Reality Skimming

Ethics in SF #14: Vivian Davidson

"I believe that if something can be conceived in the imagination it is already one step closer to being achieved."

Ethics in SF: A series of interviews, articles and debates on the Reality Skimming blog, hosted by Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel Saga.

Vivian DavidsonVivian Davidson is a recent UBC graduate with a Major in Political Science and a Minor in International Relations. She is a keen activist and involved in many social organizations like the World Federalists of Canada and the United Nations of Canada. She volunteers at a Japanese language exchange club and with the Wildlife Rescue Association of BC, and works with a landscaper, with the Development Disabilities Association, and as a tutor in Spanish. In her spare time, when she has any, she loves to draw, read, practice the guitar and engage in outdoor activities of all sorts. She rows at Coal Harbour, loves to run and walk, and is a member of a local soccer club.

Science Fiction as a Model

When Lynda spoke at one of my World Federalist meetings, little did I know what an impact her ideas would have on me despite me not being a Trekkie or a sci-fi scholar such as herself. In fact I was so enthralled by her philosophy and motivations that I approached at the end and offered to contribute to her blog, for which she was very pleased. Hence, here I am, an eager writer, putting some of my own ponderings into words to share with a larger interested audience. Again, I am not an avid sci-fi reader, yet I believe I have watched enough sci-fi shows on TV and have read more than a couple sci-fi related books to draw on these to make several observations. My wish is not to convince you of the validity of my opinions but rather, much as Lynda herself intends, to spark much needed dialogue about issues that transcend sci-fi and touch upon universal topics such as morals and ethics which are in danger of becoming obsolete in today’s world of ‘distraction’ and ‘avoidance.’

I once read an interesting article by Ross Pavlac entitled: "Some Thoughts on Ethics and Science Fiction." As he points out, “science fiction (SF) is the natural home of discussion of ethics” and one of the main themes of the SF genre is what he calls “ultimate issues” which include the ideal society, the fate of humanity and the universe itself. As Pavlac states, “SF provides a chance to do things ‘in the laboratory’ with (theoretically) no harm to the real world.” In as such I believe that SF settings allow audiences to postulate what-if scenarios with enough credibility so as to test different theories on how ‘ideal’ societies or different technologies could work or not. Pavlac cites the work of Pohl & Kornbluth's Merchants of Space, which dealt with the issue of harvesting organs from prisoners, something that has been revealed is practiced in China.

SF also offers a realm where the outcomes of certain actions and choices can be deliberated free of any palpable consequences. One very popular example of this, also cited by Pavlac, is J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. He mentions how in this case people are “not afraid to make decisions and then have to pay the price of those decisions.” Pavlac explains how Gandalf the wizard is faced with the temptation of the ring knowing that in having it he is given absolute powers yet turns it down because he is aware of how it corrupts him. Similarly, Elrond destroys the ring despite knowing that in doing so his power will end as well. The bad guys, on the other hand, have to face the consequence of their past choices to do wrong, something that the good guys are courageous and intelligent enough not to do.

Roddenbury’s Star Trek is unarguably one of the best known sci-fi creations of all time. Hence, it is fraught with examples of how its creators and writers pictured how an ideal humanity would run. The virtues one can find associated with all characters in this saga are uncountable. And yet some of them immediately come to mind by way of examining how modern-day people can indeed seek the SF genre in search of examples on how to live lives based on self-fulfillment, maturity and growth in an environment of peace and hope and prosperity. My thoughts are well explained by Steve Pavlina’s article "Lessons from Star Trek" from which I take inspiration.

To get right to it, for one thing, the characters such as those of the Enterprise behave virtuously as if acting on a solid inner moral compass. In all moments they show to be acting on the bases of bravery, honesty and self-sacrifice in which neither religion nor belief in a higher power need play a role. Instead, their values are centred on humanism and the universality of each Being as unique and equally valuable no matter what background he or she comes from.

Another value quite prevalent in the SF genre and in particularly in Star Trek is that of self-discipline and emotional maturity. Each character “owns themselves.” In a setting where food and entertainment abound, no one ever overindulges. To the contrary, the characters are so moral and disciplined that they feel comfortable around telepathic/empathic beings that can read their minds. Their public and private personas are congruent and they have nothing to feel shame or guilt about and hence have no need to hide any thought or feeling. In essence, the characters are mature and responsible, two more dominant values of the show. Each Being does his or her job without complaint and assumes 100% of the responsibility for all they do without ever blaming anyone else for their situations. They show passion and commitment to their jobs and are pleased knowing that they can contribute to the well-being of the society as a whole.

The issue of mutual respect is one that cannot be ignored by anyone who has ever watched an episode of this famed show. The characters are always professional when on duty yet when having fun approach a more informal, first-name basis. Nonetheless, at all times they treat each other with mutual respect and never insult, demean or slander each other. As Pavlina states, “When doing their jobs, the characters interact within a formal structure, but off duty they’re on a first-name basis. At all times they treat each other with mutual respect and if one character begins to self-destruct, the others step in to help restore balance and integrity.”

Centred on growth and driven by principles, the characters adhere to their moral compasses at all costs. In the rare instances where conflict does arise, they are willing to violate laws to uphold their principles even if it means giving their lives. In addition, the characters are highly growth-oriented. They continually endeavour to hone their skills and learn about themselves, the cultures of others and about the nature and workings of their environments. Most if not all of them have individual interests that they pursue, whether they be music, art, literature and so forth and even mentor one another as they realize how the betterment of their fellow characters is enriching to themselves as well as to the community at large.

In the end, what the ‘good’ Star Trek does is to, in the words of Lynda Williams, “give people the hope and courage to be good.” The values and principles that the show and the SF genre as a whole guide their characters on act as a model from which society can draw to ponder how life would be if the fictitious visions were made a reality. I believe that if something can be conceived in the imagination it is already one step closer to being achieved. It is only a matter of willingness on the part of those who are corrupted in power to cede it, of those veiled in apathy to act and of those despondent to have hope. It is our collective responsibility to take the visions of the ‘good’ and make it a reality so that we no longer live in world based on the defeating powers of greed, violence and hatred that have slowly lead to the destruction of our own morals, principles and values that we once perceived to be unalienable and ever so important.

Your Turn: Comment with your own reaction to the questions.

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