After Hours

Why 'Star Trek's Prime Directive is stupid'

Over at Sentient Developements, George P. Dvorsky offers up the following indictment of Star Trek's vaunted Prime Directive:

"The [Prime Directive] is a science fictional projection of the naturalistic fallacy and injunctions against playing God. It's also a disturbing application of social Darwinism. The underlying assumption of the PD is that a civilization must attain space faring capabilities and advanced technologies through their own means (civilizational uplift is not an option, I suppose). It's survival of the fittest as decreed by the Federation, and those who cannot progress to an advanced developmental stage or who destroy themselves first simply didn't deserve to be in the Federation in the first place." 

Mr. Dvorsky goes on to support his argument by citing the example of the Enterprise episode Dear Doctor. I'm going to overlook this fact, both because he's citing a point in Star Trek continuity before the Prime Directive came about and because using any Enterprise episode to judge the whole of Star Trek is like judging the merits of the whole of television based on the works of Aaron Spelling. Also, I agree with him, the Prime Directive is stupid.

The Prime Directive is a plot device cooked up by a patently optimistic TV writer (either Trek producer Gene L. Coon or writer Theodore Sturgeon, depending on who you ask) in the mid-1960s. It's a freshmen-year philosophy student's reaction to the Cold War, when America and the Soviets were playing out their hostilities by proxy third-world conflicts. Effectively, they were interfering in the "development" of underprivileged countries to further their own ends with some awful immediate and long-term results. In Roddenberry's vision, humanity had evolved beyond such puppeteering and become an 'advanced' race.

Besides, if you've got all this advanced knowledge and tech, how do you make episodes where the crew encounters less-developed alien societies interesting, when the Trekkers could simply overmatch them? Simple: You put a plot device in place that forces Starfleet not to use their technical advantages in the presence of beings that have not achieved such levels of advancement—effectively forcing the characters to fight with one arm tied behind their backs and think their way out of problems. That kind of thing is fun to watch (and fun to write), but that doesn't make it the basis for a defensible ethical philosophy.

It is possible to openly interact with a primitive culture (primitive being a fairly condescending and relative term) without doing harm. There's a difference between handing out first aid kits versus handing out blueprints to nuclear weapons. Ask any contemporary third-world country how upset they are at the World Health Organization providing free vaccinations, or at Peace Corps volunteers that teach modern sanitation techniques in those same countries. The day somebody explains to me how not dying of cholera or small pox is a bad thing is the day I consider the Prime Directive a cornerstone of ethical inter-cultural relations.

Care to disagree? 


Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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