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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #37, 12/2/2006

Beyond the Prime Directive

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

The "Prime Directive" is the Star Trek principle that it is best to leave well enough alone. Space travellers should not be intervening in the development of primitive planets, no matter how noble the intent. The simple reason is that you can't predict all of the long-term effects of your actions. Even "good" technology, like life-saving medicine, can have bad results over time—say, by encouraging a population explosion.

The Prime Directive is a pretty good starting position in any moral argument. Should you be interfering in other people's lives? In general, no, people are best equipped to deal with their own problems. This is a guiding principle of American government—that it should not interfere in the lives of its citizen's without specific authority and solid grounds. It should also be a starting principle for you and I when deciding how we should interact with the world.

Often we see people in obvious distress or conducting their lives in ways that we know are self-destructive. That doesn't mean it is our place to intervene. We may choose not to intrude even when we see a crime being committed or when we know that we are perfectly capable of helping. The fact is, intervention can be both costly and risky. Your actions may be well-intentioned, but that doesn't guaranteed they'll be effective, and if there are any unexpected side effects, you will be responsible.

That said, intervention is the purpose of life. Your role as a human is not just to travel through space observing planets from afar. You are now trapped on a planet, already enmeshed in its affairs, and your only real meaning is derived from somehow trying to improve it.

The only problem is how to be effective. Random, emotionally-driven interventions are not necessarily the best approach. You live on a planet where there is virtually infinite suffering. You can't possible solve it all, so you have to be selective in your efforts. Just because someone needs you doesn't mean you should help, because helping in this one instance may prevent you for intervening elsewhere, where you can perhaps be more useful.

The Prime Directive is our natural base. It gives us permission, for the moment at least, to ignore problems that we have no personal connection with. There are a lot of starving people in the world, but we are not going to try to feed them. If we see a parent in the supermarket speaking to their child in a way that we regard as demeaning or unproductive, we're probably not going to step in and offer parenting advice. The Prime Directive lets us act as space travellers most of the time, observing but not intervening. It is a practical and necessary position, because we simply don't have the resources to intervene everywhere.

Whenever we choose to violate the Prime Directive, then we become implicated in this local environment. At the least, we will be responsible for all of the direct and indirect results of our intervention. At worst, we will become one of them, an entrenched member of the tribe, and lose our special "alien" powers to intervene.

All meaningful activities in the world involve some form of intervention. Even if we fall in love, we are intervening in a local culture. If things work out the way we want them to, then the object of our desire is going to become emotionally dependent on us, and we on them. This is a two-edged sword: It is nice to be needed, but we will probably lose some of our power to influence this person (since they already have our commitment). Because this relationship has taken us over, we may also lose much of our ability to intervene elsewhere.

As we see in divorce court, not all of the effects of romantic intervention are beneficial. Something good in the short term—falling in love—can turn into a destructive force in the long term—say, an unhealthy dependence of one party on the other. Whenever you intervene on a primitive planet, no matter how noble your intentions, there is a risk that the results may not be what you planned.

"Primitive" in the Star Trek universe is any planet that has not yet developed the warp drive. In the human universe, it is anyone whose maturity, skills or resources are less than ours. In relation to us, most of the world is quite primitive. Most people on earth live in conditions that we would regard as degrading, and most children will never be

Always be careful when beaming down to primitive planets.
raised according to the standards that we consider optimal. We decline to intervene in most of these cases not just because we don't have the resources but because intervention from outer space becomes so damn complicated.

Think about feeding the pigeons in a city park. To the pigeons, you are like an alien from the Starship Enterprise, swooping in from space to deliver good things that have no apparent explanation. Think about how your breadcrumbs can disrupt pigeon culture. If you feed the pigeons for a while, they will become dependent on you. Instead of seeking sustainable local food sources, they begin to assume that you will always be there. Their population may balloon, outstripping any local food source. The pigeons may also come to see you as a god who can solve all of their other problems. Soon they may be worshipping and making sacrifices to this god—and cursing him when things go wrong.

You, in turn, may sense your flock's growing dependence and feel trapped into feeding them every day. You can't depart for a more productive mission for fear that your pigeons will starve. Over time, the well-fed pigeon population grows to the point where even your breadcrumbs are not enough. Ultimately, there may be just as many suffering pigeons as before, except now you are enmeshed in their culture and can't escape.

Most pigeons—and humans—live in seemingly wretched conditions, but if left alone they will develop organic, self-sustaining systems to deal with this environment. We may be appalled by some of these systems, which could involve cannibalism or human sacrifices to gods we know are imaginary. The waste of individual lives may be huge and the justice reprehensible, but the system may still be relatively sustainable and tolerable compared to the alternatives. What's more important, it doesn't require our involvement.

A naive intervention in this system can often be worse than none at all. You can swoop down from space like Captain America, feeding the hungry and arresting the dictators who run the place. You think you are saving the day, but what often happens instead is that you create an instability in the system, and it reacts in violent ways you didn't anticipate. Ultimately, the system may adjust to your presence: There is just as much suffering as before, except now you are thoroughly implicated and entrenched in the tragedy.

Effective intervention has to be cautious, thoughtful, discreet and limited. You shouldn't dash in like a white knight rescuing maidens in distress, because you don't know how difficult those maidens can be when you actually have them in your arms. It is usually better to arrive quietly on foot and thoroughly understand the environment before you try to intervene.

The best intervention is invisible. It is a quiet solution that empowers the local primitive to solve his own problems without disrupting his whole culture and without tying you down.

The Prime Directive should not be your highest guiding principle, but when you choose to violate it, your goal must be realistic, and your intervention should be limited to the minimal actions needed to achieve the goal. Then, when things are quiet and relatively stable, you should beam back to the ship and get the hell out!


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