Prime Directive Debate

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(This post is from 2009.  I haven’t had a Star Trek geek post in a while and I thought it would be fun to repost this.  We had a good discussion the first go round and I hope we will again.)

“As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Starfleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes introducing superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely. Starfleet personnel may not violate this Prime Directive, even to save their lives and/or their ship, unless they are acting to right an earlier violation or an accidental contamination of said culture. This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation.”

Yesterday Darwin had a thought provoking post about the impact of technologically advanced cultures on less developed cultures.  In the combox discussion there were frequent references to the Prime Directive of Star Trek.  This of course gives me an excellent excuse for posting this examination of the Prime Directive and for me to burnish my credentials as the “Geekier-Than-Thou” member of this blog.Memory Alpha, the Star Trek Wiki, has a good discussion here of what the Prime Directive is:

“The Directive states that members of Starfleet are not to interfere in the internal affairs of another species, especially the natural development of pre-warp civilizations, either by direct intervention, or technological revelation. When studying a planet’s civilization, particularly during a planetary survey, the Prime Directive makes it clear that there is to be “No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space, other worlds, or advanced civilizations.” (TOS: “Bread and Circuses”) Starfleet personnel are required to understand that allowing cultures to develop on their own is an important right and therefore must make any sacrifice to protect cultures from contamination, even at the cost of their own lives.

The Prime Directive is not enforced upon citizens of the Federation. Under the rules as defined in the Directive, a Starfleet crew is forbidden from removing citizens who have interfered with the culture of a world. Violating the directive can result in a court-martial for the offending Starfleet officer or crew. (TNG: “Angel One”)

In all, there are 47 sub-orders in the Prime Directive. (VOY: “Infinite Regress”)

Originally the Directive was a shield for primitive worlds. If such a world was in danger, Starfleet had been known to order ships to save that world, provided it could be done without violating the Directive. (TOS: “The Paradise Syndrome”)

The Directive was later amended, prohibiting Starfleet officers from intervening even if non-intervention would result in the extinction of an entire species or the end of all life on a planet or star system. By the 24th century the Federation had begun applying the Prime Directive to warp-capable species, refusing to interfere in internal matters such as the Klingon Civil War. (TNG: “Pen Pals”, “Homeward”, “Redemption”, “Redemption II”).”

The video that opens this post is from The Star Trek The Next Generation episode Pen Pals, and illustrates well the moral ambiguity that often ensued when Star Fleet officers were faced with a Prime Directive situation.   How can you turn your back on people who need your aid?  How can you be sure that such aid will not have long term calamitous results for the entities you sought to aid?  Is the Prime Directive an absolute as Lieutenant Worf contended, or is there room for interpretation?  What is the guiding purpose of the Prime Directive?

I think that Picard nails it when he says that the Prime Directive was intended for relieving Star Fleet officers from making intervention decisions when their emotions were aroused.  In a time when Star Fleet captains with enormous power at their disposal are often far from the direct control of the Federation I can see much wisdom in this policy.  Of course there are problems with the Prime Directive.

1.    The first problem is that it didn’t work in practice. When the Prime Directive is mentioned in one of the shows, the odds were heavy that the good guys were going to stomp all over the Prime Directive for some noble end.  Some sophistical justification was usually tacked on at the end to justify the violation, but the violation remained clear and glaring.  No consequence resulted from the violation, so one could be excused from assuming that no one in Star Fleet high command really took the Prime Directive all that seriously.

2.    The Prime Directive applied only until such time as the Federation determined that a civilization was ready to join it. Once a civilization joined the Federation intervention was the order of the day.  This indicates that perhaps the Prime Directive was more to benefit the Federation than the alien civilizations encountered by Star Fleet.

3.     Rigid adherence to the Prime Directive could lead to morally abhorrent outcomes. This was well illustrated in the Enterprise episode Dear Doctor where an alien culture is left to die out from a plague that the Enterprise doctor had a cure for so that evolution could take its course and another species on the planet supplant the dying species.  This is one of the coldest and cruelest works of fiction I have seen on television.  The Captain of the Enterprise states:  “Some day, my People are going to come up with some sort of a doctrine, something that says what we can and can’t do out here, should and shouldn’t do. But until someone tells me that they’ve drafted that… directive, I’m going to have to remind myself every day, that we didn’t come out here to play God.” Captain Archer is correct that in not rendering assistance he is not playing God;  instead he is disobeying God in allowing countless deaths he could easily have prevented.

4.    For Catholics I think the Prime Directive at bottom is morally indefensible. One can make an argument, and I think it is a good one, that non-intervention is probably the best policy frequently.  However to adhere to this policy in almost every circumstance is to throw away the command of Christ to love our neighbor.  Loving our neighbor might often mean leaving him alone, but every time?  The Prime Directive is an interesting concept but it pales before “You will love your neighbor as yourself.”

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  1. BINGO

    Particularly your last line. The Prime Directive is what happens when a society eschews religion/faith in favor of pure logical ethics. Ethics can save you from making many mistakes, but they can’t be a moral compass. When your lizard brain is screaming at you to help someone in need and your ethics say you shouldn’t…your ethics are probably wrong.

  2. I agree with Matt Souders – BINGO:

    “The Prime Directive is an interesting concept but it pales before ‘You will love your neighbor as yourself.'”

    “When your lizard brain is screaming at you to help someone in need and your ethics say you shouldn’t…your ethics are probably wrong.”

  3. PS, I amend what I wrote to also address the case of an alcoholic or addict in the throes of his addiction, for whom often “help” only serves to enable the continuation of his addiction. In such cases “non-interference” – letting him reach his bottom – is exactly the help he needs.

  4. Well, ST would have been much more boring if they hadn’t violated the Prime Directed at whim. I’m not a geek and never followed the subsequent series. One problem is that any contact is to some extent interference.
    Even if the first Spaniards had been defeated by the natives just the knowledge of horse-mounted strangers bearing wonder weapons would rock their world view.

    I prefer the “noninterference” policy in The Mote in God’s Eye King David’s Spaceship by Jerry Pournelle, which address #2 and #3.
    The 1st Empire has fallen, the Second Empire is reestablishing itself and bringing worlds into the empire based on their tech level, forbidding import of new tech. A classic example of interference is the Church introducing improvements in agriculture, medicine and sanitation to a primitive planet. The health practices catch on, the agricultural do not. Plagues decrease but famine reigns.

    In SF often sees a variant “Do unto others as THEY would have you do unto them.” which brings up the ethics vs. morality problem.
    You’re right, we should go with “You will love your neighbor as yourself.” BUT with the caveat that we make we make sure we understand the situation. With aliens we would no doubt see some things that appear repugnant but are natural to them? Or part are part of their culture that needs to be eradicated like racism? It might well take some time to figure out.

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