The Honor Blog
Today is: Dec 9, 2022
Post From: May 10, 2020
I recently had a conversation in which the topic of self-sacrifice arose. I don't want you to think that I talk about this sort of thing often - my conversations, as a rule, are much more light-hearted! However, this conversation brought out a topic for which my book, Reawakening Honor was written.
One of the things which came up during that conversation was a scene from the end of the second Star Trek movie - Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In the scene, the Enterprise is about to be destroyed, because its reactors are overheating. In order to save the ship, Spock goes into the engine room to make repairs by hand - he is the only one with the physical strength to withstand the radiation long enough, so he chooses to sacrifice himself. As he is dying, he says, ``The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.''
There is no doubt about the nobility of Spock's actions - for one person to place his or her own life at risk in order to help others is the definition of heroism.
However, what Spock said at the end deserves closer examination. The reasoning is sound, but there is a key element which commonly is overlooked. To see it, consider this:
Imagine a group of people who are trapped - perhaps by a snowstorm in the mountains. The group's resources are limited, and they are quickly running out of food. In order to extend their supplies, the group takes a vote to eliminate one person - they will cast that person out into the storm, where he or she will die of exposure, leaving more food for the rest of the group.
I don't think we need to specify more details - the example is disturbing and horrifying. I don't think anyone would disagree the group's decision was wrong, immoral. However, strictly speaking, it falls within the parameters Spock described.
The difference between the two situations, of course, lies in the identity of the person making the choice. In Spock's case, he chose to sacrifice himself, while in the latter case, the rest of the group decided that someone else should pay the price.
If moral calculations are done only from the point of view of material benefit - if they are to be done in a utilitarian manner - then the group's dcision was the correct one. But moral calculations are not purely utilitarian. There is a spiritual side to human existence, and the reality is that the spiritual side is vastly more important than the material one.
That is the central thesis of Reawakening Honor - that the spiritual side of human existence is the side which truly matters. The material side really is a frame within which humans live their spiritual existence.
In this case, the second situation represents a violation of that spiritual side - it is a clear rejection of the gratia of dignity. What the group has decided is to devalue the humanity of their colleague - they have determined that his or her value is less than theirs.
Since our world grows increasingly materialistic, increasingly utilitarian in its decision-making, this sort of question is essential. What we see from comparing these examples is that self-sacrifice is the essence of nobility - but that sacrificing another person is the opposite.