Mr Spock, the comic utilitarian

Why is there something faintly ridiculous in the logic of thinkers like Bentham, Mill and Peter Singer?
Michael Cook | Mar 6 2015 | comment  



Mr Spock is dead. For the second time. This time for good. The actor Leonard Nimoy, who played the half-human, half-Vulcan in the cult classic TV series Star Trek, passed away this week at the age of 83.

His character died for the first time in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, probably the best of the reboots of the TV series. In the concluding scene, the warp drive of USS Starship Enterprise has been damaged. Defying lethal doses of radiation, Spock enters the engine room, and restores power. In his dying moments, he speaks to Kirk through the glass doors.

Spock: Don't grieve, Admiral. It's logical. The needs of the many outweigh . . .

Kirk: -- the needs of the few . . .

Spock: -- or the one…  [He kneels.] I have been . . . and always shall be . . . your friend. [He places his hand on the chamber glass, and his voice is a whispered broken husk.] Live long and prosper!

Kirk: [places his hand against the glass as Spock slumps and dies] No. . . .

On the big screen, it doesn’t sound so silly. Spock demonstrates in those few seconds the qualities which made him so memorable: unfailing loyalty to his fellow crew members, logic, lugubrious solemnity and utilitarianism. The ways of the many outweigh the needs of the few is a 23th century version of the slogan popularized by the 19th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong. Isn’t it amazing that it lasted all that time?

The writers of Star Trek enjoyed toying with philosophy and many episodes in the original series dealt with political or moral conundrums. There’s a collection of essays on the ethics and metaphysics entitled Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant. And Georgetown University, in Washington DC, is offering a subject called “PHIL-180 Philosophy and Star Trek” this year. A focus on Mr Spock offers numerous chances to give utilitarianism a test drive.

With the possible exception of Peter Singer, Mr Spock of the pointy ears is the most famous utilitarian of our age. Which leads me to ask: why are utilitarian philosophers so often implausible human beings surrounded by a penumbra of absurdity?

First of all, Mr Spock. He is highly competent  and supremely logical, but he fails to understand fundamental aspects of human experience. Take, for instance, his remarks about natural beauty:

I've never stopped to look at clouds before. Or rainbows. You know, I can tell you exactly why one appears in the sky, but considering its beauty has always been out of the question. (“This side of paradise”)

In other words, he is tone-deaf to a fundamental capacity of a rational person – aesthetic appreciation.

And Spock’s bewilderment at romantic love often provides was grist for comedy. Dr McCoy sums up Spock’s emotional barrenness:

you'll never know the things that love can drive a man to... the ecstasies, the miseries, the broken rules, the desperate chances, the glorious failures, and the glorious victories. All of these things you'll never know, simply because the word "love" isn't written into your book.

There’s a bit of Dr Spock in all of the famous utilitarians.

Take Jeremy Bentham. He never married, had no children -- apart from Utilitarianism itself. He specified in his will that his body was to be preserved, dressed in his best clothes, and displayed in a glass cabinet to inspire “pilgrims [and] votaries of the greatest-happiness principle”. He became a beacon of incandescent weirdness to light the paths of generations of utilitarians. 

Take John Stuart Mill, the 19th century genius who popularized and softened utilitarianism. At the age of three he could speak both English and ancient Greek. By 12, he was devouring Aristotle’s logic in the original. But when he was 20, he had a nervous breakdown, brought on by excessive ratiocination. He was a pleasant and urbane gentleman, but his romantic life was bizarre. At 24, although he was an eminently eligible bachelor, he fell in love with Harriet Taylor, a married woman. For 21 years, until her husband died, they carried on a deep and apparently chaste friendship, while living in a sort of ménage a trois. After they married, they had no children, although Mill was a devoted step-father to Harriet’s daughter.

Among our contemporaries, Peter Singer is the pre-eminent utilitarian. Like Mill, he is intelligent, urbane and deeply involved in public affairs. But as a logician, he even pips Mr Spock. Using his version of Bentham’s “felicific calculus”, he has constructed arguments justifying abortion, euthanasia, incest, bestiality and infanticide. Like other utilitarians he just follows the logic of his arguments wherever they lead. No doubt Singer is a thoroughly likeable and inoffensive fellow in private conversation, but he would unflinchinly argue for stewing babies in their mothers’ milk if the argument took him there. Unlike Mr Spock, he is neither maladroit nor socially awkward. But like Mr Spock he seems perplexed by the emotional life. His conclusions are blood-curdling, but he is austerely detached from them. That’s where the argument led me, he might say. 

The same mephitic vapour surrounds lesser utilitarians, but it might be better not to name names. Beginning with the axioms of the felicific calculus, they reach bizarre conclusions by following the argument wherever it leads. Reducing the population by compulsory birth control. Using genetic engineering to reduce the average American height by 15cm to save energy. Reviving eugenics. Spiking the water supply with hormones to make people more moral. And many more story lines for future episodes of Star Trek.

In one of the most profound observations ever made about philosophy, Aristotle said "It was … wonder, astonishment, that first led men to philosophize and still leads them." Dr Spock and his buddies philosophise using nothing but logic and, unsurprisingly, find nothing to wonder at; they live in the clouds instead of in the mire of human experience. Their inevitable pratfalls provide the perfect recipe for comedy.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.



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