those who use it to justify evil consider themselves as part of the many. We can see this distinction clearly with another example: let’s say that four men are trapped in a cave in, and they have deduced that there is only enough oxygen for three men to survive until the rescuers can save them. If one of the men chose to kill himself so that the others would live then he would be a hero: but if no man were so willing and three of them ganged up on another and killed him then they would be committing an act of evil. Spock’s creed justifies both scenarios, but one is an act of heroism and the other an act of murder.

So perhaps the creed should be modified to say that the needs of the many outweigh my own needs. But this is also lacking. This is the kind of philosophy that totalitarian states try to indoctrinate their citizens in. I am nothing; the State (or the organization, or the empire, or the family, or any other form of “the many”) is everything. Our modified creed could still be used to justify atrocities on a mass scale. Most of the Nazis directly involved in the holocaust did not enjoy exterminating fellow humans, but they were willing to put any personal objections aside: the needs of the many outweighed their own needs, and they were told that the many would be better off if the Jews did not exist.

The problem appears to be in the phrase “the many.” Let’s make the creed more specific then: the needs of other humans outweigh my own needs. This is better, but still isn’t quite right. Such a creed would have me be a complete slave to the needs of others. It puts a heavy burden of obligation on a man. Everywhere there are people with needs, and it would be impossible to ever fulfill them all. Worse it diminishes the person who follows it. Can it really be true that my own needs are less important than the needs of any other human being?

So let’s modify it again: the needs of others should be treated the same as my own needs.

With this I find something surprising: I started with Spock, but I have ended with Jesus. For he said it better and more concisely: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

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Am I a Part of the World?

Monday’s post elicited a comment from insanitybytes22:

“’Does writing on your blog really make the world a better place?’

Yes! Because writing on a blog forces you to become a better person with a clearer vision of who are, and you carry that out into the world with you.”

It was a very nice and well appreciated comment, but most importantly it got me thinking. You see, recently I’ve been contemplating the weaknesses of my own personality. Some time ago my wife introduced me to the Enneagram personality typing system. I’m not going to say much about the Enneagram here other than the fact that it’s the best personality typing system I’ve ever found (to make a very long story very short: all the other systems I’ve tried, particularly the ubiquitous Meyers-Briggs, told me very little that I didn’t already know: the Enneagram told me things about myself I didn’t know I knew). Recently my wife was talking to me about things I might try to improve my mental health, based on my personality. Her central recommendation boiled down to the following: “You think and act as if you were separate from the world around you; an observer of the universe who occasionally interacts with it. You need to understand that you are part of the world.”

This probably seems like strange advice to most of you. For myself, it made perfect sense. Deep down I do treat everything as if it was something to observe. I try to separate myself from the world in order to protect myself from it. I may participate in volunteer work, or have fun with my friends, but somewhere underneath it all I treat life as if it was a movie or a book that I was making my way through. Occasionally I’ll notice that I’m doing this, and I’ll be suddenly struck with dread and anxiety as I realize “This is YOUR life. All of this is happening to YOU. This is REAL.”

When I actually put it down in black and white I realize how crazy that sounds. But I’m not crazy. The idea that I am separate from the world, or that my life is not really my life but a story I’m experiencing, is emotional and not mental in nature. I never really think that the world is a giant movie, and I recognize quite well that I am part of the world around me; it’s my emotions that tend to tint everything in the light of externality. It’s those same emotions that are filled with dread when I recognize that sentiment isn’t true.

To bring this around to the point, reading insanitybytes22’s comment brought that back to me. You see the first reaction I had to the comment (after I felt good about the fact that someone was commenting positively on my post) was that improving myself didn’t really matter. And after I thought about that reaction I realized it didn’t make much sense. Of course improving myself matters! Self-improvement is vitally important to a life well lived. Understanding myself and developing my mind and spirit are some of the most important activities I can ever take part in. Yet it didn’t feel important, and after further contemplation I realized why. It’s because I emotionally viewed self-improvement as only being important if I could use that improvement to make the world a better place. Yet I know that if I helped someone else improve I would consider it making the world a better place. Yet somehow improving my own self is not making the world a better place?

Well of course it wasn’t, because I feel like I’m not part of the world. I’m separate from it. I treat myself as if I’m a tool whose purpose is to help fix the world. If you were trying to fix a car it would be nice to have good quality tools: but it would be stupid to spend more on upgrading your tools then you spend on fixing the actual car. After all, once the car is fixed the tools go back in the toolbox; and deep down I treated myself the same way. Sure it’s nice to improve myself, but only because that might help me fix the world. And once the world is fixed I’ll just pack myself up into the toolbox and be put under the shelf.

But the fact is that I am part of the world. I’m not a mechanic who studies and fixes the mechanism but a part of the machine as a whole. Improving myself does improve the world because I am part of the world. I am a participant in reality. Improving myself improves the whole.

My natural reaction to this idea is that it feels too self-important. If I start thinking like this won’t it make me selfish, focusing all my energies on helping myself over others? But this isn’t true. Focusing on improving myself can only make me more useful to everyone else. If I become selfish and ignore the needs of others then I am degrading myself. When I hear the needs of others and seek to help them I am improving myself. What good is it to try to improve the world before I have become improved myself? Can an alcoholic help others sober up if he’s still drunk? Can a liar help others become honest if he’s still practicing deceit? Can a doctor heal people if he is bedridden? If such people succeed it will only be haphazardly and almost by accident.

I am just now beginning to really understand what Jesus meant when he said “First take the log out of your own eye before you help your neighbor take the speck out of his.”

Writing this post helped me. I hope it helps you: but even if nobody reads it the world is a slightly better place.

Because I am part of the world.

Niche Media and Making a Difference

Things have been pretty quiet here on the blog. This is mostly because I’ve been musing about topics that are both personal and somewhat depressing. I often use writing as a way to understand my own feelings and work through difficult thoughts and emotions. The final product of these exercises is wonderfully cathartic but ultimately useless for general consumption. They illuminate and improve my own life, but they are unlikely to do so for others who lack my own personal context. I’ve tried to come up with a topic suitable for general consumption but I’ve been drawing a blank. I blame my last post for this: it was about abortion, and part of me felt that following it up with musings about writing or games or anything unserious would be indecorous. Unfortunately I have found that forcing myself to write about serious and important subjects when I don’t want to is a recipe for disaster. There will be a follow up post about abortion at some point: but it will have to wait until I can give the subject the time and attention it deserves.

Still, I began to wonder why I didn’t feel like writing more about abortion: or about apologetics or God or the poor or any other serious subject that is near and dear to my heart. This led to the logical next question: why do I want to write about these things in the first place?

Well, because I want to share important thoughts and ideas with the world.

Why do you want to do that?

To make the world a better place, I suppose. To contribute.

Are you though? Does writing on you blog really make the world a better place?

I don’t know.

This problem vexed me. Do I write for myself, or for others? What good is my writing anyway? Only a few people read my posts, and many of them already agree with me. Those that don’t agree with me are unlikely to have their minds changed by my writing, and the vast majority of those who disagree with me will never even see my blog.

I tried to pick myself up a bit. After all, what about C.S. Lewis? He was just an obscure Oxford don when he started writing, yet his words have touched and changed the lives of millions.

True: but remember how he got his start. He was asked to do radio broadcasts of apologetics talks during WWII. Since those talks were popular he put them into a book, and publishers picked it up and promoted it. From there any subsequent books he wrote would be newsworthy.

So what? Everyone starts somewhere. He started with radio, I’ll start with my blog.

But your blog isn’t radio. Lewis’s voice was heard all over England in those broadcasts, tens of thousands of people listening in (many of them listening because they didn’t have anything better to do). That was the old age of communication. The era of mass media is over. Even if you got on a radio station today you wouldn’t have a percentage of the audience he had. And TV is following the same route. Now everyone’s media is personalized: there are tens of thousands of blogs, vlogs, and independent artists floating through the web finding tiny niche audiences of people who already think exactly like they do. That’s the way it is now. There is no “general” audience anymore. Your blog is just floating through the internet, picking up the occasional follower who already believes what you’re trying to convince them of.

I have followers who disagree with me.

One or two at the most. And you must admit that controversy is practically a hobby of theirs: they don’t follow you because you’re convincing them of anything, they follow you so they’ll have material for their own blogs and someone to argue with on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Perhaps you’re right. But it is better to do something than nothing, even if it all amounts to the same thing in the end.

That’s where that line of thought always stops. It is better to do something then nothing, but that’s not the best attitude to write with. Not if you want to get anything done anyway.

The internet really has changed things. Mass media is getting smaller and smaller, while niche media is growing larger and larger. It’s both beautiful and terrible. Not many people would be asked to speak on the radio in Lewis’s day, but when they did speak they spoke to a wide audience: rich and poor, atheist, and theist, liberal and conservative. Today almost anyone can start a podcast but their audience will be far more narrow. Religious podcasts will gather a religious audience, skeptic podcasts will gather a skeptic audience, liberals will talk to liberals, and conservatives to conservatives and all over the internet one hundred thousand preachers will deliver their sermons to one hundred thousand choirs.

On the other hand, sometimes the choir needs a good preaching to. And sometimes a stranger passes through, usually while trying to Google an unrelated but similar sounding topic.

Something is better than nothing, and the era of niche media may have a few tricks up its sleeves yet. Time to get back to work.