Just what are cadets to learn from the Kobayashi Maru scenario in Star Trek? While it’s the perfect foreshadowing and opening for Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, with its discussion of death and sacrifice, and is later used to show the cockiness of Kirk and the rigidity of Spock in the 2009 reboot, is there more to the test than just a narrative device? For one writer, the test isn’t about the scenario itself but instead how it informs the test-taker’s perspective on life and death.
Writing for Forbes, Janet D. Stemwedel discusses the parameters of the test as well as exactly what types of ethics it’s actually testing. For those unfamiliar, here’s the Kobayashi Maru test as presented in Star Trek II:
Stemwedel points out that Kirk’s solution for the test—essentially cheating and reprogramming it to allow a win-win scenario—did show creative thinking and a novel approach to a problem. It also cheated him out of learning to lose.
A crucial feature of good ethical decision-making in the real world is understanding the limits of your powers. You try to make choices that bring lots of good consequences and minimal bad ones, that fulfill your obligations to everyone to whom you have obligations (including yourself) — but you’re doing it in a complicated world where you must make your choices on the basis of imperfect information, and where other people are doing things that may impose constraints on your options. Ethics cannot require us to be omniscient or omnipotent. This means that sometimes even the most creative and optimistic ethical decision-maker has to face a situation where none of the available choices or outcomes are very good.
Of his reprogramming of the Kobayashi Maru, Kirk said, “I don’t like to lose.” Hardly anyone likes to lose. But, if we’re measuring wins and losses on the basis of the outcomes we produce, the impacts we have on others, measured against some hypothetical better outcomes that we don’t have the knowledge or the power to produce, we are bound to lose at least some of the time. And we need to figure out a way to go forward when we do.
It’s an interesting read that discusses real life ethical quandaries through the lens of a famous pop culture issue. People face Kobayashi Marus all the time, albeit not to the extent that interstellar war is on the table, but they face circumstances where no solution will be a perfectly happy one, and someone will lose somehow. When these happen, the question isn’t if the person will lose, but what the person learns from losing. It’s also a great excuse to re-watch Wrath Of Khan and remember how much ass that film kicks.