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The Prime Directive
A short story about ethics and the Final Frontier, by Alister Browne.
The Starlight Lounge is a home-away-fromhome for members of Starfleet Command. There, in an atmosphere of conviviality unmatched in the galaxy, Cadets, Admirals, secretaries, and bureaucrats democratically gather to seek refuge and refreshment. Cadet Rostov paused as he entered, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the subdued light. From the corner, someone called his name.
“Over here,” the voice said, “join us.” The speaker was Captain Kirk, sitting at the table which, by custom born of deference, was reserved for the Most Famous Members of Starfleet. Rostov walked towards the table of now-retired living legends. He had been warned, as all new members were, not to pass within earshot of the table unless one had little to do. Having long since exhausted all they had to say to each other, and with now nothing to occupy themselves except talk, these ancient mariners were always on the lookout for fresh people to catch with their glittering reputations.
“I understand you are writing your officer-qualifying examinations,” began Kirk, as Rostov sat down and ordered a Mind-Melder with a twist. “Tell us about them. I remember my exams as if they were yesterday. Still have nightmares.”
“The examinations have gone very well,” answered Rostov. “Seven-dimensional differential topography, the astrophysics of time-reversing worm holes, transcendental critical thinking, comparative constitutional law of possible worlds – all the usual officer-breakers – gave me no problems. Nor did simulated hand-to-hand combat with a Gorgon, or the classic test – which I believe you were the first to pass – of playing tic-tac-toe against a computer. There’s only one more to go, ethics. But that is giving me problems. I don’t know where to begin on the questions they set. And it’s an important test. The word among the Cadets is that how we do in ethics determines whether we are on the bridge or in the engine room.”
“Let’s hear the questions,” said Captain Picard as he continued, under the disapproving eyes of his companions, to extract the cashews from the nibbles dish. “I’ve always been fascinated by ethics. And I know Starfleet Education encourages you to discuss such questions with others. They say it carries on a tradition begun by someone called ‘Socrates,’ though his last name escapes me.” Picard winked at his colleagues. “Or his first, if that is his last. Maybe we can help.”
“It’s a problem from the Old Days on Earth,” replied Rostov, “and involves something called ‘female circumcision’. That apparently was a procedure that used to be obligatory for women in some Earth cultures, and took many forms.” Cadet Rostov pushed a button on his Cranberry Mark XLMII, and a metallic voice spoke:
…the most severe form of the practice is infibulation, or ‘Pharonic’ circumcision, where virtually all of the external female genitalia are removed. With this type of circumcision, a dramatic excision is performed …
The impersonal voice described the operation in excruciating and horrific detail, while the huddle of veterans grimaced and, in Picard’s case, turned a delicate shade of green.
“We were asked to imagine that we came across a tribe that had this as part of their culture, and to ponder – those are the Educator’s two favourite words, ‘imagine’ and ‘ponder’ – two scenarios. In the first, a young girl is about to undergo it. She screams for help. Should we intercede? In the second, the chieftain asks a physician to perform the procedure. Should the physician do it?
“Cadet Pulver spoke for many of us,” Rostov continued, “when he said that the questions were no-brainers. Of course we should interfere, and of course no physician should do it. But the Educator, who is a philosopher, says we have to think more. Said we have to think about things that seem simple until they puzzle us, and then work through them until they are simple again. That’s philosophic progress, he said. I don’t see the point, really, or what the puzzle is, but I don’t want to spend my career in the engine room.”
“Starfleet Education sometimes gets carried away,” replied Kirk. “The philosophers can be particularly goofy. I remember how they tried to get us to think about whether the sun will rise tomorrow, or all life is a dream, and suchlike. But this time they have given you a real question. When I handed over command of the Enterprise to Captain Picard, I gave him some advice which you may find helpful.
“‘Picard,’ I said, ‘you are going to see some mighty strange things out there. New worlds, new civilizations. You will quickly see that their ways are not always our ways, and some of their ways will horrify you. When you go to Xenon, you will meet the troglodytes. They have been for centuries forced to work in the mines underground. The miners labour in hard conditions, contract green lung disease, and die young. They will appeal to you to help get them out of the mines, and to prevent their children from being forced into them. You will also find that the universe is filled with planets inhabited by beautiful women, often scantily clad and looking surprisingly like Earth women, who are under the domination of cruel masters with bad haberdashers. They too will ask for your help. It will be hard,’ I continued, ‘but you must say “No.” For we are governed by the Prime Directive, and this tells us that we must never interfere with another culture.’ That’s what I told Picard, and that holds the key to your questions. You cannot interfere with what other cultures do. But you do not have to help them do it. Pulver is only half right in his answer.”
“I have thought long and hard about the Prime Directive,” said Picard. “I didn’t like it when you lectured me about it, Kirk, and after all these years in the service I like it even less. It’s all very well for Starfleet Command to prattle on about the Prime Directive, but why should anyone accept it? What is its moral basis? The problem I have with the Prime Directive is ….”
“I used to worry about it too,” interrupted Kirk, “so much so that I once went to see Starfleet’s top ethicist. ‘Kirk,’ he said to me, ‘you’re a young fella. Full of idealistic ideas, ready to change the universe. But you have to understand something about ethics. The rules of ethics are not discovered, like the laws of physics. They are invented, like the rules of the road. Each society makes up its own moral code. Each moral code reflects the values of the society. One society cannot be said to be better than another, and so neither can one moral code. There simply is no single overall standard of right and wrong. You are entitled to your own views, Kirk,’ he said, ‘but you have no reason to think that they are better than those held by other cultures. That’s why you have to obey the Prime Directive.’ Those comments stuck with me, and remembering them enabled me to stay the course and be faithful to the Prime Directive, though God knows it wasn’t always easy. There are a lot of good-looking women in the universe.”
“The problem I have with the Prime Directive,” carried on Picard, who was used to being interrupted by Kirk, “is that it conflicts with something else to which Starfleet Command professes allegiance: Human Rights. These are things that everyone has just in virtue of being human. And not only humans have them. Your Mr Spock has them; my Data has them; the troglodytes have them. It isn’t easy to give a determinate list of what these rights are. But there is no question that forcing troglodyte children into the mines, and performing female circumcision on helpless girls against their will, violate them. And these rights impose strict duties on others. There is, of course, a duty not to violate those rights. But more, there is also a duty to try to prevent others from violating them. If it is within your power to prevent something bad from happening, and you do not prevent it, you are responsible for its happening. Acknowledging Human Rights thus conflicts with the Prime Directive – one forbidding any interference with different cultures, the other enjoining some. Kirk can choose the Prime Directive, but my allegiance is to Human Rights. So full marks to Pulver: one should not do bad things or let them happen.”
Mr Spock pressed his hands together, laid them on the table, and spoke in his characteristic measured tones. “I believe that what we have here, gentlemen, is a failure of logic. It is true that the doctrine of Human Rights and the Prime Directive cannot both be true. But, to put it in terminology familiar to the smallest schoolchildren on Vulcan, they are not related to each other as contradictories but as contraries. While both cannot be true, it is not the case that if one is true the other must be false. Both can be false. And it seems to me that this is the case.
“I fail to see why one should respect the rules or customs of any culture where these things exploit or maltreat its members, and it is plain to me that we should prevent such misuse if we can. We do not do any good or keep our hands clean if we turn our backs. Picard is right about that, and so right to reject the Prime Directive. But I also fail to see why one should say that there are things that it is always wrong, everywhere, and for anyone to do, as the doctrine of Human Rights has it. It is always possible to think of circumstances in which the failure to do things that are generally wrong would have such bad consequences that doing them could not be wrong in those circumstances.
“We should forget about absolutist views of never interfering with other cultures, and never doing certain things, as illogical. To decide what to do we should scan the alternatives, determine the good and bad that each does, taking into account all their consequences, near and remote, and do what will have the best consequences all things considered. It would be wrong to help a girl who does not want to be circumcised if that will only worsen her situation, say by making her a social outcast in the culture in which she is destined to live, or have overwhelmingly bad consequences for others such as her family or those who try to help. But it cannot be wrong when there is every reason to think that she will be better off and no countervailing evils will result. Similarly, it would be wrong to perform the surgery if your refusal would enable the girl to avoid the surgery. But if the girl is going to be circumcised anyway, and the choice is between your doing it with anaesthetic and sterile surgical instruments, or someone else doing it without anaesthetic and with unsterile crude implements, you should do it. Pulver is entirely wrong.”
“It is now my turn to point out a failure in your logic,” said Picard, allowing himself a small smile. “Even if we agree that consequences are the sole relevant moral considerations, it does not follow that we cannot have an absolutist position according to which certain things are always obligatory or always wrong. Sometimes the best consequences can be gotten by setting aside general rules, but that requires good judgement. Kirk, perhaps, could be trusted to make such judgements. But can you imagine what it would be like if Dr McCoy were allowed to? And there are many more McCoys in Starfleet than Kirks. If individuals were allowed to act on their own discretion, we would get some good consequences but many more bad ones, and so there should be some rigid rules specifying things that can never be done. The justification for such rules is that they will produce the best consequences, not in every circumstance, but on the whole.”
“All of which seems to support the views I began with,” said Kirk, sitting back in his chair, a confident tone coming into his voice. “We should never interfere with other cultures, as the Prime Directive has it, for allowing discretion would be predictably bad on the whole. And we should never do things that conflict with Human Rights, for that too would be bad on the whole. Thus we must not interfere with the circumcision, but must not help with it either. I didn’t have these grounds in mind at the beginning, but I’ve never fussed too much about how I got to an answer as long as the answer is right.”
Spock straightened his back, a sign that he was about to speak, and addressed Picard and Kirk. “Once you admit, gentlemen, that everything rests on consequences, I do not see how either of you can defend your positions. What reason can you have, Picard, for saying that we will get best consequences from allowing individuals discretion to set aside the Prime Directive but not Human Rights? And what reason can you have, my Captain, for saying that we will get best consequences from not allowing any discretion at all? Absent any such reasons, there are no grounds for the rigid rules you both in different ways want, and absent such rules ….”
“This is not helping! This is not helping!” cried Rostov,obviously agitated. “Three people, three opinions. And that’s just what they seem to be, mere opinions. The more I think of it, the more it appears that there are no right or wrong answers in ethics.”
“That’s what Scotty told the examiners,” replied Kirk. “So if you think that too, you’d better keep it to yourself.”
“And thinking that would be premature in any case,” added Spock. “You cannot conclude that there is no right or wrong answer to a question from the fact that people disagree over it. Questions about rocket science have got right and wrong answers. But it is hard enough to get agreement on what the right answers are in rocket science, and ethics is not just rocket science. My advice to you is …” But when he turned to look Rostov in the eye, to impress the advice on him, he found the chair empty.
© Alister Browne 2002
Alister Browne chairs the Department of Philosophy at Langara College in Vancouver. He is also a Clinical Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia, and an ethics consultant at Vancouver Hospital & Health Sciences Centre.