Trek Talk: Is the Prime Directive Ethical?

Trek Talk: A new series of blog posts where I talk about Star Trek.


For those unfamiliar with Trek, the Prime Directive (or General Order One) states the following:

No starship may interfere with the normal development of any alien life or society.

Sounds great on paper, but sometimes in practice??? Not so much.

On a typical Friday night, I’m usually watching some flavor of Star Trek. The other night I got together with some friends for dinner and The Next Generation was on in the background, as you do.

The episode in question is Season 2: Episode 15 — Pen Pals, in which Data somewhat accidentally on purpose starts exchanging messages with an unknown individual in a nearby, non-spacefaring planetary system. He is intentionally ambiguous about his own identity during these radio comm links, but he realizes that by communicating with this person at all he is breaking the Prime Directive.

As the Enterprise approaches the planet, they realize it is in serious volcanic turmoil and will soon destroy itself. Oops. So now Data is emotionally involved in the situation and wants to save his friend. Ruroh. Can we see where this is going?

So Data confesses what he’s done to Picard, and of course they call a meeting of all the senior officers to discuss what is to be done. Or not done.

This is where I started getting mad.

The Enterprise team proceeds to have a discussion as to whether or not they should violate the Prime Directive to save this species, and everyone is pretty much against it until they receive a voice comm over the ship’s speakers from Data’s pen pal crying out “Data, help me! Data where are you?” and they realize it’s a little kid.

WELP. tHERE WENT YOUR MORAL IMPERATIVE RIGHT OUT THE WINDOW.

So they decide to help, based entirely on the emotional response to realizing Data’s friend is a child (as if there are no other small children on this planet???? And that apparently an entity is only worth saving if it’s a kid???? Wtf even, Picard. You don’t even LIKE kids, lol.)

penpals_hd_309

Things go from messy to more messy, and Data winds up having to bring the child back with him to the Enterprise in order to save her. He brings her to the bridge because she’s (understandably) terrified and refuses to be separated from Data. (He’s the only person on this ship she knows, and she doesn’t trust anyone else. She’s a small child, this is understandable!)

So he takes her to the bridge and Picard is all huffy like, did you really have to bring her to your sTATION??? And Data is just like, well yeah obviously I did, ASS. So Picard tolerates it and they do some cold fusion reverse the polarity pseudo science and save the planet from exploding itself. Then there’s this really cute moment where the child is looking out the view screen and she gets this expression of awe over her face and she’s like, “…Is that.. my home?” looking at the planet. And Data’s like, yep sure is. AND IT’S SUPER CUTE BECAUSE SHE’S NEVER SEEN HER PLANET FROM THIS VANTAGE-POINT BEFORE AND IT’S JUST LIKE… AWWWWW… EXPLORATION. DISCOVERY. IT’S A BEAUTIFUL THING.

So the planet is saved and all is well, right? No. Because here’s where I start getting REALLY MAD.

Picard decides that because this kid has now seen some shit she doesn’t need to see, the best thing to do is.. wait for it… MEDICALLY WIPE HER MEMORY SO SHE WON’T REMEMBER ANY OF IT. AGAINST HER WILL AND WITHOUT HER KNOWLEDGE.

WHAT THE — W H A T ???

Please explain to me how this is ethical in any way, shape, or form???

Like, okay. You violated the Prime Directive. Now this small child knows extremely rudimentary information about the fact that starships exist and aliens are out there. Big whoop. It’s not like you gave her codes to your database or anything. She knows Data’s name, but everyone else is pretty much a bunch of other random aliens to her. She knows NOTHING specific about you or where you come from. WHERE IS THE HARM??? Why do you need to erase her memories with a medical procedure that may or may not hurt her in some way you can’t possibly predict. She’s an unknown alien species. YOU don’t know how she’s going to react to your brain wave super computer medical technology. YOU DON’T KNOW. You might wind up doing more harm that good. You might accidentally erase ALL her memories. The brain is a delicate thing, even in the 24th century. Why mess with it unnecessarily???

SIGH.

So they wipe her memory and Data takes her back to her house while she’s still sedated. In one final act of rebellion against his orders, he places a musical instrument in her hand (she had played with it on the ship earlier) for her to keep.

AND THAT’S THE EPISODE.

I just… I just don’t understand how this is ethical.

First of all, I get the need for a rule like the Prime Directive. I do. You never want to run in guns blazing to a society that you have no business interfering with. There’s a place for a rule like that. It’s a necessary policy.

What I don’t understand is the zero-tolerance approach to it. Like, shouldn’t it be up to a captain to decide when sticking to a rule like this might sometimes be inappropriate? On a case-by-case basis? When you’re talking about an entire planet that is about to be destroyed due to a natural disaster, aren’t you responsible in some way to step in and help if you’re present and able to do so?

I mean, think about how we approach foreign policy here in the United States with respect to the rest of the world. In theory (though not always in practice), we have a responsibility to step in and provide assistance during international crises and humanitarian situations — Darfur, the earthquake in Haiti, the current situation in Syria, just to give a few examples. We are the big dog with all the big guns, so we feel we have an obligation as a world power to help when we can. Why does the same rule no longer apply in the case of intergalactic crises? And I get it, this isn’t a perfect comparison — the people in Darfur KNOW WE EXIST and the situation is not the same. Starfleet sends aid to planets within the Federation all the time, sure, but… you get the point I’m trying to make.

Namely, once we become aware of a crisis situation, do we not then have some measure of responsibility to help?

Also, how hypocritical is it of us to have this policy when, tbh, we probably would not have made it very far in our space-faring journey without the help of the Vulcans. Let’s be real, we invented our own warp drive, sure — but then as soon as we’d done that, Vulcan showed up like, whaddup bruh, I see you built a spaceship. Good on you; let’s be bros. It’s like, logical and shit. And they majorly helped us out after that.

I just. I JUST. I have a lot of feelings.

I don’t think it is responsible or ethical to think that being a more technologically advanced species in any way gives us the moral superiority to decide who lives or dies in the universe. If anything, it should give us the responsibility to provide assistance when we can. We’re not God. We don’t get to decide to just NOT do anything about crisis situations.

Opinions on this?

Please chime in in the comments if you, like me, think the Prime Directive is kind of bullshit.

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9 thoughts on “Trek Talk: Is the Prime Directive Ethical?

  1. I don’t know if you’ve followed them at all, but the Mission Log podcast (http://www.missionlogpodcast.com/) has been going through all of Star Trek, looking at the “messages, morals and meaning” of each episode. They’re currently in Season 3 of TNG, and they addressed some of your same comments in their episode on Pen Pals.

    Over all, my own feeling is that the Prime Directive is something like Asimov’s Three Laws: a useful framework to build a story around, but completely impracticable in real life. Pen Pals is an excellent illustration of just what’s wrong with the concept.

  2. I think that basically whenever you get right down to black and white, that’s when you’re really opening yourself up to unethical conduct. The world is not black and white, and pretending that it is will only lead you to bad conclusions.

    • Hi, thanks for your comment!

      I think that’s my issue too. The black and white approach, or as I described it above — the zero-tolerance policy. I just think it’s a naive approach, and not applicable to most real-world situations.

  3. Well, there have been some very bad examples in human experience prior to the warp drive. Consider how the white Christians “saved” the pagan African black men by harvesting them as slave laborers. And how exactly are we going to save Syria, by joining sides with the evil dictator or the evil ISIS? Sometimes there is nothing you can do in any practical way that doesn’t just make matters worse.

    I don’t remember the episode on the original Star Trek, but I seem to recall one situation where an intervention caused people to believe in supernatural beings who would always bail them out, losing their own initiative to solve problems. That’s the risk if the little girl’s memory stayed intact.

    One of the fears I seem to recall was the danger of introducing technology that could advance the natives ability to build weapons of war. So one of the reasons to hold back was to let them mature on their own with conventional weaponry.

    Then there is the problem limited resources that when trying to solve everyone’s problems. Or trying to bring everyone in a foreign civilization up to your culture’s self-government maturity. That didn’t work in Iraq. So the Prime Directive helps insure a little humility in the helpers.

    Anyway, thanks for the great post!

    • Hi Marvin! (Sorry for the late reply)

      Yes, exactly — this is what I mean about humans not really having a leg to stand on when it comes to being morally superior. We’ve done some messed up stuff throughout our Earth history, so it seems pretty damn hypocritical of us to just decide, as soon as we have FTL travel, that we get to run around the universe playing god and deciding who lives or dies.

      I think you may be thinking of The Apple, in which the god-like computer/giant stone dragon thing called Vaal has stunted the development of a primitive alien race by forbidding them to reproduce or build anything for themselves. The machine provides everything they need to survive in return for tribute, and therefore keeps them from ever learning anything or developing a more advanced society. For their part, the Enterprise crew intervene in this case, encouraging the people to destroy Vaal so they can start living their own lives. (And so the crew can get back to their ship — Vaal is holding them hostage by dicking around with their transporter signals)

      If anything, the episode seems to encourage the opposite of the Prime Directive, with the end result of the Enterprise’s intervention being an apparent positive one. The entire episode is inspired by the Genesis story of the Bible, and equates the people’s destruction of Vaal with Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. But in this case, it’s seen as a good thing and a step in the right direction, rather than a fall from grace.

  4. This is truly what I love about Star Trek, the Cap. aren’t copies of each other, they have the same rules but they all follow it differently; And thankfully they all have a diverse crew that speaks up. Kirk would have taken such a different approach if he faced the same issue. I think they would have had to hold him back from beaming down to the planet himself to save the kid and who ever else needed it. Spock would be the one quoting the prime directive to him. He wouldn’t listen. He certainly wouldn’t have whipped her mind I think. Cause yeah sure she saw us, big whoops… lol. Pikard is always a very strict rule follower. It’s his thing. Of course by Pikard’s time they’ve seen more examples of where disobeying the prime directive went horribly wrong for that civilization. So he takes a more extreme approach to make sure that doesn’t happen on his watch. Then there’s Janeway… Oo” Did she even bother reading the rules at all? LOL

    • Hahah, right? It’s really great how different they all are.

      I guess for me it just always seemed like Kirk was much more morally grey in comparison with Picard. And that’s what I love about him. He always strives to do the right thing, no matter what, but he doesn’t always immediately know what that right thing is. He doesn’t consider himself the absolute moral authority in every situation. He looks at the situation in front of him on a case by case basis, consults his peers (Spock and Bones), and then makes a decision regarding how to proceed. He has a healthy mix of following regulations and knowing when it’s appropriate to break them for the sake of doing what’s right.

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