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.
Tags: star trek, bioethics, ethics, science fiction, cultural uplift, prime directive.