Going Where No One Has Gone Before, Gingerly?

Star Trek

Going Where No One Has Gone Before, Gingerly?

By Kevin S. Decker

In a recent edition of Forbes, Janet Stemwedel, an ethics and science writer, asked the question, “Is Star Trek’s Prime Directive ethical?” Stemwedel considers two aspects of the Prime Directive’s moral dimensions (autonomy and consequences) and comes to the conclusion that the Prime Directive is valuable as long as it is not enforced in an exceptionless way.

Like some good philosophy, Stemwedel’s article raises more questions than it answers, but that’s okay. I am going to do the same. And here is where my shameless plug for The Ultimate Star Trek and Philosophy: The Search for Socrates (Wiley-Blackwell) comes in. In this book (coming out in 2016), my co-editor Jason T. Eberl (who also co-authored 2008’s Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant with me) and I have included no less than seven chapters that deal with the Prime Directive, all from very different perspectives. They’re very good, and they take the original premises offered by Stemwedel in various intellectually fruitful directions.

Having offered this shameless plug, my work should now be done, but I am a philosopher, and what we call “clarifying things,” you call “belaboring the point.” So here are a few cocktail-party conversation starters for your next Trek marathon with family and friends:

  1. Stemwedel cites the 1968 episode “Bread and Circuses” as providing evidence that the Prime Directive consists of certain negative duties: “no identification of self or mission; no interference with the social development of said planet; no references to space, other worlds, or advanced civilizations” (presumably each of these clauses is spelled out in wrenching detail, if the bureaucracy of the future resembles that of the present). Now, these are all negative duties: they tell the captain and crew what they may not do, but not what they should Maybe a Starfleet captain follows a decision procedure like this one: first, consider the likely impact of the mission orders on the inhabitants of a pre-first contact civilization. Do any pose violations of the negative duties in the Prime Directive? If the answer is “no,” refer to Vulcan science officer for double-check: you can never be too sure! But if the answer is yes, then ask secondly, should we favor an exceptionless (or absolute) interpretation of the Prime Directive? This would mean that the mission must be scrubbed or suitably modified to avoid such violations. An exception-allowing interpretation of the Prime Directive means that a new set of criteria need to be imported into the decision process in order to gauge the likelihood that some likely violation of the Prime Directive will be worth the mission accomplishment. But what would these criteria be? Perhaps these criteria are known to (or intuited by) experienced Starfleet captains and admirals—and maybe that’s why Admiral Pike gets so angry with Kirk after the Nibiru mission at the beginning of Star Trek: Into Darkness. Perhaps it was that Kirk, brash and inexperienced, was unable in Pike’s eyes to make a sophisticated judgment that entailed leaving Spock to die in the Nibiru volcano. Perhaps Starfleet Command’s attitude is similar to the sophisticated utilitarian senior officer who treats the injunctions of the Prime Directive as allowing exceptions. Situations in which a conflict clearly emerges between mission and Prime Directive would be approached by that officer as if they were an act utilitarian—that is, in this particular case of conflict, they would attempt to act in order to contribute to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Things might be different next conflict, but remember, their judgment is informed, experienced, and sophisticated. But—and this is important—for her less sophisticated students or junior officer, this utilitarian advocates rule utilitarianism—that is, to follow rules that have demonstrated a greater likelihood, on balance, to contribute to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. We can see the negative duties in the previous bullet point as being these kinds of rules, and ethically unsophisticated captains and junior officers as beholden to the rules as if they were absolute. True, this is a double standard, but one based on the idea that experience and sound judgment is not equally distributed throughout Starfleet.
  2. Next, I shamelessly cite a Wikipedia entry for “Prime Directive” which claims that “Star Trek stories have used the Prime Directive as a literary device which allows the exploration of interactions with less advanced societies without the heroes having the overwhelming advantage of easy access to and use of their technology…. In the philosophical view of Star Trek, no matter how well-intentioned the more advanced peoples are, interaction between advanced technology and a more primitive society is invariably destructive” (Hence in the Next Generation flick First Contact, the Vulcans are already in space in 2063 and looking for the signs of successful warp technology from the humans before they reach out).  The first Wikipedia claim reminds me of another favorite show, Doctor Who, and how in the 1980s the producer decided to have the Doctor’s favorite deus ex machina device, the “sonic screwdriver,” destroyed for fear that this electronic “get out of jail free” gizmo lessened the dramatic tension in the Doctor’s adventures and escapes. But that’s just a requirement of good screenwriting. Now, the question is, what is the problem identified by the second Wikipedia claim of exposing cultures of limited technology to more advanced technology? Is technology like a virus? Martin Heidegger, in “The Question concerning Technology,” certainly thought so; rather than seeing industrialization as providing more tools for varied human uses, Heidegger thought that technology “enframes” an entire civilization’s way of thinking about resources, the environment, and themselves; this is a fairly conservative position. In business and medical ethics, which must react to the widespread proliferation of advanced technology in increasingly open global markets, considerations are often made pragmatically and comparatively, but looking at the past technological development of western societies and making predictions of likely consequences from there. Is this aspect of the Prime Directive simply a holdover from Cold War fears of nuclear technology getting into “the wrong hands”?
  3. Finally, as Stemwedel asks, “how does the Prime Directive fare as a general approach to the ethics of sharing a universe?” I like this question because it supersedes the narrow approach to the Prime Directive as a set of negative duties suggested in the first point above. The Prime Directive is best enforced as a non-absolute, exception-allowing set of rules if it’s conceived of not as a form of paternalistic protection from cultural or technological interference, but as a way for cultures with wildly differing needs and practices to share a common resource. This sharing requires a number of virtues, perhaps the most important of which is conscientiousness, or the willingness to exercise an ability to isolate the causes and consequences of people’s actions on one another, and to change those actions in light of such discoveries. The problem with conscientiousness is this: while willingness may be there, the capacity to be conscientiousness differs based on how wide one conceives their “world” to be. As we know from our explorations of the moon and the solar system, one’s whole attitude changes when their reach exceeds their grasp. Conscientiousness therefore depends, in many respects, on technology, which artificially widens the horizons of one’s world in the way that traffic cameras, the internet, and satellite GPS have. By allowing Starfleet crew to make first contact with technologically less advanced civilizations using only the charisma, wit, openness and understanding of the well-trained starship crewman or crewwoman, the Federation in Star Trek seems to be stressing diplomacy, saying, “Encourage the willingness to be conscientious citizens of a galaxy—the technological capacity can come later.”

Kevin S. Decker is Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Washington University. He is the co-editor of The Ultimate Star Trek and Philosophy: The Search for Socrates (Wiley-Blackwell, coming out in 2016) and Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant.

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