Friday, August 10, 2018

The Prime Directive

I was asked to comment on the Prime Directive. As someone who watched TOS when it premiered, as well as watching a number of spinoffs, that question has a certain nostalgia. I doubt any deep thought went into whatever TV producer concocted the Prime Directive. I assume it was one of those on the fly decisions. But despite its philosophically undistinguished origins, the Prime Directive is an interesting, provocative concept. 

The Prime Directive is a blanket ban on interference with the internal development of less advanced alien cultures and societies. However, that proved to be dramatically suffocating, so it was routinely flouted by screenwriters, although sometimes a ST episode centered on the controversial nature of the directive. Let's begin by considering some defenses and real-world counterparts to the Prime Directive:

1. The observer effect

Here's a dilemma in anthropology. Say an anthropologist does field study. She wants to study a culture firsthand. Learn about the culture from the inside out. But her presence, as she interacts with the natives, may change the very thing she came to study. Take the proverbial tribe that's discovered in the Amazon. The tribe had no awareness of the outside world. That makes anthropologists eager to study a human culture untainted by modernity or cultural diffusion. But by making contact, and living with them, the anthropologist is exposing them to her own culture. 

2. Imperialism

Plundering other countries and civilizations for what benefits the invader. The destruction of American Indian societies in the name of Manifest Destiny. 

3. White man's burden

The patronizing notion that we're necessarily superior to other cultures, and have a duty to civilize them. 

4. Boondoggles 

Wars of liberation that trigger civil wars and border wars. Foreign aid wasted on Haiti, Africa, the West Bank, &c.

5. Law of unintended consequences

Even well-meaning intervention can have disastrous unforeseen consequences, making things worse than before. 

Now let's consider some objections to the Prime Directive:

1. Reductio ad absurdum

i) Rigid adherence to the principle means you allow entire people-groups to perish. But how is that benevolent? Do the dead have rights? Isn't that Santayana's definition of the fanatic: someone who's lost sight of his objective but redoubles his efforts to get there? 

To take a comparison, it's normally useful to have opposing lanes of traffic. If, however, it's necessary to evacuate a city before natural disaster strikes, the law against driving in the wrong direction becomes counterproductive. 

ii) However, a tenacious utilitarian can argue that intervention to save a people-group is shortsighted since, for all we know, if they survive, they may wage war or commit genocide on another people-group. To avoid complicity, it's best for us to practice a hands-off approach. 

iii) There are, however, some serious problems with the utilitarian argument. To begin with, the law of unintended consequences cuts both ways. Both action and inaction have unintended consequences. Likewise, both intervention and nonintervention can have good consequences, bad consequences, or both. So the principle is too abstract to be meaningful. 

iv) It's arguable that we have a greater social obligation to those closer to us in time and space. To real people rather than future people. Although there may be far more people in the future than presently exist, those are hypothetical people, and the future becomes increasingly unpredictable the farther out. By contrast, actual people actually suffer, and we know their situation much better than futuristic projections. 

2. Cultural diffusion

For better or worse, different cultures interact and cross-pollinate. That's inevitable. The Prime Directive is unenforceable. 

3. Tradeoffs

Plains Indians benefited from having horses and rifles. Eskimos benefit from having electricity, snowmobiles, high-powered rifles, modern medical care, &c. The Conquistadors were brutal, but so were the indigenous warrior cultures they disrupted. 

4. Teaching a man to fish

If a culture suffers from entrenched social pathologies, then foreign aid is wasted. If, however, it's possible to change the social mores to remove their dysfunctional values, then intervention can be helpful. It depends on how resistant or receptive the natives are. 

5. The Gospel

There's a standing duty to evangelize the lost. And Christian discipleship includes instruction in personal and social ethics. 

6. Cultural relativism

i) Cultural relativism is arbitrary.

Feminists and gay activists scream about slights to their dignity in the Western world, but make excuses for the far harsher treatment of women and homosexuals in the Muslim world because cultural values are incommensurable. But if there are no transcultural norms, then feminism or gay rights can't be morally obligatory at one time and place but not at another–although it can be universally mistaken. 

ii) Apropos (i), cultural relativism is self-refuting:

The normative principle of a need for tolerance and acceptance towards other points of view (see §2.6), which leads to so-called “normative or prescriptive cultural relativism”, or the positions that cultural relativism is a moral requirement (see also normative moral relativism in §4.5).


  1. Some random thoughts:

    1. It's unclear to me if the Prime Directive is meant to be a moral absolute, i.e., it is inherently unethical to interfere with less advanced cultures, or if it's meant to be for the greater good, i.e., one ought not interfere with less advanced cultures because it better for them (and maybe Starfleet) in the long run not to interfere? Both? Something else (e.g. it makes one more virtuous not to interfere)?

    2. Star Trek was and is still a liberal show. It by and large pushes liberal values. Non-interference is one of these liberal values. Leaving primitive cultures alone. However, the irony is liberals constantly interfere in other people's business. They can't leave well enough alone. They want to tinker with everyone and everything. That includes what they do in the culture wars (e.g. identity politics). That includes pushing non-interference as a superior practice and even as a superior virtue.

    3. The Prime Directive's non-interference would include non-interference in the moral or ethical values of another culture. However, why should one respect the cultures of the West as much as one respects the cultures of pagan headhunters?

    4. Related, the Prime Directive is supposed to be applicable to primitive cultures, not spacefaring civilizations. However, given liberal values, why make the distinction in the first place? We have to leave the cave people alone, but let's actively sabotage the Klingons!

    In short, if another culture is inferior to us in science and technology, then we have to leave them alone. Let them develop on their own! We won't help them. However, if another culture is on par with us or ahead of us in science and technology, we can "interfere" with them! We can spy on them, steal their tech, etc. Is this the intended message?

    1. 5. At least to my knowledge, Star Trek's Prime Directive was originally framed in contrast to US involvement in the Vietnam War. The Prime Directive was meant to reflect a kind of protest against US "interference" with Vietnam.

      If America had never interfered in Vietnam, then what would've happened? It's all bound to be speculation, but here's mine:

      Perhaps it would've been better for American society and culture if America didn't have to go through all the revolutionary and countercultural movements of the Vietnam War era. Perhaps there'd be a lot less radical leftism today. Although, in that case, I'm not sure if say the Civil Rights movement would've developed.

      There would've been considerably less dead Americans. That's a benefit for them and their loved ones.

      Not as certain about less dead Vietnamese. Perhaps less dead communist Vietnamese, but it's possible the Vietnamese who opposed communism would've been slaughtered and/or sent to "re-education" camps and the like. Perhaps never to be seen again.

      Few if any Vietnamese would've been able to seek refuge in the US. There'd likely be far fewer Vietnamese Americans in the US today. There'd likely be a lot less Asian Americans in general since a lot of US policy toward Asian immigration was a result of the Vietnam War.

      At the same time, it's likely communism would've overrun not only Vietnam but much of the rest of Southeast Asia. From Thailand to the Philippines. Possibly communism would've made some inroads further too (e.g. Australasia, the Indian subcontinent). I realize this sounds like the domino theory, but I think there was some truth to the theory.

      At least I think it's likely China and Russia would've been emboldened to spread communism. Perhaps China would've pushed N. Korea to reignite the Korean War. Perhaps there'd be a unified Korea today, but unified as a communist Korea.

      It's possible Taiwan might no longer exist as an independent nation. It might've been swallowed by China. Singapore and Hong Kong might not have fallen, because they had British backing to some extent, but British influence may have been significantly curtailed. As a result these nations or city-states might be more impoverished overall vis-a-vis their modern counterparts.

      Macau might've been engulfed by China. The Portugese wouldn't have had the wherewithal to help Macau, I don't think.

      More Central and South America nations might have had even stronger communist or socialist influence. The Cuban missile crisis would've had a greater likelihood of being pushed over to a nuclear war since the Soviets might've felt they had a stronger hand to play if communism had more of a presence in the New World. At least, the US would've had less influence in Central and South American politics, for better or worse.

      Perhaps the Soviet Union would not have collapsed in 1989. I suspect it would still have eventually collapsed, but the timeline might've been pushed back much further. The Cold War would've lasted longer. Communism would've lasted longer.

      In general, I suspsect communism would likely have been more entrenched and had a broader global reach. A more formidable foe to the West.

      Overall, would the world have been a better place had the US not interfered in Vietnam? Maybe it's arguable yes, but it's just as arguable no. In any case, it's unclear to me that we can conclude non-interference is superior to interference.

    2. Dude, as I understand it, the Prime Directive was only intended to allow indigenous populations that hadn’t developed Warp Drive to develop without interference. (The theory was, as soon as a culture develops Warp Drive, then there is an active program of introduction and engagement, because the new Warp technology will enable a civilization to find everyone else “out there” ... likely without a proper introduction.

    3. Thanks, John. I shall always have to defer to you when it comes to Star Trek as well as chess due to your encyclopedic knowledge of both! :)

    4. The question operates at two different levels:

      i) What motivated the TV producers to introduce the Prime Directive into the show? One explanation I've run across is that it was a plot device. If the Federation is technologically superior to many of the alien societies it encounters, there wouldn't be much dramatic conflict unless there was something to restrain the Federation from using its overwhelming force. Dude offers another explanation I've run across.

      ii) What's the official rationale according to characters within the fictional world of Star Trek? What explanation did TV producers assign to the Prime Directive in the story world of Star Trek? That's distinct from (i). (i) is about the real world; (ii) is about the imaginary world.

      For instance, I've read the function of transporters is that 1960s special effects didn't have the technological ability to show the Enterprise landing on a planet. But that's a different explanation than the fictional function. Fictional 23C technology doesn't suffer from the limitations of real-world 1960s technology.

    5. It seems the rationale for the Prime Directive might change from series to series. For example:

      1. TOS. I'd agree with Steve that it was a plot device (within Star Trek). Also, in the real world, I suppose it was TOS' way of protesting American involvement in the Vietnam War, given how Star Trek so often aims for political and sociocultural allegory.

      2. TNG. In the TNG episode "Symbiosis", Picard states: "The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous."

      Likewise, in the TNG episode "Pen Pals", Picard states: "The Prime Directive has many different functions, not the least of which is to protect us. To prevent us from allowing our emotions to overwhelm our judgment."

      3. ENT. The Prime Directive is framed in terms of medical ethics in the episode "Dear Doctor":

      Archer: What do you suggest? We choose? One species over the other?
      Phlox: All I'm saying is we let nature make the choice.
      Archer: To hell with nature. You're a doctor, you have a moral obligation to help people who are suffering.

      Archer: Someday my people are going to come up with some sort of a doctrine. Something that tells us what we can and can't do out here - should and shouldn't do. But until somebody 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.

      4. As such, my impression is as follows. I suspect what Steve said is the case: "I doubt any deep thought went into whatever TV producer concocted the Prime Directive. I assume it was one of those on the fly decisions."

      Then, over the years, the writers tried to prop up the Prime Directive on firmer ground. Tried to intellectually justify it.

      Their tweaks to the Prime Directive in turn reflect the time and place in which the writers lived. For example, ENT's focus on bioethics reflects the early 2000s liberal Hollywood, when the internet and information age were burgeoning, when the human genome had recently been mapped, etc.

      Then again, I'm more of a casual Star Trek fan, so it's quite possible I have no idea what I'm talking about.

  2. With regard to the ENT episode “Dear Doctor”, in medical ethics, there’s the famous “rule” for physicians to “do no harm”, i.e., non-maleficence. I wonder if that’s what’s lurking behind the episode’s take on the Prime Directive: non-intervention approximates non-maleficence, the prime directive approximates primum non nocere.

    If so, non-maleficence may often be good, but it can often be harmful as well. If a patient is hemorrhaging, a physician can “do no harm” to the patient by standing aside, but then the patient will bleed out and die. Indeed, often doctors have to harm some patients in order to heal them (e.g. surgery).

    Not to mention non-maleficence may often need to be counterbalanced with beneficence, i.e., actively doing good, not just avoiding harm.