Prime Directive Analysis: Pen Pals

Continuing on from yesterday’s initial post, this is the second post in my examination of sfdebris’ examination of the Prime Directive. This one will focus on the episode that might contain the most detailed examination of the Prime Directive in all of the Star Trek works, “Pen Pals”. The basic summary is this: Data starts monitoring less used channels, and receives a message from a young girl on a nearby planet. The planet is undergoing a natural disaster, and she’s scared. Data interacts with her a bit, and then appeals to Picard to intervene and save the girl. Picard points out that this would violate the Prime Directive, and then all of the senior officers get together to discuss whether they should violate the Prime Directive or not.

I’m going to stop there, because the rest of the details should comes out in the actual analysis. With all of the senior officers discussing in detail the implications and interpretations of the Prime Directive, we can examine the thinking of each side in detail, and it comes from people we have at least some reason to sympathize with. The side that, in general, we should feel the most natural sympathy for — help the people on the planet — gets one of the less sympathetic characters — Dr. Pulaski — as well as two of the most sympathetic in Data and Geordi. On the side of the Prime Directive are pretty much Picard and Worf, both of whom are sympathetic but also come across as a little rigid. And it is, I think, this rigidness that is key to understanding the stance they take and the arguments that Picard, at least, makes.

Before getting into that, in detail, I’d like to talk a little bit about an argument that Riker makes that Chuck takes him to task over, and not just in that episode. Riker argues that there might be a cosmic destiny to these events, and that this might just be fate, and that in that case we shouldn’t intervene. Geordi reacts badly to that, and they spar a little bit. Chuck takes this as an expression of what Riker really believes, and then calls that out when Riker breaks the Prime Directive in “The Outcast” to save his, um, girl? of the week. But I don’t think that this is case. Harken back both to “The Motion Picture” as well as to the episode where Picard and Riker are on the smuggling ship, and in both cases we have a hint that the obligation of a First Officer is to make sure that all alternatives are presented and heard. Riker in “The Best of Both Worlds” even bristles when Shelby suggests that he won’t present her suggestion to the captain because he disagrees with it. So one of the roles of a First Officer is to play Devil’s Advocate and present positions that they don’t personally agree with but that need to be raised. Considering that before this episode, in “Angel One”, Riker says that he’s not going to leave them behind to die even though the Prime Directive would insist they do. Given that, and given “The Outcast”, the most consistent interpretation of Riker’s character is that he would lean more towards violating the Prime Directive to save lives. But that side is abundantly represented in the debate, and so he can fulfill his duty to ensure that all important arguments are heard and considered. In fact, even his pique can be seen as less a reaction to having his beliefs challenged but as instead a reaction to the suggestion being dismissed without thought. Even his “I think it’s something to consider” is less an argument that this is right and more that this is an option or argument that needs to be brought up and thought about.

And it is. There are a number of people who might indeed feel that there is some kind of cosmic force or power that has a goal in mind for all events, and wonder if they should interfere in that purpose. At which point, you answer the question with this question: Do you think that the cosmic entity has planned for our presence here, or not? If you think that it has, then all we can do is act the way we would act normally without guessing at the purpose of the cosmic entity, because that’s what the cosmic entity expects and wants us to do, and so we should return to our deliberation and put that argument aside. If you think it hasn’t, then since we can’t know what that purpose is, again, we have no choice but to act the way we would normally. If you try to counter that the purpose is expressed in the natural order, then the reply is Chuck’s argument that people interfere in the natural order all of the time, so either you have to insist that there be no medicine or saving of lives at all, or else demonstrate why this specific case is one where you shouldn’t intervene in the natural order. The only argument left is from someone who claims to know what the cosmic entity wants … but that’s not relevant here.

One more bit of housecleaning before diving into the main arguments, with the promised reference to AD&D, as I talk about alignment. Many people have complained that they don’t find AD&D alignments to be all that realistic, but I do find them in general to be fairly apt. One that I think has been overlooked too often is the Lawful-Chaotic divide, which essentially breaks down like this: if you are Lawful, you think that people should follow the rules and laws and codes of honour and prefer doing that to following the dictates of their individual consciences, while if you are Chaotic you think that people should follow dictates of their individual consciences over rules, laws, and codes of honour. This doesn’t mean that Lawful people never break or reinterpret rules based on their own consciences, or that Chaotic people can’t follow rules. It’s more a statement of an overall principle, and those who are Neutral on this scale would deny that such a principle exists. You can think of AD&D scales with the analogy to morality: Lawful people are like deontologists, Chaotic people are like those who want to use an empathy-based morality, and Neutral are probably error theorists.

Now, inside the Lawful category we have two other categories, those who follow the spirit of the law and those who follow the letter of the law. I like to call the latter “bureaucrats” because they really do seem to conform to the stereotypical bureaucrat: they’re the sort of person who would look at the application of someone who clearly needs financial assistance and deny them because their income is above the minimum range, while those who conform to the spirit of the law would probably find a way around it. From this, it may seem like bureaucrats couldn’t really be good people, because they’d be putting the rules ahead of helping people. But this isn’t the case. To them, we shouldn’t rely on our consciences — even in the cases that seem obvious to us — because consciences can be wrong. We can give help when it isn’t needed and fail to give help when it is needed due to the capriciousness of our own personal ideas and impressions. To argue that it is acceptable to act based on our own impression instead of the rules may validate helping out the person here that we do think needs it, but it also validates the discriminatory view. For any special case that does fit the spirit of the law but that isn’t in the law, we can advocate to have the law changed to include it, but just because we think the law should say something doesn’t mean that we can act as if the law did say that. The best we can do for everyone is to act consistently and impersonally … and go through the proper channels to change laws if we think they aren’t working.

The two people who defend the Prime Directive the strongest are also probably the two most Lawful people in the crew, with Data being the exception. Worf is all about rules and codes of honour, and essentially defends the Prime Directive with an argument of “It’s the rule, so we should follow it”. Picard is someone disciplined and orderly enough to serve as mental support for a Vulcan, and most of his arguments are indeed arguments about what the Prime Directive says. Data, I think, is also following a Lawful approach, but in his case the rules are the ones of his ethical programming, not of Starfleet, and Data’s ethical programming always takes precedence.

If we interpret Picard as taking a “bureaucratic” Lawful approach, I think we can make sense of his progressive argument through consequences from “What about a plague?” to “What about a war?”. Chuck interprets this as him trying to find one case where everyone would agree that the Prime Directive doesn’t apply, and then declaring that it is therefore right in those other cases as well. I don’t think that’s the case, however. I see his argument as doing two things. The first is that it rebuts Pulaski and Geordi’s main absolutist argument of “People are suffering and dying, we can prevent that suffering and dying, so we ought to prevent that suffering and dying, Prime Directive be damned!”. Picard demonstrates that that argument isn’t sufficient, by getting them to a case where they at least agree that people suffering and dying wouldn’t trump the Prime Directive. This wouldn’t, as Chuck notes, mean that it people suffering and dying shouldn’t trump the Prime Directive in this case … but that’s where the second part of Picard’s argument comes in: the rules say that we shouldn’t intervene in this case, and you say that we should act on our consciences and break the rule. But in the case of the war, the rules say that we shouldn’t intervene, but we know that there are people whose consciences would tell them to indeed intervene. Presumably, you think that they’d be in error to do so. But what grounds do you have for saying that the dictates of their consciences are wrong but that the dictates of yours are right? They are making the same appeal you are: people are dying, and we can stop that death and suffering, so we ought to do that. On what grounds, argumentative grounds, logical grounds, Prime Directive grounds do you distinguish between the two cases? No, if this case is indeed an obvious exception to the Prime Directive, let the Prime Directive be rewritten to include it, and then all will follow the rule. But if it isn’t so obvious and so shouldn’t be in the rule as written, then to claim that your conscience trumps the rules here means that all judgements of conscience should trump it … and that way leads to Nazi planets.

How this gets resolved further supports this interpretation. Next, the question is raised about what would happen if they asked for help. Picard doesn’t immediately dismiss the idea, and everyone, including him, seems to think it valid, meaning that it’s probably in the Prime Directive that if they are aware of you and make an explicit request that you can intervene. Pulaski jumps on that to say that her initial message could be seen as a cry for help, and Picard’s reply is “Sophistry”. He doesn’t deny that a cry for help would indeed trump the Prime Directive, but instead denies that there was indeed such a cry. When Data reestablishes the connection and she is calling for Data to help her, Picard concedes that it now has become a cry, and clearly feels that now he is indeed obligated to help her … under the Prime Directive.

Thus, the argument isn’t one of finding a case that everyone would agree would be a case where you shouldn’t intervene and using that to argue for all such cases, but is rather an argument of finding a case that most people would think is a case where you shouldn’t intervene but that we all know that some people would think is a case where you should intervene, demonstrating how inconsistent and problematic relying on personal conscience instead of the rules should be. While Neutral and Chaotic people might consider rules to be nothing more than the things that make you think before you do something, for Lawful people the rules are what guarantee consistency and even serve to overcome personal biases, the idea that you might help someone that you feel that you have more in common with or that you can understand more quickly than someone you don’t understand. Following the rules without conscience exceptions guarantees that everyone is treated the same, no matter who or what they are, no matter how well their story resonates with you, no matter how well you understand their personal circumstances, and most importantly no matter who you are. And this is what the Prime Directive is supposed to do: guarantee that lack of bias.

You can still argue that it leads to bad results, and that the Prime Directive still allows civilizations to die that could have been saved, and so should at least include those cases as explicit exceptions. I’ll talk about that more in the last part. Up next, “First Contact” and the idea of being able to make a choice and understand the consequences of that choice.

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One Response to “Prime Directive Analysis: Pen Pals”

  1. Prime Directive Analysis: First Contact | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Last time, I talked about “Pen Pals”, the episode that might have the most detailed and … Today, I’m going to talk about the episode “First Contact”, which focuses on a direct, non-disastrous interaction that has Prime Directive implications. To summarize, the Enterprise has been sent to a planet to do some final observations and preparations for first contact. Riker was on the away team, and was injured in a riot, and at the hospital they notice that his similarities to them really seem to be skin deep. His being missing prompts Picard to accelerate the first contact in an attempt to find Riker and avoid too many problems. He talks a bit with the leader of the planet about their first contact protocols, and at the end Riker is recovered, but an incident during that convinces the leader of the planet that they simply aren’t ready for contact with outsiders right now, and so no first contact will be attempted, yet. […]

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