Exploring Postcolonialism in “Star Trek”

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy

By Professor David K. Johnson, Ph.D, King’s College
Image showing the interior of a spaceship.
Gene Roddenberry wanted to explore the consequences of wrongly imposed cultural norms on others in Star Trek: Next Generation. (Image: Natalia80/Shutterstock)

Influences of Postcolonialism in Star Trek: Next Generation

The overarching theme was that European or Western values and ways of life had been unjustly assumed superior and wrongly imposed on non-European communities. This, it seems, is a lesson that Gene Roddenberry took to heart because one can see the influences of these postcolonial voices in subsequent Star Trek series, like Star Trek: The Next Generation—which aired from 1987 to 1994.

For instance, in the episode “Justice,” Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D befriend the over-amorous, peace-loving people of Rubicun III. The crew discovers that they keep peace on their planet by having the death penalty as the only punishment for any crime. Unaware of this, Acting Ensign Wesley Crusher accidentally crashes into a restricted greenhouse and is sentenced to death. However, instead of trying to rewrite their laws by imposing a Western-style justice system on them, Picard simply makes a successful plea for Wesley’s life.

This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Problems of Postcolonialism

The primary problem is its seeming endorsement of cultural moral relativism. What is viewed as morally acceptable in one culture is morally acceptable for those in that culture, but is not for those in another culture with a different code.

This is the reason why it would always be considered wrong to impose one culture’s moral code onto another. But postcolonialism’s endorsement of cultural moral relativism is problematic because moral relativism is false. Many of the things that people think are objective moral facts really are just cultural conventions. There is certainly no way to prove what religion is true and most sexual taboos are just conventions. One might even argue that the moral value of freedom is culturally constrained, at least to some degree.

Imposing a Moral Norm on Another Culture

In the name of colonialism, many traditions, taboos, and moral norms have wrongly been imposed on native populations. But if there are moral facts, some of those facts are objective. A culture thinking it is alright to exterminate or enslave a minority group does not make it acceptable to do so. Therefore, one can argue that one culture imposing a moral norm on another is not necessarily bad.

It is not necessarily good either. If there is no moral difference between the imposed and the native practice, it would seem the native populations have the right to keep their own. If instead of replacing one of these immoral practices, the colonizing force imposes it, that obviously would be wrong.

However, the notion that it is always wrong for one culture to impose its values on another is false. A colonizing force could replace a morally bad practice with a better one.

Learn more about Star Trek: TNG and alternate worlds.

Nihilism and Morality

A nihilist can reject the notion that there are moral facts at all. But even on nihilism, cultural moral relativism is false. If nihilism is true, morality is not relative to culture. If a person is a nihilist, the notion that Europeans did something morally wrong by imposing their culture on native populations, stealing their land, and killing them en masse does not even make any sense. In fact, the notion that such things are morally wrong stands at the center of the postcolonial critique of colonialism, and yet that notion is antithetical to the cultural moral relativism that postcolonialism seems to endorse.

Moral Epistemological Humility

A plausible defense of the notion that it is always wrong to impose one culture’s norms on another is rooted in moral epistemological humility—an admission of one’s inability to know for sure that one’s moral beliefs are true. It is the admission that one could be wrong about what the moral facts are. For example, many of the founding fathers of the United States of America were completely convinced that slavery was morally justified, yet one knows that they were wrong

Mural painting showing the colonization of South Americans by the Europeans.
Europeans wrongfully imposed their culture on the natives of the land they colonized. (Image: matrioshka/Shutterstock)

A lack of certainty about moral facts does not make moral knowledge impossible. However, if a person knows that some cultural practice is wrong, it seems that he or she should stop it if he or she can—whether it is in his or her culture or another. But it does seem possible to be certain enough about the wrongness of a cultural practice to stop it.

While it is true that the sins of the colonialists were vast, it cannot be the case that one culture imposing its values on another is always wrong, like when the Allies imposed their prohibitions of genocide on the Nazis in World War II.

Learn more about turning the tide against Hitler.

The Cogenitor in Star Trek

In the Star Trek: Enterprise episode “Cogenitor”, the crew contacts a species called the Vissians. Vissians are tri-sexual; they have males, females, and cogenitors—and cogenitors are denied a name, are not educated, and are essentially treated like property. When Commander Trip Tucker learns that cogenitors’ brains are just as advanced as all other Vissians, in the name of human rights he takes it upon himself to educate one and show the cogenitor the limitless possibilities of life.

The cogenitor becomes dissatisfied with life among the Vissians and asks for asylum on the Enterprise. Tucker thinks he did the right thing, but Captain Jonathan Archer argues that it is not their place to tell the Vissians what rights cogenitors should have. Who is right here? It is hard to tell. If Tucker had seen one group of humans treating another that way, his corrective impulses likely would seem justified. But there is a number of things about Vissian culture of which Tucker is unaware of that are relevant to how cogenitors are treated.

If cogenitors were given rights and a choice in the matter, the Vissian species might very well go extinct. Indeed, the cogenitor that Tucker “helped” ended up committing suicide rather than live the life of a cogenitor; and the couple to which the cogenitor was assigned will now never have a child. As one of the Vissians pointed out, it is easy to misunderstand a cultural practice when one knows nothing about the culture.

Common Questions about Exploring Postcolonialism in Star Trek

Q: Can influences of postcolonialism be seen in the science fiction series Star Trek?

One can see the influences of the postcolonial voices in Star Trek: The Next Generation, which aired from 1987 to 1994.

Q: What is the primary problem with postcolonialism?

The primary problem with postcolonialism is its seeming endorsement of cultural moral relativism.

Q: What is moral epistemological humility?

Moral epistemological humility refers to an admission of one’s inability to know for sure that one’s moral beliefs are true.

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