Captain Kirk’s Moral Dilemma

According to the Imitation of Christ our reason is limited and often “hidden in profound darkness.” Nevertheless it “still retains the power to know good and evil.” It may seem a bit of a jump from this fourteenth century spiritual treatise to the 1966 Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within,” which I recently watched again. Both deal with the same puzzling aspects of man’s nature, though the conclusions they reach are fundamentally different.

In the Richard Matheson TV script the dual aspects of Captain Kirk’s personality have, as a result of a transporter malfunction, become split and rematerialized in two starkly contrasting versions of the same man—one is thoughtful and upright, but increasingly ineffectual; the other is vigorous and passionate, but uninhibited.  As Mr. Spock puts it, we see man’s “negative side, which you call hostility, lust, violence, and his positive side, which Earth people express as compassion, love, tenderness.” As the “good” Kirk begins to falter in his ability to deal with problems and to act decisively, Spock explains that “his ‘evil’ side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength.” Dr. McCoy very compellingly chimes in: “We all have our darker side. We need it! It’s half of what we are.”

The difficulty with this view is that it confuses moral qualities with psychological ones. It is true that, like the two Kirks, we find our intellect and will frequently at war with each other. The Christian understands that this tragic dichotomy is the result of a primordial fall from grace. It is an explanation that seems pessimistic and harsh to some, yet if understood in the right way it makes for a more nuanced view of human nature than does a false and potentially irreconcilable dualism. If human personality was capable of perfection in its paradisiacal state, then no aspect of our nature can be inherently “bad.” It only becomes so when we lose self-control through pride (the intellect) or sensuality (the will). To fail to understand this invariably leads to puritanism or libertinism, two extremes which are alike in their moral over-simplification.

Dr. McCoy offers a helpful insight when discussing the “evil” Captain’s fear of danger and the unknown.  The “good” half possess foresight and logic, which is “where man’s essential courage comes from.” Nevertheless, it is wrong to see the active side as “dark.” Indeed, without passion all the best resolutions of the intellect would remain futile and inert.

The combination of our two “halves” must come about through harmony rather than compromise. Otherwise you end up with a philosophy that sees actions and choices as a series of concessions—a sort of morality by percentages. As Aristotle points out, some activities admit of gradations or a “mean.” This can be true of anger and courage, but not of murder; of material ambition, but not of theft.  There is, for example, no such thing as “moderate” adultery. Yet the dualistic principles held by many indeed tend to blur these distinctions.

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