The Prime Directive: The Reasons for Maintaining a Policy of Noninterference

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy

By Professor David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College

The Prime Directive is the guiding rule of the famous science fiction series Star Trek that restricts the members of the Enterprise from interacting with different civilizations. They cannot interfere with them, especially with their development. What is the rationale behind this rule?

Image showing the view of space from inside the cockpit of a spaceship.
Star Trek: Next Generation shows many instances where the members of the Enterprise follow the policy of noninterference. (Image: AleksandrMorrisovich/Shutterstock)

The Prime Directive’s Policy of Noninterference

The immorality of imposing one culture on another is one of the reasons that is cited in Star Trek: Next Generation for maintaining a policy of noninterference. However, there are also the dangers of unintended consequences if noninterference is ignored. In the episode “Symbiosis”, the Enterprise discovers a pre-warp civilization where the people on one planet, Brekka, have tricked the people of the other planet, Ornara, into thinking they cannot live without a drug the Brekkians produce.

In reality, the Ornarans are simply addicted to the drug. Captain Jean-Luc Picard could reveal the truth, undo the entire trading relationship, and even mitigate the Ornaran’s withdrawal symptoms, but he does not interfere. This is not because he does not want to impose his culture’s moral rules about drug use. It is because history has proved that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well-intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.

This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Limits to Justifying Noninterference

There are limits to justifying noninterference in the name of unintended consequences. One can take the example of the episode “Pen Pals”. Commander Data makes radio contact with a small girl named Sarjenka, whose planet is about to be torn apart by natural geological forces. Data wants to help her, but Picard initially refuses to cite the Prime Directive. Saving their planet would be interfering with its culture’s development. But when Picard hears Sarjenka’s desperate cry for himself, he changes his mind, ignores the Prime Directive, and the Enterprise saves the day.

This seems right. It is possible that one of the lives they saved will grow up to be the next Adolf Hitler or Khan Noonien Singh. But one could also grow up to be the next Buddha, who prevents centuries of war and unites the entire galaxy in peace. Inaction can have dangerous consequences too, so one cannot justify inaction in the name of unintended consequences.

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The Crew of the Enterprise Meets the Valakians

In the episode “Dear Doctor”, the Enterprise answers the distress call of a pre-warp civilization called the Valakians, which is facing extinction due to a genetic disease. But the Valakians, it turns out, dominate another species on their planet, called the Menk—essentially treating them as pets, even though the Menk show signs of advanced cognition.

The Enterprise’s Doctor, Phlox, finds a cure for the Valakians’ disease, which would save millions of lives, but would also condemn the Menk to generations of cultural stagnation and domination. In this case, both action and inaction come with known consequences, but it is not clear if one is better than the other. Captain Jonathan Archer ends up withholding the cure because of his belief that they did not go there to play God.

The Appeal to Nature Fallacy

Captain Archer’s line of reasoning in this episode commits what is called the appeal to nature fallacy—whether something is natural or not doesn’t determine its morality. Many natural things are immoral. On the other hand, every time a medical doctor cures a disease, that interferes with the natural course of things, but it is not immoral. So, the mere fact that saving the Valakians would disrupt “the natural order” is not a good reason to let them die.

Maybe Captain Archer means that there is a “cosmic plan” with which they should not interfere. But as Counselor Troi points out, this reasoning is fallacious because, without knowledge of the said plan, one cannot know whether one’s interference is part of that plan or not.

Is the plan for the Menk to be freed from Valakian domination, or for the Enterprise to save the Valakian species? Without knowing, Captain Archer cannot use the “cosmic plan” as an excuse to do or not do anything. But if all Archer means is that it is not his place to make the call—that he has no moral right to decide what happens to the Valakians or Menk—this seems right.

Is the Prime Directive an Absolute Rule?

Image of European colonist in the Americas.
Bruce Gilley argues in favor of colonialism. (Image: German Vizulis/Shutterstock)

As a guiding principle, the Prime Directive seems good—one society interfering with and imposing its will upon another is generally bad. But the Prime Directive cannot be treated as an absolute rule. There are some exceptions where interference is warranted.

Bruce Gilley, an associate professor of political science at Portland State University, author of the infamous paper “The Case for Colonialism,” argues that the benefits of colonialism are often overlooked.

He cites various examples of nations that shed their colonial oppressors, only to be subsequently subjected to horrendous atrocities at the hands of brutal dictators. Gilley argues that such nations would benefit from a return to colonial rule, and the economic and political stability it would bring.

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Problems With Bruce Gilley’s Argument

Gilly fails to mention many of the horrible atrocities beset on colonized populations by colonialism. Without a full accounting, it is not clear that recolonizing such places would be overall good. This oversight is why many called for the publishing journal, Third World Quarterly, to retract the article. The board members of the journal resigned because the paper actually failed peer-review and yet the journal’s editor decided on his own to publish the article anyway.

Gilley’s argument also fails to recognize that the postcolonial atrocities were also a result of colonization. The rebellion against the colonizing power is what allowed these cruel dictators to take over. There is no way of knowing what would have happened in such countries had they never been colonized. The precolonial government might not have been perfect, but it would have avoided all the colonial and postcolonial atrocities.

Gilly does not talk about the effects of capitalism, the economic system forced on those being colonized. It can come with a lot of economic perks but has a lot of downsides too. Without accounting for those, any argument that the west can be justified in forcing capitalism on a non-capitalistic society is lacking.

Common Questions about the Prime Directive in Star Trek

Q: What reason is given in Star Trek: Next Generation for maintaining a policy of noninterference?

The immorality of imposing one culture on another is one of the reasons that is cited in Star Trek: Next Generation for maintaining a policy of noninterference.

Q: What is the appeal to nature fallacy?

According to the appeal to nature fallacy, whether something is natural or not does not determine its morality.

Q: Can the Prime Directive be treated as an absolute rule?

As a guiding principle, the Prime Directive seems good, but it cannot be treated as an absolute rule because there are some exceptions where interference is warranted.

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