Friday, May 31, 2013

Star Trek: Into (Hearts Of) Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness seems to give a nod to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness not only in its title but in the journey through the moral murkiness that lurks in even the best of us. The book is primarily about the twilight of souls unable to see the light of morality, goodness and virtue. The movie highlights the fact that it's not the galactic space around us that is the true final frontier of undiscovered country. It's the moral space within us.

When Kirk’s mentor is killed by Khan, Kirk understandably wants to get revenge. Though the law requires him to arrest Khan and bring him to trial, he’s ready and willing to subvert the system and just kill him.  Well aware that his actions may start a war, he speeds toward Klingon territory to exact his revenge. Spock challenges him to do the right thing.  Sure, Kirk’s anger is understandable, and his harsh revenge is a rough kind of justice, but at what point would Kirk become the evil he was trying to fight? Do noble ends justify ignoble means, or must both be good?

To answer this question, Star Trek contrasts three forms of ethics: deontological (duty-centered)ethics;  virtue (character-centered)ethics (through Kirk); and consequentialist (outcome-centered) ethicsSpock is clearly utilitarian at times in this movie, but he also stresses the important of law, commitment and duty. He is the face of a logical, dispassionate approach to morality. Kirk is the face of virtue ethics:
 It may, initially, be identified as the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach which emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that which emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism). Suppose it is obvious that someone in need should be helped. A utilitarian will point to the fact that the consequences of doing so will maximize well-being, a deontologist to the fact that, in doing so the agent will be acting in accordance with a moral rule such as “Do unto others as you would be done by” and a virtue ethicist to the fact that helping the person would be charitable or benevolent.
 It’s not a perfect  moral theory, but a simultaneous recognition of duty, consequence and virtue can provide a healthy framework in which to pursue the good.  

Having said that, I agree with J.W. Wartick's critique of the movie's pointed dismissal of religion. Religion has played a vital role in the development of ethical theories, and to simply dismiss it from the discussion is unwarranted. The crew of the Enterprise find religion on all these "primitive" planets - and isn't it kind of sad how these superstitious rubes worship just about anything, even mistaking their technological superiors for gods? The Prime Directive forbids the crew to meddle with the internal development of alien cultures, but the franchise has no problem meddling with our own. Perhaps Abrams and Rodenberry could have let their own enterprises remain a little more covert.

Near the end of Heart of Darkness, Conrad wrote:
Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed up — he had judged. 'The horror!' He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth — the strange commingling of desire and hate.
This is not the conclusion of the matter in J.J. Abram’s retelling. Kirk manages to boldly go where Conrad's characters have never gone before – back into the light. Heart of Darkness warns us of the evil lurking in our hearts; Abram's movie encourages us that we can go into moral darkness and still return. Kirk and his companions might not be fully in the sun, but there is something to be said for moving out of the darkness.

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