January 13, 2007

Star Trek's 'Prime Directive' is stupid

Fiction often reflects reality and nowhere is this more true than in Star Trek. The franchise is one giant phantasmagoric projection of human hopes and longings. It's also a glimpse into a our societal norms and commonly held inhibitions, fears and inconsistencies.

Take the Star Trek Prime Directive (PD) for example, a non-interference policy that applies to civilizations who have yet to develop the capacity for warp speed. The policy dictates that there be no interference with the natural development of any primitive society. No pre-warp culture can be given or exposed to any information regarding advanced technology or alien races, nor should the United Federation of Planets improve or change in any way the natural course of such a society, even if that change is well-intentioned and kept completely secret.

The Federation contends that great harm would be inflicted upon a civilization if first contact is made prematurely. It is my opinion, however, that if anything like a PD was put into practice it would introduce a slew of ethical problems.

The PD is a science fictional projection of the naturalistic fallacy and injunctions against playing God. It's also a disturbing application of social Darwinism. The underlying assumption of the PD is that a civilization must attain space faring capabilities and advanced technologies through their own means (civilizational uplift is not an option, I suppose). It's survival of the fittest as decreed by the Federation, and those who cannot progress to an advanced developmental stage or who destroy themselves first simply didn't deserve to be in the Federation in the first place.

The PD was the focus of many Star Trek episodes, but there's one in particular that stands out in my mind as a blatant example of how negligent and unfair the Prime Directive can be.

The episode in question comes from the first season of Star Trek: Enterprise called "Dear Doctor" in which the crew must decide where their morals lie about letting a species live or die from a pandemic. Technically speaking, the PD hadn't been implemented yet, but this episode was intended to show some of the events leading to its development.

In "Dear Doctor" the Enterprise crew encounters a pre-warp civilization that is being decimated by a pandemic -- over 12 million people were killed during the previous year. Needless to say these people are eager to find a cure and are hopeful that the Enterprise crew will be willing and able to help them with their advanced medical technology.

The crew soon discovers that that the alien society is comprised of two distinct species, the Valakians and Menks -- but for some unknown reason the Menks are completely immune to the disease.

Phlox, the ship's doctor, is asked to develop medication to ease the symptoms of the disease. In so doing he discovers that the illness has a genetic basis and has been ongoing for thousands of years, accelerating only in recent generations. Shockingly, Dr. Phlox projects that the Valakians will be extinct in less than 200 years.

The doctor eventually finds a cure but comes to the conclusion that it wouldn't be ethical to administer it for fears of interfering in an evolutionary process. Apparently, the Valakians are dying out and the Menks are undergoing an "awakening process". The "disease" the Valakians are suffering from isn't caused by any pathogen, but is because their gene pool has reached a "dead end."

The doctor convinces Captain Archer that they should not interfere, they pack their bags, and boldly return to space leaving the Valakians and Malks to fend for themselves.

It was at this point during the episode when I frantically reached for any and all objects I could find to throw at the television. I started foaming and frothing at the mouth while spewing profanities at the screen. Unbelievable. In the course of one single episode the Star Trek writers committed a slew of ethics sin and bought into a number of fallacies associated with evolutionary theory and genetics.

First of all, the 'natural course' of things, while certainly flowery and noble sounding, is another way of describing cruel, indifferent and unconscious processes. The entire thrust of secular humanism, to which Star Trek is supposedly partial to, is all about putting a stop to such things.

Second, it is sheer nonsense from an ethical perspective to favour one sentient species over another based solely on the quality of their genetic constitution and any fallacious preconception as to their evolutionary potential. Nor does it make any sense to allow a genetic disorder to "run its course." It would be like refusing to "interfere" with cystic fibrosis or spina bifida. A doctor's first and foremost directive, if I may use that term, is to treat his or her patient to the best of their abilities and do no harm. Phlox violated the Hippocratic Oath and acted with dangerous negligence.

I could go on and on about the problems in this episode but I am somewhat straying off course. This is one example of many in which the PD is used as an excuse for inaction. What's worse is that it's a reflection of many current prohibitions and taboos. Today, at the dawn of the genetics revolution, we are confronted with fear and apprehension. And as the world modernizes and globalizes, we are stunted by cultural relativism and social pandering.

In the Star Trek universe it is assumed that only Darwinian processes can enable a civilization to reach an advanced stage. It is likely that this is believed because of previous failures and a misguided reverence for evolutionary processes. Instead of giving up on uplift and helping a civilization integrate into advanced society, the Federation should keep trying to find an effective strategy. Leaving a primitive culture to their own devices could lead to their destruction -- a result that is quite obviously far worse than awkward socialization.

While the ethics of obligations is a very tricky thing, it is often through our inaction that we cause the most harm. Injunctions against playing God begs the question: if we don't play God, who will? It is through our good intentions and resultant actions that we are humane. Further, we have to get over our inferiority complex and our fear of making a bad situation worse. And if our actions do make things worse, then we have to refine our strategies and ourselves in hopes of eventually achieving success.

Humanity's Prime Directive should not be avoidance, but instead compassionate action.

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56 comments:

Steve Wilson said...

I felt exactly the same way about that appalling episode.

I believe that episodes set later in the Trek timeline attempt to justify the Directive on empirical rather than philosophical grounds: that every time intervention has been attempted, it's been a catastrophe.

I think the Prime Directive was probably first developed by the writers as an explanation for our own Fermi Paradox, i.e. why haven't we been contacted.

Also, it ties in with the common, though spurious, idea that human society would collapse into anarchy if aliens were discovered.

George said...

>>I think the Prime Directive was probably first developed by the writers as an explanation for our own Fermi Paradox, i.e. why haven't we been contacted.

Yes! So many people use the ST PD to explain away the FP. The so-called zoo-hypothesis is one of the most frequently cited explanations for the FP, an explanation that's used by ufologists all the time.

On a related note, another variant of this is the quarantine hypothesis, which is the suggestion that advanced civs protect themselves against other civs, wary of a hostile species and/or viral pathogens and memes.

Jamais said...

Remember that ST emerged in the mid-late 1960s, when consciousness about the ways in which European colonialism had done very bad things to native people in various countries had really started to take hold in mainstream America. The original purpose of the Prime Directive had nothing to do with Fermi's Paradox, the impact of aliens on Earth, or anything like that. It was entirely a metaphorical response to Earth's European colonial period, where higher-tech societies came through and killed off masses of native people, even while proclaiming themselves to be "helping" them.

The rationales and justifications may have changed over time, but that was the original source of the PD.

George said...

Jamais, I think you're spot on: the Prime Directive as white man's guilt.

ronb said...

Actually I was always under the impression that the PD was a specific commentary on the situation in Vietnam... interfering in another country's development/politics/etc. Sure, the overall 'white man's guilt' applies but it was more narrowly focused than that.

AnneC said...

The Prime Directive is, as far as I can tell, primarily a plot device -- either it allows the crew the opportunity to find some kind of creative loophole (e.g., the TNG episode in which they permitted one planet's population to receive enough of the drug they were addicted to to last a while, but did not provide the people with the necessary hardware with which to repair their drug-trafficking ships), or it allows for some kind of moralizing "white man's guilt" message, as mentioned by other commenters.

Either way, I did notice that the Prime Directive generally tended to prompt a lot more ethical tension on the show than it did firm answers -- and I also noticed that the way the characters reacted to it seemed to depend on who had written the episode, among other things.

In some of the episodes, certain crewmembers would seem very reasonable and compassionate, whereas on others they would just seem cold-hearted and horrid. In the TNG episode where Data wanted to save (and ended up saving) a young alien girl and her people from environmental catastrophe on their planet, I was aghast at how the Enterprise admins were just so cavalier about the notion of letting those people die.

The Prime Directive is also very discriminatory in some cases -- for instance, the very idea that you will only intervene and save the lives of people who are sufficiently technologically advanced (according to your standards) is pretty horrid.

Anonymous said...

PD is a meme that is destructive. The concept behind PD is simple and easy to store and execute. Like many successful memes it reduced future variety variability for immediate cognitive congruity.

radar said...

An earlier person was actually correct about the PD. Not only was it a plot device, it was also a means to demonstrate the danger of advanced technology without advanced civilizations. Stop watching Enterprise and TNG, and start watching real Star Trek, (A Piece of the Action, A Private Little War) and you'll see that the PD was introduced as a way to prevent the horrible tragedies of giving civilizations access to technology they did not yet understand.

Anonymous said...

I did not see that episode, but it sounds as if they did the right thing. We have been propping up the ignorant and evolutionally inferior for too long. See Idiocracy.

Anonymous said...

You cannot use an Enterprise episode as support for your thesis because Enterprise was terrible and didn't count as real Star Trek.

George said...

LOL, yeah it was a pretty bad series.

jones said...

It wasn't so much a lame series in and of itself, as it was a complete error in relation to nearly every piece of Star Trek history and timeline previously established.

James Hudnall said...

In an interview I read many moons ago (it may have been in the Making of Star Trek paperback that came out in the 70s), Gene Roddenberry specifically said the prime directive had to do with the way advanced Europeans disrupted native American cultures. In other words, it was white guilt.

The thing is, "Indians" loved our metal technology and they wanted to trade for our superior stuff. That wasn't what was the problem. It was the way the relationship between Europeans and Natives soured. That had less to do with technology and more to do with conquest.

Europeans basically conquered the Americas and subjugated the people. Technology gave us an advantage, but we also won through less superstition (even though we were insanely superstitious ourselves).

For example, in Mexico, a boatful of Spaniards and Cortez defeated the Aztecs largely through playing with their beliefs.

So the PD is based on a logical fallacy.

Destin said...

I have not seen the specific episode (never much of a fan of Enterprise) but I think PD was logically refuted by the Next Generation's interaction with Q. Q's interference is a good analogy to Federation interaction with 'lower' civilizations. Did Q have a significant impact on the crew? Did he destroy the Federation?

I think that the Prime Directive was much too simple for the 'advanced' society that was depicted in Star Trek. As previous commentators noted, it was a neat plot element - but even too simple for our 'modern' culture. In essence, Treking and PD are mutually exclusive. Hands off exploring was never what ST was about - the original Trek is rife with PD violation. And in the Trek universe Q proved that PD was pointless (if it was ever actually proved to have a point).

By the logic of PD, two societies would never meet - because by the time a 'lower' civilization evolved to the level of the Federation, the Federation would have equally evolved. The 'lower' civilization would still be 'low' in comparison to the evolved Federation.

An 'advanced' Trek society would have realized that interference would destabilize a 'lower' culture - but that the adaptability of that culture would probably win out. I would argue that if two cultures are able to communicate then they are compatible - in other words their societies are a good match for each other - and information sharing is possible.

The next two paragraphs are in response to the Fermi Paradox. What if the reason we haven't been contacted is that we don't recognize a form of communication? What if advanced societies communicate via quantum bit manipulation?

Our definition of life is really based around a certain set of elements that behave a certain way on Earth. Maybe Jupiter has its own set of life based around elements that behave 'favorably' (form reproducing survival machines) in it's climate. Star Trek simplifies societies to humanoid characteristics - but I would be extremely surprised if the vast majority of life is even remotely close to our narrow definition. We come from the assumption that life is rare; but life is just an extension of the properties of the universe. Thus another society is probably not adhering to PD, or holding us in a Zoo. They may not even notice us. We are just a localized expression of native elements. We have the potential to expand beyond local bounds, but I think we have a lot of evolving to do before we are even approached by another set of beings.

Anonymous said...

The main goal of the PD is to keep dangerous technology out of the hands of those who do not understand the ramifications of using said technology. It is not a means of determining what species are "worthy" of space travel or the knowledge of extraterrestrial beings.

Furthermore, your example of ignoring genetic disorders such as Cystic Fibrosis is completely missing the point. The PD promotes intra-species cooperation to solve all problems that a species faces before moving on to other worlds. Genetic disorders are an intra-species issue, one that most certainly should be solved. If the Federation were to look at every pre-warp civilization, make contact, and then spread new technology, there would never be any need to come together and develop one's own identity as a species.

Ceesaxp said...

Only one comment on that particular episode of STE. I won't say I was repelled by it. I think it has indeed highlighted the reason for PD underpinnings. Please do recall, thet Menks were considered "low" race, mere workers/toilers -- not smart enough for much else. This was one of the major reasns Phlax has, essentially, refused to introduce the cure he has developed. Incredibly tough choice indeed -- considering that it was going totally aginst his grain as a doctor. Yet in a way -- justified (or was it?).

ST has always been idealistic on many fronts and PD is only one of them. An ET watching it would most likely find it so unbelievably chauvinistic -- humans are so grand, so young yet wiser than many other, more experienced races...

Anonymous said...

My word, but the entire piece is an advocation of a neoconservative philosophy. How's Iraq going there guys?

I'll take the White Mans Guilt angle as maybe White Mans Lesson. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

I think that, partially, the PD's implementation can be explained and, perhaps, validated with reference to ideas that occur in the third act of "AKIRA" _OR_ that form the bulk of action in Anthony's _Macroscope_.

Akira:

When an amoeba gets the power of nuclear weapons, it behaves as a low-awareness organism would with tools that demand the height of intelligence and sophistication.

Macroscope:

To give warlike and non-introspective societies access to tools which could allow them to enact their unrefined ( and yes, someone gets the blessed position of arbitrating that, it's not fair, but evolution is, as you said, a bitch ) behavior with the accelerants of warp technology is irresponsible.

Access to Starfleet-grade information an technology before a species has evolved sufficient control and ability to handle minor disputes peacefully could do yet even more harm. The doctor may have, actually, been observing the Asimovian -1th law: "A fleet-er / robot may not harm the majority of Fleet nations, or, by inaction, allow said majority to come to harm".

Case in point: George W. Bush. Any doubt the world would be better off if he were managing some baseball team instead of having his pseudopods on the red button?

Would you give him warp technology?

Anonymous said...

They tried this in the 19th century. It was called Imperialism. Hundreds of millions of people died in Late Victorian Holocausts.

http://www.boondocksnet.com/ai/kipling/kipling.html

Take up the White Man's burden--
Send forth the best ye breed--
Go, bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait, in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild--
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

Take up the White Man's burden--
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain,
To seek another's profit
And work another's gain.

Take up the White Man's burden--
The savage wars of peace--
Fill full the mouth of Famine,
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
(The end for others sought)
Watch sloth and heathen folly
Bring all your hope to nought.

Take up the White Man's burden--
No iron rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper--
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go, make them with your living
And mark them with your dead.

Take up the White Man's burden,
And reap his old reward--
The blame of those ye better
The hate of those ye guard--
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:--
"Why brought ye us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?"

Take up the White Man's burden--
Ye dare not stoop to less--
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloak your weariness.
By all ye will or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent sullen peoples
Shall weigh your God and you.

Take up the White Man's burden!
Have done with childish days--
The lightly-proffered laurel,
The easy ungrudged praise:
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years,
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers.

Guderian said...

It should be noted that one of the primary rationales for the creation of the PD was for the protection of both the Fed and other, less advanced species that might be affected by a non-warp civilization getting their hands on warp level tech. This is based on the idea that the pre-cursor technologies that are necessary to develop a warp drive can also be used to create highly destructive WMD's. These technologies tend to "weed out" a civilization that is too warlike or self-destructive to deal with other species in a civil manner.

Within the ST mythos, the primary example of this was the Klingon Empire. The Klingons never developed their own warp-tech, they stole it from a species that attempted to invade their homeworld. They then used the technology to create a star empire, conquering and either enslaving or obliterating other, less advanced species.

One real world counterpart of this would seem to be the international community's attitude toward nuclear proliferation. The assumption being that any country that has the necessary resources to independently develop their own nuclear bomb has both the internal stability and the inherent responsibility to never actually use them. Thus it's okay for India or South Africa but it's not okay for Iran.

Anonymous said...

1. That's why Enterprise failed - poor writers.
2. Kipling? Well done!

Anonymous said...

Twisted logic not withstanding, science fiction stories are replete with cautionary tales of man's mucking about with his environment, space and genetics. Look at how many species of trees have gone extinct during the 19th century due to disease accidentally being introduced. Look at the purple lustrife blight. http://www.pbase.com/joanel/image/48172576

Ever heard of killer bees?

Dylan Sherlock said...

There are some big problems with your thesis here, besides the obvious being the much more ambiguous nature of a "Prime Directive" idea portrayed in Enterprise as opposed to Gene Roddenbery's much more absolutist ideal. Hah.

I thought your connection with ideas of non-interference and social darwinism is a very unique perspective on cross-cultural relations. Interesting especially in that you framed non-interfernce in the exact way that imperialists of the 19th Century used in their justifications for colonialism.

I would disagree though, on less of a geeky basis. The "de-geeked" question is: is it right to interfere in other cultures?

Influenced by the Social Darwinian model of unilineal evolution (that societies, like species, evolve, but on a linear structure of primitive to civilized), Imperialism's answer (someone quoted Kipling above me) was that "civilized" (i.e. technologically advanced... but w/ an assumption that technology can only develop in a morally advanced society) societies have a responsibility to cause less "civilized" societies to be "raised" to their level of technological, moral and cultural sophistication.

This is poppycock. And hundreds of millions of people died because of this ridiculous, racist, ethnocentric ideology.

This same ideology has led America to kills millions more around the world in the name of democracy that comes in the form of dictators and capitalism that comes in the form of oligarchies.

Despite the lofty ambitions of your thesis, the proof is in the pudding. Self-righteous interference in other cultures only ends in disaster.

But yeah... Star Trek. Ahead of it's time perhaps? Maybe GWB wouldn't have invaded Iraq if he'd been a Trekkie? Ha.

Beam Me Up said...

You know, as noble as the prime directive sounded, I have to agree with the author. Even in the original series it seems Kirk and crew stepped on their dicks more times trying to observe the PD. I mean if they were that worried about it, why were they always using phasers, medical tools and transporters in plain view. The whole implementation was schizophrenic. Why bother to Boldly Go?!. I think David Brin had a clearer view with uplift

Ray V said...

It's all very well pitying the poor Menks in the STE episode mentioned by the author, but I think Flox was more concerned with whether helping the Menks would retard the "awakening" of the Valakians - perhaps stopping it completely.

Who has the right to make that call, or should they let nature run it's course.

There are many examples where interference would be the best option, and while the various ST crews generally wield the PD like a big stick, they also break it or attempt to circumvent it when it suits them (or the story).

The example given just isn't as black and white as the post leads us to believe.

matthew said...

Modern story of uplift:
In Australia, a group of really nice people thought it would be a great idea to show 12 Arnhem land kiddies a bit more of their country.
The only technology they had seen up until this point was
• Some modern medicine.
• Aircraft (in the air).
• Radio.
• Road Vehicles
The kiddies got taken to Sydney where they saw
• Ice cream
• Sweets
• Shops
• Air Conditioning
• Air Travel
• TV
• Internet
• Sealed roads
• Mulit-story buildings
• Movies
• Telephones
• Lifts/escalators/travelators
• ….

When the kiddies got home, four of them committed suicide within the first week. They knew they’d been to paradise, and that they’d never get to go back, they knew exactly how shit their life was compared to ours, and no amount of talk can explain away chocolate.

Forget weapons, forget cultural stagnation, forget cargo cults, the reason you don’t go around flaunting near immortal demi god like power is that it makes the locals realise how crap their short dull lives are.

Rich and Poor

Anonymous said...

You said "begs the question" but you meant "raises the question."

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I agree. I never saw this episode, but from the article here, it seems to me that these two species are in a complex relationship. If one is dying out so that the other can grow, then by saving the one, you doom the other. from a purely logical perspective, it would be better to save the species that is more numerous or has greater potential. Thus inaction is the right course.

The purpose of the Prime Directive, in my view, is not to allow Darwinism to reign supreme, but to prevent good intentions from causing unintended and potentially disastrous consequences. The extinction of a species is disastrous, but what if, by introducing a cure, the Enterprise ends up destroying both species by damaging the delicate equilibrium that exists?

Human beings seem to have an innate belief that we always know how to solve a problem. But very often, we are wrong. If you don't beleive me, read Michael Crichton's book "State of Fear". This book goes into great detail about how Yellowstone national park was set up as a nature preserve and any time we tried to help "preserve" nature there, we (humans) ended up causing more and more catastrophic damage to the very nature we were trying to protect.

Anonymous said...

I have always taken the PD two ways - first, that non-interference was meant to avoid the malaise and despair of a younger culture when faced with an older culture - leading to (as with the Australian Aborigines and to some extent the Native American culture) a death of the culture and its uniqueness; and second, (as espoused in many science fiction writings) to ensure that younger cultures can find solutions that may well be different (and often better) than the current solutions.
The fact that they broke the rule as often as they followed it never detracted the idea itself in my mind.

Dave Brown, Portland OR said...

It's interesting that your article attacks the concept without mentioning the basis for that concept even once. In the Star Trek universe, the Prime Directive was created because of our own historical experiences here on our own planet. When a technologically advanced culture contacts and interferes with a technologically inferior culture, the results are often disastrous, however well-intentioned the interference may have been. The Aztecs, the Native Americans, southeast Asia, the entire middle east. The technology itself may not be the direct cause, as another poster mentioned in the case of Cortez and the Aztecs, but they would not have been there, interfering, if it had not been for their superior technology. To attack the concept of the Prime Directive without even examining its historical underpinnings is just bad writing.

David Bowman said...

In the words of the great Shat:

"It's just a TV show"

Anonymous said...

The problem with the Prime Directive is that it forces a crew to deal with a complex situation according to a predetermined set of guidelines. It severely limits the way in which a crew could respond to a given situation. It is a dogma.
What would you do if you found a pre-warp civilization that was on the verge of tearing itself apart? Might the introduction of advance technology end poverty and disease and promote equality, education and scientific advancement, and help this civilization to put its problems behind it? Wouldn't you be negligent ethically if you could help but did nothing?

Anonymous said...

i think Prime Directive is not stupid... sometimes it's a bit uneasy but it has it's reasons... just for example some "aliens" are out there watching us and they suddenly came here what do you think people on earth will react? even if they said they will try to help us we will eventually think they are invaders eventually kill them all or have their technology and use it against themselves and sell it in the highest price not all people on earth are like what you call ST's "Federation" the righteous ones and who can understand foreign presence or should we say "aliens" if there really are "aliens" here people will just use them in experiments like lab rats thats why the "Prime Directive" applies to prevent that disaster for both parties. Also what if someone interfered with our past what do you think will happen to all of us now? Prime Directive is all about developing on your own just like us with no help or interfering of others for example how can they or us be independent or how can we call ourselves a culture or "humans" if the framework our ideals came from other species... also what if for example we break the Prime Directive and help other species which "maybe" after 400 years or so will turn against us and obliterate us all?

Anonymous said...

The Prime Directive has been stated in a couple of contradictory forms in Star Trek, but I think the absolute version of the PD (no interference) makes sense: the first contact a lot of civillizations make with the Federation is almost always via Starfleet, and much of further contant also is. If Starfleet were to interfere in other civilizations it would in effect determine Federation foreign policy***.

This is not be the domain of the military since it has neither the authority, nor the skill, to decide whether an intervention is neccesary, or what forms it should take. Maybe other branches of the Federation are less restricted in what they can do (or order Starfleet to do).

It could be argued that this is too strict, but some people in Starfleet keep finding excuses to interfere even when strictly forbidden, so any lenience would probably open the floodgates to all manners of ill-considered action.

The talk about "natural development" and such is just a political cover story, to cover a rather cynical (but perhaps neccesary) decision.

*** This obviously failed, as the Federation pretty much is a military state. However, this does not condemn PD itself but suggests some other measures were also neccesary.

Ana said...

No, the Prime Directive may not be perfect but it’s not by any means stupid.

As it was mentioned above by more than one person, you have many examples of how bad things can get when a piece of, let’s call it, ‘technology’ is introduced in an underdeveloped society.

The best example are the civil wars in many countries that were once European colonies (some still striving) and which, after achieving their so desired independence simply destroyed themselves because the balance of power shifted towards those who had appropriated technology that had been out of their reach until the moment of first contact.
Imagine it by simply considering this analogy: it’s like giving a child a gun.

Proof that these countries now ravished by decades of war were victims of their own ignorance (ignorance as lack of knowledge, not as stupidity) is that Japan, also introduced to a piece of new technology in the XVIth century did not fall prey to war, rather emerged from it a united, peaceful and stronger nation.
The pistol saved Japanese society from decades if not centuries of war and devastation by uniting the nation under a sole Shogun’s rule, instead of letting it be continuously eroded by countless feuds between countless warlords.
And why did this work in Japan and not in other countries? Simply because Japanese society, although ignorant of what a pistol was at the time it was placed in their hands, had already given proof of being a very advanced nation, despite its geographical isolation.
Someone used the expression ‘civilized’; well, the Japanese WERE civilized – to the point where they unassembled the pistols, builds hundreds of replicas and used them rationally until they achieved a sort of balance.
After their problem was solved, they went back to their normal lives… until they were again bombarded by foreign technology in the late XIXth century and got totally corrupted by ‘modern thinking’.
Sometimes evolution means knowing you have to keep the good things progress and knowledge bring you and discard the bad.

The main fault of the Prime Directive is the lack of judgment towards those which it should be applied to and those which deserve a second glance, i.e., the ‘civilized’ ones. Yes, in the case of Japan it was pure luck, but time and a careful examination can give you an idea of the worthiness of a people.
Obviously, in the episodes of Star Trek, for the sake of emotion and television, things always have to be solved within the hour and there’s never the chance for the crew of the ship to evaluate how evolved the periled society is before they solemnly declare “it’s not in our hands”.
In these scenarios, they shouldn’t have put their asses on the tech-impaired planet in the first place.
In some cases, the Prime Directive terms MUST be applied, in some cases we mustn’t interfere.

In the case of disease… I totally disagree with you.
I mean, if you were given the chance… would you save the dinosaurs, knowing à priori that it would mean Humanity would never become?
It’s easy to say ‘oh, they look fairly humanoid so we have to save them; if we didn’t it would be immoral’, but what about if the diseased society were gross-looking-man-eating beasts?
Then it would be a threat to us – so is that a fair reason to let them die?

How are humans more important than, let’s say, crocodiles? What have we ever done for benefit of the world that they haven’t? In fact, we actually make bags and shoes out of them because it makes us feel more important than the human who hasn’t got the mullah to buy a crocodile bag or pair of crocodile shoes.
My guess is… long after we as a race are gone, cockroaches will still be here (they’ve reached space already…) and maybe they deserve it more. They’re gross? Yes they are – now imagine how a sack of pink flesh, riveted with wrinkles and depressions, pimples and razor burns looks to an insect who’s been here for millions of years and beat the odds of survival time and time again.

I do believe that if a society can’t make it by its own it should collapse on itself. If it’s given a second chance, odds are it’s going to contaminate other societies, otherwise healthy to the date of first contact.

Practical example of the Prime Directive: people who make animal documentaries never interfere, no matter how much they love the two months old lion cub they saw be given birth and no matter how much it hurts the moment they see it being slaughtered by a hyena, right before their eyes.

Note to ‘mathew’ who mentioned that story about Australia’s native boys: stupid story and I’m convinced that’s an urban myth.
We don’t live in paradise, we don’t have idyllic lives and not everyone wants what 1st world middle class people have.
I have a fairly good life in material terms (let’s just say I have a roof over my head, food on my plate and money in my pocket for dinner and a movie) but I’m stupendously unsatisfied with it. Honestly? I’d trade all the internet in the world, all the pointless knowledge about the media and all the candy I’ve ever eaten for a chance to have been born in Tahiti a thousand years ago.
That would be happiness.

Jackrabbit said...

Folks, the Enterprise series just plain sucks.

Anonymous said...

If there are aliens out there with superior technology ... I want them to stay away. Can you imagine a neocon Bush government armed with advanced alien technology? Can you imagine the political instability and chaos if some countries were given it but not others? Can you imagine a world where benevolent aliens had given EVERYONE that technology, including Iraq, Iran and North Korea? How long before a bunch of pissed-off Iraqis decide to fly one of those cute stealthed saucers under the US radar and start frying cities out of revenge?

As things currently are, Earth politics is primitive and stupid and not capable of dealing with alien contact. Hell, we haven't even learned to behave in a civilised way with with other Earthers yet.

And why bother being a scientist if the next 200years worth of research is already done and patented? So we shut down our own research and go begging for technological scraps. We INSIST that they give them to us. And then when we screw up and destroy the atmosphere or accidentally create a supervirus, we demand that the aliens help us because they have the resources and it's partly their fault. And then we screw up again, and again, and protest groups start to complain that this is all the alien's fault, and extremists argue that we should nuke them, and military planners calculate that a preemptive strike would be best, and pretty soon those aliens will wish they'd never met us. Soon they have to decide whether to stop answering their phones next time we send out a distress call, or if we now have spaceships with their technology, whether they have to wipe us out for self-protection.

If other alien civilisations are anything like us, the prime directive is a very, very, VERY good idea.

James said...

I found it amusing during the TNG series when Picard would wax eloquent about humanity having "evolved" beyond violent tendencies, etc., while being hoisted on his own petard later on (most pointedly illustrated during "Contact").

I find it hard to believe that the military structure of society as depicted in ST would produce benevolence. That is, I don't see human beings "evolving" in a handful of centuries to the point where they will not commit horrid atrocities in such a setup. Show me a military society that doesn't abuse its children and I'll reconsider my stance. :)

Anonymous said...

"Helping" someone walk is just as harmful as aiding someone to construct a bomb. The whole reason of non-interfearence is so that each and every living being gains wisdom and endurance through their own experiences. If wisdom was that easy to distribute through "help", we wouldnt have teenagers binge-drinking and drink-driving on our civilised streets. We could let it flow freely through our taps. And wisdom can be tainted with closed/narrow minded opinions and beliefs. It is one's vanity and short-sightnedness to think they can "help" others using their own wisdom. Who decides which wisdom is "pure" and which is mere baised opinions? If only every person who feels they can "help" others could reflect on their own wisdom to make that judgement, we wouldnt have the problems we face in our civilised affluent and progressed world. Even before we try to spread our wisdom across to "help" others, we should take a moment to verify our beliefs and opinions. Perhaps then we may realise just how frailed our minds really are, and how inapt we are to help others.

Icarus said...

The non-interference directive makes complete sense. For those who have never studied the complex interactions that exist between vastly different cultures, perhaps not interfering in another culture at a time of externally perceived dire need seems wrong. If you are one of those people who have never had an opportunity to study diverse societies and the vastly different cultures that exist on this tiny planet which exists in billions of star systems, many with other planets, I suggest you start learning. Consider the blatant imperialistic actions and destrucive capitalistic greed resulting from the "tyranny of the majority" (democracy) gone awry in the U.S. . Be aware of terrorists and high tech nuclear weapons now avaialble to them.Consider a country with a history of trespass and murder of Native Americans, and kidnapping of their children to "civilize" them. Consider the 90 percent of Native Americans killed by smallpox and plague brought by Europeans. Too bad the Europeans didn't have the non-interference directive back then. . . . The non-interference directive was / is part of science fiction. It makes complete sense when thoughtfully considered in the context of vastly different cultures and societies, but makes little sense when viewed from the uninformed narrow minded standpoint of ethnocentric rhetoric.

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Athena said...

I devoted an entire chapter of my book, to this issue. The title of the chapter is Send Viruses, Guns and Latinum: New Worlds and the Prime Directive, which tells you a bit about my take on the PD.

Incidentally, another chapter in the book deals with Penrose and Hameroff's concept of quantum microtubules. I happen to work with these in the lab and, trust me, they're not the stuff of consciousness. I'd be rich and famous if they were!

Athena Andreadis

Anonymous said...

There's a very good sentiment at the heart of the Prime Directive, as heavy-handed interference with other cultures should indeed be disastrous in most cases. The purpose of the directive should be to protect pre-warp civilizations, but "Dear Doctor" displays unethical inaction which an absolute interpretation of the directive can be used to justify.

Interpretation of the directive seems to have changed to a less compassionate one for series written after the Original Series. In "The Paradise Syndrome", for example, the Enterprise actually had the mission of preventing a natural asteroid impact from causing a pre-warp society's extinction. Unlike in "Dear Doctor", they did not let unconscious and indifferent processes (as the original poster put it) reign.

If the crew had never encountered the Valakians, it would be a different story. They already interfered and became involved by simply being there. Having a possible cure and withholding it gave them indirect responsibility for the deaths to come.

Anonymous said...

Stupid? I disagree. Take a look at us humans for a minute. 40-some odd years ago we achieved escape velocity and were able to orbit earth, we even managed to visit our satellite moon (maybe) but since the early 1970's there has been no movement to expand manned spaceflight.
We live in a world of limited resources and I think that extraplanetary exploration by humans is to take place, it will require direction of resources toward that goal. It will require cooperation between peoples and nations. But what we have today is instead a desire to destroy and enslave each other and we are expending our precious resources to achieve those ends.
At this rate we will never get off this planet and on to another, because somehow, we are not mature enough to do so.
We do not belong in the confederation and rightfully so.

revgeorge said...

If only Picard had followed the prime directive in the first season of NG, Wesley Crusher would be dead, dead, dead!!

But strangely, starship captains go about violating or upholding the PD whenever they feel like it. They essentially end up doing what they want, but only after some insufferable moralizing over the situation.

Anonymous said...

I can’t begin to say how flawed that argument is. First, as previously mentioned in other posts, Enterprise was a complete failure—its cancellation after four seasons was, not like the original’s cancellation due to low budget, caused by its enormous unpopularity with fans and laymen alike. The argument offers two pieces of evidence. One of them is from Enterprise, which follows so little of other Star Trek (for instance, in the classic “Balance of Terror,” it is clearly established that they had never met the Romulans face to face until that episode, and never seen a Romulan, as view screens did not exist; however in Enterprise, there are times when Romulans appear on view screens), that it is improper to take this as a reason why all 714 episodes of Star Trek, including Enterprise, are all flawed in their “overly righteous” ideal. Two of 714, which is equal to barely 0.28%, seems to me like a hasty generalization (I smell a reeking, pungent, and repulsive logical fallacy). Also, he argument itself states that the Prime Directive did not exist in the case of that Enterprise episode: that’s contradictory.

Secondly, the concept of the Prime Directive is flawless. “If we were to assume the whales were ours to do with as we please, we would be as guilty as those who caused their extinction,” says Spock in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Just as if we tried to save a species from ethnic cleansing by another species of two pre-warp civilizations existing on negative planets, we would be assuming that we had the right to save them, just like the oppressing civilization has the right to kill them. And this concept of “how is this humane” is flawed, too.

The author says that humanitarian reasons should allow for “playing God.” Well, let’s look at some Earth history for reference: Africa. Europeans invaded—and yes, I use the term invaded appropriately here—Africa hundreds of years ago, initially for the purpose of self-enhancement through the gaining of greater profits from exports of overseas items. Later, they used the argument of “We need to stop these people from worshipping false gods and turn them to Christianity,” which actually drew people for that reason: they thought they were philanthropists, and they thought they had the right to interfere with Africa and to “help” the Africans, to show that “Heart of Darkness” the light. They even used the argument, as the author uses, to some degree, of the need for people to go in to stop the petty wars between Africans, and it worked, too. And the result of this so-called “compassionate action,” which is supposedly better than non-interference? Only the murder of some millions of Africans over the years, from causes like diseases brought by the foreigners to those of outright macabre massacres of the indigenous population. And the same was the case with North and South America, Oceania, and many parts of Asia. And these less-advanced people, instead of being treated as equals, because of their technological inferiority, were treated as inferiors.

The Prime Directive is for the protection of societies. If a society is on the brink of extinction by another society, is it right for the UFP to step in and give the losing side 10,000 phaser rifles and 15,000 phasers, communicators, transporter technology, replicators, shuttlecraft, Maquis fighters, retired Constitution, Excelsior, and Ambassador class ships, lessons in how to use all this equipment, etc., while the other side is using basic lasers? The losing side would only turn in to the aggressors. We cannot give them that power because it is dangerous to them: they would destroy themselves, both sides would end up being exterminated. The Prime Directive is designed to help; though sometimes we may cry over something that happened, we cannot deny that because something may be sad, it is not always the right thing to do. And we cannot compromise pur morals for our emotions.

Lisa said...

In response to the previous commenter (whom I know personally):
1. For purposes of an at least somewhat fair argument, I won’t take into account your obvious bias- that your love of Star Trek serves a greater role in the formation of your opinion on this particular issue than your actual political and philosophical beliefs, which quite frankly confuse me.
2. Yes, Enterprise did indeed suck. It was even more juvenile, misogynistic, and ideologically flawed than any of its predecessors- not to mention actually conforming to tele-vision clichés, which is what I like about TOS, TAS, TNG, Voyager and the 1st and 3rd movies.
3. Your argument about Africa is just wrong. As someone else early pointed out about the interaction between Europeans and Native Americans, neither giving technology to the natives, nor manipulating them through religion was the key to turning their lives into such steaming piles of sh*t. It was the actual political and ideological system that was the logical root of such things, being based on the assumption that Europeans were superior to other races. The Prime Directive appears to me to be based on just such an elitist system. Deciding whether or not a race is suitable to consort with Federation members on equal terms based on the technological structure of their society is nothing more than species-ist. Which reminds me that Starfleet seems to be dominated by humans from Earth- even being based on Earth (in America, no less). I bet they’re just like the American government- convinced of being the height of civilization, with the duty to “improve” the situation of other people- like we did in Iraq. (Maybe even to get their dilithium crystals?) I bet they’ve staged coups on dozens of planets, much like our CIA throughout the last century. This kind of conflicts with the Prime Directive, doesn’t it?
5. Finally, no rule can apply all of the time. People need to decide what to do based on the situation, like Captain Kirk, and, to a lesser extent, other captains. (I think this is related to the fact that Kirk became a captain at a young age.) Many, many TOS episodes like “The Apple” and “A Piece of the Action” express this idea.

John Zerzan has an interesting critique related to some of my arguments, though I am BY NO MEANS advocating primitivism (like I said, technology and elitism are two different things).
http://www.insurgentdesire.org.uk/startrek.htm
Whew!

Carl's Haunted Turtleneck said...

I too thought that Dr. Phlox was an evil douchebag.

The problem is that as anything becomes popular (like Trek) it attracts lesser minds. The core concepts become dumbed down.

Like you i often have issues with the PD. You probably have an activist streak.

Did i mention that Phlox is a douchebag? His smile is the stuff of nightmares.

Carl's Haunted Turtleneck said...

Just an item to ponder.

Technological sophistication has no bearing on ethical development.

Just because a species isn't complex or technological, doesn't make them any less or more apt to go to war, or ruin themselves or their environment.

Giving life-saving medical advances always has some negative consequences, but people generally agree that the alleviation of suffering and saving of life trumps all such concerns.

That is, IF you're a member of their species.

Humans are incredibly anthropocentric, and scenarios dealing with other species reveals how situational their so-called ethics really are. The entry here is but one example.

It doesn't have to be Merkins or Martians or whatever; deer and cows will demonstrate the problem readily.

And this is why over the years, i too have started to feel that the Prime Directive may be flawed. It started as Roddenberry's way of saying we shouldn't be in Vietnam, and has taken on it's own life. FWIW, Trek has always been filled with intentional and unintentional violations of the PD.

That said, there could risks of societal breakdown if a more technologically-advanced species (notice i did not spew the haphazard "more advanced species") were to reveal itself to some species. Looks at how the fundies melt down over evolution. Look at how people were burned for taking positions thought to be heresy, or non-heliocentric. They're still burning people in Africa for being "witches" so clearly there are some screwed up people on Earth. Fermia Paradox apologism? Maybe. But most people are damn idiots. It takes no brains or values to fnck.

Superior technology plus alien life would be a double-barrel combo that a good many people could not handle. At all. You can just imagine the diversity of reactions to their revelation.

Anonymous said...

If we were given a choice between saving a less advanced civilization or letting it die, the most important thing to consider would be if the civilization was worth saving. Why save a people that will just go on to destroy more civilizations? If we were to save them, and they then went on to kill others, we would be responsible; we would have to choose the lesser of two evils. Personally, I see nothing wrong with killing or letting die one person to save thousands, or thousands to save millions.

rjschwarz said...

For those of you who think the BD was dealt with inconsistently from series to series and episode to episode I would suggest that the directive itself is probably so long, so full of examples and loopholes, and legalese and input from a hundred cultures and worlds and their own experiences that it is likely the document is so long that nobody has actually read it.

They wing-it based on the title and summary.

Enlightened said...

To Ana:

You've got your history so badly wrong I need to correct you on this. Japan is a perfectly example of why you SHOULDN'T give technology to an undeveloped society. Once they had firearm technology, they IMMEDIATELY used it to invade more civilized nations like Korea and China, nations that had long ago achieved internal peace - unlike Japan.

Japan would later use their Europeanized society to oppress Asia before and during WWII. And don't kid me when you say that Japan was 'corrupted' by modern thinking, because that did indeed happen during the 16th century. Westernization did not happen overnight, you know.

Now, decades later, nearly all of Asia is to a large extent Westernized, and we've lost a great source of cultural diversity. Now we're left with an ugly corrupted form of Western society in East Asia, one of the major reasons being because Japan (unlike how you would believe) was uncivilized when they obtained firearms technologies.

Matt said...

Something to take into consideration is that old question "If a tree fell in the woods and no one was around to hear, would it make a sound?".

The PD is there more to keep from interfering with a society's natural development, not to keep anyone in the ST universe from playing saviour. In fact in one episode I remember Troi stating that since they were present, it was their moral obligation to do something about the situation. However if no one is there to stop the destruction or evolution of a civilization, who does it effect?

Death, disease, famine, etc. are all things that we view as horrible, but the reality is that at times they are necessary. Like in the episode in TNG where they came in contact with a drug addicted society and those who were their "dealers". Dr. Crusher wanted to develop a drug that would end their addiction. In that case Picard strictly said no, because it wouldn't solve their problem of addiction, it would just give them an easy way out of the consequences they face because of it. However in case like with the little girl who contacted data, he broke the PD because it was nothing the inhabitants of that planet did to themselves, and contact had already been established. On the flip side in another episode Picard allowed an entire planet to be wiped out because of the PD and scolded Worf's brother for saving a few individuals from that planet. If anyone saw that episode, one of the inhabitants of that planet escaped the holodeck and committed suicide because of what he learned.

Morals are an interesting thing, and breaking the PD is never taken lightly in TNG or cavalier as was in TOS. You have to think to that with TOS, Roddenberry was hindered from portraying things as they should have been in his vision of the ST universe, so I don't put much stock in discussing the PD from that time frame. He was allowed to go much further in depth with more freedom in TNG, and he did in spades.

Lone Wolf said...

Wow, there are some really bad arguments in defiance in the Prime Directive.

1. "Giving technology bah, blah, blah"
No one is suggestion that the Federation should gives weapons technology or technology that can be used as a weapon to less advanced civilizations.
2. "Look at what the European empires did"
The Federation is not an empire, it doesn't invade, conquer and subjugate less advanced civilizations.
3. "You talking about Enterprise, that was a very bad series."
Yes it was and it never happened but it still a good example.

Its not about those. If you saw some one on the street dieing. Would you help him or would you just walk passed him? If you were caption of the Enterprise and you stumbled on a planet with a civilization of a species developing a civilization and a meteor was heading toward the planet. Would you use the tractor beam to push it out of the path of the planet or would you let the species die? If you stumbled on a planet with two nuclear superpowers in a cold war with each other. Would you orchestrate something that looks like a scouting party from a fictional galactic empire that was scouting the planet to see if its worth invading or would you let them kill them selves? If you stumbled on a planet with a massive global famine, a plague wiping out a intelligent species or their planet is about to fall apart. Would you help them or would you let them die?
If you followed the Prime Directive you would let them die and that is why its wrong and evil.

Michael said...

I just watched episode 48 of Enterprise, "Cogenitor", and it also has Prime Directive themes, and the moral relativism they portrayed really irked me.

One of the Enterprise characters, somewhat naively and with little consideration for the outcome, speaks to one of the slaves and tries to educate her by teaching her how to read, and begins exposing her to film and music. She becomes very excited by all this, and demonstrates that she is an equal with the rest of her species. Unfortunately for her, the rest of her people find out and are very unhappy hearing what's happened, and deny her further education. She demands asylum on the Enterprise, but is swiftly turned away by the captain, and is told to return to her ship. We find out in the end of the episode that she kills herself, presumably because she can't bear going on living as a slave. The episode ends with the captain of the Enterprise berating his crew member and blaming him for her death. Sure, the crew member probably should have been far more careful in his actions and should have foreseen problems arising when the slave goes back to her ship to live her life again as a slave, knowing now that life doesn't have to be this way (and this is probably another vehicle for "colonial white mans guilt"). What pissed me off about this though was that none of the characters critically examined what was going on here, in that this race keeps slaves and denies education to them. From memory I don't think they ever used the terms 'cultural relativism' or 'moral relativism' but it was pretty obvious this is what the rest of the crew members of the enterprise had in mind when they answered questions about whether this sort of slavery is ok with dialog along the lines of "but its they way they do things and its not our place to interfere".

This attitude really pissed me off. Sure, interfering with other cultures can have terrible consequences, but as you pointed out above, NOT interfering can have even worse consequences for those who are effectively being abandoned, and it's certainly not crystal clear that a Prime Directive attitude of non-intervention is the best attitude.

I was annoyed that they did not explore the aspects of racism and human (as well as alien) rights that came into question, and largely brushed it aside with "oh its their culture and it's not on to tell them what's right and wrong".

Michael said...

This attitude really pissed me off. Sure, interfering with other cultures can have terrible consequences, but as you pointed out above, NOT interfering can have even worse consequences for those who are effectively being abandoned, and it's certainly not crystal clear that a Prime Directive attitude of non-intervention is the best attitude.

I was annoyed that they did not explore the aspects of racism and human (as well as alien) rights that came into question, and largely brushed it aside with "oh its their culture and it's not on to tell them what's right and wrong".