Librarian’s Lobby
By Daniel D. Stuhlman
March 2009
Learning About Ethics

At the beginning of the semester I was asked to give an introduction to the library for a philosophy class studying ethics. I defined ethics and showed them some electronic and print sources needed by the class for their investigations. Much of the class is devoted to the study of Greek philosophy. [1] But much of Greek philosophy of Plato and Socrates is similar if not derived from Jewish thought. I emphasized three important aspects of ethics: Justice, Responsibility, and Communications. Two ethical dilemmas were used as examples of library resources. 1) Is torture justified? and 2) Do circumstances ever make genocide justifiable?

Examples from TV shows were used because they are fictional and easier to work with than historical examples. In the opening episode of season 7 of the Fox series 24 the main character, Jack Bauer, is being questioned by a United States Senatorial committee about the use of torture. [2] Jack Bauer had already decided that when lives are immediate danger, extreme methods of interrogation are justified. He believed his methods were justified under the peku-ah nefesh (saving a life) principle. The senators wanted to know if Jack believed the “end justifies the means.” While Jack insisted that he was saving innocent lives.

In episode 123 of Star Trek the Next Generation titled “I, Borg” [3] Enterprise crew discovers an injured Borg drone. They realize that he is detached from the Collective and bring him to the Enterprise for repair and study. For those non-Trekkies, the Borg is a species that is connected to each other as a collective that controls all individual actions. They always hear the voices of the others in the collective. The Borg assimilate other species without compassion or hesitation. Their motto is: “Resistance is futile.”  They are a known danger to humans and every other species they encounter.
In war soldiers are taught to dehumanize the enemy. Killing the “Yellow Menace” or “the Hun” is easier than taking a human life. Humans have families who care for them. Sub-humans have no feelings or family connections. In this episode the Borg drone, named “Hugh,” by Geordi LaForge as a way of humanizing (or to be contrary to anthropomorphize it) Hugh appears to have feelings. He responds to kindness, shares his thoughts, and shows signs of individuality. The Enterprise crew devises a virus that can be implanted into Hugh that will eventually cause the genocide of the entire Borg race. Captain Picard must choose between returning Hugh to the Borg Collective with the virus or without it. His ethical question: Is genocide justifiable?
If a crew member is threatened there is no question that Picard or his crew would shoot to kill. This is an example of a rodef (pursuer) putting the crew in mortal danger. One is allowed to kill someone or something before they kill you. This can be generalized to an enemy ship trying to destroy the Enterprise. The Enterprise can shoot back If a planet is threatened the Enterprise can use deadly force. Picard’s question is the Borg a rodef presenting an immediate threat to his crew or the Earth?
Picard decided that the individuality given “Hugh” while on board the Enterprise would be enough of a weapon, though slower than the virus, to defeat the Borg. The Borg were far enough away from earth and the Enterprise to present no immediate threat. At that moment in the Star Trek society, the ethics of not destroying the Borg seemed to be right. [4]
Now fast forward fifteen years. The incident with “Hugh” is mentioned in the Star Trek novel, Before Dishonor. The Borg have gained new abilities as they are particularly adept at adapting the knowledge and technologies of the species they integrate. One of these technologies is to completely assimilate living and non-living matter into a single entity. In Before Dishonor p. 299 the virus that could destroy the Borg is called, Endgame. This time Geordi did hesitate about implanting the Borg with the virus, but after weighing the options, he downloads the virus into Seven of Nine’s implants. This is Plan B. Plan A is to destroy the Borg ship with a device that can eat planets.
The Borg ship is on the way to destroy the earth. On the way it destroys Pluto and assimilates its matter along with Pluto’s moons. The Borg ship grows to accommodate the new matter. 39 ships are also assimilated. It is clear that the Borg ship is a rodef and this is a war of survival. Briefly, Plan A fails, and Plan B is implemented. In the nick of time Endgame destroys the Borg and the Earth is saved.
If the Enterprise had implemented the Endgame virus the Borg would not be a threat in Before dishonor. Aside from the literary reasons, did the ethics change or just the situation? The principle of piku-ah nefesh (saving a life) did not change; the information about the Borg and the situation of the earth changed.
My obligation to the class is to explain the principles of searching and teaching the ethics does not happen in a vacuum. Ethics is based on information. There can be no business or medical ethics without learning about business or medicine. Confronting a rodef willing to kill you is justification for extreme or lethal force. This is justice for those innocent people who are in danger from the evil.
Jacob Needleman’s one question is, “Why can’t we just be good?” He opens his book with the story from the Talmud about the man who wants to learn all about Judaism while standing on one foot. Hillel tells him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. All the rest is commentary; now go and study.”[5]
Ethics is a concerned with the relationships between people, which is “justice” as I mentioned above. After telling the class about the cases from fiction, I showed them the definition from the Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [6]   It says that ethics is a branch of philosophy. That is only partially correct. Ethics is also connected to other branches of social sciences that are concerned with human interactions.
The next set of examples for the class was codes of ethics from several professions. Many professions have posted their ethical codes on the Web. These codes communicate with members and outsiders about the responsibility of the profession. For example here are beginnings of the codes for physicians, lawyers, and librarians.
•          A physician should not only be ever ready to obey the calls of the sick, but his mind ought also to be imbued with the greatness of his mission, and the responsibility he habitually incurs in its discharge.
•          These obligations are the more deep and enduring, because there is no tribunal other than his own conscience to adjudge penalties for carelessness or neglect.[7]
•         A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation necessary for the representation.
•         A lawyer shall not represent a client in a legal matter in which the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the lawyer is not competent to provide representation, without the association of another lawyer who is competent to provide such representation.[8]
•         As members of the American Library Association, we recognize the importance of codifying and making known to the profession and to the general public the ethical principles that guide the work of librarians, other professionals providing information services, library trustees and library staffs. Ethical dilemmas occur when values are in conflict. [9]
Ethical behavior requires both education and practice.  One must learn about one’s self to know how to follow the dictate of Hillel, “Don’t do what is hateful to you”, and the words of the Torah, “Love you neighbor as yourself.” The understanding comes with maturity. Ethical behavior for an adult is not the same as a five year old. The library holds the literary resources for study. Each person has to understand the proper for course for responsibility, justice and communication.
Barad, Judith. The ethics of Star Trek. New York : HarperCollins, 2000.
David, Peter. Before dishonor. New York : Pocket Books, 2007.
Huidekoper, Frederic. Judaism at Rome : B.C. 76 To A.D. 140. New York : James Miller, 1876. The full text may be read on line using Books.Google.
Needleman, Jacob. Why can’t we be good? New York : Jeremy Tarcher/Penguin, 2007.
Nemeck, Larry. Star Trek, the next generation companion. New York : Pocket Books, 1992.
Reeves-Stevens, Judith. Star Trek, the next generation--the continuing mission : a tenth anniversary tribute / Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens. New York : Pocket Books, 1998.

[1] See Huidekoper p. 568ff. “Plato teaches, or ascribes to Socrates, sundry views common among Jews, but previously unknown to heathens in his own country. …” The whole chapter on Plato showed parallel or similar ideas from Jewish sources and the writings of Plato.

[2] The full episode recap and an option to view it are available from the Fox web site:  The ethics of the use of torture is not the topic for this article.

[3] The episode number is from It was production number 223, stardate: 45854.2 , first aired 5/11/1992. For a full summary see Nemecek p. 201-202. For a picture of Hugh see Reeves-Steven p. 159.  For more information about the Borg see:   The Borg seem to only fear Species 8472 because they have a natural resistance to the assimilation process.

[4] For a fuller discussion of the ethics of the situation see Barad p. 215-220.

[5] Shabbat 31a. Hillel’s statement is the mirror or a commentary on Leviticus 19:18 (Love your neighbor as yourself  and citied many times in the Christian Bible (such as Matthew 22:39).

[6] The encyclopedia is searchable on line in the Gale Virtual Reference Library.

[7] This is from the American Medical Association (AMA) code of medical ethics originally published in 1886 (J Am Med Assoc, Dec 1886; : 711 – 717) I choose this because even with advances in medical science and technology the code has validity and it illustrates my point of responsibility. It may also be found in: History of Medicine, by Nathan Smith Davis. Chicago, Cleveland Press, 1907. The principles of the current (adopted June 17, 2001) AMA code may be found at: The full code must be purchased from AMA.

[8] From:

[9] From:


Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. We are looking for new clients and opportunities. Visit the web site at to learn more about knowledge management and what our firm can do for you. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at:    E-mail author.

Last revised March 8, 2009