Spock’s Illogic: “The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few”

With this week’s DVD release of Star Trek into Darkness, now is a good time to evaluate or reevaluate the oft-stated Star Trek claim, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” (or “the one”). This claim is made in various scenes in the films, including in the latest one. Let’s first consider some instances and the relevant contexts.

In The Wrath of Khan (1982), Spock says, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Captain Kirk answers, “Or the one.” This sets up a pivotal scene near the end of the film (spoilers follow).

With the Enterprise (ship) in imminent danger of destruction, Spock enters a highly radioactive chamber in order to fix the ship’s drive so the crew can escape danger. Spock quickly perishes, and, with his final breaths, says to Kirk, “Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh . . .” Kirk finishes for him, “The needs of the few.” Spock replies, “Or the one.”

In the next film, The Search for Spock (1984), the crew of the Enterprise discovers that Spock is not actually dead, that his body and soul survive separately, and that it may be possible to rejoin them—which the crew proceeds to do. Once restored, Spock asks Kirk why the crew saved him. Kirk answers, “Because the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.” This is, as Spock might say, a fascinating reversal of the message in the previous film.

How can these ideas be reconciled?

We find an answer in the next film, The Voyage Home (1986). At the beginning of this film, Spock’s mother, who is human (his father is Vulcan), asks him whether he still believes that, by logic, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. He says yes. She replies, “Then you are here because of a mistake—your friends have given their future to save you.” (The crew had broken the law and had gone on the run in order to rescue Spock.) Spock says that humans are sometimes illogical; his mother answers, “They are, indeed!”

Later in the film, when crewman Chekov is in trouble, Spock insists that the crew save him, even at risk of jeopardizing the crew’s vital mission to save Earth and everyone on it. Kirk asks, “Is this the logical thing to do?” Spock answers, “No, but it is the human thing to do.” Although Spock reaffirms his claim that the needs of the many logically outweigh the needs of the few, he suggests that sometimes we must do the “human” thing, not the logical thing, and put the needs of the few (or the one) first.

So Spock, Kirk, and Spock’s mother have affirmed the idea that acting logically and acting “human” can be at odds—and that acting logically means always putting the needs of the many first. This is the alleged reconciliation of the apparently conflicting ideas with which we started.

But this logically is not a reconciliation at all.

In logic, (a) there can be no divide between acting logically and acting human; and (b) as Ayn Rand discovered and explained, the needs of the individual are what give rise to the need and possibility of value judgments to begin with.

Our capacity to use logic, to integrate the evidence of our senses in a noncontradictory way, is part of our rational faculty—the very faculty that makes us human. Obviously, we also have the capacity to be illogical, but that is because our rational faculty also entails volition, the power to choose to think or not to think. We also have the capacity to experience emotions, which are automatic responses to our experiences in relation to our values. (Various other species have an emotional capacity as well, but our values are chosen, so even on this score we are substantially different.)

Our emotions, though real and important, are not a means of knowledge; they are automatic reactions to experiences in relation to our value judgments. Our means of knowledge is reason, the use of observation and logic.

In regard to the Star Trek example, the reason Kirk was right to help Spock is not that doing so was “human” as against “logical”; rather, he was right to help Spock because, given the immense value that Spock is to Kirk, both as a friend and as a colleague, and given that the mission to help Spock was feasible, helping him was the logical and thus human thing to do.

In this case, Kirk’s emotional ties to Spock aligned with his logical evaluation of Spock’s value to him. It is possible for a person’s values to be out of line with his rational judgment, but in such cases his rational judgment remains his means of knowledge, and his emotions should take a backseat until he reassesses his values and brings them back into line with his logical assessment of the facts.

Once we see the relationship and potential harmony between reason and emotion, we can see that Spock’s claim that being logical is (or can be) at odds with being human makes no sense.

What of Spock’s claim, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”? Logic requires that some evidence be offered in support of such a claim—but Spock offers no evidence in support of this. He just asserts it. Which “many”? Which “few”? “Outweigh” on whose scale? For what purpose? To whose benefit? Why is his or their benefit the proper benefit? Spock does not address such questions; he simply asserts that logic clearly dictates his conclusion. But it doesn’t.

Far from being an expression of logic, Spock’s claim that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few is an arbitrary assertion and a restatement of the baseless moral theory known as utilitarianism, which asserts that each individual should act to serve the greatest good for the greatest number. (For a critique of utilitarianism, see my essay on the moral theory of Sam Harris, TOS, Winter 2012–13.)

What logic actually dictates is that if human beings want to live and achieve happiness, they must identify and pursue the values that make that goal possible. As Ayn Rand points out, life makes values both possible and necessary. We need to eat—in order to live and prosper. We need to wear protective clothing and find shelter—in order to live and prosper. We need to pursue a productive career to gain goods and services—in order to live and prosper. The principle holds true in more-complex cases as well. We need to build friendships to gain a wide variety of intellectual, psychological, and material benefits—in order to live and prosper. We need to experience great art to see our values in concrete form—in order to live and prosper. The pattern holds for all our values. Logically, the only ultimate reason we need to pursue any value is in order to live and prosper. (See Rand’s essay “The Objectivist Ethics” for her derivation of this principle.)

How does this principle apply in the Star Trek examples? In the case of Kirk’s dangerous mission to help Spock, Kirk logically concludes that, given the full context of his values, saving his dear friend is worth the risk involved.

What are we to make, then, of Spock’s final actions in The Wrath of Khan? Does he sacrifice his own life and values in order to serve the needs of the many? No. Khan, piloting a damaged ship, sets off a device that will soon cause a massive explosion that will destroy his own ship along with the Enterprise and its entire crew. Captain Kirk says to his chief engineer, “Scotty, I need warp speed in three minutes or we’re all dead.” It is at this point that Spock leaves the bridge, goes to engineering, and enters a radiation-filled room in order to repair the ship’s warp drive. As a result of Spock’s actions, the Enterprise speeds away to a safe distance from the explosion—but Spock “dies.”

Spock does consider the needs of his friends and shipmates in making this move. But he does not thereby sacrifice his own values or even his own life. His only alternative is to die with the ship anyway. Instead of dying and having all of his shipmates and friends die too, he chooses to uphold and protect the values that he can and to uphold his commitment to serve as a Star Fleet officer—a position that he chose knowing and accepting the risks involved.

Although in this case Spock must pick the least bad of two bad options, he makes the choice that best serves his interests and thus his life.

The only principle consistent with logic and thus with humanity is that if we want to “live long and prosper” (as Vulcans often say) we must use logic and pursue our life-serving values. Fortunately, contrary to Spock’s occasional illogic, this is what he actually does. And this is why so many people love him. It’s only logical.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

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  • Anonymous

    Thanks. I always thought that Spock was not making a sacrifice as it was clear he was going to die anyway.

  • http://www.facebook.com/DiabolicalRob Rob Scanlon

    I had the same exact thoughts. Thanks, Mr. Armstrong,for expressing them better than I.

  • allen 2saint

    One of the biggest problems with “geek chic” which celebrates and even venerates, through commodification, sci-fi movies and TV shows is that stuff like Star Trek, which is the modern equivalent of pulp hero adventures( at best!), is subjected to all this deep critical analysis which goes nowhere. What a waste of time! Of course it falls short, people! These were scripts for movies for God’s sake, not philosophy courses.

    • Anonymous

      You think this analysis went “nowhere” and wasted your time? Why are you on this site? The movies discussed dealt with an important moral concept that has made the difference between life and death to many. The message is clear if unexplained and contradicted by the circumstances presented: The individual is to be sacrificed on moral grounds. Why? No answer is given. We are expected to take this as logical without explanation because of the stature of the character speaking. (Appeal to authority) I do not believe these scripts present such flawed and dangerous ideas by accident. They serve anyone who rules. They serve those who would use people as cannon fodder. They create the “sanction of the victim”. People volunteer to kill and be killed believing it is nobel to sacrifice.

      • allen 2saint

        Discussing utilitarianism is fine. Setting your sights on a piece of popular entertainment and then congratulating yourself for the effort is preposterous. It’s a movie script.

      • allen 2saint

        Discussing utilitarianism is fine. Setting your sights on a piece of popular entertainment and then congratulating yourself for the effort is preposterous. It’s a movie script.

  • laura


  • Friend of John Galt

    The messages that pass as “philosophy” in Hollywood films and TV are often slanted toward altruistic goals (such as “community” or “the common good”). Spock in this film explores the basis of utilitarianism (a flawed philosophy that ultimately ignores individual rights). If Spock had fully applied logic to the premise of “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (or the one)”, he would easily have seen that this approach can easily lead to adverse outcomes in many ways.

    Of course, when it comes to Hollywood, the backstory often needs to be considered. In this case, the actor, Leonard Nimoy, had expressed his having been “typecast” as Spock — and that it was interfering with his career (as an actor) with the only solution being to end his public association with the character. Hence, the “death” of Spock. (Nimoy had written a book, “I am not Spock.”)

    After the fact, there has been equivocation on this point, with claims that it was simply a plot device — but that reflects “20-20 hindsight.” I recall hearing Nimoy state that every once in a while, an actor is given a life-changing role that forever links him to a fictional character. Nimoy indicated that he did not appreciate this situation at first — but had since come to accept it.

    As for Star Trek, the combination of multiple TV series and the various films has generally reflected a positive outlook for the future of humanity. Most of the time, the underlying philosophy that drives the societies depicted is somewhat amorphous — but it tends toward utilitarianism (which must have influenced Gene Roddenberry, the original series creator). There are also altruistic and collectivist philosophies on display, usually in a positive way. Capitalism is given a serious negative portrayal by the Ferengi (encountered in S.T. Next Generation and other later series) who appear to be “greedy capitalists” though their society seems to have a strangely collectivist angle to it, though it does appear to be mostly a meritocracy. Still, by making the Ferengi “capitalists,” the many non-life affirming practices of the Ferengi are actually inconsistent with a true meritocracy of capitalists.

    Ultimately, the Star Trek Universe does not appear to be driven by any single clear philosophy, but rather reflects the mixed and confusing views of economic systems and underlying operative philosophy that confounds our public culture. Philosophical motivations in one episode or film may be completely turned on their head in the next episode or film, if it suits the necessary plot twists to carry the story forward.

    So, while it is valid to explore and criticize the utilitarianism on display in “The Wrath of Khan” and the subsequent two films in that story arc, it does not appear that there is any serious effort to depict (in the Star Trek Universe) utilitarianism as a future course of humanity.

  • Anonymous

    The Trek movies are disappointing philosophically and I find that ruins them for me. I keep going, but only once for each. Atlas Shrugged I see more than once and will buy the DVDs. I enjoyed the TV series so much more. My favorite episode, in fact, my all time favorite drama was from “The Next Generation: Death Wish”. It is a very rare treatment of the issue of our mortality.

    • Anonymous

      Not sure which episode you’re referring to (there was no TNG episode called “Death Wish”), but perhaps you meant “Ethics”? The one where Worf is grievously wounded and wishes for death, but the crew refuses to allow it?

      There was an excellent episode dealing with the nature of rights – specifically in the context of Data. It is a second season episode called “The Measure of a Man”, where Data is put on trial to decide if he has the right to life, and therefore the right to retire from Starfleet rather than be “put to death” for an experiment to attempt to create more of him, and thus better Starfleet as a whole.

      The concept of the episode is very “individual rights vs. collectivist society”, with the individual actually winning in the end. Considering Star Trek’s usual penchant for collectivist leanings (See: Picard, Star Trek: First Contact. “There is no money in the 24th century….we work to better ourselves, and all of humanity.”) it is a breath of fresh air to see them take a stab at collectivism, even if only accidentally.

      • Don Duncan

        I’m sure it was the TNG. It was a two hour episode where a Q is running from the “Continue-um”. He is chased by the Q who gave Pichard/Starfleet so much trouble. His goal is to show the value of death which he believes the other Q have forgotten or never learned. He wants to do this by committing suicide. He is granted sanctuary on the ship and a chance to make his case in a court setting.
        The author is deceased now but he wrote another good episode called: “The Blue & the Grey”.
        Hermann Hesse expounded on this theme in his short story: “Faldum”.

  • roberta4343

    logical to me would be that one would not violate the right to self defense or self preservation, but thanks for pointing out that spock was going ot die anyway, but why not die in a way that helps his friends live? I would call that love. so he actually loved his friends, like a parent saves a child at their own life when there are no other alternatives. a person jumps into a bad situation to save another person even if they don’t know them, because of that natural love of life, respect for life, which gov/corp seem to lack. altruism and humanitarism is just a ideology those in power like to use (and it is cheapest too) to gain control over others. they do not practice what they preach but neither do alot of religious/political leaders who are more concerend about keeping power then in leading their flocks to spiritual life or material prosperity.

  • lou4

    It isn’t necessary for us to “prosper”; only to live/survive in order to perform necessary duties/chores so we can continue to survive.

    The needs of the one/few only outweigh the needs of the many when the many decide the one/few will benefit the many should their quest be successful. After
    considering the possibilities for success or failure, they try to save the one/few who will provide the vaccine/food/transportation, etc., that will save the many from harm.
    Both actions are logical considering the circumstances.

    If leaving a sinking, inflated raft will save the many, the one/few may willingly or unwillingly be “encouraged/allowed” to vacate it. If the one who volunteers is a medical professional or experienced sailor, the many may decide instead to take turns paddling alongside the raft until land or a boat is sighted. If it’s a sick, old woman who complains a lot, they just may “volunteer” her to hang on to the side to save the many, which also could be considered logical.

  • Alissa R.

    With respect to individual rights Justice Ginsberg said it best: “your right to swing your arms ends where the other man’s nose begins”