Published Apr 26, 2023
The Importance of Friendship in Star Trek
To achieve a united Federation-esque society, we need to appreciate cross-cultural friendships.
By Dr. Timothy Harvie
One of the things I found most unsettling in my first viewing of Star Trek: Enterprise was the difficult relationships between humans and the Vulcans.
The Vulcans were paternalistic, appeared condescending, and could even engage in duplicitous acts. There was a cloud of suspicion that they were stultifying human exploration and the progress of Starfleet’s programs. In addition to some odd discontinuities with the other series, it was these cultural and relational motifs that I found unsettling. I was used to seeing Vulcans as close allies and friends of the humans in Starfleet.
However, the more I think about this, the more it makes sense. Vulcans were the first alien species to make contact with humans and their unemotional devotion to logic, their cultural proclivities and differences, and their modes of communication would be off-putting for those first generations after contact. It takes time and dedication, shared experiences and companionship in tragedy, patience and commitment to learn to grow friendships with those who are so different from our own worldviews.
This is the second essay in a series of three that asks the question — How do we move from our current situation, with all of its division, to the unity and flourishing found in the Federation? In the first, I wrote of the need for a well-rounded education that helps mold people into critical thinkers. In this second piece, I will discuss the necessity of cross-cultural friendships.
[Editor's Note: In the third essay, Dr. Harvie examines importance of the Gorn and how facing a formidable opponent presents as an opportunity for transcendence.]
The difficulties witnessed between species, and even among our favorite characters, were real and, at times, virulent. In the Star Trek: The Original Series’ episode “The Tholian Web,” we are witness to some of this conflict. After Kirk disappears along with the starship Defiant, Spock and McCoy do not see eye to eye on the course of action the crew should take. The disagreement becomes so caustic that McCoy accuses Spock of opportunistically attempting to usurp Kirk’s command.
This seems a far cry from the friendships we come to know these characters enjoy. The friendship that develops between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy is not automatic. It is not something that happens with ease and it does not appear to come naturally for either McCoy or Spock. It is only with a lifetime of shared experiences and the unwavering commitment to the flourishing of the other in their midst that seemingly insurmountable differences become fodder for friendship.
We see the fruit of a lifetime of dedicated commitment to friendship in a particularly poignant scene in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Immediately after Kirk has a near-death experience whilst rock climbing, the famed trio sit around a campfire for some of McCoy’s homemade beans with a secret ingredient (Tennessee whiskey). It sees the aging Starfleet officers still getting on one another’s nerves, but now the irritation seems more feigned than actual. McCoy jokes with his companions, “You know you two can drive a man to drink.” The three move from jests to discussing their shared concerns and experiences of life and death. McCoy continues reflecting on friendship saying, “It’s a mystery to me what draws us together. All that time in space and getting on each other’s nerves, what do we do when shore leave comes along? We spend it together.”
McCoy reflects on the realities and ideals of friendship with those who are different than him. McCoy chastises Kirk for his reckless abandon in climbing and exhibiting an apparent disregard for the preciousness of human life. He is still frustratingly bewildered at the difference of Spock’s culture, outlook, and way of being in the world. Spock’s literalism in wondering the merits of campfire singing cause McCoy to blurt out “God, I liked him better before he died!” Yet despite the differences, the cultural incongruities, the petty annoyances, and the genuine disagreements, in this scene, we see people coming together out of a mutual sense of care and dedication to the well-being of the others in the group.
One of the most influential discussions on friendship in the history of philosophy was conducted by Aristotle in Books VIII and IX in Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle describes three types of friendships — pleasure, utility and seeking the benefit of the other for the other’s sake. In the first two types of friendship, be it because of fun or receiving something useful from the other, the primary motive is gaining something for oneself. Because of the inward focus of these two types of friendships, they tend to be short-lived and do not tend toward the development of character.
In the final type, people are not concerned primarily for themselves, but for the other. These friendships take time. They require constancy through hardship and devotion to the other’s welfare. Here the goal is to work toward the flourishing of another person rather than ensuring one’s own desires are paramount. Friends seek the benefit of each other, and in so doing also happen to be useful and pleasurable to one another. This friendship develops the character of each partner.
However, Aristotle thought that this type of friendship required similarity. He thought that “like is drawn to like,” and this is necessary for mutually-enhancing friendship. Aristotle argued that people must be alike in virtue, but he thought this entailed being of similar social stature, culture, and worldview. What he failed to understand was that while communities with comparable outlooks, histories, and backgrounds can give a sense of security and warmth, they can also be insular and stagnant. If people remain friends only with those who have opinions and beliefs analogous to their own, these friendships can just as easily become narrow feedback loops of self-confirming attitudes.
It seems that the life-changing friendships in Star Trek are relationships which explore the essential mystery and wonder of a person who is fundamentally different than oneself. These differences include intellectual differences, differences in value-systems, religions, technical abilities, and life-philosophies.
One example is found in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Ethics.” The friendship between Commander Riker and Lt. Worf is tested by a vehement disagreement over culture and beliefs. Worf is paralyzed from an injury and wants Riker to assist in a Klingon ritual which involves ending Worf’s life. Riker is opposed to the ritual and yet wants to honor his friend. Riker finds the ritual despicable and one that exhibits beliefs regarding life that are fundamentally opposed to his own. He finds that though he cannot simply disregard Worf’s request, he will not take part in the ceremony.
What is most important here is that through this fundamental disagreement regarding core convictions about life their friendship remains strong. Their dedication to and respect for the other remains constant. For these individuals, dedicated friendship does not necessitate agreement. Having similar outlooks and beliefs is not a prerequisite for a friendship which has the other’s flourishing at its center.
Aristotle’s insights into friendship offer us important categories for understanding the role of community in developing the kind of character important for a good life. What is missing is a dynamic account of the necessity of newness and difference in making that happen. In order to have the kind of society envisioned in the Federation, openness to novel experiences and relationships is a prerequisite for understanding. It requires the willingness to stick with someone in the midst of disagreement and continue to seek the betterment of others with whom we have little in common. Aristotle says that friendship depends on community.
In Star Trek, we see humans experience the misunderstandings and growing pains of expanding that community to increasingly encompass those we do not fully understand. One day we might have to learn how to get along with Vulcans or Klingons. Today, we can become friends with someone at the local community center, church, synagogue or mosque. We can become dedicated to someone with opposing political or philosophical beliefs. Today, we can learn how to have better, more-inclusive friendships.
This article was originally published on March 17, 2017.
Timothy Harvie is Associate Professor of philosophy and ethics at St. Mary's University in Calgary, Canada. His interests lie primarily in philosophical theology, political philosophy, environmental and animal philosophies, and ideas of the role of hope in society. He is a lifelong Star Trek fan.