Star Trek and Adam Smith: Sympathy of the Vians

science fiction empathy star trek sacrafice

February 14, 2023

Can Star Trek teach us something about when intellect and compassion doand don'tcollide? Hartley, with Adam Smith's help, thinks it can. 
Adam Smith begins the Theory of Moral Sentiments with a discussion of sympathy: 
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. 
What follows is a lengthy exploration of the implications of the fact that we are sympathetic beings. Smith provides an array of examples meant to illustrate the nature of sympathy, but, for some odd reason, he never seems to have watched Star Trek.
            The Star Trek episode “The Empath” (directed by John Erman and written by Gene Roddenberry and Joyce Muskat) is an extended exploration of the theme of sympathy. The brief plot summary: Kirk, Spock and McCoy are captured by a pair of Vians, Lal and Thann, and put an odd laboratory, where they meet a mute woman, whom McCoy names “Gem.” She is an empath; when she put her hands on Kirk, she heals a cut on his forehead by transferring it to her own forehead, which then heals itself. The Vians proceed to test Gem by torturing first Kirk and then McCoy to see if Gem is willing to sacrifice herself by healing the wounds of another. We learn later in the episode that the reason the Vians are running this test is to determine if Gem’s people have the capability of learning sympathy and the willingness to sacrifice oneself for another. Gem seems to fail the test by being unwilling to give up her life to save McCoy. 
            Examples of sympathy abound in the episode. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy all repeatedly attempt to sacrifice themselves for the others. Twice, Gem sympathizes with Kirk, who is a complete stranger to her, by taking on the pain of his wounds. She suffers visible torment at seeing McCoy’s wounds and the realization that to heal McCoy will mean the end of her own life. Kirk shows sympathetic concern for the crew of his ship when it is threated with danger. It is only the Vians who act like cold laboratory scientists.
            There may be something deeper going on in this episode, however. As McCoy is dying, Kirk angrily shouts at the Vians, “We will not leave our friend. You've lost the capacity to feel the emotions you brought Gem here to experience. You don't understand what it is to live. Love and compassion are dead in you. You're nothing but intellect.” Lal doesn’t reply; he simply walks over to heal McCoy, and then he and Thann take Gem and leave. Until now, I have always seen this as the moment that the Vians realized that Kirk was right, felt shame, and so ended the experiment.
            But in thinking about Smith, I realized the Vians’ silence after Kirk’s accusation can be read another way. What if Kirk was wrong and it was not shame that the Vians felt. What if all of the Vians’ actions from the beginning to the end of the episode are motivated by sympathy, that they were never “nothing but intellect,” but are actually full of “love and compassion.”
            At first it seems odd to think of the Vians as having sympathy because their actions within the episode seem so cold and calculating. But, think about the time before the episode begins. The sun in the Minaran solar system is about to explode and the Vians are deciding whether to save the people from Gem’s planet or from another planet. As Lal says, “Of all the planets of Minara, we have the power to transport the inhabitants of only one to safety.” Isn’t the desire to rescue people who are in danger a perfect example of sympathy?
            Then go one step further in thinking about their decision. Left unexplored is the nature of the other inhabitants of the solar system. Who are the people on the other planets? Why are Gem’s people the only ones on whom the Vians seem to be running their test? Looking closely, we discover that we do know something about the other inhabitants of the solar system. Consider this exchange:
Spock: What purpose can be served by the death of our friend except to bring you pleasure? Surely beings as advanced as yourselves know that your star system will soon be extinct. Your sun will nova.
Thann: We know.
“Your sun will nova,” and Thann acknowledges that this is true. The Vians also live in this solar system. The Vians have the power to save only one set of people. Faced with that choice, it seems rather obvious that the Vians would save themselves. But, instead, they are considering whether or not to save Gem’s people. If they do that, then the Vians themselves will die. The Vians would be sacrificing their own lives to save Gem’s people. Now think about the test they are running: to see if Gem’s people are capable of evolving to the place where they also would later on be willing to sacrifice themselves for the lives of others. The test is to see if Gem’s people are capable of developing the same level of love and compassion and willingness to sacrifice as the Vians possess. If so, the Vians will give up their own lives for Gem’s people.
            If this is right, then Lal’s silence after Kirk’s final accusation is not born of shame because Kirk is right. It is silence in the face of an accusation that is so wrong it is difficult to refute without causing further pain. Lal recognizes that Kirk is suffering and so silently decides to alleviate Kirk’s suffering by demonstrating that they will save Gem’s planet. Lal’s silence is the refusal to burden Kirk with the knowledge that the Vians are sacrificing themselves to save Gem’s people.
            If you want an example of what Adam Smith is talking about when he discusses the importance of sympathy, there may be no better example than the self-sacrifice of the Vians, the people who realized there is no greater love than to lay down their lives so that others might live.

Want more?
Edward Harpham's On Why Mutual Sympathy is Important to Adam Smith
From James Hartley: H.G. Wells should have read Adam Smith: Do the Eloi and Morlocks Trade?; Hidden Revolutionaries: Tristram Shandy and Adam Smith; and Money, Wealth, and Whuffie
EconTalk's Will MacAskill on Longtermism and What We Owe the Future and Erik Hoel on Effective Altruism, Utilitarianism, and the Repugnant Conclusion