Thursday, September 22, 2005

Q and You: the Social Contract

It arises in Star Trek again in the third season of The Next Generation, in the episode Deja Q. The immortal and omnipotent being Q has been stripped of his powers for tormenting other life forms, and one of those life forms pursues him aboard the Enterprise. At one point these tiny creatures have Q in a kind of energy field, and Data pulls him out of it, and is damaged in the process.

Like Spock, Q had been taken out of himself. He was in that state now, but unlike Spock, Q acted with the petulance rather than the innocence of a child. That drove the humor of the piece, but things aren't funny to Q while Data's existence is in question. "Data may have sacrificed himself for me. Why? Why would he risk his life for mine?"

"That is his special nature," Captain Picard replies. "He has learned the lessons of humanity well."

For Data, an android who has only his programming and intelligence to work with, this self-sacrificing behavior is the product of ethical thinking, translated into direct action. But Q is temporarily human, and he begins to reason ethically by engaging his imagination and his emotions.

"I ask myself if I would have done the same for him," Q says. "And I am forced to realize the answer is 'no.' I feel...I feel ashamed."

Of course, Q goes on to perform a selfless act, to sacrifice himself so that the Enterprise is spared, and is rewarded for it by having his powers returned. Immediately afterwards, he seems to revert to the same old Q---but in future stories, he's different. He helps Picard give up his regrets for his wild youth, and he helps Picard again when the Continuum tests humanity again in the series finale, "All Good Things."

Q is ashamed because he understands the essential human standard: that he should have been willing to do the same for Data.

Some see this as an attitude contrary to nature, that comes only with belief in a higher being, or only when punishment would result had he failed to act correctly. But humans as members of the animal "kingdom" are social animals. Our genes are not always so selfish. Our existence is so profoundly dependent on our group (family, tribe, culture, society) that the welfare of the whole is emotionally important.

Whether as part of this feeling or independently, we also have the ability to identify with others, to put ourselves in another's place, to have empathy. There are other feelings as well---feelings of tenderness based on a sense of beauty, for example---that contribute to what we call compassion (which means a passion or feeling for everything.)

It turns out that these sorts of feelings and behaviors are present in other animals as well as humans---it's just that, prejudiced by their theories to the contrary, human researchers failed to look for it. Animal societies are quite complex, yet science has insisted on experimenting with isolated individuals.

Yet "you'd do the same for me" is not exactly a statement of selflessness. While it reflects an ethic based on empathy and compassion, it doesn't require it. It combines a feeling of human kinship with a utilitarian deduction: we can't guarantee we will be helped in time of trouble, but if we support an ethic of helping others by our actions, our chances will be better.

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