Recently, I wrote a piece for The Companion about the relationship between Jean-Luc Picard and Seven of Nine, comparing and contrasting the impact of their respective traumas.
Since that piece focused more on Picard’s character arc, and I don’t want to short-change Jeri Ryan’s beautiful work, I’d now like to take a deep dive into Seven’s character – specifically, her character introduction in the Star Trek: Voyager episode ‘The Gift’ (S4, Ep2).
(Yes, I know that’s technically her second appearance in the series. But it’s the first time we get to really dive into her character, so I’m counting it as the true “character introduction.”)
Though wonderfully written and acted, the episode isn’t an easy one to watch. Rarely do we see Star Trek characters stare down the abyss and grapple with despair, yet that’s exactly what Seven does here. Forcibly assimilated and raised by the Borg from a young age, she now has to deal with another action that deprives her of her agency: forcible removal from the Collective.
‘The Gift’ is essentially a 45-minute play, with dialogue and ethical diatribes providing the drama (in other words, Star Trek at its best). The fundamental question: Does Captain Janeway have the right to force Seven to reclaim her individuality? The inherent contradictions within that question are obvious, hence the episode’s dramatic arc.
Yet underlying this discussion is an even bigger question: does the Federation’s philosophy bear a moral superiority to that of the Borg? The answer to that question is not obvious philosophically, but it’s one I believe we must address before we can take the episode’s debate seriously.
These questions may seem trivial at first. After all, I’m spending 3,000-PLUS words analyzing an episode of television from the 90s, set in the 23rd century. Yet the questions raised are as relevant today as then. Today, the world questions the virtue of democracy and liberalism—and whether the use of undemocratic and illiberal means to protect those institutions is justified. Diving deep into ‘The Gift’ is indeed a worthy exercise, one that can help us better understand ourselves. After all, that’s what Star Trek is all about.
Should We Even Resist the Borg?
Before we get into the meat of the episode, let’s address the underlying question I raised above. Captain Janeway’s entire argument is based on the premise that the Borg ethical framework holds no weight and does not deserve the same respect as another civilization’s practices. After all, if Voyager had captured a Klingon who demanded to be released back to her people, they would likely comply, no questions asked.
While this may seem obvious to the 21st-century viewer, absolutist claims about Borg morality run contrary to Federation philosophy—the same philosophy that places the Prime Directive at its center. Commander Benjamin Sisko summed up this philosophy up in the Deep Space Nine Season 1 finale, ‘In the Hands of the Prophets’ (S1, Ep19):
“My philosophy is that there is room for all philosophies on this station.”
Under this policy of complete and total tolerance, the Borg philosophy would necessarily be welcomed both on the station—and within the Federation. However, I doubt that when presented with the situation, Sisko would welcome the Borg with open arms. Instead, he would likely argue that tolerance has limits: probably saying something to the effect of this: once your philosophy stops tolerating others, then it is no longer worthy of tolerance.
Of course, if we got the chance to sit down with the Borg Queen, she would probably present a different perspective. To her, human individuality actually prohibits true freedom, which is only achieved when one attains perfection. After all, imperfections hamper the individual from accomplishing the greater good. So what’s the point of freedom if it only enables imperfections to fester?
Under that question, the idea of surrendering one’s individuality to a collective will could be interpreted as a noble one. This is a notion that isn’t foreign to Starfleet officers; they give up some semblance of individuality – they follow orders and wear uniforms – to serve a greater purpose. The difference, of course, between the Borg and Starfleet, is that Starfleet officers choose their fate, and they have the freedom to leave. Not only that, but Starfleet officers don’t totally surrender their individuality. They have off-hours and are welcome to contribute to debate and discussion regarding the operation of the starship when appropriate.
The question of Borg ethics is, then, twofold: is assimilation justified if forced and if total?
Let’s address the second part of the question first. Even among the cooperative crews, conflict inevitably arises; conflict that could potentially derail the goal. Now, that may be a worthwhile risk if the goal is to chart a nebula, but it isn’t when achieving something as totally consuming and ostensibly important as perfection itself. Thus, if we can demonstrate that perfection is an ethical goal to work toward, we have to concede that total assimilation in its pursuit is itself justified (more on that later).
As to the first part of the question: is forced assimilation justified? Consider that every collective has limits. There will always arise the need to acquire new skills, technologies, and experiences—all necessary to reach perfection. Now, there are some who would be willing to join the collective of their own free will, but most would not. Thus, the question of compulsory assimilation arises: does the collective have the ethical right to force individuals and civilizations into their collective?
Remember: from the Borg perspective, they do not kill or eliminate individuals, cultures, or species. Instead they absorb them into the Collective, allowing them to live on, contributing their unique strengths toward their common purpose. Although that state of existence is different from that of a free individual, under the Federation principle of tolerance, we have to ask the question: is that state of existence actively harmful to the individual? We come back to the issue of perfection: if perfection is an ethical goal for the individual to attain, then forced assimilation is at least ethically tenable, although not absolutely justified. If not, then forced assimilation is unjustified in any case.
It seems, then, that the fundamental question that we must address is: is perfection an ethical goal to strive toward? If so, then we must accept Borg philosophy as valid, and Janeway’s decision to forcibly remove Seven from the Collective has no justification. If not, then we can proceed to the core debate addressed in the episode.
Before we dive into that question, we should respond to one important objection: what if the Borg were prone to corruption? It’s entirely possible that the Collective could be aimed at a goal other than perfection if its will was corruptible. However, in every encounter with the Borg, they have not strayed from this objective. While the question is interesting, it’s not relevant to the conversation.
Is Perfection an Ethical Goal?
So let’s address that question: is perfection an ethical goal? To do so, we must define what we mean by “perfection.” There are clearly many things that could comprise perfection, too many to define and consolidate into a definition. Even if we did so, surely someone would find objection to that definition.
For the purposes of this discussion, however, we don’t need to go that far. There’s only one attribute of perfection that we need to consider, because it’s the lynchpin that holds the whole thing together. That is: perfection must be, if nothing else, an unchanging state of being. The reason is obvious: a perfect state of being, by definition, cannot be improved upon. Thus, the state of perfection would be unchanging.
If we demonstrate that an unchanging state is an ethical one, then the Borg philosophy has an ethical leg to stand on, although it doesn’t completely justify their position. However, if we demonstrate that an unchanging state is inherently unethical, then we must reject Borg philosophy altogether.
To evaluate this idea, I’m going to engage in three different ethical frameworks. If all of them demonstrate that an unchanging state is unethical, then we can say with confidence that it is.
Let’s begin with utilitarian ethics, which states that the ethical choice is the one that generates the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. At first glance, the Borg philosophy seems to fit well within that framework – it’s the most efficient way to bring the greatest number of people into a state of perfection, which would ostensibly result in the greatest happiness. But individuals do not experience happiness passively; in fact, it is by overcoming challenges and growing as an individual that we attain the greatest levels of happiness. In other words, to be happy, we must change. Thus, Borg philosophy is incompatible with utilitarianism.
Second, let’s consider deontological ethics, which can basically be summed up in a simple rule: act in accordance with universal law, or in such a way that you would expect others to behave. This is clearly antithetical to the Borg, as they would never tolerate another species to exist outside the Collective, and there’s no evidence to suggest that they would allow themselves to be assimilated by a greater collective in pursuit of the same perfection. Based on the evidence available to us, the Borg ethical framework is incompatible with deontological ethics.
Finally, there’s virtue ethics, which is the oldest of these three frameworks. It emphasizes the role of personal character in ethics: act as a virtuous person would, and you’ll bring about good consequences. It’s impossible for any individuals in the Borg Collective to act ethically under virtue ethics, as their will have been subsumed into a hive mind. When choice is removed from the equation, virtue is nonexistent. Thus, virtue ethics clearly rejects Borg philosophy.