A Dogmatic Prime Directive
Updated: Apr 19
Not a plot contrivance, nor cultural relativism, nor justified
The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy… and a very correct one. History has proved 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.—Picard on the Prime Director, ‘Symbiosis’
On a whim, I recently decided to go boldly where plenty have before: season one of Star Trek: The Next Generation. My experience with Star Trek is all over. As a teenager I bought the DVDs and watched every episode of Voyager; it was the show I had also watched most when I was younger. Otherwise, I saw bits, and more recently Discovery.
As I watched Next Gen, I microblogged on Twitter about episodes (even encountering an excellent assessment of the pilot). From this, two things were apparent: first, I have serious qualms with most earlier episodes; second, I enjoy the show a lot. I like its admittedly uneven humanism (a very liberal humanism, more on which later) and that it is so committed to having a point in every episode the show’s earnestness opens itself to easy criticism. I like that it is led by characters, and tries out ideas playfully, even if many fail to land.
Several episodes also made me realise something about one of the show’s better-known concepts, the Prime Directive. If you do not know, the Prime Directive, to quote Wikipedia, ‘applies particularly to civilizations which are below a certain threshold of technological, scientific and cultural development; preventing starship crews from using their superior technology to impose their own values or ideals on them.’ It’s an idea that opens up more questions than it answers: development by what standards? What constitutes an imposition? What values? What is the rule designed to prevent?
It is commonly considered a deus ex machina, a plot contrivance to create tensions that otherwise would not exist. However, after watching these four episodes in particular (‘Encounter at Farpoint’ parts one and two, ‘The Last Outpost’, and ‘Lonely Among Us’), I realised it expresses the core ethos of the show, its superficialities, philosophies, virtues and vices. ‘Lonely Among Us’ was especially exemplary. The main plot concerns Captain Picard being possessed by an energy entity. It is a truly alien being, unfathomably different, but sharing essential ‘human’ values, and all that is generally irrelevant to this discussion.
More relevant is a less narratively compelling subplot about the hatred between the reptilian Selay and canine Antican civilizations, and its parallels in the economic ‘backwardness’ of the Ferengi in ‘The Last Outpost’. What I realised is that the Selay, Antican and Ferengi are all used as tragic examples of alien civilizations whose technology has developed faster than their ethics, and that this notion (of uneven development) furnishes most of the philosophical basis of Federation diplomacy and the ideology of the Star Trek mythos.
The episode more prominently showcases two trivial points: that racist paranoia is a risk in any society, but also that the Federation has become technologically and ethically (culturally) advanced, with each advancement importantly in sync, even. What the Selay and Antican prove is that the Federation is not against intervening in other civilizations that are less culturally developed; the mission being carried out in this episode is, in fact, to broker peace between them. Why is this intervention acceptable when it would not be for a species with, say, medieval technological advancements?
While Selay and Antican are clearly not ‘ethically’ developed by Federation standards, they are technologically so (they are considered for admission into the Federation, requiring a certain technological advancement) and therefore their hostilities demonstrate that they have already fallen into the very tragedy I suspect the Prime Directive seeks to avoid. Intervention in their case serves the same purpose that nonintervention in others, to overcome a particular form of misaligned development.
This is how the show attempts to put forward its aforementioned belief that technological and ‘cultural’ development occur at different speeds, that ethical progress either never or at least vanishingly rarely outpaces technological progress. To the Federations way of looking at things, possessing a higher stage of technological than ethical progress is what creates the worst potential problems. This is also the theory (one of them, at least) behind J. B. S. Haldane’s 1923 essay ‘Daedalus; or, Science and the Future’. In Haldane’s words:
To sum up, then, science is as yet in its infancy, and we can foretell little of the future save that the thing that has not been is the thing that shall be; that no beliefs, no values, no institutions are safe. So far from being an isolated phenomenon the late war is only an example of the disruptive result that we may constantly expect from the progress of science. The future will be no primrose path. It will have its own problems. Some will be the secular problems of the past, giant flowers of evil blossoming at last to their own destruction. Others will be wholly new. Whether in the end man will survive his ascensions of power we cannot tell. But the problem is no new one. It is the old paradox of freedom re-enacted with mankind for actor and the earth for stage.
This tragedy of uneven development (specifically, technology outpacing ethics) is not always externalised onto aliens within the Star Trek universe (generally stand-ins for humanity in any case). A post-atomic horror mentioned in ‘Encounter at Farpoint’ showcases humanity suffering the same tragedy in its past. This is where the Prime Directive steps in, and humanity’s historic errors might possibly provide a motivation for the rule—as Picard later suggests.
Superficially, it can seem as if the Federation is trying to preserve alternative ways of life with its rule, but a close reading shows that they have a definite view of how alien species ought to develop and the rule is intended to avoid merely unintended consequences of imposing that view incautiously. Where the rule takes its cues from a civilisation’s technological abilities, it does so as an indicator of its ethical development. The Federation believes in one set of values, and believes in them with total assuredness, but they don’t believe in their own capacity to impose those values.
So what is the problem with this rule? Why raise it so pointedly? The issue is that for the Federation, an analysis of effects is being substituted for a theory of causes. The Federation’s principles are foundationally dependent on a transhistorical theory of progress, a teleological development from primitivism (prejudice) to civilisation, and from low technology to, foremost, reliable, faster than light space travel. To put it in plainer words: there is a correct way for civilisations to develop, this has validity outside of any particular points of view and while it occurs unpredictably within history, the correct form of development is implied at all points and times.
The transhistorical notion of progress here is an assumption, as far as any reasoning is ever provided to underpin it. The Prime Directive is sometimes cited as an example of cultural relativism, but it is not really that at all (it sometimes is framed by the Federation in those terms, but examples clearly show this is not the real motive force). The Prime Directive assumes that the values of the Federation are correct, it just additionally maintains that these values cannot be as reliably imposed as technology can be recklessly gifted.
Earlier I mentioned Star Trek’s liberal humanism, and the muddle around the basis for these types of progress is best explained by looking at the greater muddle of the liberalism that informs Star Trek. A small caveat, however; I use liberalism to refer to the overall political and moral philosophy that justifies capitalist modernity and its class project. Much of what is called conservativism today is a form of liberalism, alongside the more narrowly defined ‘liberalism’ such conservativism abhors.
In its class origins, liberalism found philosophical grounding in a teleological theology. Its idea of a linear, gradualist historical ‘progress’ depends on a God that sets that progress in place. Star Trek illustrates liberalism’s problem when it jettisons theology but maintains such an account of history (what has been called the Whiggish account of history). Progress assumes an end point, some conscious place (literal or figurative) in which travel is directed and by which progression can be judged. Star Trek never addresses the basis for its progress, which is why its ethics are so vague and its rules so superficially reasoned.
Why did the tragedies of the Selay, Antican, Ferengi, and human post-atomic horror occur? Star Trek is clueless. It has no ideas, although it treats such tragedies as likely. One could adopt a radical traditionalist/primitivist explanation that all ‘development’ beyond a certain point is tragic, because going beyond the parameters of certain ways of life is always metaphysically or materially undesirable. Or a class humanist perspective, the Marxist one (the perspective adopted by Haldane, albeit in a theoretically weak form), that ‘development’ is spurred by social conflicts between classes until it is possible for one class to abolish (or transcend) class society. One can adopt a religious progressive perspective, where God somehow arbitrates progress.
The show is often smug in its condemnation of aliens. This is partly due to its aliens’ flaws being clearly and authorially designed to make the Federation look good. But there is a deeper, less apparent reason: The Federation is ruthlessly dogmatic about its values, but offers no hint as to why its values are good. It has no class, religious or metaphysical views to justify its superiority, it has a vague humanism, but one with no understanding of humanity as a historical entity, and so it finally depends on the aliens it encounters being caricatures to convincingly make its (truly none existent) case.
This is also why the Prime Directive appears a contrivance. It is not completely so, but the philosophical arbitrariness that justify this ultimate rule make it a bit arbitrary. The Federation can appeal to intuitions about the danger of giving weaponizable technologies to warlike and genocidal civilisations, but when it comes to condemning the prejudices that motivate these civilisations it either fudges or resorts to tautology (x prejudice is bad because it is bad). In other words, we have to already agree with the Federation to be persuaded by its reasoning, which, to do credit to the show, is often the case when the Federation encounters ‘backward’ aliens.
As a Marxist I am interested in what social contradictions explain the Selay, Antican, Ferengi, and human post-atomic horror civilisations; the show’s incuriosity on this point frustrates me. The Ferengi come closest to revealing something in their much-boasted misogyny, but generally aliens are treated as homogenous blocks. They are cartoon villains (at least in much of season one), and if any had the wherewithal to challenge Picard on what basis he judged them as unworthy of the Federations technology (or writers willing to make them more ambiguous and complex), Picard might be stumped.
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