Argumentation and Star Trek

Surfing around this morning and discovered that the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Measure of a Man” has it’s 30th anniversary today! I feel pretty old.

Here’s a great article talking about the history of the episode and its production.


In this episode, Starfleet has a hearing to determine if Data has rights. He’s about to be considered the property of Starfleet so a robotics expert can disassemble him and build more Datas to serve on the entire fleet.

Data decides to resign from Starfleet to avoid being disassembled as he doesn’t feel the robotics expert will be competent enough to reassemble him.

This sparks a hearing where an admiral appoints Riker to advocate for Starfleet against Data. Picard advocates for Data. I guess Starfleet doesn’t have JAGS? Or maybe everyone has a legal education in Starfleet?

Anyway, this episode I used for years upon years in argumentation courses. Watching the way the arguments are made, the way evidence is presented, and how the two characters try to persuade the judge is burned into my memory. It was a fun time. I even used it here at St. John’s for a few years, but haven’t done so in a long time.

The episode is good to show to students as it’s very disconnected from the familiar. Many of them haven’t seen much of Star Trek of any kind, and the topic - whether an artificial intelligence has rights - is one that seems somewhat fantastical, which is good for pushing creativity among students (they don’t get much of a chance for it at any point in schooling).

It might be time to show this episode again in class as this is the generation that will have to face this question for real: Does an artificial intelligence enjoy the same rights to self-determination and choice as a human being would?

I’m wary of using entertainment media to teach these concepts, but this premise is one where we can really mine out some “equipment for living” in Burke’s phrasing. The question is still an open one even given the entire argument of both sides. Students can use it to generate their own arguments about the issue and bring up conceptions of the case that did not appear in the episode.

Maybe I should return to this in the classroom and see what happens.

P.S. I rewatched this episode a couple of days after i posted this, and the reason there are no JAGs is the starbase is new, and nobody has been assigned to the office yet there. This is the reason why the officers of the Enterprise must serve as the advocates.