Why Context is for Kings

Shawn Powrie
Shawn Powrie
Why Context is for Kings

In the recent Netflix series Star Trek Discovery, in the third episode, Captain Lorca explains to an estranged and demoted Michael Burnham why he chose to interfere in her punishment for mutiny and bring her on-board the Discovery as a crew member:

“I did choose you, but not for the reasons you think. Your assumption that the Klingons were waiting in ambush at Binary Stars was predictive. You chose to do the right thing over what was sanctioned, even at great cost to yourself. And that is the kind of thinking that wins wars. The kind of thinking I need next to me. Universal law is for lackeys. Context… is for kings.”

When I watched this episode many months ago that phrase stuck strongly with me; “context… is for kings”. It came up again and again in my subsequent thinking. It has a profound ring to it. There’s something about it that knocks on a deep intuition. So this article will be a short explanation of the idea.

The difference between laws and ethics

Imagine a hypothetical society where littering of any kind is illegal, and that no such thing as recycling exists, so that all rubbish of all types lands up in landfill sites.

Now imagine there is one individual who decides to one day throw away an apple core after eating it, because they know its biodegradable. This individual is caught and fined.

In this instance we have an exaggerated case which reveals something about all laws; they are flawed in some way and imperfect. They are mappings of ethics onto law. The reason littering is illegal is to reduce pollution. For most people, most of the time, the law makes good sense to follow. There are many people who need this basic law and need to obey it as they don’t understand (or perhaps don’t care about) the purpose behind the law.

However, from an ethical standpoint, our litterbug has done nothing wrong. This illustrates the point that ethics precedes and supersedes law. Laws and principles exist to service well being. They are generic ideas or ways of behaviour that we’ve empirically found to be capable of increasing well being. In many cases laws are highly effective, but ultimately as real-life applications of ethics, they are flawed, because no-one can perfectly apply ethics into real life.

The difference between “Kings” and “Lackeys”

“Universal law is for lackeys, context is for kings”. What’s the difference between Kings and Lackeys in reaction to laws and ethics?

  • Kings see behind the laws into an ethical landscape of causes and effects, and take this landscape seriously, Lackeys do not. Lackeys just see rules to follow or disobey.
  • Kings understand the tragedy of the commons (selfishness of people and its consequences) and make laws for the greater good of all. Lackeys do not understand these and instead simply pursue their own gain.
  • Good Kings care about the well being they are able to create globally, while Lackeys often only care for their own well being/gain.
  • Kings see rules – not as rules, but as tools. Lackeys see rules as burdens.
  • Kings who need to break the rules do so elegantly and with good reason, when Lackeys break the law, they do so messily and selfishly.
  • If given lawlessness, Kings urgently create order through law. But when given lawlessness, Lackeys often choose anarchy and chaos.

That’s why Kings make laws, and Lackeys obey them. Kings should, of course, obey the laws they themselves make too, (indeed they often do). But Kings also know when, where and why laws should either change or be broken/bent.

“Context is for Kings” is a recognition that the greatest leaders saw behind the veil of principles and laws to the well being they ultimately create, and thus are able to transcend the laws. To transcend laws is to become the lawmaker – the King.

“Universal law is for Lackeys” is the recognition that Lackeys often lack the discipline and intellect to make their own ethical judgements, and thus would be best suited to obey the laws made by Kings.

Slightly unkind wording

My use of the word “Lackeys” in this article is merely to honor the original quote in my musing. I actually feel it’s an unnecessarily harsh term. Not everyone is suited to complicated moral/ethical reasoning, nor needs to shoulder the burden of leadership.

The truth is, most of us are already Lackeys in most situations.

23 Replies to “Why Context is for Kings”

  1. Indeed – A complex concept succinctly explained. Those who have ‘eye’ to see’ will’ see’ and benefit. Thanks Shawn!

  2. Another take on this quote is that it implies that people of power are above the law. Like a president who thinks the law does not apply to him.

    1. Well yes. Agreed to an extent: but I think the key differentiator here is whether the person is a genuine leader / “king” or not. A genuine leader / “king” invents the laws, seeks to create order, and only makes exceptions when circumstances truly justify exceptions, (and keeps his own laws) whereas a bad leader abuses their position of power for their own selfish gain and sees themselves as above the law. In other words, a bad king is a lackey who’s been put into the king’s seat.

      1. Shawn,

        Your musings on Leadership are well analyzed and stated. Your reply to Fools Game comment only proofs your comments further. Well reasoned, well said. Thank you.

  3. These are interesting thoughts. You take into account the context that not all people are able to make a moral/intellectual distinction of context. However, this troubles me. While context might be for kings, it is a loophole where governance can misuse context, or even worse, not be aware that they are misusing it. Putting the Star Trek quote in context, the quote comes from a captain that came from a universe in which the Terrans enforce a tyranical fascist dictatorship, Lorca being a captain from such a hierarchy is probably not the best teacher of morality. It is like learning morality and governance from Hitler. What do you think about that? Thanks for your interesting take on the quote!

    1. Hey Stephen, thanks for popping by and commenting!

      Yes, I definitely have to agree with your sentiments. As it turns out in the Star Trek series Captain Lorca is a “bad guy” anyway! So the point is that Kings can misuse context A LOT (and we know they do, all the time – examples abound in all sorts of governments)

  4. the comments should warn the spoiler… I just ended watching the 3rd episode and got curious and amused with the frase and now I know more about the captain… Anyways, thanks Shawn for putting into words something difficult to explain. Commenting on that, with my null knowledge of what is happening next in the series, I somehow like the captain and think, with the impression he is trying to make on Michael, that he is appealing to her ego to make her stay, appointing that they both are able to see the truth (context) in this whole situation. They are both Kings 🙂

  5. I just saw this episode and wondered about the quote. Did a search and found your analysis. Must say you put it succinctly and was (IMO) spot on. Thanks for the post.

  6. The writers for Star Trek Discovery do a phenomenal job. There are so many scenes where I admire the good job they do. This is the best Star Trek series ever. In the midst of all the great writing, the “Context is for Kings” scene is so powerful, I thought for sure the writers must have borrowed this line from some famous historical event. I was shocked this episode of Star Trek was the first time that quote was made. I appreciate your analysis of this. Thank you.

  7. Are we going to talk about how Star Trek: Discovery is NOT a Netflix show and how Star Trek has always been a CBS franchise?

  8. Hi Shawn,

    I enjoyed your interpretation of “context is for kings.” The link you made between laws and ethical decision making as tools for well-being needs a front seat in American popular culture, news and especially politics. Spreading these types of ideas help inoculate us against narcissistic/damaging personality types that aspire to powerful positions for the wrong reasons.

  9. Nice thoughts. About the use of “Lackey”, well, Lorca is a baddie after all, as we came to learn later… that is why it is 100% appropriate in the context…

  10. Is his quote “Context is for kings” originate in this episode, or is it a historical reference?

  11. Contended origin of this sentiment is Galatians 4:22-31

    For those to whom this aphorism continues to resonate
    I suggest you review the sovereignty movement,

    nominally a tangent of libertarian thinking
    increasingly disparaged / dismissed as ” pseudo-law ” ,
    accurate characterization by critics ignoring the point made.

    If you consider libertarianism too odiously dextral,
    instead I suggest review of the autonomia movement,
    ” post-political politics “,

    Another gospel in the salient canon is
    T.A.Z Temporary Autonomous Zone ( 1991 ) auth. ” Hakim Bey ”

    To preserve the Star Trek context,
    its ” Mirror Darkly ” counterpart might be
    12 Golden Pearls of Power ( 2019 ) auth. Mustafa Arif

    easily one of the most evil books I ever read,
    ibid : read Grove Press translatiion of
    De Sade’s 120 Day of Sodom
    in my overly ambitious adolescence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *