The term “Prime Directive” arrived in our vocabulary via the original Star Trek series, where it is also referred to as “Starfleet General Order 1” and the “non-interference directive.” Curiously, although the directive often referred to, it was never explicitly stated, leaving various writers and Star Trek characters to interpret it differently. It was also broken—a lot—by no less than Captain James Kirk, and Captain Luc Picard, both of whom found numerous reasons to overrule its mandate.
As close as we can get to a precise statement of the Prime Directive is outside of the series in the 1986 book, The Federation, by Bernard Edward Menke & Rick David Stuart. They quote a fictional set of “Federation” articles and regulations as saying,
“As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Starfleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes introducing superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely. Starfleet personnel may not violate this Prime Directive, even to save their lives and/or their ship, unless they are acting to right an earlier violation or an accidental contamination of said culture. This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations and carries with it the highest moral obligation.”
The above is a liberal interpretation of the directive, since by introducing the phrases “normal and healthy development,” and “a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely,” it left room for a Starfleet commander to determine that a culture’s development was not “normal and healthy,” or the culture was “capable of handling such interference wisely,” giving them permission to ignore the Prime Directive as much as they pleased.
As numerous episodes of the various iterations of Star Trek over the years have demonstrated, and as various critics have pointed out, a rigid application of the Prime Directive could lead to lies, absurdities or even disasters. Suppose, for instance, that a civilization is on the brink of developing space travel and their planet is soon to be wiped out by a gigantic asteroid. Would refusing to tell the civilization how to build spaceships and escape certain extinction be ethical? Keeping such information from them fulfills the Prime Directive. The crew of the Starship Enterprise were not allowed to tell a more primitive civilization that they were from visitors from another planet and traveled faster than the speed of light in their spaceship, because such knowledge could alter the course of that culture’s development. So, the Enterprise crew had to lie about themselves. Who is to say that their lie did less harm than the truth?
Imagine the situation in which the Enterprise’s visit to a planet is followed by an invasion of the highly aggressive Klingons. Would letting the civilization know that there are races out there traveling from planet to planet and some might be dangerous have saved a culture from being destroyed ? If a world were suffering an epidemic of a disease and the Star Trek crew knew how to prevent or cure it, would it really be more ethical to not reveal that information to them?
Just as following the Prime Directive could lead to disaster, violating it could and did lead to disaster in several episodes. In one case, a social scientist from the Federation tried to create a more orderly, efficient society on another world and instead created a duplicate of the Third Reich. In more than one episode, a well-meaning Federation visitor armed a group within a culture that was being abused and destroyed by another group, only to create a perpetual arms race and war on that planet.
The Original Star Trek series was created during the Vietnam War when the counterculture within the United States saw America’s interference with the internal affairs of Vietnam as immoral and disastrous. During later times within the United States, such feelings resurfaced again with regard to U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. In such times a non-interference policy may seem like the best rule for a powerful country to follow. But, today, with Russian forces having invaded Ukraine and committed numerous atrocities, most Americans favor the United States taking an active role in supporting Ukraine and resisting Russia. Perhaps, the Prime Directive wouldn’t be so popular today.
My sequel to my novel, Ezekiel’s Brain is called Prime Directive. A crew of artificial intelligences in humanoid form, including Ezekiel, whose brain is a copy of a human’s, set out to explore the galaxy looking for life. Virtually all the civilizations they encounter are human and are less technologically
developed than they are. Their first dilemma is whether to tell these others that they are machines, not human beings, and that they have traveled faster than the speed of light from a distant star system. A complication is that other than Ezekiel, his fellow crew members, who are all AIs, are unable to lie. Later, the Delphi, the AI’s spaceship, travels to a star system where the followers of a strict, fundamentalist religion rule with an iron hand, restrict women’s rights, imprison nonbelievers and restrict scientists from studying anything that would challenge their religious myths. The Delphi crew, along with Ezekiel, are asked to intervene on behalf of the abused members of the civilization, who are mounting a rebellion. Later, another group of aliens attacks this civilization with powerful weapons and again, the Delphi crew must decide whether or not to intervene.
The dilemmas in Prime Directive are fictitious, as were the ones in Star Trek, but they symbolize real situations that a powerful society sometimes finds itself in. What kind of rules are most ethical and helpful is a difficult matter to decide. The characters in my novel have no “Federation” manual to follow and must develop their rules as they go along. Should a Prime Directive be one of them? You’ll have to read the novel when it comes out to form your own opinion.
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