All you really need to know, you can learn from Star Trek leadership and the Enterprise crew.
If you’re on the lookout for a philosophy to live by, the beloved Star Trek franchise just might have your answer. Of course, the Enterprise has the Prime Directive of Starfleet Command, but the crew seem to find it difficult to avoid violating it. That said, Kirk and his crew have a few philosophies guiding them, even if they aren’t explicitly aware of them.
The show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991), lived by the philosophy of humanism, which relies heavily on social ethics rather than individual morality (or technological futuristic gizmos). Perhaps what has endeared fans to the show over the years is Roddenberry’s hope for equal rights for people of every gender and race. In 1966, when the fight for civil rights was front and center in our culture in a way it hadn’t been before, Rodenberry brought diversity to network television with the introduction of Star Trek.
To further explore and draw from Star Trek leadership philosophy for your own life, consider the examples of Kirk, Spock and McCoy.
Captain Kirk’s Intuition
Captain Kirk makes decisions based on an emotional, gut, or intuitive level. If the spirit moves him, he kisses green women, punches out disrespectful Klingons, and fights lizard-men in his singular funky and entertaining Kirk-style kung fu.
Mr. Spock favors cool reason over the instability of emotions. When someone makes what he considers a rash statement, he raises an eyebrow and bluntly says, “That is illogical.” Along with logic, statistics are on his side. He’s like a human calculator in his ability to calculate the odds of the trickiest scenario. Not only does Spock have a beautiful mind, but if need be, he might take you out with a pinch.
Dr. McCoy’s Not a…
Finally, there’s Dr. McCoy. Though he doesn’t sit in the captain’s seat, people often defer to him simply because he has the authority of being a medical doctor, aka “miracle worker.” Like all the main characters, he’s asked to perform the impossible on demand under great duress, but he regularly reacts with his customary grouchy tag line, or a memorable version of it: “Damn it, Jim! I’m a doctor, not a magician!” We must not forget all the things Dr. McCoy is not:
Now consider the philosophies that guided the whole crew of the Enterprise when they faced tough situations.
One of the most common guiding philosophies in Star Trek seems to be utilitarianism. According to Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, the best moral action is the one that maximizes utility. One interpretation is that the action that benefits the most people is almost always the best one to take.
Since the officers of Star Trek are highly ethical people, they firmly believe in sacrificing one person (even themselves) for their crew. Even though they often pull things off just in the nick of time, it’s still a guiding principle. In fact, Spock sacrifices himself in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the most memorable of the film franchise as much for the acting and muscular chest of Khan (Ricardo Montalban) as anything else.
Another guiding principle of the Enterprise do-gooders seems a bit dubious in some respects: consequentialism. This philosophy holds that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment of the rightness or wrongness of that conduct. From a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right action (or inaction) is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence.
This sounds good, but to be even clearer, consequentialism is based on two principles. First, whether an act is right or wrong depends only on the results of that act. Second, the more good consequences an act produces, the better or more right that act. Simply put, it’s the old “the ends justify the means” maxim. As is so often the case with Captain Kirk, it’s better to be lucky than good. If it means avoiding a bad or unwanted consequence, Kirk has no problem breaking or changing the rules of the Kobayashi Muru to produce the desired result. The Kobayashi Maru is a training exercise designed to test the character of Starfleet cadets when they’re faced with a no-win scenario. In the Energy Drink Generation Star Trek (2009), we witness just how Chris Pine’s Kirk pulls it off:
The only things that matter to Kirk are the consequences, after all — though he apparently fails the test more than once before he figures out a way to rig victory.
Aristotle’s Virtue Theory
In the end, I would argue that the philosophy that just might get the crew off the hook every time is not one that requires them to strictly adhere to one philosophy or one argument. As we’ve seen, the crew never does that if the fate of one of their own is at stake. Their guiding philosophy is most like Aristotle’s Virtue Theory.
According to this theory, if you focus on being virtuous, you will do good things. Aristotle didn’t give us much to go on with this theory, but the idea is that a virtuous person will develop the wisdom to make the right choice. In the end, that’s probably what Kirk and the crew aspire to.