In Warrior of Light, there is a scene where Quentiin, a slave, is captured after attempting to escape. In order to punish Quentiin, his captors (the malichons) select two other slaves at random, and they tell Quentiin they are going to kill one of the two slaves. They say Quentiin must choose which of the two slaves they will kill, because if he does not choose one of them, then the malichons will kill both slaves. It’s meant to put Quentiin in a morally compromising situation: either he bears the accountability for choosing who will be put to death, or he lets two innocents die instead of one.
This scenario may bring to mind a film quote that most science fiction and fantasy fans will readily recognize: “the good of the many outweighs the good of the few.” It’s from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In this film, the character Spock says this line early on. Later, during the climax of the film, it is repeated during a pivotal scene. Specifically, when the crew of the Enterprise is attempting to escape a nebula which is about to disintegrate, they find that the warp drive is damaged, and they are trapped in the nebula. To fix the warp drive, Spock enters the ship’s engine room to restore its functionality, with full knowledge that the radiation in the room will kill him. After the warp drive is restored, Admiral Kirk arrives at the exterior of the engine room, where he sees Spock dying from radiation on the other side of the glass. Before dying, Spock tells him, “Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
Subsequent to The Wrath of Khan, this now-famous quote has been regularly referenced in films and popular culture. Interestingly enough, Leonard Nimoy (the actor who played Spock) used the very same line, no doubt as a tribute to the Star Trek franchise, in the explosion-fueled Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon. On its surface, the logic is sound. If one person can perish to save hundreds, is that not only logical, but also ethical? Utilitarian ethics, which essentially assert that an action is “right” when it produces the greatest well-being for the greatest number of people, would certainly say yes. (Those more well-versed in the nuances of philosophy will probably hold that there are finer points to it than this, and they would be accurate to say so, but permit me to make a generalization for the sake of the blog.)
As logical as this philosophy is, however, it could also be used to justify some disturbing precedents. Toss one baby into boiling water to save one hundred babies? I don’t know. If I’m holding that one baby, I consider that baby the one I’m responsible for. I’ll do what I can to save the one baby first. That just means I have a hundred more to save after that. Dystopian societies portrayed in fiction such as The Handmaid’s Tale depict an example of a society that came about as a result of attempting to do right by the greatest number of people, but is that one really a world we want to live in? In Handmaid, they are literally preserving the human race, but they have done so at a cost that should never be accepted. If we go extinct, then we go extinct, but at least we’ve done so with a conscience.
Arguably, Spock’s “the needs of the many” resulted in the most powerful and memorable scene in the entire Star Trek franchise. However, we have to keep in mind the context. Spock made a choice to sacrifice himself for the crew of the Enterprise. The scene had an impact because Spock was in command of his choice. Had his death been imposed upon him by another party (i.e., say Kirk sealed Spock in the engine room and ordered him to fix the warp drive), Spock would have lost his agency to choose his sacrifice, and that makes all the difference.
Furthermore, and most importantly, we often forget that “the needs of the many” was only halfof Spock’s lesson. Too often, when discussing moral dilemmas, science fiction and fantasy buffs will invoke Spock’s principle of serving “the needs of the many” without consideration for the remainder of the story. After resurrecting Spock in Star Trek III, Spock’s death/resurrection arc concludes in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Here, the crew of the Enterprise travels back in time—a direct slingshot around the sun always does the trick—and finds themselves in 1986. They save some humpback whales and hang out with hippies. Near the end of the film, crew member Chekhov has been injured and captured, and is being held in a hospital on Earth. In conversation with Kirk, Spock insists that the crew of the Enterprise risk everything to save Chekhov, an action that, if unsuccessful, will doom the crew, the humpback whales, and, well, everyone else on Earth. Harkening back to the Wrath of Khan, Kirk questions Spock’s choice, asking, “Is this the logical thing to do?”
Spock’s response is “No, but it is the human thing to do.”
This is a key addendum to the message delivered in Star Trek II. As a Vulcan, Spock adheres to logic above all else. I’m rather fond of logic myself, but the lesson here is that employing logic only, pure logic without regard for other considerations,means we risk losing what makes us human. It should be telling that when Leonard Nimoy repeats the line “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” in Transformers 3, he does so as the villain of the film, attempting to enslave humanity for the sake of restoring the Transformers’ home world. If you want to see a great satire of the flaws inherent in serving “the greater good” no matter what the cost, look no further than the British cop comedy Hot Fuzz, which depicts a town of senior citizens crazily murdering each other in order to preserve the exterior façade of their village as a perfect community.
Back to Warrior of Light, during the scene where the malichons tell Quentiin he must choose a slave for them to kill, a philosophy of “the needs of the many” would certainly hold that Quentiin should select one of the two slaves to be killed. Better one innocent die than two. But Quentiin does not choose, and he tells the malichons that he won’t play their game. He says he will not be an accomplice, even an unwitting one, to their actions. The malichons, not Quentiin, hold the accountability for choosing who they will or will not kill.
As much as the humans on Star Trek learn from Spock and his lessons in logic, Spock also learns from the humans and their lessons in humanity. We are not always logical, we are not always consistent, but in the words of police sergeant Nicholas Angel in the aforementioned Hot Fuzz, we do “know right and wrong, and have the good grace to know which is which.”
We should all aspire to serve the needs of the many. It’s called making the world a better place, and I have no disagreement with that. But in our imperfect quest to help improve the world around us, we must also never forget what it means to choose the human thing to do.