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.”