Prime Directive Analysis: You Don’t Know the Consequences

Last time, I talked about how the warp line is a reasonable, though not perfect, line that you could use to determine when a society is ready for contact. As it turns out, this line is actually pretty strongly enforced in Star Trek; the Federation is willing to do things for post-warp planets that aren’t even Federation members with no qualms that they wouldn’t even consider doing for pre-warp planets. The “You don’t know the consequences” argument doesn’t even apply. But before getting into that, let’s look at the “You don’t know the consequences” argument, using “Time and Again” as the framework.

In that episode, what we have is a planet that is using an incredibly dangerous form of power, so dangerous that if something goes wrong the entire planet might be wiped out. Which it actually has, at the start of the episode, and the crew of Voyager beam down to investigate. But, as usual, it’s one of these strange explosions that actually can violate the laws of space-time, and Janeway and Tom Paris get tossed back into the past of the planet, before the disaster. Tom Paris wants to take this opportunity to warn the planet and stop the disaster, while Janeway insists they can’t due to the Prime Directive, and tosses out the “We don’t know the consequences” argument to justify it. Tom Paris insists that any consequences would be better than them dying. Chuck makes hay over this in his video on the episode, including that Janeway ends up ordering him not to do it and doesn’t have a counter-argument.

Fortunately, I do. Let’s look at some potential ways to solve the problem and the consequences that they might have:

What Voyager could do is invent some kind of anti-proton, gravimetric, duonetic, interferometric field that would permanently shut down anything that uses that sort of energy, meaning that none of their generators will work anymore which means, happily, that they will never cause the explosion and the planet will be saved. Of course, this would reduce a society that relied on technology that was powered by that power source suddenly unable to use any of their technology, and effectively reduce them to a pre-industrial society, where a large number of them will die simply because they can’t produce enough food to feed everyone, and there will be riots and fighting over the limited resources left, and in fact the entire society will collapse and have to be rebuilt … and it may not survive at all. If any survive, they may not be thanking Voyager for what they did.

Now the obvious objection here is that no one sane would ever try to do this as a solution to this problem, which means that it was probably a good idea that no one suggested it to Janeway. And that’s true. But it does have one main benefit: it solves the underlying problem, which is not that there is going to be an explosion tomorrow that will wipe out the society, but that this form of energy is so dangerous that it could blow up at any time. So simply stopping this explosion doesn’t solve the underlying problem; that would mean that there would be no boom today, but there’d be a boom tomorrow. There’s always a boom tomorrow. So what you have to do to solve this problem is eliminate their use of this power completely, and this is clearly one way, but is also clearly a bad way. So let’s look at some more reasonable options.

You could limit yourself to what Tom Paris suggests: just warn them about it. Tell them that this is an energy source that could go boom at any time and that it’s going to go boom tomorrow, and encourage them to switch to a safer form of energy as soon as they can. Of course, they might not believe the word of two strange people with no credentials in their world, at which point nothing will change and we’ll still have a boom. Even if they do believe them, researching a new technology and getting it into a state where it can be used on a large scale may take years, at which point the society will probably end up going boom before it can be put into place.

So what you can do, then, is give them access to a safer form of energy — say matter/anti-matter reaction — by giving them maybe one example and the schematics/theory. Unfortunately, all this will do is potentially shorten the time where they’re at risk of going boom, and since those forms of energy aren’t completely safe either and can cause disasters if not done properly just giving it to them and leaving probably isn’t actually going to save their lives.

Now, all of these solutions relied on mostly following the Prime Directive, in the sense that you don’t do anything to reveal that you are a more advanced society and are in fact very careful to do that. However, maybe you do reveal that you are from an advanced society, which might make them accept that you’re telling them the truth and give you the credibility that you’re lacking. Given that, you could do more things to help them, and take more time to explain and help set up the alternate power source. Although, since Voyager is a long way from home, how long they’d be able to stay and help is a concern; they wouldn’t want to delay their trip home by 10 years just to help this one planet. But imagine that they could get at least the basics taught in a reasonable amount of time. Great … except that you’ve now revealed to this pre-warp society that alien cultures exist, and that you have an agenda that includes them replacing their power supply with what you gave them. What if they react like the people in “First Contact” (the episode) and it sharply divides their society? There was one person willing to die to discredit what he called “aliens”; if someone is willing to die, they’re likely willing to kill, too. What if it causes a massive collapse of society like the one person in the episode with Worf’s brother thought would happen to theirs? That’s not a good outcome, either. And imagine, then, that this results in a civil war, with one side in favour of swapping out the power supply and another opposed, perhaps because they think that this “alien” group is pushing this change not because their existing supply is dangerous but because they want to introduce this supply that will give the “aliens” some advantage. So now we have a war, and the ticking time bomb is still ticking. Would it be reasonable for the Federation to give the “right” side phasers, advanced technology, and aid in stopping the civil war? Even if that side is actually just a dictatorship imposing its will on the people? After all, living under an oppressive dictator is still better than dying, right?

Now, you can argue here that at any point where you’re going to go too far in your interference, you can just stop. The problem is that by Tom’s argument that anything is better than death you can’t, and that even if you take that less stringently if you regard this as important enough to interfere in the first place and when it has such dramatic consequences as them all dying out it’s hard to justify stopping because you’re getting your hands a little dirty. Additionally, at that point at least some damage is already done, and so if you don’t actually solve the problem all you’ve done is make life a bit worse for these people, which was certainly not what you wanted to do in the first place.

Any intervention of this sort is going to risk unintended consequences, and ones that you can’t predict or prepare for in advance. But considering that even when the Enterprise has gone to rescue post-warp planets we’ve seen these unintended consequences occur and they’ve just worked around them, I don’t think the best way to analyze it is in the sense of simply not knowing what the consequences will be. I think, rather, that it is best to analyze it in terms of you don’t know what the consequences are and you aren’t prepared or aren’t able to stick around and deal with them as they arise. With post-warp societies, two things allow you to stick around and help. First, they’re part of the interstellar community, and are already likely able to work towards long term goals and have long term interactions with you. Second, following on from last time, we can see that they are prepared to judge the consequences of interacting with a more advanced society, as they prepared for it and, in these cases, likely already have been dealing with them for some time now. But pre-warp societies aren’t informed enough to make a choice about the consequences of the intervention, and also happen to be extremely vulnerable to interaction with advanced societies. So you want to limit your interaction with such societies … but being prepared for all consequences requires you to be prepared to interact with them deeply if required. So intervening gets you into this tension where on the one hand you want and need to interact with the society, while on the other hand you want to avoid it as much as possible to avoid the negatives that you might inadvertently foist upon them.

In short, it seems to me that to properly intervene in cases like these, most of the time, you want to be prepared to interact with the society as equal partners in the endeavour. You want them fully engaged with you, constantly checking in with you, letting you know how things are going, accepting help from you if needed, and so on. Except that if you do that with a less advanced society, with a pre-warp society, as seen you run the risk of them either reacting violently against you or turning you into gods. Is that better than death? Sure, you could probably argue that … but that is certainly against the spirit of the Prime Directive, and is certainly greatly changing that culture. And remember that that is a culture that has not and cannot make the informed choice to accept the change in their culture to save their lives. To tie this back to “Dear Doctor”, the Valkanians could decide to accept the consequences for their culture by getting Enterprise to help them … but the Menk couldn’t. In any case where the group can’t decide for themselves, to decide to do something is clearly a case where you decide for them (philosophically, there are arguments that deciding not to do something is the same case, but it’s not quite the same so let’s leave that long discussion for another time, maybe) what consequences you think they should accept. But that’s an overall paternalistic attitude, and leads, I think, to one of two approaches. One is the idea that you will do anything you need to to get them the outcome that you want them to have, and so continually choose how their society should go even over their objections. After all, you know better than they do what the consequences are and what’s better, and so in order to survive they just have to accept that. Alternatively, you proceed very carefully, taking only those steps that won’t have a great impact … and then end up getting in deeper and deeper — as Picard mimes in “Pen Pals” — and end up with a society that has changed, and that you might need to change too much to really solve the problem, leaving you forced to either take the first alternative and change everything you need to, or forced to abandon them in a state where they are worse off than they would have been if you had just done nothing.

Until a society can make the decision for themselves what intervention and how much intervention they are willing to accept from you, intervening in any case runs a real risk, and a real risk of leaving them in or forcing them into states that they might feel are worse than the original threat. While the arguments in this post don’t really apply to cases where you can simply save the planet without them ever knowing, those cases are actually fairly rare and always run the risk of contact, and the destruction of a society. As we saw in “Who Watches the Watchers?”, just saving the life of one inhabitant ran the risk of validating ancient religious rituals and turning a culture that had rejected the idea that the gods did everything backwards on the developmental scale (arguably). How do you do that without intervening again? What do you do with that culture when they learn that you aren’t gods, but are advanced aliens? Do you just leave them on their own, or do you try to help them and keep in contact with them? These are all serious questions that are all answered for a post-warp society, as they already know that you are aliens, and can tell you what they want you to do in the full understanding of what that means … or, at least, in as full an understanding that you have, if not more so.

To summarize, the number of cases where the Prime Directive would have you not help a planet when it is obvious that you really should help them and that any consequences from helping them will be clearly better than what you’re saving them from are, in fact, vanishingly small. Any such cases can be written into the Prime Directive itself, which means that you should indeed always follow the Prime Directive even when your conscience says that you really should intervene. Not because you don’t know the consequences, but because you aren’t and shouldn’t be prepared to address all of the consequences of your intervention in a pre-warp society. You don’t choose not to intervene because they might produce the next Hitler, but because if that society does produce that individual you aren’t going to be there to stop that society from heinous acts that would never have happened if you hadn’t intervened. Now, you can counter that just producing a Hitler isn’t reason to not intervene, but the counter to that is: what if that happens because of how you intervened? Shouldn’t you clean up the mess you directly created?

The Prime Directive, to me, can be summed up this way: you should not intervene in a society unless you are prepared to clean up your mess. This covers both the pre-warp restriction and the internal matters restriction, as both are cases where you can’t or shouldn’t do anything you possibly can to clean up your own mess. In post-warp societies, you can get involved to help them because they, as a society, can make an informed choice about your intervention, and if the society can’t agree on an option that’s an internal matter that they have to work out for themselves. While the summary isn’t how most people put the Prime Directive — and I agree with how it is normally phrased — I think it a better summary of what we conclude about the validity of the Prime Directive if we subject it to philosophical scrutiny; in short, the summary better captures why you don’t want to intervene in light of the main counter-argument, which is the one Tom Paris cites, that sometimes any consequences are better than the ones that they’ll have if you do nothing. That’s usually not true, and almost always only true if you are willing to do anything it takes to clean up your mess … which in a lot of cases you shouldn’t or won’t be.

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One Response to “Prime Directive Analysis: You Don’t Know the Consequences”

  1. What I Did on My Winter Vacation … | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] I wrote up my analysis of the Prime Directive, inspired by the reviews at SF Debris, which I had been thinking about for a […]

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