Prime Directive Analysis: Dear Doctor and Observer Effect

Long time readers of this blog shouldn’t be surprised by my revealing that I really like the stuff that Chuck Sonnenberg is doing over at sfdebris. While some of the shows he does don’t appeal to me, I particularly like the Star Trek reviews … even though, sometimes, I don’t agree with all of his interpretations.

He’s talked a lot about the Prime Directive, and even did a full video analyzing it. And while I don’t think that everything he says about it is wrong, I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding in his analysis that means that he’s treating it unfairly … or, rather, that he ends up treating the characters who support it unfairly based on that misunderstanding. In thinking about this in my spare time — my brain doesn’t like to shut off, sometimes even when I’m trying to sleep, which as you might imagine would be really, really annoying — I ended up coming up with ideas for a four post series starting from Chuck’s analysis and videos to describe how I think the Prime Directive should be viewed.

This, then, is that series. The first post, this one, will look at “Dear Doctor” and “Observer Effect”, which Chuck tends to compare, and will argue that they aren’t that comparable and that neither really do reflect a proper Prime Directive example. The second will up the geek quotient by looking at “Pen Pals” and using AD&D morality to better reflect the arguments that are going on there. The third will look at “First Contact” (the episode) and discuss why warp capability is such an important and not at all arbitrary dividing line. Finally, all of this will come together to examine “Time and Again” and ask if being saved from death really is better than any other possible unknown alternative.

And now, the disclaimers. First, as Chuck says, this is just my opinion. It’s an evidenced and argued opinion, and since I do philosophy I do think that there’s a right answer and that this is the right one. But this isn’t something given from on high or proven by strictly deductive logic. There’s a lot of interpretation going on, and other people will have different interpretations. While I don’t want to fall back on “You can have whatever opinion you want” because I do think there are better and worse and more right and less right interpretations, what I want to highlight is that all of this is debatable, which means that if you think I’m getting something wrong that’s something we can debate, respectfully. We may never be able to convince the other, but we should at least debate it like reasonable people. Second, Voyageur and Enterprise are the two series that I don’t own and have never watched, and so all of my understanding of the plot and details of episodes from those series come from Chuck’s videos themselves. Thus, I might be getting things wrong, or leaving things out that are important. Finally, any discussion of Chuck’s views are my assimilated impressions across all the videos and the analysis itself, but I might be misinterpreting him, filtering his views through other views I’ve come across, or just plain forgetting things he’s said that would change the interpretation. I implore you, then, to watch any relevant videos yourselves, not just because they are very entertaining, but also to ensure that your take on them is the same as mine.

And with all of that out of the way, my analysis of “Dear Doctor” and “Observer Effect”.

The basic plot of “Dear Doctor” is this: a race called the Valkanians arrive at Enterprise in a pre-warp ship, and plead for its help. It turns out that there’s some kind of disease on their planet that’s killing them, and they believe that in a short amount of time it will wipe all of them out. The Enterprise heads to the planet, only to discover that there is another race on that planet called the Menk who are mentally behind the Valkanians and who are immune to the disease. The Valkanians and the Menk live together in harmony, even though the Valkanians tend to treat them in a way that leaves them dependent on the Valkanians. Ultimately, Phlox finds a cure, but notes that the problem seems to be genetic and that the Valkanians are a genetic dead end and that, more importantly, their continued existence is getting in the way of the evolution of the Menk. He insists that the right thing to do is to not help the Valkanians. Archer resists at first, but at the end of the episode declares that they didn’t come out here to play God and so that he won’t give them the cure, although he won’t stop them from finding someone else to give them the cure either.

Chuck interprets this as Archer taking on the big Prime Directive principle: we shouldn’t save this society from death because we don’t know what impact it will have. This is despite it being made clear in the beginning — at least from the Memory Alpha summary — that the risk of cultural contamination is pretty low. Chuck points out that what they have — as even Phlox admits — is a remarkably harmonious society where the two groups get along quite well, even when the dominant group is sick and the subordinate group isn’t, which might normally spawn violence and suspicion against the subordinate group. So he sees no reason to not help the Valkanians, and that justifying it on the basis that you don’t know what the consequences will be just ends up justifying not helping anyone ever. No one holds that, and so it’s not an excuse here either.

I want to analyze this from Archer’s perspective, which lets me ignore any potential problems with the interpretation of evolution. From Archer’s perspective, the person who really should know what the case is here is telling him that he has a choice: let the Valkanians die out or doom the Menk to this sort of mental development forever. He can question it — and does in the episode — but at the end of the day any real denial of the facts as Phlox presents them to him would be him putting is own personal emotional feeling over the cold, hard, scientific facts as presenting by a scientific expert in the field. Thus, Archer couldn’t reasonably use any doubts he has over the facts to make his decision, even if Phlox ultimately is wrong about it. So whether Phlox is right or wrong isn’t relevant to Archer making his decision. And what I will argue is that Archer is not choosing to do nothing based on not knowing what might happen if he interferes, but is instead making his choice based on knowing full well what the consequences will be, but being unable and unwilling to decide which set should come into existence.

To Archer, the situation is this: if he gives the Valkanians the cure, the Menk will never advance beyond their current mental development, but if he doesn’t, the Valkanians will almost certainly die. If you think that it is better for the Menk to live as they do than it is for an entire species to die off, the choice will be easy for you: save the Valkanians. After all, the Menk don’t have that bad a life; they aren’t really oppressed, get whatever they need, and aren’t being abused or slaughtered by the Valkanians. But recall that the Federation has a philosophy of self-improvement and self-development, and that this is considered to be the highest goal in life for them. It is not unreasonable, then, for people from the Federation to think that self-development is as important if not more important than life itself, and that it might be better to die than to be stuck at the level of the Menk. Let’s put side whether you think this reasonable or not, and just examine it as something that someone could reasonably believe. So, if that’s the case, we can see that Archer would see both sides as at least being arguably unacceptable and arguably equally unacceptable. Given the choice, Archer would see either condition or consequence as being unacceptable, and now he’s forced into a situation where he has to choose one or the other. To him, then, either choice has a nasty moral consequence, one that he doesn’t want to live with.

So … he chooses not to choose. Essentially, his “We didn’t come here to play God” line is that he didn’t come out there to make these sorts of decisions for other cultures, to determine their fates. That’s not his job; that’s their job. But because of the state the Menk are in, they themselves couldn’t choose to say “We’ll give up self-development to let the Valkanians live”, and the Valkanians can’t make that decision for the Menk because the Valkanians have a strong interest in choosing the negative option for the Menk. So, to paraphrase Jeffrey Sinclair, Archer has to be the advocate for the Menk because no one else can. He could choose what might seem like the most moral option — give up development to save the lives of the Valkanians — but if he does that he is choosing that life for them even if they wouldn’t choose it for themselves. And he’s not comfortable doing that. But he’s also not comfortable outright choosing the Menk over the Valkanians. So he decides to not choose, and let nature or fate take its course. It’s not his place to decide what life — or lack of it — these groups will have.

Now, what he forgets is what is commonly forgotten: choosing not to choose is still a choice. He effectively chooses the Menk over the Valkanians because that’s what will happen if nature takes its course, and he knows that. So if you can criticize him for anything, it’s cowardice: he’s not willing to actually make the choice based on his principles, but is instead allowing nature to decide for him, even if that decision is not the decision he would make based on his own principles. But the counter is that his doing so is indeed playing God, is his determining what course this society will take and what life these people will have — Menk and Valkanian — and that’s not something he has the moral authority to do. Even if he effectively chooses one over the other by not choosing, he simply doesn’t have the moral authority to make the choice. Thus, he is making his non-choice in full knowledge and consideration of the consequences, and it is the consequences themselves that force his non-choice. Thus, he isn’t doing it because he doesn’t know what the consequences will be, but because he does and can’t choose between them, which means that it doesn’t tie as directly to the Prime Directive. At best, it’s the “Don’t interfere in purely internal matters” part, but even that is shaky.

Chuck compares Archer’s decision in “Dear Doctor” to the actions of the Organians in “Observer Effect”, but I don’t think them the same at all. To summarize “Observer Effect”, Hoshi and Trip managed to pick up an illness on an away mission on some kind of trash planet, and there are two Organians observing them as the disease progresses by hopping in and out of the bodies of various crewmembers. They debate whether they should interfere, and one constantly espouses the idea that they shouldn’t interfere because they don’t know what the consequences will be, which is a direct link to the normal interpretation of the Prime Directive. Eventually, Archer debates with them over it, makes what seems to be a direct reference to his having had to make similar tough decisions in “Dear Doctor” — when his decision was, really, not to choose — and derides them over being heartless and wrong at least in part because they could have stopped the disease before they were infected at all. Eventually, the Organians bring Trip and Hoshi back to life and the disease on the planet is eliminated as any kind of threat.

Chuck uses this to argue that when Archer or members of his crew are likely to die, then he sees interference as a good thing, but when others are likely to die then it isn’t. That may be a valid interpretation of Archer, but it doesn’t follow from “Dear Doctor”, because “Dear Doctor” is, again, a case where interference had known negative consequences, or at least consequences that Archer could reasonably think negative. In “Observer Effect”, that’s not the case. At best, the Organians were simply arguing that some nebulous bad thing might happen if they interfered, but they didn’t have any specific consequence in mind. Archer did. Thus, Archer’s decision not to interfere is certainly more justifiable than that of the Organians, because he was forced to make a choice between two bad outcomes, while the Organians only had a vague “We shouldn’t interfere” idea to appeal to.

But note that I think that even the Organians aren’t a good representation of the Prime Directive here. They constantly compare the reactions of the humans to those of other species, and the first few times through the videos I never got that they weren’t comparing the reactions of the humans to those of the other species in similar circumstances, but were comparing the reactions in the exact same circumstances. Meaning, other species landing on this very planet and contracting this very disease. Which always kills at least some people on the ship and might kill all of them. And the Organians couldn’t be bothered to even put up a warning or actually just eliminate the source of the disease, which would have had no impact on any culture or society or had any real consequences whatsoever. Surely no one thinks that if the Federation came across a disease on a planet that they could then cure that they wouldn’t even put up a warning buoy. In fact, they’d be far more likely to simply eliminate it from the planet if they could do so without causing known harm. So why don’t the Organians do this? Well, they come across as treating the people like lab rats, caring more about seeing how they react and worrying about losing this wonderful research opportunity than about them as sentient beings at all. In general, those in the Federation do care about those that will die, and invoke the “We don’t know the consequences” as an argument in order to reveal their feelings that the interference might make things worse. At worst, then, the Federation may take the Prime Directive too dogmatically, but they don’t use it to justify ongoing research projects. The Organians, on the other had, seem to.

We will get into whether the Prime Directive, by TNG time, has turned into a simple dogmatic principle in later posts, but to summarize this one the Prime Directive doesn’t apply to “Dear Doctor” because the consequences are known and it’s a completely different moral principle that’s at work here, while the Organians in “Observer Effect” are closer to it but still violate its intentions, seemingly willingly.

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2 Responses to “Prime Directive Analysis: Dear Doctor and Observer Effect”

  1. Prime Directive Analysis: Pen Pals | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Freelance Philosopher « Prime Directive Analysis: Dear Doctor and Observer Effect […]

  2. Portrait of a Character – Elizabeth Cutler | Barking up the Muse Tree Says:

    […] Prime Directive Analysis: Dear Doctor and Observer Effect […]

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