Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Nov 4, 2012 in Critical Thinking, Featured Inc, philosophy, skepticism | 39 comments

The Prime Directive: Star Trek’s doctrine of moral laziness

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. —Jean-Luc Picard, Symbiosis

The utopian future of Star Trek (most specifically, that of The Next Generation [TNG]) is sometimes described as an idealized liberal world. We’re told early and often in the series that mankind has “evolved” beyond its former pettiness and brutality, demonstrating that such problems as war, economic iniquity, and factionalism can simply be socially engineered away. Ultra-liberal idealism and optimism have appealed to a surprisingly wide audience, as documented in the films Trekkies and Trekkies 2. There is much to applaud in Roddenberry’s vision: multiculturalism, reasonably decent treatment of sex and gender for the 90′s, and an uncompromising secularism. Unfortunately, TNG also encodes some of the utter failures of 20th century liberal thought. The consequences of adopting them, whether in fiction or real life, can be pretty horrifying, not to mention morally disgusting.

In the future, there is no hunger, war, or poverty. Unless you’re not a member of the Federation’s Country Club, then fuck you. Fuck off and die.

To be clear, I’m a fan. Not the convention-going sort, but I loved TNG and some of the subsequent series as well. TNG really shines in moments as a sci-fi Aesop’s fables where virtues and ideals are compared and explored. The most important virtue in the Trek universe is the Prime Directive. Why else would it have that name? On the surface, it sounds like a good idea: don’t screw around with other cultures.

The Prime Directive is almost surely a reflection (see quote above) on the tragedies of the imperial age in which western European nations invaded, destroyed, and exploited many peoples of the rest of the world as well as the proxy wars fought by the United States against communism. This imperialism & warfare was largely justified by an ethnocentric bigotry, an assertion of racial superiority and the judgment of indigenous peoples as inferior. The Prime Directive articulates one form of liberal response to this: stop interacting entirely, and stop using judgment of any kind. The latter sentiment is known as moral relativism, the notion that nothing is inherently good or bad and can only be judged from inside a culture and not from without or between. This response is intellectually lazy, refusing to consider that intervention can have a mix of effects, and in fact can’t always be avoided no matter the intention. It is nothing we should celebrate. It leads, even in fiction, to immediate horrors and tragedies and is demonstrably impossible to uphold even by those fictional virtue warriors who swear by it.

The short road from good intention to blind dogmatism
When we first hear about the Prime Directive in the original series (TOS), it seems like a helpful guideline, something to bear in mind. However, as so often happens in real life, it becomes an edict, and finally an inviolable rule which is upheld by force and not reason.  In Trek, arguments about the Prime Directive in which principled disagreement are a part are generally shot down by force, by the pulling of rank, as if thoughtful consideration of consequences is irrelevant even to matters of an entire race’s survival. This criticism of the Prime Directive is well discussed in the following video. I found it at and at Firecold, but I do not know its author.

Video: Looking at Star Trek’s Prime Directive

Bewildering moral indifference to suffering, genocide, and all manner of tragedies
The Picard quote at the top comes from a season 1 episode called Symbiosis. The story pertains to two worlds in which both were ravaged by a plague in the distant past. One appeared to recover from the plague, and also began selling a “treatment” to the other which turned out to be an addictive narcotic. In short, one world consists entirely of rich drug dealers, and the other world drug addicts hopelessly dependent upon them. After Dr. Crusher tells the captain that it would be relatively easy to ease the population -of millions- off of the drug, Picard is not moved to intervene, citing the Prime Directive. He refuses even to tell them that they’re not diseased or dying. The suffering and exploitation of millions of people is simply not his problem.

By the end of the episode, Picard refuses to help repair ships needed for the drug-dealing to take place, also citing the Prime Directive. Some say this is his solution to the non-interference dilemma, but two problems: First, he is, in fact, abiding the Prime Directive and shows no sign his actions are retributive. Second, this “solution” means that the population of the addicted planet will go through a planet-wide time of horrible Heroin-like drug withdrawal. They will not be given the benefit of even information about their condition that Picard could easily supply. They will think that they will all die soon, even though they aren’t dying. Clearly, the society, fearing the end of their civilization, will quickly descend into panic, violence, and wide-scale suicides. But hey.. at least we didn’t interfere. Right? Because then things could have gone badly.

In Homeward, an entire planet populated with unknown numbers of people is suffering environmental collapse. Lt. Worf’s brother Nikolai, in a rogue action, moves to save a village of a couple hundred people. Nikolai is repeatedly chastised for doing so (see video below). Picard was more than content to let every person on the planet, including the village, perish. Having been told by Data that the planet will be “uninhabitable within 38 hours” meaning, everyone dies, Picard gives instructions to Worf, who is going to investigate Nikolai’s apparent disappearance. His bizarre orders illustrate the sociopathic dogmatism of the Prime Directive:

You must observe the Prime Directive. I want to minimize the risk of contact with the inhabitants. You will go down alone, Mr. Worf, and I want to have you surgically altered so that you can pass for a Boraalan.

Picard is expressing concern for upsetting the natives, which would just ruin their whole “everyone dies” party happening in 38 hours.

From Homeward: Picard’s chilling response to Nikolai’s request that the lives of hundreds of villagers be spared using readily available technology & Crusher’s sane objection

In contrast, the episode Pen Pals revolves around Lt. Commander Data’s communication with a child on a doomed planet. Data wants to help the child, and this prompts a meeting with the entire senior staff where they discuss the philosophy of the Prime Directive. The Enterprise does try to save the planet, by putting their best man on the job, a 14-year-old acting ensign.  It’s pretty clear that if their non-invasive attempt at preventing volcanic calamity failed, no further effort would be made to save the populace because Data’s contact with a single person is constantly met with regret and resistance. Initially, Picard orders Data to break off contact with the child, sealing her fate. He changes his mind only after inadvertently hearing her plea for help. Data ultimately rescues the girl, and Ensign Crusher boy-wonder saves the planet.

In the Trek universe, the planet Bajor’s invasion, oppression and genocide at the hands of the Cardassians are a thin metaphor for those of Nazi Germany. Throughout TNG and Deep Space Nine, The Federation turns a blind eye, in the name of the Prime Directive. Unlike the real Nazi Germany, where the allies could somewhat claim ignorance, Star Fleet knows that the Bajorans are being massacred and subjugated by the brutal Cardassian invaders. It is dismissed as an “internal affair”. This must be stated: The Prime Directive literally means you can’t move against the Nazis, no matter what they do, short of attacking you.

Failed analysis: intervention has no intrinsic moral valence
In the real world, imperialism was, or perhaps is, horrific. The alternative was not isolationism, though. Our planet has been made small by communication and transportation technologies.  This means that everyone has to adjust to the rest of the world. I don’t mean by being exploited by it, but I do mean by keeping up with what else is happening. It isn’t enough for just Europe to fight global warming, for example- everyone has to.

What about, say, Japan, in which the end of isolation and the start of modernization lead to a ferocious war machine? Certainly that was awful, but it’s also 70 years gone and today Japan is an upstanding member of the community of nations: modern, sophisticated, and scientifically advanced. Will we really argue that we’d prefer a feudal Japan, kept in an isolationist jar to the one that exists today?

What about aid practices? The US and Europe provide underdeveloped countries with billions in aid each year. Charity and nonprofits provide relief efforts and help governments respond to devastating health problems like HIV, Polio and Malaria. A “Prime Directive” would forbid all of this (and in the Trek universe, has done so).

Even in the fictional universe, the Prime Directive doesn’t make any long-term sense. The Klingons, once cited as the reason why the Directive is necessary, became decisive in the victory over the Dominion. Generally, “first contact” with a civilization is permitted when it has or is very close to having warp drive. Why should this matter? Even non-warp civilizations are likely to be visited by non-federation space-faring societies, thus contaminating them anyway. Why not prevent them from being exploited ala Bajor? Also, such planets could easily have advanced radio and optical telescopes (and other sensor technologies) allowing them to notice the apparently common starship traffic around the stellar neighborhood.

No one really believes in it— not even Picard
The saving grace of TNG and the original series (TOS), is that its characters ignore most of the dumb rules they claim to subscribe to. Case in point, in Symbiosis and in Homeward, Dr. Crusher finds Picard’s astonishing disregard for human suffering unconscionable and says so. In Pen Pals, Dr. Pulaski calls the rigid application of the Directive “callous and maybe cowardly”. The compassion of both doctors is cast aside with rank-pulling and blow hard-y speeches about ideals of non-interference which challenge nothing about their reasoning.

Super-deluxe special edition blu-ray commentary explains why fans of a utopian cashless society without hunger should keep spending their money on Star Trek crap instead of giving it to charity

Captain Kirk essentially blows his nose with the Prime Directive when he feels like it. He violates it, usually without remark, here,  here, and notably, here, where Kirk gives his interpretation of the Prime Directive that allows him to apply it rather loosely: “…the Prime Directive was intended to apply only to living, growing civilizations and felt it was appropriate to interfere where societies had been enslaved or were in a state of total stagnation.” (source  Memory Alpha).

Picard is often a psychotic ideologue when it comes to the Prime Directive, which makes his frequent breaks with it worth a closer look. In The Drumhead, a Star Fleet Admiral notes that Picard has violated the Prime Directive nine times in just three years. Picard waves this off with a remark about justifiable “circumstances”. It’s worth noting that Picard is never punished or apparently reprimanded in any way for these nine violations, which goes to show even Star Fleet isn’t terribly hung up about the Prime Directive. When and why does Trek’s biggest Prime Directive fan act against it? It seems to be the case when he is upholding some other ideal equally detached from human suffering, or when it impacts him personally.

In the episode Justice, Wesley Crusher has inadvertently broken a trivial law on a world called Edo, and is to be put to death. Picard & co will not permit this, even though they know powerful god-like beings are threatening to destroy the entire Enterprise if they interfere. In this episode, Data asks Picard if he would sacrifice a life to save a thousand. Picard answers, quite honestly, that he’ll not let arithmetic answer those questions. It seems he’d rather let slavish devotion to an abstract ideal decide them. Picard favors justice for Wesley over the Prime Directive. This sounds reasonable, until it’s clear that, actually, Wesley’s life means nothing, only the injustice of his punishment. As Picard attempts to beam up with Wesley, he knows that the Enterprise, Wesley, and everyone aboard will probably be killed as a result. But that’s okay, they’ll all die martyrs for the ideal of justice. Thanks for the virtue lesson, captain.

In Pen Pals, as mentioned, Picard is moved (thanks to android Data’s constant requests) to save a single child on the basis that she apparently has a radio that can transmit on Federation frequencies. Picard explicitly justifies saving her on the basis that she’s made a “plea for help”. Well, I guess it sucks to be anyone else on that planet who shall perish because they don’t have a radio. Ditto for untold thousands or millions on Boraal II. Meanwhile, planets like Bajor who have been invaded and subjected to torture and genocide do plead with the Federation to help, which coldly turns them down— maybe they should have tried being a little girl with a radio.

When the anthropomorphic toaster is the most compassionate member of your crew, maybe it’s time to reevaluate your priorities.

In the Trek film Insurrection, Picard stages an.. well an insurrection against Star Fleet admirals and works to help an alien race in total violation of the Prime Directive. This seems to be okay, because they’re attractive hippies that appeal to Picard and his crew. Picard is willing to sacrifice his career and his life, for pretty white folks who believe things that he believes, too.


Do you look like a GAP ad? Then Picard will save you.

In the film Nemesis, which ends the TNG saga, all pretense to concern for the Prime Directive is gone, because dune buggies are fun:

The list of Picard’s obtuse, stochastic treatments of the Prime Directive is long and this post is long enough. Not to pick on Picard or TNG,  all of the Trek captains routinely break the rule.

Memory Alpha, the de facto wiki of Star Trek, attempts to explain exceptions to the Prime Directive. To do so, the authors try to shoehorn all of the examples into twelve categories. It is further explained that there are two specific Star Fleet regulations suspending the Prime Directive. It is granted that every law has mitigating circumstances and there are exceptions to every rule, but maybe if your rule needs 14 classes of exceptions, it’s a bit too simple and naive to hold as “general order number 1″. Maybe Picard’s certainty that it is “a philosophy and a very correct one” is a bit stronger than it ought to be.

Hard work: Where few have gone before
This essay is not about Star Trek. Star Trek is just a reflection of a particular sort of moral and political philosophy which exists in our culture, the kind that inspired Gene Roddenberry to dream of a future without inequality and starvation. His optimism was striking and his vision compelling, but he also wasn’t a philosopher or a social scientist. He didn’t really know how to bring about these changes, so he did it with a rule book and writer’s magic wand. We can keep the optimism, but we must buttress it with a more sophisticated moral framework. We can not regulate away hard moral problems, like when and how to intervene in the affairs of other societies. When a hurricane rocks Haiti, almost everyone agrees that we should help, and we did. When Germany invaded Poland, almost everyone agrees they should not have done that because Poland is a sovereign nation. Now, most of the choices we make fall between these extremes. Which governments do we support? Where should our aid go? What sort of aid? is it okay to buy things from third world countries, or to sell thing there?

These are hard questions which we might never know the correct answers to. I posit only that the correct answer is never to abdicate consideration, to turn our backs and toss up our hands and say, sorry, Prime Directive! To the Prime Directive, the war in Vietnam and the war against Hitler are identical and equally wrong. We can’t afford such mindless, irrational dogma. Our world is an interconnected one with no truly isolated peoples. Our moral world should be even more connected. We should carefully consider our actions and inactions, and we should try to make life better for those who share the planet with us. We should do this, even when the issues are complicated and solutions imperfect. We should do this even knowing we will fail sometimes. The answer to unsavory ethnocentric judgement of the past is not no judgement, it’s better judgement.

No bright future is rightly expected by those inextricably tethered to intellectual & moral disregard.

  • zenspace

    Oof! Long lead-in to an important point. ; )

    Ultimately, the question really comes down to one of motivation: what are the real reasons for involvement with the foreign party/country. There are many good reasons, such as trade and cultural exchange, and there at least as many bad reasons, colonialism and political power mongering. Historically, the latter seems to have been the prevalent model, although there are exceptions.

    Good, thought provoking post.

  • iamcuriousblue

    Hmmm – that’s a different interpretation of the Prime Directive than I
    got from watching the various Star Trek series. My understanding is
    that the PD applies to pre-Warp Drive worlds that would be considered
    “primitive” by the standard of space-faring civilizations, and are hence
    spared what could be deleterious contact. And really, there are clear
    parallels in today’s world:

    For all we know, the Sentinelese may have some very backwards, even
    harmful, cultural practices and are certainly have no access to things
    like modern medicine. On the other hand, the Sentinelese have made it
    very clear through hostile gestures that they don’t want outsiders in
    their world. Should modern India violate its “Prime Directive” and bring
    these people into the modern world regardless?

    Back to the subject of Star Trek, I had thought the reason the Federation had
    not intervened with Bajor was not based on the Prime Directive, which
    certainly would not apply to the Cardassians in any event, but as an analogy to great
    power politics – the United States has expressed sympathy with the
    Tibetan people who have been brutally conquered and subjugated by China,
    but since the normalization of relations with China would never support
    them militarily nor claim that China doesn’t have sovereignty over
    Tibet. The lack of intervention simply has to do with power politics and
    economic relations rather than any “Prime Directive” type policy toward
    China or Tibet. Indonesia and East Timor, Fascist Italy and Ethiopia,
    and any number of other situations where the world pretty much stood by
    and allowed the swallowing up of a weak nation are all analogous. Presumably, Star Trek is creating an allegory of that kind situation with the Cardassian occupation of Bajor plotline.

    • Edward Clint

      Hello iamcuriousblue, thanks for your thoughtful reply.

      Deliberate first contact seems to apply to warp-emerging peoples, but the Prime Directive clearly applies to everyone who isn’t human/Federation. The episode Symbiosis is about 2 warp-capable worlds. The justification for staying out of the Bajor conflict is explicitly given as the Prime Directive multiple times; the same is true of the Klingon civil war.

      re: the Sentinelese
      No, India should not force anything upon them. To do so against their will would clearly be damaging, and perhaps deadly. Or maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe they should be gently approached with unobtrusive measures because their fear of outsiders might simply be generations-old fear of violent invasion from other islands. Either way, the choice is not made based on some inviolable rule or heavy-handed dictate. We have to think of every consequence we can, and make as good a choice as we’re able. In this case, maybe the cultural value of the people is worth more than having a few vaccines. I could be persuaded.

      re: Bajor
      At the end of TNG, I think you’re right in how the struggle is portrayed. The Federation seems most concerned with preserving a hard-won peace treaty. (However, the storyline at Wiki says it was the PD: As DS9 rolls we (the viewers) learn the Cardassians are more like the Nazis, hell-bent on domination of the world, genocidal, driven by a racist ideology etc.., Knowing this, the Federation’s peace treaty itself becomes morally repugnant, akin to the worthless treaties signed by Hitler prior to his invasions.

      Throughout DS9, Bajorans are portrayed as bitter over the cold shoulder and blind eye of the Federation. In the episode “The Circle” in which Cardassians are providing weapons fueling a Bajoran civil war, Star Fleet explicitly cites the Prime Directive and refuses to intervene yet again, even knowing that Cardassia is supporting the faction which will oust the Federation so that Cardassia can reinvade without resistance.

      Granted though, the metaphor has been swapped.

      • IAF101

        It is curious how NONE of the people who are commenting here are from cultures that have been colonized like India.

        As an Indian, I find everything about the idea of interfering with less developed societies by cultures who “claim” superiority based on technical, economic or military superiority to be ludicrous at best. This is a sentiment not only brought because of the history of India that was subject to numerous invasions for numerous sources but also due to the lingering problems and divisions created by those foreign “interventions”. In the age of colonialism, the “scientific” opinion and the argument of philosophers was that the “enterprise” of colonialism was a vehicle of civilizing the “savage”. To introduce the “savage” to the Kingdom of God and other such ludicrous mumbo-jumbo and arcane philosophical ramblings that were in vogue in those times. During the 18th century, the men of those times considered themselves to be the height of civilization and intelligence and their moral and philosophical arguments for colonization and interference beyond reproach! Yet by todays standards they are worse than the “savages” they sought to better.

        The Sentinelese are left in isolation not only because they desire it but also because the government has consciously made every effort to isolate them and strictly enforce a quarantine of their lands from the general population for the benefit of ALL involved. This is not only to preserve their “value” as a people but also to preserve their “right” of self-determination and evolution. Introducing them to new vaccines, new education, new cultures is not only disruptive but would also permanently damage their culture in incalculable ways, destroying their languages, their values and contaminate their very perceptions. Further anybody who claims to have thought of “every consequence” to justify interference is clearly lying and delusional as to their own capabilities since it is impossible to definitively predict future events when even a single individual can cause drastic changes that can have monumental repercussions(eg: Gandhi, Mandela, King etc) , Thus, if the Sentinelese were to contract cholera or some other deadly disease naturally that decimated their population, the Indian government would help but only in a very limited capacity and with minimal amount of invasiveness despite the lives lost because any “miracle cure” would significantly harm their local beliefs and adversely impact their religious and cultural way of life. Further as calamities like disease, flood etc are often harbingers of change, any significant intervention would prevent the natural development and evolution by preventing them from adapting naturally.

        • Edward Clint

          Has anyone in this thread advocated for imperialism? I certainly have not. You’re replying to me, but I’ve said none of these things. Interesting you bring up India, it’s a good example. The imperialists who colonized India were morally repulsive, in my opinion, and that isn’t at all what I have been talking about.

          Time and again (post-independence) India has asked other countries for help such as with technologies or agricultural knowledge (most recently with nuclear technology). Norman Borlaug’s work in India was amazing, which is why he was awarded the Padma Vibhushan. I also believe that as a friend and ally, the United States should intervene if India were invaded by another state. The person I am arguing with, is the fictional Prime Directive upholder who would say that all of that is a violation and an interference with a culture’s development.

          As for the Sentinelese, well we already intervene, don’t we? It’s just a question of how. In the pre-modern world, they might have been invaded by other peoples. Now they’re protected from that. Nothing “natural development” about being protected by a modern state’s laws and military power.

          Their culture and beliefs are valuable and unique and that should factor into any discussion about them. But all cultures are fleeting, no matter what you do- every ancient culture is extinct and most are forgotten or unknown. This was true even before the imperialist age because cultures had already been rising and perishing constantly for tens of thousands of years.

          Also, cultural exchanges can be enriching and wonderful. Ancient Persia/SW Asia imported hellenistic culture and philosophy, and it reigned as the pinnacle of scientific and intellectual thought for centuries. What we call “Italien food” is largely based on a new world plant (the Tomato) and Germany & Belgium’s famous chocolate is also a new world import. India’s government (ugly as the imperialist past was) is based on centuries of advancement of social and political thought developed elsewhere and at the same time Bollywood is having a global impact on culture.

          Would you really prefer every group of people have stayed in their own impregnable bubble, cut off from everyone else, to spare “culture”?

          • Kahula

            You’re being pedantic & I guess you know. How about the fact that no one interfered when the Srilankan government butchered the Tamil minority in the name of getting rid of militancy? There are lots of instances when the Western World chose to turn a blind coz they didn’t give a damn. And I don’t need to tell how Old World diseases decimated native american populations simply because they never developed the resistance. So the PD is much more complicated than what you making it out to be.

          • Edward Clint

            Your replies are so strange that I wonder if you read my essay. My argument is that it is complicated, and because it is complicated, a simple rule is not adequate. Each case and action must be considered conscientiously and as thoughtfully as possible.

            You mention Sri Lanka. I share your disgust over the inaction of the west. I do think intervention would have been appropriate. The PD would mean that that would be unthinkable, not even an option that could be considered. I think those sorts of options need to be considered. That is why the PD in not adequate.

            I am unsure why you mention the old world diseases. It’s a historical tragedy that at the time of exploration we did not yet understand disease very well. But it’s not really feasible, or, overall, warranted that the continents should remain permanently isolated forever. I don’t see any way in which those illnesses were going to remain permanently bottled up in Europe.

          • Kahula

            Uh… you’re unsure why I mention old world diseases? That was in response to your suggesting the isolated tribes around the world be introduced to the rest of us… Yes, our understanding of disease has progressed. But do we know that isolated tribes with no modern human contact have developed immunities to common viruses like the rhinovirus, which we find annoying but not life-threatening.

            The PD as someone suggested here has been twisted around by various television writers as a plot device… But in its essence – it can play a very good role in keeping us from screwing up other cultures.

            Though, in TNG I found it weird that the PD was applied to even cultures within the UFP. Very lazy on the part of writers who simply wanted to throw in the Bajoran/Cardassian storyline.

          • Edward Clint

            I have made no such suggestion.
            I think Kirk’s attitude toward the PD is useful. For Kirk it’s a rule of thumb and reminder to bear in mind possible harm. But even there the PD isn’t all that helpful. It’s too simple to guide decisions in difficult areas and alternative approaches have all the PD virtues without the needless and over-simplified “shut off your morality, and follow the rule because it’s the rule” logic.

          • Kahula

            I should have been clearer, a commenter here suggested….

            And the PD is a moral guideline… The episode where Riker goes undercover to a planet that discovered warp technology but the population and/or its leaders don’t want to keep exploring… those are the kind of storylines that show us why a PD like concept is useful.

            On the other hand, the Cardassian treaty…..

          • Edward Clint

            Ah well I don’t speak for other commenters.

            Bajorans, sure, but not the Boraalans? They’re all going to die. And the people of the Delos system? They already are warp-capable. The Ornaran planet is about to be full of terrified panicking people who are sure they’re about to die while suffering horrible withdrawal and all after their technological and presumably other social systems have already been badly eroded by generations of being dependent drug addicts. We’re not told the size of the planet, but it’s safe to assume that civilization is going to crumble, its governments will perish… a large portion are going to die and die horrible, violent, anguished deaths.

            These cases are all dismissed without discussion by Picard’s prim observance of the PD.

        • Kahula

          BTW you should also mention the native americans who died to Old World Diseases introduced by the ‘great’ explorers

      • IAF101

        Coming to Star Trek – you say that the Federation’s treaty with the Cardassian Empire is repugnant since you find the moral philosophy of the Cardassian people to be “morally repugnant” comparing it to Nazi Germany’s philosophies.
        Yet you don’t see how it was the United States numerous peace treaties and diplomatic attempts with the “morally repugnant” Communist state of the USSR (which brutalized its citizens equally) that prevented nuclear armageddon and save not only the USA/USSR but also the rest of humanity from destruction!

        Same goes with the treaties signed between the PRC (Mao) and the USA under President Nixon, the treaties signed between the “morally repugnant” North Vietnamese and South Vietnam like the Paris treaty which allowed the US to exit Vietnam. Those treaties were no more repugnant than the treaty signed between Hitler and Chamberlain to grant Germany Czechoslovakia.

        Similarly, your criticism the Federation remaining a mute spectator while the Cardassians covertly fund and aid a faction inside the Bajoran government to destabilize Bajor can find numerous parallels in our REAL history, where the USA “intervened” in civil wars and fought proxy wars through third parties like in Afghanistan, Vietnam, Libya, Iran, dozens of South American countries, Cuba etc – all of which ended in some form of disaster. Sure you can claim the US aid to the various militias and resistance movements during WW2 but those only took place once the US had decided to enter a conflict. The negative effects of interfering in civil wars and ethnic conflicts is all too clearly visible in today’s world with the Conflicts in the Middle East.

        • Edward Clint

          “Yet you don’t see how it was the United States numerous peace treaties and diplomatic attempts with the “morally repugnant” Communist state of the USSR ”

          Er, we were fighting the Cold War with the USSR. A war which lead to its collapse. That’s a moral win for the US whose only alternative was full scale, perhaps nuclear war. So no, I don’t see the problem here.

          re: treaties
          You assume a couple things which are not correct. One is that I would defend any treaty or military action of the US. Not true. There’s plenty or morally repugnant actions that the US government (and all governments I know of) have taken. Number 2, the reason I find the PD morally repugnant is because of its unwillingness to consider the moral elements. The PD says “don’t interfere, I don’t care what the details are LALALLAICANTHEARYOU”. I say, the details & moral elements matter. Now, you sometimes have to accept a shitty situation because the alternative is worse: war with China might just destroy us both and resolve nothing. OK, that’s a cogent argument why we have to make peace with them. It’s also NOT the argument “because it would be interference” which I find foolish and sickening where large scale human suffering is involved.

          • Kahula

            Most of the Eastern World will disagree

          • Edward Clint

            With what?

  • rg57

    I enjoyed reading the Prime Directive being shredded.

    There seem to be somewhat different Prime Directives based on which series is discussed. That may be OK, as different Federations will probably permit different things to happen. (Look at our own laws: We have speed limits on nearly every road, seemingly important, but not one of them is currently enforced as a limit.) TNG goes overboard with the Prime Directive, absurdly applying it even to societies that regularly interact with the Federation, or are even part of it.

    Chronologically, in the Star Trek universe, Enterprise is the first series. What most disappointed me was Archer’s return of a refugee alien into sexual slavery, using a similar argument of “oh well, that’s how they do things” (episode “Cogenitor”). He actually reprimanded Trip for trying to save this person, who went on to commit suicide after being denied asylum. Further, Archer even blamed Trip for the suicide. I can’t remember if it was made explicit, but the sequence of episodes suggests these aliens were where the federation got its upgraded photon(ic) torpedoes, prior to sending the Enterprise into the expanse.

    Last, if the captains seem a little less than consistent, it could be that the episodes are written by different writers, and the whole enterprise is mainly designed to funnel cash to the owners of the copyright, while putting ads for pizza in front of couch potatoes. It doesn’t have to make sense. (Not saying it shouldn’t, just that it doesn’t have to).

    • Kahula

      Don’t bother quoting Enterprise. By the time Voy was on air, the producers were on automatic spewing out storylines in their sleep with even less thought put into them.

  • Silver Rattasepp

    Good article. Except for its intellectual laziness expressed in the statement “The latter sentiment is known as cultural relativism, the notion that nothing is inherently good or bad and can only be judged from inside a culture and not from without or between.” To this lazy and casual dismissal one can reply either by quoting Rorty:

    “‘”Relativism” is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view. Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good. The philosophers who get called ‘relativists’ are those who say that the grounds for choosing between such opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.’”

    Or, even more simply by noting that perhaps before engaging in casual dismissals one could do something as simple as reading the SEP entry on moral relativism, the first sentence of which is: “Moral relativism has the unusual distinction—both within philosophy and outside it—of being attributed to others, almost always as a criticism, far more often than it is explicitly professed by anyone.”

    • Edward Clint

      Thanks, Silver. I think your criticism is a good one. I focused a bit more on details related to Star Trek knowing that fans would be moved to disagree if the case were not strongly made. This meant less space for discussion of the real world analogs. Maybe I will write a follow-up documenting more fully how this kind of reasoning appears in our culture.

  • Booya Bible

    I think The Sam Harris Directive – That which increases the well-being of sentient beings is good, while that which contributes to their suffering is bad – could be considered dogmatic but would be a much more reliable precept than the “Prime Directive.”

  • Eric Pepke

    Great article, but the term you want is “moral relativism,” not “cultural relativism.” Cultural relativism is the idea that you can’t fully understand one aspect of a culture unless you understand how it interacts with other aspects of the culture.

  • Brian Curtis

    I wouldn’t say Roddenberry was actually promoting the Prime Directive as a good moral standard; the number of episodes devoted to exploring its implications and applications suggest that he was simply employing it as a plot device to develop conflict around. A starting point for plot and character exploration, if you will.

  • Zardoz

    Just a quick point about the prime directive. It was a directive of Star Fleet and not the Federation (my information here is coming from Wikipedia). Private citizens were apparently not prevented at all from interfering with less developed civilizations. This is a bit like saying that the US military should not be interfering in foreign countries without explicit orders. There are examples of directives which override the prime directive so it was not applied uncritically. It was more of a default position which seems entirely sensible to me.

  • Joseph

    Outstanding drubbing, Edward. Outstanding.

  • Ryan Owens
  • Silver_web

    I can’t view the video because I don’t have flash on this computer, but is it the same one as this:

    If so, the author is sfdebris who does reviews of sci-fi / fantasy stories and you’d probably enjoy some of his other analysis of Star Trek.

    • Edward Clint

      Yes, that’s the one. Thanks! I wanted to properly cite the maker for his excellent work.

  • bluetortilla

    I never found the Prime Directive to be compelling, humane, nor courageous. it lacks essential the core compassion of being human or any evolved being for that matter. If contamination means genocide or bringing smallpox to civilizations with less technology, that was the last century, not a brave future. If technology gets into the hands of an aggressive species, that too is a natural dissemination of contact. The wrinkles will work out. The spread of technology would be a natural consequence of contact, not a stingy withholding. We humans would presumably not let whole words starve or die of plague. The Prime Directive is probably the only Star Trek humanistic concept that I completely disagree with.

  • Pingback: Fail-orama: Futurama Feeds Anti-GMO Paranoia | Skeptic Ink

  • Daniel Burke

    Star Trek as a whole is lazily written and subscribes to a deluded socialist philosophy. Babylon 5 kicks its arse all over.

  • Timothy Chambers

    I agree with most of what you say but in general I still believe that the Prime Directive is a necessary and ethical thing to do. If you disagree with the Prime Directive, then what is the alternative? Should Starfleet help every endangered species they encounter? Should Starfleet mediate or more appropriately “install Federation values” to every belligerent species they meet? Should Starfleet use force to save every citizen who breaks the law within the alien society? These acts would be the end of the “peaceful and benevolent” Starfleet. They would now become the galactic firefighters and police. Similar to the old English credo the new mission statement for the Starfleet would be “Make the universe Starfleet.” That’s not exploration. That’s imperialism.

    • Edward Clint

      Why do you think the only alternatives on the table are “do nothing” and “imperialism”?

      The alternative is to be a conscientious member of a community (of star systems). To have a policy of humanism (or humanoidism, rather) which allows leaders to weigh actions based on likely outcomes, on available resources, and based on humanistic values like freedom and autonomy. If it’s unclear, we should err on the side of non-interference. But lots of times, it isn’t unclear. The planet where everyone will die within 2 days? Not unclear. The Nazi-Cardassians? Not unclear.

      • Timothy Chambers

        Setting up a utopian society as you described is not what the Prime Directive is about. There are essentially two parts to the PD. (1)Do not impeded in the natural evolution of a pre-warp society and (2) do not interfere in the internal struggles of any non-Federation society. You said it yourself “if it is unclear we should err on the side of non-interference.” That’s the PD. A primitive planet is going to blow up? Maybe it is supposed to blow up. Maybe things are supposed to die. In “The Inner Light” everyone on the planet dies. Picard gets to live an entire life because of their probe. Imagine that some hoity-toity space do-gooders secretly saved that planet. Picard would never have had that experience and we would not have such a great episode. The Cardassians took over the Bajorans? Maybe that’s supposed to happen. Had the Cardassians not taken over, maybe Sisko would have never found out he was the Emissary and saved the Alpha Quadrant? You are using your human cultural bias and vanity to assume you know what is best for the galaxy.

        • Edward Clint

          You say a few things that are tacitly false, and another is self-contradictory.

          Setting up a utopian society as you described

          Nothing I described is utopian. It’s a program, like the PD, to help make decisions. Not perfect ones that instantly solve everything or are guaranteed to be right.

          You are using your human cultural bias and vanity to assume you know what is best for the galaxy.

          I am using cultural bias, but then it’s culture we are talking about. If a doctor were talking about medicine, he’d be medically biased- I hope so anyway.. that’s kinda the point of being a doctor. But vanity is not required because I do not assume we can ever know for sure what is best. What I do know is that some choices are better than others. All else held equal…. It’s better that people not be slaves. It’s better that people be in control of their own lives. It’s bad for people to be victims of murder or genocide. If we have a goal, like reducing global warming, then some steps will take us closer to that and others we might take will send us backward.

          Since these observations are true, then we may conclude that good judgement allows us to make better choices- not perfect ones, just better than others.

          The Cardassians took over the Bajorans? Maybe that’s supposed to happen. Had the Cardassians not taken over, maybe Sisko would have never found out he was the Emissary and saved the Alpha Quadrant?

          I think we make our own “supposed-to’s” in life. Besides, why would Cardassian interference “supposed” to have happen, but never, ever Star Fleet interference? Since you’re plea is to ignorance, then any choice we make is part of any magical destined “supposed-to” and we’re back to square one.

          Imagine that some hoity-toity space do-gooders secretly saved that planet. Picard would never have had that experience and we would not have such a great episode.

          So a race should perish so that one person can have an interesting experience? This is the part where you let your troll card show a bit too much. Had me going for a while. This has been drole and all, but I don’t care much for trolls around here, so why don’t you go somewhere else.

          • Timothy Chambers

            You can call me a troll if you want. You can delete this message if you want. It hurts when someone finds the invalidity of your argument. Your emotions are now hindering your logical thought.

            You say the PD is moral laziness. In this you assume your definition of morality is proper. You assume everyone should have the same morality as you. You failed before you even began. Like you said in another post let’s stick to Star Trek stuff.

            The PD prevents Starfleet from interfering in the natural evolution of a species, including its own natural extinction. If by this you mean it is immoral to allow a species to die then it follows that it would be a moral obligation to save every species. Every ship and crew would now become “supernova hunters” or the like. I wouldn’t mind being on this savior ship and am not saying it wouldn’t be a good thing to do. What I am saying is without the PD, that is what all Federation ships would have to do all the time.

            The PD prevented Starfleet from interfering in the Cardassian occupation of Bajor because it was an internal incident. You are saying it is immoral to allow a people to be conquered by another people so what must follow is that it is a moral obligation to stop any and all civil wars or occupations. Once again I don’t like violence or seeing people hurt so I wouldn’t mind being on this mediator ship but that is not what Starfleet is about. The mission of Starfleet is to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

            You’ve already contradicted yourself when you said “if it is unclear we should err on the side of non-interference.” This means you support the PD in general. That’s what a law is. It is a general statement to curb behavior. Picard, Kirk, and every other captain has violated this law many times without severe consequences. That means that even the top people at Starfleet understand the virtue and necessity in breaking the PD. That still doesn’t mean it should be considered immoral and eliminated.

            Try imagining a Federation without the PD. Captains and officers can influence a primitive people to see them as deities as it could have happened in “Who Watches the Watchers.” Starfleet could have set up a puppet-dictator as almost happened in “Redemption 1 & 2.” A Federation without the PD would become the Dominion.

            Your use of Picard’s quote to Beverly from “Symbiosis” already show how much you don’t understand what he meant. You want leaders to make good decisions based on likely outcomes. Does this include a knowledge of history? Picard knew this but you disagree and dismiss him.

            I think had you titled your article “The Prime Directive: Moral argument for and against” and then given a few more examples supporting the PD instead of the meager 3-4 quick quips about it, you would have had an exceptional article. You write very well and gave some great examples to support your argument. Its unfortunate you let your bleeding-heart liberalism cloud your judgement.

          • Edward Clint

            It hurts when someone finds the invalidity of your argument. Your emotions are now hindering your logical thought.

            Nah, I’m an academic. I get my arguments trashed almost daily. It’s just part of the life. This exchange here hardly compares. In fact, it’s far more profitable for me to be wrong than it is to be right. But I do not see that I am, yet. You continue to mischaracterize me in bizarrely stark terms:

            You say the PD is moral laziness. In this you assume your definition of morality is proper. You assume everyone should have the same morality as you.

            The PD isn’t really morality per se. It, as defined by JLP, is a policy that describes when you are or are not allowed to enter into moral considerations. The PD says that you never, ever are when the subject is other cultures. Refusing to even begin to consider moral aspects of possible actions/inactions strikes me as laziness, and maybe cowardice (as the Doctor said on TNG, actually). But in no way do I believe something as silly as “everyone should have the same morality as you”.

            The PD prevents Starfleet from interfering in the natural evolution of a species, including its own natural extinction. If by this you mean it is immoral to allow a species to die then it follows that it would be a moral obligation to save every species.

            I do consider it a moral obligation to save every sentient humanoid species. However, that is not the only moral obligation that exists. Nor must we ignore the obvious outcomes of any particular actions. Even Star Fleet is constrained in its resources. It can’t do everything that might be a moral good. Trade-offs have to be made. So no, it is not the case that this one mission would become SF’s only goal.

            The mission of Starfleet is to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

            But we know this isn’t all Star Fleet does. They do mediate disagreements, including those involving war and violence. They do provide aid to planets, helping them to grow stronger to unknown ends (true whether they are part of the Federation or not). It does fight in wars. And frankly, if it turns a blind eye to genocide as the victims desperately ask for help, then it doesn’t really have any honor or virtue. Discovery for the sake of self satisfaction is no noble end.

            This means you support the PD in general. That’s what a law is

            I would support Kirk’s formulation of it, but not JLP’s. The fact that Star Fleet ignores numerous violations of its “general order number one” means that there is something wrong with it, or with Star Fleet. The expression “general order number one” is a military term. It is not given to a rule-of-thumb. It is given to something that is absolutely inviolable under immediate penalty. And etymology aside, JLP makes it clear numerous times that it is not to be abridged. He watches a world die, feeling righteous the entire time. The later violations of it are part of the gradual death of the PD; by Nemesis, the PD no longer exists for any practical purposes.

            Federation without the PD would become the Dominion.

            Nah. The ideals that, presumably, undergird the PD in the minds of the writers are do not harm/disrupt/exploit. It’s really very easy to make regulations about that. In fact, universities that conduct human subjects research all have Institutional Review Boards and review all proposed research on humans (include hunter gatherer societies in remote regions of the globe). They evaluate the proposed research to consider the ways in which it could harm, disrupt, or exploit the people. I know this because I am involved in that sort of research. What would NOT help an IRB is one monolithic “never interact, ever” policy. It would mean the end of most of anthropology as a discipline.

            Does this include a knowledge of history? Picard knew this but you disagree and dismiss him.

            Yes, let’s talk about history, shall we? The PD was formulated after the Federation gave the Klingons warp technology, leading to war. But, as you know, the Klingons were critical to the successful war against the Dominion, as allies of the Federation. Had the Federation followed the PD earlier in its history, it would later have been annihilated by the Dominion.

            I think had you titled your article “The Prime Directive: Moral argument for and against” and then given a….You write very well and gave some great examples to support your argument. Its unfortunate you let your bleeding-heart liberalism cloud your judgement.

            I don’t think there is a good “pro” argument to be made. And I like for the titles to be a little spicey. I’ll take the compliment and one more thing. Your insinuation of my “bleeding-heart liberalism” is most amusing because elsewhere in this comment section I’ve essentially been charged with crass disregard. Funny how people see the same thing different ways.

          • Timothy Chambers

            “I would support Kirk’s formulation of it, but not JLP’s.” I had to read this several times to make sure I read it right. Wow. Do you really believe that Kirk’s response to the PD is in anyway more moral than Picard’s? I suppose if you think the PD is “moral laziness” then you would support Kirk who has violated it more than any other captain on the show. Check out the Star Trek poll concerning who has the most respect for the Prime Directive. Staggering numbers.

            The biggest violation of all time is Kirk’s decision to bring Dr. Gillian Taylor from 1986 to their present in “The Voyage Home.” That is just a crapload of wrong. Not only is he violating the “pre-warp evolution” aspect of the PD, he also violated the Temporal Prime Directive which is the rule not to alter the course of history. Did he not even think of the consequences to the timeline when he did this? That’s just pure recklessness. He went from letting Edith Keeler get hit by a car and die in “The City on the Edge of Forever” to plucking a woman out of her own time. That’s just pure recklessness. In this situation I would agree with you that there is something fundamentally wrong with how Starfleet treats violations of the PD. They should have thrown him out of Starfleet.

            I do not however believe that every decision Picard makes concerning the PD is good either. One of his grossest miscalculations is rescuing Wesley Crusher during “Justice.” He should have let Wesley be executed. Wesley entered into their community. He broke one of their rules. He has to answer for his crime with their punishment. Picard should have worked out some kind of “diplomatic immunity” before he sent his people down. One of the citizens of the planet said “ignorance of the rule can not be used as a defense.” Picard got lucky that the Edo “God” was a rational guy.

          • Edward Clint

            As I said in the essay, Kirk’s formulation is diametrically opposed to Picard’s, “the Prime Directive was intended to apply only to living, growing civilizations and felt it was appropriate to interfere where societies had been enslaved or were in a state of total stagnation.”

            Kirk made exceptions even for mere “stagnation”, because he was thinking about consequences and balancing those against the expected harm of interference. Whereas Picard refused to do such reasoning. For him, a rule is a rule and must be blindly followed on principle, without consideration of any consequences. For Kirk, it’s a mere heuristic, which makes it poorly named and not especially critical to ethical thinking, but not objectionable at all.

            This is not to say I agree with everything Kirk ever did (or disagree with all of Picard’s calls). “The Voyage Home” was an all-around badly written screenplay. Much worse than taking Gillian is thoughtlessly giving “transparent aluminum” to 1986 people. But it’s a silly film where whales talk to aliens.

            re: “Justice” The whole episode is very strange. They just discover the world in this episode, it’s pre-warp, so naturally, send down an away team and make contact immediately because they’re “unusually attractive”. Er, PD? Not even mentioned. The very next consideration is how suitable it is for shore leave. Picard sends this second away team down, including a 14 year old boy, not knowing anything about its culture, laws, diseases, or ecology. Later after they want to execute Wesley Picard suggests capital punishment is immoral, the Edo are offended and sarcastically remark on how backward and barbaric their world must seem. As this leads into Picard’s first mention of the PD, is the viewer supposed to sympathize with the Edo, who wish to execute a boy for accidentally breaking a greenhouse, or anyone for breaking any rule? I mean, they are barbaric.

            A bit later, Picard brings an Edo woman to the Enterprise to identify God. Again, PD? In this episode it seems like the PD only applies to criminal law, which nobody had bothered to look into before sending people to socialize.

          • Timothy Chambers