Thursday, October 13, 2011

Why Fantasy Matters: Thoughts on Law, Politics, and Society (Part II)

In Not Only for Myself: Identity, Politics & Law, Martha Minow references a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode that I wanted to expand on in this entry.

Episode Synopsis
The episode, “The Measure of a Man”, centers on Data, an android. In the episode, a cybernetics specialist (and Starfleet Commander) requests permission from Captain Picard to disassemble Data for research purposes. The Commander explains that through the operation, he’ll (he hopes) finally acquire the knowledge necessary to mass-produce androids. The procedure, however, is not without risks. The Commander cannot guarantee that post-reassembly Data will retain memory of the “ephemeral” quality of his experiences. Upon realizing this, Data refuses to consent to the procedure. And, Captain Picard, Data’s superior officer, also refuses consent. Anticipating their less-than-enthusiastic response, the Commander produces transfer papers that place Data under his command. And, as Data’s new superior officer, orders him to undergo the procedure. Left with the unattractive choice of undergoing the procedure or quitting Starfleet, Data decides to quit. Furious and undeterred, the Commander argues that Data cannot quit Starfleet anymore than the ship’s central mainframe can; Data is property and property can’t quit. The on-site JAG officer agrees but Picard, also undeterred, demands a trial to challenge Data’s property designation.

At first, the courtroom debate is as you’d expect; the argument was whether Data was property or a person and so, both sides pointed to different facts about Data to prove their side. (“Data can be turned on and off by a switch, which makes him a machine, which makes him property.” “Yes, but Data also values friendship and keeps sentimental trinkets, so Data is really a person.”) But then, the strategy changes. Instead of focusing on facts about Data to prove his personhood, Data’s lawyer (Picard) reframes the entire question, asking instead what sort of people they wanted to be. On the cusp of potentially creating an entire race of androids, did they want to be the sort of people who would deny them personhood? The sort of people who would choose to look at an android who saw himself as a person and tell him he was mistaken? Is that who they wanted to be?

In the end, the court found Data to be a person. But, before leaving, Data tells the Commander that he will agree to the procedure once the Commander figures out how to ensure his safety, adding further that he finds the Commander’s research to be intriguing. In later episodes, Data and the Commander take up a correspondence, as equals.

Minow uses this scene to explore the idea that when we are not for others, we are capable of monstrous acts. Here, I bring it up instead to explore the multiple frameworks from which we can view difficult questions and the importance of utilizing each in our decision making process.

As I see it, there are two overarching deliberation frameworks highlighted in this episode:
  1. How we as a society make legal determinations and why that process matters.
  2. How individuals make decisions and the danger of individuals conflating and collapsing moral and ethical questions into legal ones (i.e. thinking that just because an option is legally permissible, they should do it.)
The significance of legal determinations
The episode powerfully illuminates that there are at least two distinct perspectives from which we can make legal arguments.

First, we see the traditional model. The question is whether Data is property and so both sides argue that, all of Data’s attributes considered, he’s more machine than person or more person than machine.

The second type of argument, the type Picard ends with, is radically different. Instead of making the legal determination based on facts about the thing being labeled (Data), the tables are turned and the judge is asked what the court’s decision says about them. To make a decision based not just on what Data is but based on what sort of people they wanted themselves to be.

Both types of arguments are powerful and important.

The first type of argument (pointing to facts about a person and making institutionally-supported conclusions based off them) unavoidably leads that individual, and those who share in his attributes, to internalize those determinations and, as a result, be shaped by them. Minow references a Washington Post article, “Stereotypes Within,” that captures how sixth graders have already internalized stereotypes about their own ethnic groups that greatly limit their sense of self and future opportunities. Picard makes a similar argument with regards to Data – by calling him property, they would preemptively deprive him the joys of self-discovery and creation. The point here is not that all institutionally-supported classifications are inherently bad, but just that they are powerful. Thus, we would do well to tread lightly.

The second argument reminds us that what the law is is a reflection on who we are and who we want to become. Minow emphasizes that when we are not for others we are capable of monstrous acts. This episode adds an interesting twist for it seems that sometimes focusing exclusively on others, by weighing factors about them, lends itself to our forgetting that we too are transformed by our decisions. In other words, at least sometimes, the winning argument may be a selfish one. What is best for us, Picard asks. Do we want to be monsters? We have to take care of ourselves by making decisions that help us become who we want to be, too.

The responsibility of the individual
As society is shaped by what it permits and prohibits, so too are individuals shaped by what they choose to do. An option being legally permissible is only the first step; the second harder and ennobling one is to then decide whether to not to actually pursue it. When we neglect the second question, we deprive ourselves of the blessing of being the sort of creature who has shaped herself by making choices she thought good.

Imagine that the court found Data to be property. If the Commander would have then disassembled him, we would still find the Commander morally repugnant. We condemn the society that says such behavior is permissible but we also separately judge the man who takes advantage of that opportunity.

The episode, and stories like it, helps us pull apart the many viewpoints from which we should examine our decisions. We can tear down or empower others with the law, our society is shaped in part by what we allow, and we as individuals are made by what we choose. We should, it is clear, take care.