February 23, 2024

That eminent utilitarian Mr Spock

Was he the world’s most famous spokesman for the creed of Jeremy Bentham?

Peter Singer is often described as the most influential philosopher alive. (This tag, along with “most controversial” and “most dangerous”, derives from a profile in The New Yorker by Michael Specter after he accepted a chair at Princeton University.) But is he the most influential utilitarian alive?

Perhaps so. But only because Leonard Nimoy, aka Mr Spock, passed away this week. It certainly could be argued that the pointy-eared half-Vulcan, half-human was at least the best-known utilitarian. His spirit lives on in the TV series and several movies, notably Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In the concluding scene, the warp drive of USS Starship Enterprise has been damaged. Braving lethal doses of radiation, Spock enters the engine room, and restores power. In his dying moments, he speaks to Kirk through the glass doors. It’s a classic statement of the fundamental utilitarian principle. 

Spock: Don’t grieve, Admiral. It’s logical. The needs of the many outweigh . . .

Kirk: — the needs of the few . . .

Spock: — or the one…  [He kneels.] I have been . . . and always shall be . . . your friend. [He places his hand on the chamber glass, and his voice is a whispered broken husk.] Live long and prosper!

Kirk: [places his hand against the glass as Spock slumps and dies] No. . . .

Creative commons
Peter Singer