On stardate 42523.7 (October 26th, 2364 for those of us in the 21st century), the crew of the USS Enterprise-D, under the command of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart1 at his finest), pulled into Starbase 173 for what was presumably a routine stop. For one member of Picard's crew, this visit resulted in a fight for his life and autonomy, but not against an enemy of Starfleet. This battle was to be fought against an overzealous officer from within their own ranks.
Great science fiction prompts us to imagine a world different from our own, to explore questions of ethics, morality, and even law. Cue episode 9 of season 2 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, entitled “The Measure of a Man”.2
This particular episode focuses on Lieutenant Commander Data (brilliantly portrayed by Brent Spiner3), the first and only android to serve with Starfleet. Upon their arrival to Starbase 173, we are introduced to Commander Bruce Maddox, a brilliant but overconfident science officer who wishes to dismantle Data in an effort to study and eventually replicate him. Though Data lacks the capacity for emotion, he is able to form and express preferences. With this in mind, he refuses to submit to the procedure. Data subsequently resigns his commission in Starfleet when it appears to be the only way to halt the procedure.
The episode then transforms into a legal drama. Captain Phillipa Louvois, a legal officer, convenes a hearing over the issue. Commander Maddox takes the position that Data is property of Starfleet and therefore cannot resign. Capt. Picard is assigned to represent Data, while the case is “prosecuted” by Commander William Riker, Picard's First Officer and Data's good friend.
Riker elicits evidence that Data is merely a machine. He is also successful in having facts read into the record. Specifically, that Data was created by a cyberneticist, that his positronic brain has an impressive processing speed that is unmatched by any other known life form, that he has superhuman strength, and that he can have his hand removed and be turned off without permanent harm.
Picard begins his arguments by wisely conceding that Data is a machine, but follows up by claiming that human beings are also “machines” of a sort, and that this is largely irrelevant. The matter at hand is whether or not Data is sentient. While questioning Maddox, Picard asks him what would be required to meet a minimum threshold for sentience. Maddox responds, “Intelligence, self-awareness, consciousness.” He effectively assists the court in formulating a legal test by which to assess Data's claim that his is sentient, and therefore unable to be held to be property.
Maddox quickly concedes that Data is intelligent, and Picard makes a fairly easy case for self-awareness as well. On the point of consciousness, Picard does not necessarily argue that Data is conscious, but that “consciousness” is a criterion that is exceedingly difficult to test. He proposes that if Data can meet even the lowest standard of consciousness, he must be sentient.
In his closing, Picard states that someone will eventually succeed in replicating Data. It is the court’s decision in this matter that will determine how humanity and this new race of artificial life forms will interact. He effectively asks the court to look at policy considerations regarding “the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom”, finally asking, “Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him to servitude and slavery?”
Needless to say, Picard wins the day and Data wins his autonomy. Acting as judge, Louvois concludes that she doesn't really know what Data is, but that he should have the freedom to explore these things for himself.
Most television shows that focus on law make some legal errors, and this episode is no exception. Picard's calling of a “hostile witness”, his questioning of Data while Maddox is giving evidence, and the court referring to Riker as the “prosecution” despite Data not being accused of any crime are three examples that come to mind. Much of this is excusable, as it allows for a complex legal issue to be resolved in 45 minutes of screen time.
Having said that, “The Measure of a Man” was accurate in a couple of important aspects. After the parties agreed to a test for sentience, they were both correct in arguing for how it should be applied. As is often the case in law, policy considerations were a major deciding factor. Picard's argument that ruling Data as property would open the floodgates for future enslavement of similar beings was enough for the court to view sentience with the broadest application possible, basically erring on the side of autonomy over the potential for slavery.
Even for those who might not have an affinity for science fiction, “The Measure of a Man” is worth a watch for it's value as a legal drama.
1 online: Twitter <twitter.com/SirPatStew>.
2 “The Measure of a Man”, Star Trek: The Next Generation (Hollywood, Cal: Paramount Domestic Television, 1989).
3 online: Twitter <twitter.com/BrentSpiner>.