The Prime Directive

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ArcticFox
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The Prime Directive

Postby ArcticFox » Thu May 15, 2014 6:46 pm

We've discussed the way the Prime Directive is carried out inconsistently in Star Trek, but we didn't really go much into the whole question of when it's right to use it.

Spoilers ahead...

Most recently, in the movie Star Trek: Into Darkness, Kirk gets demoted for violating the Prime Directive by saving the inhabitants of the planet in the opening sequence by "freezing" a massive volcano that, presumably, would have killed all life on the planet.

This particular scenario happens a lot in Star Trek. In the TNG episode "Pen Pals", Picard saves a planet in a similar way only because Data befriended a little girl who lived there. In the last season episode "Homeward", the Enterprise sits in orbit while a whole planet dies, having saved only a small group (and that only because Worf's human brother forced the issue.)

My question: Does it make sense to avoid interference when the result is death to a population? Chozon pointed out that Starfleet seems much more likely to be of help to a civilization that's "worthy" by having high tech. One might argue that the Prime Directive ceases to apply once a society discovers warp technology, but why?

In the original series, there's the episode "A Piece of the Action" in which a previous ship had contaminated the culture of the locals and radically changed the direction of that world's social development. So the Prime Directive makes sense in this context... it's bad to change the development of a society. Got it.

But what about when that society is doomed if there's no help given? In the Into Darkness example above, the locals appear to believe the Enterprise is a god, and begin to worship its image. That's pretty bad I grant you... But if the Enterprise had done nothing, they'd all be dead now anyway. Somehow that strikes me as worse.

What do you think?
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Re: The Prime Directive

Postby blacksinow » Fri Jun 06, 2014 5:45 pm

I know that a whole lot of people don't like Enterprise, but I do for various reasons and this brings up one of them. It has nothing to do with whether or not something is right, but how far should we go in interfering with another civilization's development. If we decide that something isn't right and provide care for those people, what if they never obtain the means to do it themselves?

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Re: The Prime Directive

Postby ArcticFox » Mon Jun 09, 2014 7:35 pm

The Enterprise episode Dear Doctor is the one I believe you're referencing.

That episode set up an interesting question that goes beyond the Prime Directive. On the one hand, Dr. Phlox had found the means to cure a plague that had been afflicting a race of people. They could give those people the cure, and by doing so ensure that race's survival but also ensure that the other intelligent race on that planet would always be dominated by them. On the other hand, they could withhold the cure and let nature take its course.

One of the things that bugged me about the ethical dilemma is that it sort of pitted compassion vs. evolution. It was as if somehow Phlox's morality was guided more by his expectation of what evolution would do than by any notions of compassion.

But was it a matter for a Prime Directive?

I say no. In this episode, the people on the planet of the week already knew about alien species and about the existence of warp technology, even though they themselves had not yet developed it. Cultural contamination wasn't an issue. It was an issue of evolution vs. compassion, which has nothing to do with the Prime Directive, IMHO.

The problem with Pholx's argument is that it suggests that it's best to let nature take its course rather than use intelligence, science and resources to make things better. If that's the case, then the entire field of medicine is itself unethical because it seeks to eradicate diseases rather than letting nature take its course.

But that's for another topic.
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Re: The Prime Directive

Postby ArchAngel » Mon Jun 09, 2014 8:25 pm

Well, in that case, it'd be compassion towards one race versus compassion towards the other and maybe staying out of it is a way to not condemn one of the races.

On the other hand, it does seem to violate medical ethics. Always help whoever you can when you can. And yes, letting "nature take it's course" is very counter to the concept of medicine itself.


As for the Prime Directive, I've wondered on it's practicality and merits. Looking back in our own history, what comes of when a larger and/or more technologically advanced civilization "meddles" with others? We do have some near eradication of culture, like in the Americas, and exploitation, like in Africa. In Asia, it's has western technology boosted Asian culture as Asian technology has done for the west before? Are those, in the long run, better off? Even in Asia, it's not like it hasn't been exploitative, either.

If a more technologically dominant culture is inevitably exploitative of other cultures, is it a matter of keeping a person out of a diet out of an ice cream parlor?

Another question arises, as well. Does technology change social consciousness? Prime Directive does hinge on warp technology, and we can talk on why that's significant, but let's just say it's as good as any. In our past, has the progression of technology changed the way we operate and think, and that an accelerated or instantaneous boost might be disastrous?
This might be the turning point for me at the Prime Directive.

As the agricultural revolution took place, we went from tribal hunters and gatherers and became city and town dwellers, we honed new crafts and became adjusted to a new style of living. As civilization progressed, we changed also. Industrial revolution comes around, we truly became a city species. Institutions, such as slavery, began to disappear and the way we view ourselves shifts. Information age, even further. Most all of us could no longer survive in wild in the hunter gatherer society, and grabbing a hunter gatherer and putting him in a city could be disastrous for him.
On a larger scale, and this is something we observe in our history as well, what happens when we give tribes access to modern technologies, like guns, etc.? What becomes of the society? Would it tear itself apart?
Should technology be given as a gradient allowing a society to adjust?
And maybe it's not a matter of technological understanding so much as it's a matter of social infrastructure. Maybe that's why Asian cultures have been more successful in rapid adoption of new technologies. Their massive social infrastructures go back thousands of years.

If this is the case, is the best option to completely leave alone until they come to point in technology or social infrastructure (for the sake of argument at this point, let's say warp drive indicates both tech and social structure are sufficient in order to develop it) before contact can be made? Is it possible to bring a species up to warp capability through a gradated approach, building an empire through not conquest, but induction through technology. Foundation style.

Then comes a follow up question, is it right to place that upon a culture? Is it like making a child grow up before their time? Is the right gradient the time it takes for them to discover these on their own? Would it be robbing a society of it's own agency?
Is it even better to be a part of a technologically advanced race; is simple living better? (My answer is a resounding yes for being technologically advanced, but it's still worth asking).
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Re: The Prime Directive

Postby ArcticFox » Mon Jun 09, 2014 9:33 pm

All good questions.

As it's implemented, the Prime Directive allows for contact with an alien race once they develop warp drive (I know you're treating that as an arbitrary marker, Arch, but I think it's important)... but I don't think it's because that culture has matured on a social and technological level enough for contact. I think it's more pragmatic than that. Once a planet has developed warp drive, contact with the other cultures in the galaxy becomes inevitable. At that point, it seems better to reach out to them in a controlled way rather than let First Contact be handled by random chance.

This is the focus of the TNG episode First Contact. In this episode, Picard cites First Contact with the Klingons as disastrous leading to war (continuity of Star Trek:Enterprise notwithstanding.)

So in that case, the social and ethical questions of whether or not reaching out to a less developed culture becomes irrelevant, as contacting them becomes more a matter of necessity than conscience. It's going to happen, so the trick is to mitigate the impact.

So given Picard's dialogue in First Contact it doesn't seem like the Prime Directive is lifted once a relationship is established with a newly warp enabled culture. He hints that Federation technology wouldn't be shared with the new contacts, but culture and friendship would. (Note: that can be a mighty fine line.) So it's like "Hi, we're your neighbors from the next star system. We have really wicked cool ships, medical tech and holography, but we won't share it with you until you figure it out for yourselves." Which is bewildering. Do Vulcans, Andorians, Tellarites, etc. not have open sharing of tech? By the time of TNG there doesn't seem to be any techologuical difference at all between those races, even though the Vulcans were far in advance of humanity at first.
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Re: The Prime Directive

Postby ArchAngel » Mon Jun 09, 2014 9:44 pm

True, that's a whole other topic of discussion, why do most of the races have similar tech levels, and the ones that are more advanced aren't dominant. Maybe with the exception of the Borg. As it seems, the Angels and Apes paradigm would be far more pronounced.

I treated warp drive as arbitrary as to not simplify the post, but I think there's more to it, like ocean-faring ships for colonial empire building and computers for the information age. Technologies do usher in new eras and change civilization.
That's a good point on warp drive, in that, it's generally wrong to get involved at all in other culture's, but that luxury goes away with warp technology. So, all my theories of social development might be irrelevant towards the Star Trek Prime Directive, but if we were to craft a Prime Directive for contact with less technologically advanced species (trying my best not to say primitive), how would we build it?
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Re: The Prime Directive

Postby ArcticFox » Mon Jun 09, 2014 10:39 pm

If you're going to build a Prime Directive, it seems like you have to decide what knowledge you'll share and what you won't.

For example, it seems like works of art should be fair game, although the argument can be made that the other culture's own progression in the arts would be influenced by this new material. Is that ok?

Technology comes to mind quickly. What do you share? Suppose they have warp drive but not artificial gravity? Do you give them that? In Babylon 5 Earth Alliance ships had no artificial gravity even though every other race did. Is that the right approach?

How about medical technology? Do you give them the cure for the common cold? How about cloning tech?

Do you share cultural ideas like religion? What will that do to the culture's own religious identity?

For that matter, how much do we expose our own culture to these newcomers? How will our art and religions be affected by the other culture? Is that ok too?
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Re: The Prime Directive

Postby ArchAngel » Tue Jun 10, 2014 12:24 am

Good point. Sharing art and other cultural facets probably has the easiest case for open share. Generally harmless and can foster some good will between peoples.

But, I don't know about open sharing with technology. Just, at all. You bring up medical tech, which is a good initial choice since it seems pretty benign while morally commendable. You're right, do we just treat some basic diseases and recommend sanitary processes, or do we share items more volatile such as genetic engineering, cloning, or the basics of our own physiology?
Probably, you know, not.

Also, something else to consider is whether sharing technology or just the applications of the technology. Teach a man to fish versus giving him fish.

But then, now we have to consider... why would we do this? And this is where I move pretty far away from Star Trek and the Federation...

We do it to build an empire.

It's would be a lot of work to develop procedures for unrolling technologies for alien, and potentially dangerous. Why give it away from free unless we have something to gain? Admittance into the Terran Empire in return for vast amounts of technology gets them our technology at a controlled pace, while we get either access to their world, whether resources, manpower or strategic values. And if there are separate nations, will we be pretty much handing over control of the planet to whoever agrees to our terms?

And yes, we go back into exploitation. A more powerful entity, when making a plan with a less powerful entity, will almost always make the equation land in their favor. Whether this is ethical or not, or can be made ethical with certain moral boundaries, is another question. I can't, however, get it out of my head that whatever "young" culture will end up being met with the same fate as the Native Americans.
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Re: The Prime Directive

Postby ArcticFox » Tue Jun 10, 2014 1:13 am

I sometimes imagine what kinds of scenarios will arise when a less technologically advanced culture meets the Federation. Are its citizens free to travel throughout the Federation worlds? If so, they'll come home with fantastical tales of technology, medical advances, scientific knowledge, etc. Doesn't that, right there, affect technological development?

For example, suppose a human from our day and age were to travel about the Federation. He comes home, and even though he doesn't necessarily know how stuff is done, he knows that:

FTL technology is possible, but through warp technology, not hyperspace.
Broken bones can be healed in a matter of moments.
Time travel IS possible.
It is possible to break a human down to molecules, convert it to energy, transmit it, then reassemble the person and the process is non-fatal.
Artificial gravity is possible.
FTL communications is possible.
Telepathy is a thing.

Just knowing those things would have a massive impact on our technological research. Fields that are now known to be possible would surge, while dead ends would be abandoned. Surely, this is not the normal path of technological development!

So what does that mean? Do they also have to restrict travel and access to information to lower tech cultures? Sounds like building an Empire is a natural result of that kind of information rationing.

Here's another question: What happens when the Federation encounters a civilization whose tech is more advanced? Do they deliberately ignore this new cornucopia of information?
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Re: The Prime Directive

Postby blacksinow » Tue Jun 10, 2014 1:26 am

The Next Generation covered much of this and the other Star Trek series covered the rest. I think what the federation cares more about are threats and curiosities then anything else. As for civilizations with more technology, we all know that the federation were ALWAYS trying to get their hands on romulan technology, so take from that as you will.

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Re: The Prime Directive

Postby Orodrist » Tue Jun 10, 2014 5:23 am

and grabbing a hunter gatherer and putting him in a city could be disastrous for him.
I hate to butt in on a good discussion to go off tangentially, so I'll spoiler tag my disagreement to this. Also, it's late and I have arc eye so apologies if this isn't coherent.
Spoiler:
I understand your point, but your approach is flawed. To me at least you're presupposing that technology and prior lifestyle determine survival. While this is certainly true regressively speaking, I would argue that the true reason modern man is unable to thrive in a hunter-gatherer setting is a matter of psychological evolution, and not true for primitive man in a modern setting. We no longer have a mentality of survival; on a general level, modern society is highly passive. We're no longer fighting for every meal, and we suffer for it by having lost our instincts as apex predators.

Think for a moment about primitive man. Honed reflexes, adaptable, at the critical point in our evolution where ingenuity is thriving. Physically, he's built for pursuit, on a diet arguably healthier than the modern man's. He's also an amoral killer with no qualms about doing what it takes to survive.

Placed in a modern city, there would certainly be a period of shock, but this isn't an intellectual. At this stage in human history, we're more animal than not, and what truly sets us apart is our ability to adapt and improvise. Instinct would overcome fear, and history alone should tell well enough that betting against humans is wasting chips.
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Re: The Prime Directive

Postby ChickenSoup » Tue Jun 10, 2014 5:35 am

At this stage in human history, we're more animal than not, and what truly sets us apart is our ability to adapt and improvise.

At this point in our history, we were exactly 100% human.
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Re: The Prime Directive

Postby Orodrist » Tue Jun 10, 2014 5:47 am

I was speaking in regards to culture and lifestyle. Our hunter-gatherer stage was when we were still fighting for dominance of our ecosystem. Culturally speaking, we're gaining superstition, forming a tribal mentality and identity, but little else. Genetically we're human, there's no arguing that. But, abstractly, everything that makes us human is, at best, in its infancy, and remained so until the advent of agriculture.
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Re: The Prime Directive

Postby ArchAngel » Tue Jun 10, 2014 3:10 pm

That's my point about a modern humans and hunter gatherers, both fully human, develop different ways of thinking. Both have the possibility to adapt, but there is a lot to overcome. Do you think aboriginal tribes have fared well when met with modern cities? You think an "apex predator" is going to just adapt to the 9-5? Or build a business from the ground up? Enroll in a university and build a set of technical skills for that Help Desk position? Would he even be happy in that lifestyle?
Different environments build different people. It strikes me that you are glorifying the "primitive man" who will be adapt to anything thrown his way, but the modern man hopelessly flounders through life. I might be reading into what you're saying, but my point is that these people generally grow to fit their environment, and it might take a generation or two to really get into the swing of a new society. Survival is a different game, and people of it's time situate themselves to play it.

I'm not sure what you think I was saying.
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Re: The Prime Directive

Postby ArcticFox » Thu Sep 18, 2014 4:20 pm

So I've been thinking about several different Star Trek stories in which some kind of planetary emergency springs up that would wipe out all life on the planet. There are a surprising number of them, seems this kind of thing happens all the time. Then, I noticed a pattern...

The Paradise Syndrome: The Enterprise must stop a large asteroid from hitting a planet, where a community of transplanted American Indians are living. Kirk gets amnesia and lives as one of them for a while. Arguably, since we're talking about humans, and since there was some sort of alien device already on the planet for dealing with this, the Prime Directive doesn't apply.

Star Trek: Into Darkness: The Enterprise uses a gadget to save a planet from a supervolcano eruption that will kill an entire pre-warp civilization. Kirk is reprimanded severely for going beyond his mission mandate to simply survey the world.

Pen Pals: The Enterprise is in orbit over Drema IV to observe the planet's breakup due to geological badness. There's a pre-warp civilization on the planet and Picard, in keeping with the Prime Directive, will do nothing to save them. Luckily for the Dremans, Data accidentally makes contact with one and, now that there's a face to look at, they decide to use the ship's phasers and some treknobabble to save the world.

A Matter of Time: The Enterprise is asked to use phasers and treknobabble to stabilize a planet's atmosphere to prevent mass extinction of the people. The local inhabitants had called for help and are grateful.

Half a Life: The Enterprise assists a scientist from Kaelon II who is trying to find a way to stabilize the Kaelon star before it kills off everything in the system.

Homeward: The Enterprise refuses to save the inhabitants of a planet from an atmospheric catastrophe. A few only survive because Worf's adopted brother saved a few.

See the pattern? If a society is unaware of the Federation and all that, then the Prime Directive says they can't be saved, but if a society that DOES know about the Federation asks for help, it's given.

So basically, if a natural disaster is about to wipe out your planet, you better hope it happens after you've made first contact with the Federation, otherwise you're screwed. You know, to prevent your culture form being contaminated...
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