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The Kobayashi Maru is a Starfleet training simulation in which cadets encounter a civilian ship in distress. To save the civilians, the cadet would need to enter the Neutral Zone, violating treaty; honoring the treaty means leaving the disabled freighter and its occupants in the Neutral Zone, at the mercy of the Klingons. As the simulation is set up, entering the Neutral Zone to save the civilians also results in Klingons attacking and boarding the ship which the cadet is commanding.

There’s a way in which the Kobayashi Maru echoes the framing of ethical training as a matter of grappling with ethical dilemmas — with situations where your task is to choose the least bad of two bad options. This framing is what spawns trolley problems, which seem not to do much to help develop the ethical toolbox that gets us through the routine ethical decision-making essential to captaining a starship or living a good humanoid life. Not every ethical decision requires grappling with a dilemma. Indeed, most of the time good ethical decision-making before there’s a crisis can bring good consequences all around, heading off a moment downstream where you have to choose which stakeholder gets stuck with a dramatically bad outcome.Such big-picture thinking about the effects of one’s decisions downstream is a habit essential to good ethical decision-making.

It’s good to question whether features of a situation that we take for granted really are fixed, rather than changeable. When faced with two bad choices, it’s good to try to find a third, or fourth, or fifth possible choice that is less obvious but that might be better all around.

In circumstances where the stakes are very high — life and death — and we’re faced with an array of possible ways to lose, sometimes the best we can do is to choose the option that we most endorse. Maybe that option is the one that we judge will produce better consequences. Maybe we choose trying to fulfill our obligations to the vulnerable parties whose immediate needs are most urgent, even in circumstances where our efforts are not likely to be successful.

James T. Kirk was the only cadet in Starfleet history to ever beat the Kobayashi Maru — by reprogramming the simulation so that it was possible to win.

Of his reprogramming of the Kobayashi Maru, Kirk said, “I don’t like to lose.” But, if we’re measuring wins and losses on the basis of the outcomes we produce, the impacts we have on others, measured against some hypothetical better outcomes that we don’t have the knowledge or the power to produce, we are bound to lose at least some of the time. And we need to figure out a way to go forward when we do.

The real test of the Kobayashi Maru is not how you respond in the simulator, but how you go on from there. Do you recognize that the universe may present you with situations your knowledge and powers are inadequate to address? That logic and ethical formulae can only get you so far? That sometimes the least-bad is the best you can do? Does this realization put you off the ethical responsibilities that come with leadership, or do you use it to adjust your expectations of how being a leader might feel in extreme situations?

- Janet D. Stemwedel, Forbes