I hate this idea that doing the “right” thing is about being selfless. Worse, that for an action to be good, you’re not supposed to “get” something out of it.
Don’t get me wrong—I think giving without expectation of return is, within itself, a good thing. Giving even though it would be of detriment to you? Selflessness at its best.
What I dislike is the notion that for a decision to be “good,” one of the requirements is selflessness, or detriment, or personal loss. Like . . . what? Doing the right thing has to be about more than selflessness because, let's be honest, "Do good and suffer" is not a great pitch for being a good person.
My feelings about ethics can be clearly summarised in Star Trek Voyager’s “The Void” (S7, E15).
In this episode, Voyager and its crew get dragged into an area of subspace called “the void.” The void is, well, a void where there are several other ships. The void itself drains ship resources, and there’s nowhere to go to refuel, or get more of anything. This is a void after all.
The surviving ships in the void have learned that the “only” way to survive is to pillage new ships for their resources. Ships in the void gather near the opening to steal from the new entries. Apparently, most newbies to the void don’t survive their first few minutes because of this initial pirating.
Voyager is one of the exceptions: they survive the initial pirating, and Captain Janeway is faced with a difficult decision: Federation principles, or the wellbeing of her crew. Members of her crew, like Chakotay, encourage her to consider pillaging new ships. After all, if the alternative is having everyone on Voyager starve and die, then it’s worth talking about, right?
Federation principles in this instance, of course, are synonymous with “ethical.” The Federation doesn’t pillage. The Federation doesn’t steal. The Federation doesn’t attack unarmed ships. Janeway decides to do things the Federation way.
This, of course, makes her crew second-guess her. Why? Because the assumption is that doing the “right thing” is a luxury they can’t afford. Why? Because "moral decisions" and "kindness" are decisions are equated with selflessness—and being selfless is easier, harder, or impossible based on external circumstances.
You know what isn't easier, harder, or impossible based on external circumstances? Morality.
Janeway proves this. Ultimately, Federation principles and ethical decision-making bring out the best in everyone, and teamwork makes the whole stronger.
Janeway, instead of stealing, proposes an alliance with other members of the void: they share resources, and pool their strength into teamwork that will help them escape. Even before they get out of the void, their sharing of technology equals better replicator yields—Voyager and their allies are able to eat!
Even something seemingly pointless, such as helping the void's resident scavengers, ultimately helps Voyager escape. These creatures take up resources Voyager doesn't have, including medical resources. However, because Janeway and the Doctor help them, they get the help they need by the end of the episode.
In the end, the only ships that escape the void are the ones that worked together, embraced Federation values, and made ethical decisions. They were rewarded for their teamwork, and for their ethical decisions.
In “The Void,” ethics, morality, and Federation values are not equated with selflessness. The teamwork is inherently selfish, and done with the intent of making everyone—Voyager included—stronger.
What this episode proves for me is that humans are better when we work together—that doing the “right” thing, that making ethical decisions, isn’t some void where resources go to die.
Helping each other, working together, embracing Federation principles as a way of life is how we all survive. We benefit as a whole from helping each other. And that's the way it should be.
How's this for a pitch: do the right thing, and help everyone—including yourself.
I believe this episode is relevant to today’s climate, where to get to the other side of the pandemic, the climate crisis, economic instability (and a host of other problems), we need to work together, instead of competing with one another for resources. Instead of extorting people, giving can actually end up making us stronger and better as a whole.
Most importantly, we need to acknowledge that morality isn’t a luxury—and be okay with acknowledging that ethical decisions can be selfish, and that’s okay. Actually, it's probably better that way. After all, if making ethical decisions is inherently selfish, then that makes morality accessible to everyone—not just people rich enough to give.
Moral decisions aren't a void where resources go to die. On the contrary, we get a high return on investment when we help others.
We need to be more like Janeway in the void—and, like Voyager, we will get out of it.