Star Trek: Voyager and Ethics — The College Seminar Course

College is tough. The step-up from high school-style learning can be a shock to some people, especially when they realize how much work is involved as they earn their degree. To add to the difficulty, students this past semester found that their world was upside-down due to the changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Imagine that you’ve made it into that college of your dreams and that when you pick out those freshman-year classes, there’s one class that stands out. It’s called “Star Trek Voyager, Ethics, and the Enlightenment.” It sounds just like a holodeck program, but it is a class available on Earth at DePaul University in Chicago.

The course, taught by Professor Brian Maj, looks at “human ethics and social dilemmas that surface through the television series Star Trek: Voyager.” Maj guides his students through themes from the shows, which are relevant today. Many of them are in current headlines, like the recent developments in artificial intelligence and the debates surrounding them.

Each meeting of Maj’s seminar class mixes show episodes, with reading assignments from philosophers like Stephen Pinker, Immanuel Kant, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, to construct a framework to discuss a specific ethical topic. These include crime and punishment, history, the Enlightenment, and more.

The class is about “exploring creative ideas using your intellectual imagination,” says Maj, who has been a Voyager fan since 1998, when he discovered the show. He’d watch them on UPN and tape the episodes to watch later when there was a school or work conflict.

Professor Brian Maj
Professor Brian Maj

Those “conflicts” were actually work and school for Maj, who started his college career as a student at DePaul. Maj says that he knew since 8th grade that he wanted to be an educator.  

“I discovered college, and I never left,” says Maj.

Professor Maj feels especially to be at DePaul for several reasons, but among them is the university’s acceptance of new ideas. Some colleges and universities are not open to adding new courses, no matter their potential relevance or popularity. Maj says that DePaul is different, and his Voyager class fits nicely into a space that gets a freshman student immersed into many topics.

“The tie ins to the course are philosophy, political theory, and a bit of psychology and science mixed in there,” says Maj.

“Freshman year classes are … a big bucket for this category of topics. Sometimes they are orientation topics; sometimes, they are history or philosophy. This seminar for our freshman is interdisciplinary.”

For example, the syllabus assignment for Week 6 of the class requires that students read “What would a rational criminal justice system look like?” by Raoul Martinez, the watch Voyager episodes “Random Thoughts,” “Ex Post Facto,” and “Repentance.”

The class members who are part of the Spring 2020 Star Trek Voyager, Ethics, and the Enlightenment course.
The class members who are part of the Spring 2020 “Star Trek Voyager, Ethics, and the Enlightenment” course.

When the class meets in person, students will be able to discuss the ethics of crime and punishment with their reading assignments and citing examples from the show.

Maj says that the sessions are designed to understand subjects that make up the study of ethical philosophy. Adding the drama of Voyager ties everything together.

“I see Janeway as a representation of several times of these ethical dilemmas that simply have to be called out — like in Tuvix in Season 2,” says Maj.

“How do you calculate the value of a life that has only been around 2-3 weeks, that was essentially, an accident? It’s a very perplexing dilemma.”

Maj and his students spend time breaking down puzzlers like The Trolley Problem, which was created to challenge human beings on what best to do in a “no-win scenario.” The situation involves an out-of-control trolley that will either kill five people, or if ‘you’ intervene, then you could switch the tracks for the trolley and kill just one person.By doing nothing, the trolley kills five people, but if you get involved, you could save those five and directly kill one person instead. Students in Maj’s class must decide if the needs of the many really do outweigh the needs of the few.

“I see Janeway as a representation of several times of these ethical dilemmas that simply have to be called out — like in Tuvix in Season 2,” says Maj.

This situation might sound fanciful or unrealistic, but it is a real-world situation that programmers and engineers are facing when developing autonomous vehicles.

And, to prepare to discuss the Trolley Problem, the class must watch Voyager episodes “Prototype,” “Dreadnought,” and “Warhead.”

To bring the philosophy from books and Star Trek into the real world is often easier than one might think, Maj says. This is quite relevant for how human beings reacted to the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the Enlightenment.

“Throwing the ship into the Delta Quadrant, where you have total unknowns, is exactly what the Enlightenment was all about in the 18th Century,” says Maj. “In the 1700s, the Age of Reason was just being developed. There was no rulebook.”

As amazing as “Star Trek Voyager, Ethics, and the Enlightenment” sounds, it is a real college class with real assignments and work. Part of the work is watching Star Trek, so that might make the course easier for some. Maj says that in reality, no two semesters of this class are the same.

“A seminar means something specific in academia,” says Maj. “It means class-driven discussion. There are no right answers; it’s topical, and you’re going to learn some information. But this class is unique every time that it runs because it’s dependent on the people in the classroom.”