One of the most popular phenomena, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek provides a unique backdrop for the study of the moral and ethical philosophies related to science fiction. The Prime Directive, the guiding rule of the Federation in the Star Trek universe, is one of the most famous ethical rules in all of science fiction.
What is the Prime Directive?
Star Trek is set in the future in which humanity, in Starfleet spaceships equipped with a warp drive that makes them able to travel faster than the speed of light, is exploring and colonizing the galaxy. The Prime Directive is Starfleet’s number one rule and sets forth its restrictions for interacting with civilizations that have yet to develop warp drive technology. They can study them, but they cannot interfere with them in any way—especially with their development.
Once a civilization develops warp drive, interference from an outside civilization is inevitable. By striking out into the galaxy, one could argue that they are inviting interference. They are joining a larger community that will provide access to advanced technology and expose them to new ideas. But before such interference is inevitable, when a certain civilization is confined to its solar system, the Prime Directive demands that interference should be avoided.
This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Prime Directive and the Negative Effects of Colonialism
The original Star Trek aired in the 1960s when the negative effects of colonialism were first being recognized in academia. Roddenberry often thought that he introduced the Prime Directive to show that the humans in an ideal future he had envisioned understood the horrors of colonialism and were actively guarding against them.
The colonial period lasted from about the 15th to the 18th centuries. It was a time of expansion into “new worlds,” like what is seen in Star Trek, except it was the Europeans. The Spanish colonized Central and South America, and the British colonized North America and India. But unlike in Star Trek, colonialism involved imposing a new way of life on the native cultures—Europe’s religion, economic system, cultural practices, its forms of government, even its pastimes, holidays, and traditions.
Learn more about the British expansion in India (1757-1820).
The Justification for Colonialism
In the 1960s, people were beginning to acknowledge how horrifically the natives of the colonies were treated—how badly their lands were exploited, how their cultures were destroyed, and the fact that millions of them were killed, enslaved or otherwise subjugated.
At the time, Europeans thought colonization was justified because of their own racial and cultural superiority. They thought they were civilizing the “savages”—not only bringing them modern ways of living but also correcting their religion and ethics.
Inspired by Thomas Aquinas’s concept of natural law—moral rules supposedly discoverable by anyone with the ability to reason—European moral authorities like Pope Innocent and Francisco de Victoria argued that they were justified in “correcting” native practices like adultery, nakedness, and idolatry by making them monogamous, wear clothes, and become Christian. It was even seen as a divine mandate.
Thinkers like historian Joseph-Ernest Renan argued that God had established a racial hierarchy. He thought each race had its role to play—some were for manual labor, others for tilling the soil. The Europeans’ place, however, he thought, was soldiering, and ruling. By colonizing the world, and putting each race in its place, he thought the Europeans were simply doing God’s will.
Is Colonialism Related to Imperialism?
Colonialism and imperialism are very closely related. The terms are often used interchangeably and even in academia the difference between the two concepts is not that well defined. One can think of colonialism in the Greek sense as the imposition of one society on another through the creation of a colony—either sending settlers to create colonies on native lands (like Britain did in the Americas) or turning existing societies into colonies (like Britain did in India). On the other hand, one can think of imperialism as anything that accomplishes the same kind of imposition without the creation of a colony.
The Prime Directive’s Failure against Colonial Instincts
The Prime Directive’s failure to protect against colonial instincts is most obvious in the original series episode “The Apple,” where Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew visit Gamma Trianguli VI, and find a society of scantily clad “primitives,” with no technology, living in huts.
The natives call themselves the “Feeders of Vaal” because nearby is a machine named Vaal that provides them perfect weather, living necessities, and immortality, which they have to “feed” periodically with explosive rocks. Vaal’s only rule for them is that they cannot have sex—given that they are immortal, no “replacements” are needed, and a larger population would be impossible to support.
Just like the colonialists before him, Kirk thinks that he has the right to impose his way of life on the Feeders of Vaal. He takes the Prime Directive’s instruction to not interfere with the development of pre-warp cultures to imply that, if a culture is not developing, then he can do whatever he wants.
Learn more about imperialism: land grabs and morality plays.
Captain Kirk’s Mistake
Captain Kirk’s mistake in the episode “The Apple” is twofold. First, the Feeders of Vaal do not live to service a machine; the machine actually serves them. When Vaal is running low on fuel, the Feeders drop everything they are doing to fill it up because it keeps them alive.
Second, Kirk’s actions are colonialism at its worst: he appeals directly to the Western values of creation, production, and thinking, and concludes that he has a right to impose these things on the Feeders of Vaal. But why do the Feeders of Vaal need to do these things? Their life is already as convenient as it can be.
It is true the Feeders cannot have sex, but Kirk imposing his moral views regarding sex on these people is just as wrongheaded as Pope Innocent imposing Christian sexual norms on Native Americans. Kirk destroys Vaal and their entire way of life. This action will likely have the same disastrous result as colonialism.
Common Questions about the Prime Directive and Postcolonialism
In Star Trek, the Prime Directive is Starfleet’s number one rule and sets forth its restrictions for interacting with civilizations that have yet to develop warp drive technology.
According to the historian Joseph-Ernest Renan, the Europeans’ place in God’s racial hierarchy was soldiering and ruling.
In Star Trek, the “Feeders of Vaal” are the natives of Gamma Trianguli VI. A machine named Vaal provides them perfect weather, living necessities, and immortality, which they have to “feed” periodically with explosive rocks.