What makes for a moral dilemma? It cannot be as simple as a hero choosing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, nor can it be the courage of one’s convictions against overwhelming odds. No; while those are worthwhile stories, and Deep Space Nine has repeatedly told such tales, a dilemma is something else. A dilemma is when it’s hard to even know what the right choice is; to be given two mutually-exclusive choices that appear equally right…or equally wrong.
Perhaps the most divisive episode of the most divisive (for its era) Star Trek series is “In the Pale Moonlight”. Fans who feel that this series is the height of Star Trek would call it the most DS9 of DS9 episodes; and the series’ decriers would similarly cite this episode for the very same reason, as it embodies just about every non-Roddenberrian trait of the show.
The plot synopsis is extremely simple: Captain Sisko sees the devastation that the Dominion War is wreaking on Starfleet and wants to draw in the neutral Romulan Empire to bolster the Federation/Klingon alliance in repelling the invaders. He enlists the aid of former Cardassian spy and assassin Garak to convince them, via the surly Senator Vreenak, to join the noble fight. Sisko finds himself sliding down an increasingly slippery slope of moral compromises until Garak finally enacts his true plan, framing the Dominion for the murder of Vreenak (and his staff) to trick them into joining the war.
If this seems simple, it’s only because the plot is only the means by which the real heart of this episode is revealed; the characters. The episode is regularly being narrated by a distraught Sisko after the fact, narrating these events as his personal log, his confession to no one. The episode asks whether or not a lesser evil can be justified to stop a greater evil.
This is a common, and very relevant, theme in fiction and in Trek specifically. In a more traditional Trek story, the heroes would face such a question and stubbornly stick to their principles, usually saved from the consequences of their refusal to dirty their hands by a last-minute deus ex machina. The lesson seemed to be ‘do the right thing, even when it hurts, and everything will work out fine’. This is not a wholly bad lesson, but it is a very limited one. As Christians, we know that in this world often doing the right thing will not only not save us, but might very well doom us. Jesus promised as much in John 15:8 and 16:33, just to cite two examples. We ought to take this in stride and do what is right, not for this world’s outcomes, but for the bigger picture…the promise of God’s eternal justice.
However, Star Trek does not approach things from that eternal perspective, but an ultimately materialistic one; and so cannot just shrug and say ‘God will judge them.’ Frankly, that wouldn’t make for a good story, which is often the case with wise theology. Further, the question of lesser evils for the greater good is not really so black and white, even in the real world. Using “In the Pale Moonlight” as an example, Sisko was not only thinking of himself, or even his fellow Starfleet brethren, but of the hundreds of worlds and trillions upon trillions of innocent civilians the Dominion would enslave (at best) if they won the war. He (and we the viewers) have seen countless examples of Dominion rule (not to mention that of their Cardassian allies over Bajor less than a decade earlier) and knew just what horrors awaited them. At the risk of invoking Godwin, Nazi Germany’s jackbooted thuggery would be the best possible outcome of losing to the Dominion, with planetary-scale genocides or plagues also being on the menu. As Sisko says himself “People are dying every day and here I am arguing over the finer points of morality!”
Romans 3:8 scoffs at the notion of “doing evil that good may result”, and so it would seem that the Christian response to such a dilemma would be to do the ethical, righteous thing and simply endure the cost of our choices, even unto death. For ourselves and our lives, that is the road we should take, but what about huge events where countless innocents will also suffer for our choices? Is that godly or just to let others pay for our choices? At what point does choosing right become smugly sacrificing others?
To be honest, I don’t know. I personally do not think that there is a single standard for these sorts of dilemmas in reality, just as in fiction. Would you steal, lie, bribe and eventually murder (even if only as an unwitting accessory) in order to stop a vicious, depredating invader nation? If not, does that mean that the destruction of your whole way of life and the subjugation of untold trillions is the price you pay to have clean hands? This episode clearly says that the former is preferable, and I personally agree. However, there is room to argue against the easy, ends-justifying-the-means approach, particularly when taking eternity into account.
Ultimately, this episode makes you think about this issue, and that’s exactly the point. It’s not so much saying that morality is to be thrown aside when inconvenient, but that there may come times when more immediate needs outweigh that morality. It brilliantly moves Sisko down the slippery slope of compromise, starting with the simple and just (bring the Romulans into the war, expose Dominion treachery), moving into the slightly shady (forge evidence for the treachery they MUST be planning, use political pull to set a criminal free to do your dirty work), sliding into undeniably wrong actions, (bribe men to cover up crimes) and finally falling down into true evil (murder people for the truth they’ll tell about you). Yet, despite the moral of ‘do bad things, suffer the cost’ most fiction gives us, Sisko finds ultimate success in this. The Romulans are brought into the war and it’s as glorious as the Ents joining against Saruman or Wakanda standing fast against Thanos, and yet this great turning point is drawn in the green blood of secretly-murdered Romulans.
So what do we take from this episode? That ethics and morality are the domain of chumps and that only fools restrain their behavior? I really don’t think that’s a lesson Star Trek would teach, and Sisko’s intense guilt displayed in his narration demonstrates this. Is it that life always demands moral compromise? Again, plenty of Trek, including ‘cynical’ Deep Space Nine, shows the opposite lesson. No, I think the main message of this episode is simply that life is messy and broken and complicated and sometimes to go left you have to briefly turn right. Sometimes we have to do the small bad things (like lying to the Pharaoh about Hebrew babies or eating sacramental bread) for the greater good. The important thing is to never be comfortable with that, to never take that path simply because it’s easy. Ultimately, the question to ask is whether or not we can face the Lord and quote Sisko’s line, “I can live with it.”
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Editor’s note: The editors and staff at Reel World Theology were saddened to hear of Aron Eisenberg’s passing over the weekend. Eisenberg played the Ferengi Nog in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a role with which he won over the hearts of many in the Star Trek fan community, and was, by all accounts, a wonderful person to be around; Wil Wheaton called him “the kindest, gentlest, most genuinely happy man I have ever known.” Our prayers go out to his family and friends, particularly to his wife Malíssa Longo and his sons Nicholas and Christopher.
Though this year’s Trektember articles were written before this loss, our upcoming piece about “It’s Only a Paper Moon” will address Eisenberg’s passing.