Star Trek: Continuum

Altruism in Star Trek

From: "bob mercer"
Subject: Altruism (was re: Chain of Command)
Date: Mon, 6 Jul 1998 22:47:58 -0700

Doing the right thing (and what is the right thing, anyway? philosophers have been asking that question for at least 2500 years)or the "good" thing is supposed to bring a sense of reward, etc., and some actual tangible rewards as well (though you aren't supposed to do them for the rewards--otherwise you aren't doing the right thing). It doesn't seem to work that way for most people though, in my experience.

I work in what used to be considered (in another time) an altruistic profession--education. I put in a lot of time and effort that I am not required to put in--out of a certain sense of altruism and a sense of personal pride in how well I do my job. I get very little in return except more work and abuse from a variety of sources (not personal abuse, per se, but abuse and denigration of my profession, which is just as bad). The personal sense of satisfaction I derive from my activities/work doesn't go very far to ameliorate the difficulties that my extra effort generates. It seems to me that, as time passes, human behavior becomes worse instead of better. Granted, we don't (often or usually) practice human sacrifice, etc., but we are less humane towards each other and we identify less with each other.

ST was/is nice in that it attempts to show us another perspective. It has usually done a good job of doing so--or, at least, it tries to show us a time/place that is in some way "better' than what we have now--even if it doesn't do it well. I have no quarrel with this, nor would I bitch and complain if, tomorrow, the world started working that way. This aspect of ST is something that I think has been disappearing, at least in DS9 (I don't get Voyager here, so I can't say anything about that).ST or something like it would be a powerful vehicle to move us along the road to a future LIKE that in ST (assuming that we can solve or problems with resources, wealth distribution, etc). I think, though, that until (or more likely, unless, becuae we may never solve them) we are able to solve those problems--FOR EVERYBODY--that human nature won't change much, especially not that much in a few centuries.

Doing the right thing or the Good, is not something that comes easily to people. Most of the people I know who behave in an altruistic manner are doing so only out of self-interested altruism (i.e. they don't want to go to hell or their religion's equivalent). The sense of reward and the threat of punishment must exist in sufficient measure to motivate action--ST just hasn't clearly shown us where/how this motivation works in Fed society other than a few basic philosophical quips about how we are better than we used to be (and this is usually somehow centered around the evils of the capitalistic ethic).

From: "Michael Rops"
Newsgroups: startrek.expertforum
Subject: Re: Altruism (was re: Chain of Command)

Agree with everything Bob, you might not know, but I'm an educator too. I think one of the big problems is that most of the people watching Star Trek now days, don't realize that Star Trek was Gene's vision of the future. He was saying that no matter how bad it is now, in the future things should be better, because WE can make it better. As to Voyager, the altruism (literally doing something only because it is the right thing to do) is still there. Not as much as in ST:NG when Gene was still around, but for some reason, they seem to be holding on to it in Voyager better than in DS9.

Also, most religious people I know (and believe me they are a majority around here) are really decent folks and do altruistic things not because they are afraid of going to hell (remember that even if they do the wrong thing, they can ask forgiveness and still get to heaven) but because they have values and ethics. That is the one good thing to most of the major religions that people don't seem to realize. Religions teach us the difference between right and wrong, something most people have a hard time with now days.

What I would suggest is this: isn't it funny how Star Trek in most all of it's incarcerations gives us a morality play of the issues of the day. The new DS9 is a reflection of that. Give us what sells. Show us something that explodes. Don't make us think.

Most people now days (unlike the Star Trek ideal) feel that we need rules to control society, however those rules shouldn't apply to them when it comes down to it.

For example, I had a student the other day tell me that we should kick another student out of the university for illegal drug use. That this student was a danger to the public and therefore shouldn't be allowed to continue with his career goals. (something I agree with in this profession.) Anyway, THIS STUDENT HAD DONE THE SAME THING. When I questioned him about it he told me oh, that's different, I would never let it interfere with my profession. Never did get through to him why it was the same thing. Oh well.

I have an example of the fact that society is going the way of Gene's vision, but I'm outta space and time now. I'll post it tomorrow.

Just my two cents worth.

From: "Barry Scott Will"
Newsgroups: startrek.expertforum
Subject: Re: Altruism (was re: Chain of Command)

There are two things that are often overlooked when discussing the Utopian ideal: a) a motive force and b) the source of morality. We've already dealt with the fact that TREK lacks a motive force, there is no real reward for people to work hard and do the right thing. Quite frankly, I believe that everyone has their "price"--a standard of living beyond which they will not progress unless it requires little or no effort.

For example, while I consider myself to be a pretty good worker, if the government were providing me with my current standard of living, I would probably revert to extreme laziness. Others might continue trying to improve themselves materially, but I would be content with what I have now. I would continue trying to improve myself personally--increasing in knowledge and education, but I would no longer be a "contributing member" of society. We see in society today that many people capable of work will not do so because they are content with the standard of living provided for them by the government. I don't believe human nature will change radically enough to bring about the TREK ideal within the next 400 years.

The second problem with the TREK ideal is that it assumes people are born good and become evil through negative influences. This is contrary to human nature. In each of the following word pairs, consider which must be taught to a child and which the child tends to do instinctively:
Truth - Lie
Share - Hoard
Responsibility - Carelessness
Compassion - Selfishness

I could go on, but I think you see the point. We are born with a tendency towards selfishness and doing what is best for ourselves. We must be _taught_ how to be altruistic. And, in some cases, we see that even a child who has been taught correctly continues to act in a non-moral way. So, we create rewards for people who act in a manner that is for the good of society--the motive force.

Without the motive force, and not taking human nature into consideration, I don't believe that the TREK version of the future is possible. In fact, the lesson of history is that societies that increase in wealth and prosperity decrease in morality and altruism. Should the Earth as a whole achieve the wealth and prosperity to bring about the Federation as shown, the citizens would probably be _less_ moral than we are today.

From: "Michael G"
Newsgroups: startrek.expertforum
Subject: Re: Altruism (was re: Chain of Command)

I can see where you are coming from here, Barry. I see it every day. Trying to get a young soldier to sign up for correspondence courses, or civilian education to better himself and help his advancement is like pulling teeth most of the time. It's the same with military schools like Ranger School or NCOES courses. The rewards in this case are self-evident, but you almost have to slap the kid upside the head to get his attention. Funny thing though, once he sees how easy this stuff is, he usually goes right to it.

I don't necessarily think that most people are overly lazy, and perhaps I have mis-understood your point here. My whole living is provided by the government, and she is a wicked taskmistress. While many troops don't want to spend their free time working towards career advancement, most work their tails off during duty hours for low pay, disdainful treatment by the general public, and loss of personal liberties. I don't know why many of them do it, but for me, and a lot of the troops I know, pride is the motivating force that keeps me going.

I'm not sure what you mean by this. I would venture to guess, and this is a guess, mind you, (I could be off-base here) that a lot of this has to do with your conservative outlook. I don't personally tend to think that people are born evil or overly selfish. Teaching my son altruism or ethics (for me), is not a matter of altrusim vs. self preservation, but altruism AS self preservation.

"We do good, because doing so makes us stronger and better, and less likely to be injured by others" is, I guess, a good way of describing my thoughts on the subject.

I don't know that I agree with this last statement, per se, but I can see how one can arrive at it. Personally, I think that we are no more or less moral as a society today than we were 100 years ago. We do things a little differently, to be sure, but mainly this is because we know more i.e; we have more news, more information. 100 years ago, a person probably knew very little if anything about what happened outside of his own community on a day to day basis. Bad things still happened, but nobody really new about them unless they were in close proximity to them. Today, we can watch battles taking place on the other side of the world in real time. Also, there was less violence in society, because it was harder to do. We have gotten a lot more efficient about our cruelty in the last century, and cruelty is easier, but we haven't gotten any more cruel.

What are we missing that we didn't have a century ago? A strong sense of moral outrage. We have become so inured to the violence that we see every day, that it doesn't bother us any more.

Please understand that the above comments were my own thoughts, and in no way was meant to be a personal attack on your views or your own sense of morality. Rather, a contrast.

From: "Michael Rops"
Newsgroups: startrek.expertforum
Subject: Re: Altruism (was re: Chain of Command)

I disagree here, Barry. I don't believe people are born either good or evil, they are born innocent. They learn all of the above things from their surroundings. I wonder if we could do a very inhumane (Truman Show like) experiment. Put a child into a small world where everyone and everything behaved along the lines of your words, Truth, Share, Responsibility, and Compassion. No one in the world demonstrated EVER the stuff on the right. What would happen. I contend that the child would be all of those things and more.

In our own world it is very DIFFICULT to strive towards those goals. Because of the sheer momentum of the other stuff, it can't be overcome overnight. It takes time. A sensational story will overcome truth every time. The one example I can think of right now is the Lizzy Bordon one. Remember the rhyme?
Lizzy Bordon took an Axe
and gave her mother 40 whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father 41

Now, that's what we remember about her. She was a murderer. The only problem is that she was found not guilty.

Anyway, remember there is a difference between innocent, good and evil (bad). Innocence is the Cup, and good or bad is what we put in the cup.

From: "Michael Rops"
Newsgroups: startrek.expertforum
Subject: Re: Altruism (was re: Chain of Command)

It's amazing how young they learn things isn't it? I would say that the guess of 3 or 4 is way too old. And who says disobedience is bad? Are you perhaps trying to impose your own moral and ethical values on someone else? Hmm. Starting to sound like the Borg a bit here aren't we. (I'm pulling your chain a bit here) Anyway, I would tell you this, I have known childeren that are good and children that are bad. I don't believe that ALL children are good and I don't believe ALL are bad. There are a whole lot of things that make children good or bad. Also, I've known children that I thought were "Little Saddam Hussein's" and they grew up to be perfectly normal well adjusted and non-evil people.

I guess that we look at things differently. I tend to look for examples of what's right. (not much nowadays)

From: "Michael G"
Newsgroups: startrek.expertforum
Subject: Re: Altruism (was re: Chain of Command)

My 4-year-old son, for the most part, is a happy, loving, mostly obedient child. He obeys me more than he does his mother. I am told that this is normal for kids, especially boys his age. As he has gotten the ability to do more, he chafes against the restrictions his parents place on him. It seems that we get in his way from time to time. So, on that point, I will grant you that you are somewhat correct, Barry. But I don't ascribe it to any kind of evilness or intentional badness. I think we just get in the way sometimes when he's trying to interact with the world.

Funny thing, though. I never heard him use foul language until he started going to daycare at the church. His disobedient behavior increased dramatically then too.

I'll never believe in the prospect that behavior is 100% nature or 100%nurture. I think that it's somewhere in between. Not being any of the ologists that study this stuff, I don't know where the dividing line is.

I just do what every other parent does: deal with the situations as they happen, in as consistent a manner as possible, and hope for the best.

From: "bob mercer"
Newsgroups: startrek.expertforum
Subject: Re: Altruism (was re: Chain of Command)

Nature vs. nurture is one of the big, all time debates. Unfortunately, both sides are right and neither side is right. it is not a question of versus, but of nature AND nurture. Political/ideological and social engineering agendas keep muddying the debate, making it impossible to (safely) arrive at some sort of answer.

Lacking any influence from the outside, people tend to behave selfishly. We see this in children all of the time, until the concepts of sharing and fairness are drummed into them (if they ever are). MINE, MINE!!! or I WANT... Heard it a million times--and I'm sure the parents out there have heard it even more. The selfishness is neither good nor evil, in itself--and is, in fact necessary to a certain degree in order to help the individual survive and reproduce.

Outside of culture and community, humans would tend to follow the biological imperatives that are programmed into us. Fortunately, one of those imperatives is the need for human society (getting together in a group). The influence and rules of the group tend to ameliorate the worst aspects of human nature (I say tend,sometimes particular societies make aspects of human nature worse--National Socialism, for example or some of the more rabid manifestations of hard-core capitalism).

The group of which you are a part teaches you (sometimes unsuccessfully) the particular evils and goods of that group and the accepted standards of behavior. This is ALWAYS done through some form of coercion and indoctrination (just because I don't hit you doesn't mean that you haven't been coerced).

As Americans (many of us) or the products of Western European civilization, we tend to see the limitation of personal freedom as a great evil. This is why the Borg work so well as villains for us--they represent, to us, the worst thing anyone could do to us. It may not necessarily be so bad--none of us have participated in a collective or hive mind, so we don't know what it might actually be like. It might actually be better than what we have. I am not advocating this, merely trying to make a point.

If we were actual members of the Collective, what the Borg do would seem logical, necessary, and desirable--because of our point of reference.

A few points:

  1. Outside the bounds of the immediate family, we usually have to be taught to act in an altruistic manner. Parents will willingly sacrifice for their children, but children will be less willing to sacrifice for their parents.
  2. We want everybody to be like us (or we want to be like everybody else) and we want to be liked--being liked means that you get things--food, sex, etc. Those who are not like us, need to be made to be like us--or need to be destroyed (have you looked at the former Yugoslavia lately?).
  3. Most of human history has revolved around the struggle of Us vs. Them. It is a distinction that we will ALWAYS make--they even make it in the 24th century, still. The key to ending that struggle is to turn the Them into Us by assimilation--either actual assimilation (to whatever degree is necessary to erase the distinction) or through symbolic assimilation. The Federation, for now, seems to be following the path of symbolic assimilation--in keeping with our Western preconceptions and perspective.

As far as Mike's point about innocence goes--I disagree. There is no tabula rosa. Without guidance or coercion people will be selfish and cruel. Children are all the time, without thought--they don't have to be taught these behaviors--particularly when you understand that other people (besides their parents) have no real existence for them--they are merely other objects in their world that need to be overcome. It is only through teaching and experience that we learn to respect other people. "Good" and "evil" are semantic terms that we use to describe behaviors within the conceptual framework that we grew up in and inhabit. Good and bad is not what we put in the cup, it is how we label what is in the cup.

From: "Qermaq"
Newsgroups: startrek.expertforum
Subject: Re: Altruism (was re: Chain of Command)

Your points have merit - but as you correctly describe the childish mantra "I WANT", don't forget the variety of things they do want - not just candy. Kids want their mom and dad to be proud of them, to love them, and therefore to be safe. They want to play. They want to explore. They want to feel good. When a child says "I want candy" ask him/her "Do you also want a tummyache?" or "Do you want to not be able to eat your yummy dinner?" As we grow we learn our desires have repercussions - that matures our wants. Adults who have learned to think don't want dangerous sex because the desire to be healthy is of higher importance. We do our children a disservice to teach them This is good or That is bad - far better to let them sort it out for themselves. (We should certainly share our opinions on the matter - that is clearly appropriate!)

But regardless of what level of good/bad you enforce, if you keep your kids alive for 18 years and help them find intrinsic ways toward happiness, they'll likely turn out fine. The Amish have a strict good/bad system, and look at all the Amish kids moving out of the settlement. The Catholic church is strong in minority cultures - look at the amount of trouble they have. Harping on good and bad is fine with robots, but not at the expense of thought training. Children need to be trained to think for themselves. Part of that is indeed sharing our values. A big part is letting them discover their own.

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