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Spock Must Die, Spock Must Live: Spock and the Common Good

October 6, 2011

What is the relationship between the person and the common good? This question has been asked in the movies Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search For Spock. In each film, the answer given seems to contradict each other. Spock, it appears, represents the argument from a logical standpoint, while his friends seem to come to the discussion on an emotive level. Spock believes, when the common good is threatened, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one, while Kirk suggests that the needs of the few can trump the needs of the many. For those unfamiliar with either movie (whoever that could be?!), let us briefly look at how they addressed this question before we examine what we get from them and see if there might be some way out an apparently contradictory message from the films.

In Star Trek II, Spock finds the Enterprise disabled. Unless it is able to move, it will be destroyed. The engines of the ship are disabled. Only he can bring them back to working order in time, though at the cost of his life. For Spock, when confronted with such a dilemma, there was no real question as to what he should do: he must save the Enterprise, he must work for the common good, even if it meant his own death.

Spock must die in order for the Enterprise and her crew could live. Spock willingly sacrificed himself, though he did leave himself a way out, a way for his consciousness to continue in the head of Dr. McCoy.  Due to the circumstances around his death, there would come about a way for Spock’s consciousness to be returned to his body, for him to live again – but it would require great risk for Spock’s friends. They were forbidden to do what they wanted to do, and so they knew officials would retaliate against them if they went ahead and tried to bring Spock back to life. Should they risk it? The answer is yes, and the answer is because Spock’s needs, the needs of the one, outweigh the needs of Spock’s friends.

Spock must live, no matter the cost.

The question of which takes precedence, the personal good or the common good, is not as straightforward as it might appear. The answer really depends upon the good which is being willed, as Henry of Ghent suggests:

One must say that it is necessary here to make distinctions about the good and about a personal good and the common good, because it is a temporal good that principally pertains to the body and it is a spiritual good that principally pertains to the soul. Likewise, there is a personal good that is included in the common good, and there is a personal good that is not included in it. [1]

When dealing with the common good, it is often erroneous to suggest that one’s personal good is in conflict with the common good. The two often go together; by looking for and promoting the common good, one usually helping oneself. This is true both temporally as well as spiritually. Clearly, some might suggest one could get a greater temporal good for oneself if one neglects the common good, but that ends up being an argument to promote selfishness, and the end result might be a greater temporal good, but a lesser spiritual good. In such a situation, because spiritual goods are more worthwhile than temporal goods, one can only say such an attitude leads towards a lessening of one’s own overall good and so that should be reason enough to overcome such selfishness.

However, this is the easiest kind of analysis one can do, and it is often this kind of analysis which overshadows the questions surrounding the personal and common good. As we have seen, there are two types of goods to consider: temporal goods and spiritual goods. We end up with several different possibilities which we must face: temporal personal good over temporal common good; temporal personal good over spiritual common good; spiritual personal good over temporal common good; and spiritual personal good over a spiritual common good. Even in these situations, the answer is not always simple; it is not always the case that the common good wins out. Thus Henry of Ghent says one can hold out for a greater spiritual good for oneself over the needs of the common spiritual good:

If, however, each good is spiritual, in that case one should rather procure his own personal good, because anyone ought to will for himself a small amount of the good of grace or glory on account of its eternal perseverance rather than the greatest amount of good for the neighbor, just as one ought to will to be saved alone and that all the rest be condemned rather than the opposite.[2]

The problem with this answer is that it assumes the possibility that one can work for the spiritual common good while finding oneself condemned because one worked for such a common good. This does not appear to be likely: the more good one does for one’s neighbor, the more one multiplies the good in one’s own personal life. Being charitable, one gains God:

If you possess charity, you have God; and if you have God, what do you not possess? If a rich man does not have charity, what does he have? If a poor man has charity, what does he lack? Perhaps you think that he is a rich man whose coffers are full of gold, and he is not rich whose conscience is full of God. That is not true, brethren. A man really seems to be rich, if God deigns to dwell in him. Now what can you be ignorant of in the Scriptures if charity, that is, God, begins to take possession of you? What good works can you fail to perform, if you deserve to carry the fountain of good works in your heart?[3]

Thus to die to the self, to give over and seek after the spiritual good of the community ultimately lifts oneself up and provides the greatest increase in one’s own personal spiritual good. Though, logically, one could think of the idea of losing one’s salvation for the sake of others, the one who willingly seeks after the salvation of others, with faith and trust in God, will find their own salvation. With spiritual goods,  working for the increase of the spiritual common good will only bring in a measurable increase in one’s own spiritual good. Thus, there is no conflict here.

The major places of conflict are when one’s personal temporal good is in conflict with a social temporal good, or when one’s personal spiritual good is in conflict with a temporal social good.[4] For the first, one must ask about the conflict, as to whether or not the personal or social goods are necessary ones; when the personal good (being able to eat) is in conflict with an unnecessary social temporal good (everyone else is able to eat, but less luxuriously if one promotes one’s own temporal good), then the personal good trumps the social good. This explains why one who is starving can take food, even if society views it as stealing, and not suffer a spiritual stain because of one’s action. The needs of the one in this instance outweigh the social good. On the other hand if the personal temporal good is something unnecessary while the social temporal good is something necessary, then the social good trumps the personal good. And if it is more or less even, the social good, because it includes the personal good, must be the one pursued. Thus, Henry of Ghent says:

In that case, as I think, one should still procure the common good, because, even if one’s own temporal good is not included in the common temporal good, it is still impossible that one’s personal spiritual good is not included as a result of the merit of the one who procures that good, and one should procure his own personal spiritual good, other things being the same, more than his own personal temporal good.[5]

One who sacrifices one’s own personal, temporal goods for the sake of the common good gains a greater spiritual good, and so, while there is a temporal loss, there is an eternal gain. This is not to say that the temporal goods are to be dismissed as meaningless; when there is no challenge, one should promote the personal temporal good as well, because we are made for worldly, physical life and not just a life of the spirit.

Now the question of one’s personal spiritual good over the social temporal good, the answer is always, to promote the spiritual good though in doing so with the desire to promote, the best one can, the common temporal good and the common spiritual good. The holy martyrs present to us the ideal here: they sought a transformation of the social system, but they were unwilling to engage spiritual evil even if it might have strengthened and aided the temporal social order. The personal spiritual good is the desire to do all that one can do which is good, not just for oneself, but for society; helping a defective system thrive might help give more people temporal goods, but in the end, even those temporal goods will be lost. By giving voice to the error of the system itself, one is ultimately promoting the spiritual and temporal common good, though of course, in the immediate sense, the temporal common good is rejected.

This brings us back to Spock and Star Trek. In both movies, the answer given is the legitimate answer to different questions. Equivocation is necessary in order to make the answers conflict. In the first case, Spock is dealing with the necessary needs of the common good over the necessary needs of the personal good; in giving up his life, he points not only to the fact that the common good in such a situation must be followed, but also, the personal spiritual good must also be followed over the personal temporal good. Spock sacrifices himself, saving his spirit while letting his body die; having McCoy become a vessel for his consciousness is a way to present this fact so that a common moviegoer can understand the gain Spock achieves from his act. In the situation around Kirk, Kirk is pointing out that the needs of the personal temporal good must be met, even if it means the social temporal good is diminished – as long as the diminishment does not destroy and eliminate the common social good itself.  Society, indeed, can find a temporary lessening of the common temporal good can lead to the improvement of the personal good of someone whose contributions will later help society transcend itself; that is, by risking themselves to help Spock, Spock’s friends ultimately help themselves by making sure Spock will be able to contribute all he has to offer for the common good. The Klingons and Romulans would end up having better relations with Star Fleet as a result of the temporary reduction of the temporal common good, bringing, in the end, a greater and more triumphant common good in return.

When the common good is threatened, and Spock’s death can save the common good, Spock must die. When the common good is not radically threatened, but Spock’s personal good is, Spock must live. Both are true statements, and, in the end, there is no real conflict between Star Trek II and Star Trek III. They show two different ways the personal and common good are to deal with each other, and show why prudence is important when dealing with moral questions. Both Spock and Kirk, in reality, give logical answers.


[1] Henry of Ghent, Quodlibetal Questions on Moral Problems. Trans. Roland Teske, S.J. (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2005), 25.

[2] Ibid., 26.

[3] St. Caesarius of Arles, “Sermon 22” in St. Caesarius of Arles: Sermons 1-80. Trans Sister Mary Magdalene Mueller, O.S.F. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1956), 115.

[4] We could explore other conflicts, since they do exist, but what we say here should be able to help one find the solution to other such conflicts.

[5] Henry of Ghent, Quodlibetal Questions, 26.

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13 Comments
  1. Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
    October 6, 2011 3:58 pm

    Apropos Trekkie themes, I offer this. I just saw on EWTN today that a Catholic apologist named Steve Ray (who has written books published by Ignatius Press) is suggesting this as his exemplary form of pedagogy about Transubstantiation for children. Mr Ray tells the kiddies that a “space alien” has come to tell them how faulty all their perceptions are in the world, and that the “space alien” has given special knowledge that it is magically changed, and that they should trust the “space alien” rather than their senses because he is Jesus. . Compared to that your Rawlsian Mr. Spock loks pretty tame!

    • October 6, 2011 4:06 pm

      I have to say, I don’t watch much EWTN. I don’t have cable. I saw more EWTN in the late 90s, when I did, and sometimes when visiting places which have it. I don’t know Steve Ray, but he might as well be called “Ray Beam.” While I can agree our understanding of the world, our concepts, are off (Yogacara Buddhist thought here influences me quite a bit, as does post-modernism and pre-modernism), the whole “trust the space alien” response is indeed… odd. It also seems semi-Gnostic. Of course, I would have to watch and see to say for sure.

      And –I’ve not read any Rawls! But, I expect I would have similar thoughts (not always the same) because of when I live, if nothing else!

      • October 6, 2011 4:11 pm

        I say that as one who has mixed reactions to Gnosticism. I’m opposed to the dualism, but find a lot of ideas beyond the dualism can be (and often are) valuable — as Christian history itself shows. PKD is a modern Gnostic, and his ideas are fabulous, even if I disagree with elements of how he engages them.

  2. Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
    October 6, 2011 10:22 pm

    Henry,

    The type of “gnosticism” I cohere with is the sort of thought Carl Jung asserted. When asked if he believed in God, he said: “I don’t need to believe, I know.” I can say the same, but I emphasize that none of that removes you from the vagaries of life. But if “gnosticism” means special powers of insight or the like, I can only refer to all the crazy people in life that I have brushed with who make me skeptical of that. Such skepticism makes me come full circle to the notion that we all see ‘through a glass darkly” and thus ought to be kinda nice to each other, because we are all a bit awkward in understanding.

    • October 7, 2011 3:56 am

      But sometimes an encounter with the gods can make someone mad. I myself have no problem with gnosticism connected with craziness, it is sort of expected in some ways — the whole holy fool concept — however, it doesn’t mean everything they say or know is right, either. For me the problem of historical gnosticism is its radical dualism and hatred for the world; not all forms show as radical a dualism as others, of course. Philip K Dick exemplifies a struggling gnosticism which I think has something to learn from; Jung is also interesting, to be sure, and also has value — though of course I come at it all with a Christian eye.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
        October 7, 2011 11:48 am

        Henry,

        Interesting! Let me say, as an aside, and not apropos anything in particular, that I do not buy at all the popular trope that “craziness” has some profound meaning or spiritual depth. As well as pooh-poohing that trendy thought from the sixties by what’s-his-name popular, influence psychologist who wrote that famous book claiming that “madness” is really a truer form of sanity. It is all pure bunk. Craziness is just craziness, and the best thing people can do is deal with. Also, I don’t believe religious people have a higher share of that, but they sure have plenty of it all the same.

        • October 7, 2011 12:13 pm

          Well, I think there can be many ways one can be insane, and not all insanity necessarily means a touch by the gods — but I do think some such experiences can lead to a breakdown in the psyche; they can have experienced something true, but be broken at the same time.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
        October 7, 2011 5:14 pm

        Henry,

        Interesting again. I am not trying to be casual or flippant about, for I am the exact opposite in my heart. But the issue, for instance, of how epilepsy used to be thought as a divine madness, says a lot I think. It is funny, this touches on a discussion I have been having with seminarian Kelly. Being well mentally, increases the chances that one will experience the good side of religion instead of its downsides. The mystical side of life, if one is drawn to it, can be an experience of “great love” and or “ahw, shucks, not much today.” In the same way, I believe it is utterly a biological certainty that if one experiences faith, one will experience its absence at times. To construe any of that as sin, or weakness, or lack of spiritual fortitude, is really very regressive trend that Catholicism is specifically, very unfortunately, is given to.

        This is all prologue to answering your idea of that a “breakdown” can be an experience of “something true.” It is only true in the sense that it could teach that we are ALL fragile in our own ways, and that all deserve compassion and patience ultimately. But more proximately, what that “something true” is NOT is a step in the spiritual development of the person per se. The actual content of “insanity” is never meaningful, though the fact that it happened is. As always, anything that teaches compassion is good.

        I had a Grand Aunt who apparently spent much of her life in homes for mental illness. I can tell you everyone in the extended family was hoping the genes were not too definitive. She spent her time doing needlepoint, and several relatives houses had quite nice looking pieces by her. The one in my family’s house read: “A bird in the bush usually has a friend in there with him” Coming full circle here, to make my point– I guess I feel it is a form of
        cruelty to construe mania and delusion as religion….for no one really wants to be that extra “bird in the bush”. The trouble is that many aspects of belief are close to the same extra-normal sense of perception. But clearly not the same at all. Just like that famous comment about pornography: I know it when I see it.

        • October 8, 2011 7:10 am

          I think there are many issues at play.
          First, I think we have some agreement — the person can be and is often fragile (some more than others, some due to things they have done such as drugs, and some due to things out of their control like genetics). Post-modern thought to have is important in reminding us how little we know or comprehend – as reinforcing apophatic thought. And one of the things we see before post-modernism is the awareness of the void of modernism bringing people to the brink of madness (think H.P. Lovecraft). This is not because there is no truth in modernism, but rather, because experiencing that truth can really break a person. Lovecraft is not a mystic but yet understands that what is real can be such a shock it destroys the mind, though it doesn’t mean it is any less real, nor necessarily a mystical experience.

          However, I do think, with some who are fragile, the encounter with something transcendent can reinforce their fragile nature all the while holding on and encountering something true and good for them. I keep thinking of Philip K Dick here. I certainly believe something happened to him; I don’t understand it (and I look forward to reading his Exegesis next month, where he tries to understand it). Nonetheless there seems to be something truly mystical in it; he gained knowledge he shouldn’t have had, which led to a real life-saving event for his son! There was a lot of sane self-questioning about the event afterward, but there was also his own – weaknesses — which kept breaking through in and from the experience as well. He wasn’t entirely ready for the encounter, so to speak (and who is?).

          In this way, I am not construing mania or delusion as religion.

  3. Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
    October 8, 2011 4:13 pm

    Henry,

    You wrote: “Post-modern thought to have is important in reminding us how little we know or comprehend – as reinforcing apophatic thought. ”

    That is truly a profound thought with which I really agree! As an aside let me say, that that is where Catholicism can find a beautiful rapprochement between a conservative maintaining of its hallowed traditions and strength to go into the future.

    As to the sci-fi valences, i am not very versed in such layers of meaning, because I haven’t read very much of it. This is kinda ironic because I am related by marriage to one of the most famous writers of it of all time.

    Lastly, I think there is a more simple and sure way to think about the difference between mental episodes, so to speak, and real religious ones. One of the “symptoms” of mental dysfunction is simply the inability of to organize one’ life and thought at all. This is not only a matter of quotidian organization –keeping one’s desk neat, or one’s house — but the ability to organize one’s emotional and conceptual life. (Some obsessives are very organized in the former sense, but not the latter) To not take things to literally for instance, which is always a dead-ringer for severe trouble. And the inability, most strikingly seen in real schizophrenics, to have any real humor in anything. Because humor always involves enough mental organization to have a sort of “distance’ to laugh at things.

    Well, in the simplest way, real religious insight does the exact opposite for a person. Since it provides a context of meaning in existence it increases organization relative to the person’s natural skills for such. Real religion gives a horizon where one can really see the strangeness of existence in very perspectival and humorous ways. It provides a real workable context for sane humility. And it certainly should also help one not be too literal. Not so much about religious beliefs, with which one may have solidarity, but about the severity of the requirements for such. All of this is the very good side of religion, and could not be more indicative of health. thus, in sum, anything that cumulatively produces the former effect of disorganization on different levels is dysfunction. That which produces the opposite has a high likelihood of being authentic religious experience. No exceptions, in my book.

    Post scriptum: I wonder how many reactionaries, like those on the rabid Catholic Vote Action site, who are praising Steve Jobs, because they like that his creations allow them to more easily spill their bilge across the webosphere, actually take his words to heart. During his Stanford University graduation address in 2005 he averred that we should not take other people’s “dogma” as definitive for us. That is a form of not taking things too literally for sure!!

    • October 8, 2011 5:12 pm

      I very much agree with post-modernism, apophaticism, and tradition can and will go together to develop something unique; all three are aspects of my own thought and work (of course, with many other elements as well, such as social justice).

      That’s interesting about your marriage. But, coming into a family of a writer thankfully doesn’t mean you have to go into the fictional works of said writer (one might, but thankfully, it is not the all of all for most writers). So it isn’t too strange about what you have not read.

      You would probably find PKD very interesting because he in his life and in his own self-reflections really breach all the normative descriptions. He was full of humor (as his writing often details) and yet was so self-paranoid at one point, he argued that he might be the one who broke into his own home and blew up his own safe. Though it probably was brought out in part as a humorous response as to who he should suspect, he also took it as a real possibility as well. And some believe that is what actually happened.

      Here is some excerpts from a lecture he once gave to show the kind of oddity between his fiction and real world:

      And I do think you understand CatholicVote quite well; note how their political figureheads represent the same discord!

      • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
        October 8, 2011 6:51 pm

        Somehow the whole discussion here, and the fine video, makes me think of something I heard again and again in my previous line of work, before through God’s often odd providence I got back into scholarship. I interacted therapeutically with a lot of quite successful and sometimes quite powerful people, and it amazing that I repeatedly heard different versions of the same sort of insight over many years. I could sum it up, condensed, this way: “Never trust somebody who has never had a breakdown.” And the clear contextual implication was that if someone had never fallen apart, and had the fortitude and virtue to pick up their pieces, then they were not particularly trustworthy or safe to handle life’s complexities. And they probably wouldn’t know themselves very well at all. And probably would not be very compassionate either. Life has continually taught me the wisdom of this insight, from people who must know whom to trust or not.

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