Prime Directive

From a tech support perspective, when the sales weasels sell to a customer without selling training for a complex device, they have violated the Prime Directive. Selling a technology to a culture unprepared to handle it.

"I prefer to think of it as the Prime Suggestion." -- James T Kirk

The StarTrek PrimeDirective has never been explicitly defined onscreen, but it's been described many times: No matter what, don't let your society interfere with the evolution of another society unless the two can possibly be federated as members of a larger society........

This was supposed to only apply to societies that hadn't developed FTL drive, but the most recent trek movie (#9) makes it clear that it applies to any non-Fed society at all. Of course every other episode of Star Trek seems to forget this. The standard plotline is: some baddies are exploiting some goodies. The Feds put a stop to that, then warp to the sunset explaining how the PrimeDirective means they can't follow up with schematics of a Photon Torpedo, but "best of luck" and "keep banging the rocks together, guys." The PrimeDirective mostly serves as a plot device to put a quick end to an episode.

Yet the intention of this thing is noble: rather than the Feds doing like traditional Earth powers, destroying weaker societies with force, technology or philosophy, and losing potentially invaluable art, history, technology and culture in the process, the PrimeDirective is plainly intended to preserve the biological and cultural potential of every society the Federation meets.

It's fair to say that the PrimeDirective originally derived from the StarTrek writers' sentiments against the Vietnam War. Most Americans still say they "had no business" in Vietnam.

Perhaps this is a key we can use to interpret the PrimeDirective in a way that casts Kirk et al. in a more law-abiding light. Perhaps it's a matter of defining just what a "society" means.

If a society is characterized as an organizing principle whose adherents consensually abide by it - they participate of their own free will - then the StarTrek captains aren't flouting PD. They're always working to remedy one of their own PD violations, and they do that by trying to propagate the PD - by stopping one consensual society from interfering with the evolution of another consensual society. -- LamontCranston


I believe the real reason for the PrimeDirective, Vietnam metaphors aside, was to explain why, with all of those advanced, peaceful, spacefaring races out there, we haven't been contacted (or destroyed) yet. The Federation is out there, doing its job, protecting us younger races from the Romulans and the VogonConstructorFleets while we mature, and when we've grown up and solved all of our problems, we'll get to join them and share in the rewards of interstellar society.


I always considered the Prime Directive to be a dichotomy, Star Fleet are prevented from interfering in the natural evolution of primitive cultures. Yet, natural evolution requires the survival of the fittest.

"Natural Evolution?"-not really a technical term. "Requires?" The writer is obviously not burdened with an excess of education about evolution or natural selection. Natural selection isn't a prescription--it's a mechanism. As in the case of entropy, you have to be careful about how you invoke it.


Exemplary discussion removed to GodwinsLaw.


A real NonInterference directive would have to be a lot less permissive. Something like:

Our organization may not initiate or maintain relations with any person or organization except by explicit, consensual contract, nor undertake contracts with any person or organization that does not also maintain this directive.

That's simple, to the point, and has an element of CopyLeft-ishness to it. It might not be has high-toned as the one at the top of the page, but it's pretty easy to see what it means day to day. What do you say to that, Cranston? -- PeterMerel

The word "evolution" here was signal. If you remove the resources available to a society, even if you leave the society untouched, then you interfere with its development drastically. The effect is the same if you provide it with your own technology and philosophy, because doing so will stifle native technologies and philosophies that might one day develop into something useful to you. Merel's formulation is concrete but still too weak to have the intended effect. -- LC

At its extreme, this seems to mean you can't mine your own asteroids because some pondscum two star systems away might one day in a billion years evolve to want to mine it. The StarTrek formulation seems a more practical matter of security: offering barbarians a StarDrive leads to regrettable incidents. Educating barbarians does too. Ergo, let the barbarians sort themselves out and they'll inevitably invent their own StarDrive. -- PeterMerel

My dear friend I am so sorry to read that you have grown obtuse in your dotage. Plainly the Trek dictum refers to the evolution of societies, not of pond scum. The task merely remains to define societies in such a way that their taxonomy and evolution may be clearly distinguished. -- LC


Just imagine it 50,000 years from now with the world seriously depleted and the plans for a FasterThanLight? drive that requires a massive construction effort in space. Desperate to save itself the human race joins together uses its last chance to lift factories into space but finds the asteroids mined and hollowed out when they were not looking and filled with E.T.s old phone cards.


See Also: DeathMarchValues and IainBanks's "Culture" series of science-fiction books. There's also DavidBrin's UpliftSaga?. Here, cultures aren't preserved (an axiom is that they don't form without intervention), but evolution is sacred and whole planets are ruled off-limits to protect them. Mining asteroids is fine (pre-sentients can't get there), but spreading toxic waste all over the planet you've got a million-year lease to is not. There's a culture that takes the LongView?.


I may be slightly off-topic, but since I linked here from there, I'll post this faux-quote:
"Screw the PrimeDirective! Send the Borg MicroSoft Windows!"
-- GavinLambert


If the StarTrek PrimeDirective were real, it would have said. Gather all the information you can, discover new worlds, new technologies and new ways to do things. Bring them home without letting others know you were there.


The PrimeDirective is to me the single oddest example of the StarTrekReligion? many otherwise intelligent people fall victim to. It sounds great on paper, it sounds great in the middle of a stirring speech by Patrick Stewart, it sounds like it can't possibly be wrong, but put it into the context of the real world and it rapidly becomes a much more controversial topic.

Sure, on the on hand you've got "white man culture invades and nearly destroys NativeAmerican? culture" which the PrimeDirective might have stopped, but that's an extreme that very nearly invokes GodwinsLaw.

The PrimeDirective also implies that we can't be aiding African AIDS sufferers, because they aren't at our technological level. (If that doesn't float your boat, exaggerate the technological disparity until it does; the essential moral dilemma remains.) Or, at least we shouldn't be in a perfect world that had been following the PrimeDirective up to this point (i.e., no outs via "previous contact" or anything like that). No trade with Third World countries until they've matched our technological level. (The current trade system isn't perfect but it's better then a PrimeDirective-sanctioned "hands-off" approach!) No aid of any kind; let them suffer and meander their way into technology, or die.

(Of course, the PrimeDirective is supposed to only apply to planets. That's obviously a StarTrek position, not a real-world position, and ultimately I don't see what a "planet" has to do with anything; space is a communication barrier but so is an ocean.)

The ethical questions the PrimeDirective tries to enforce are too complicated for the simple "No" answer it tries to give. This is not itself necessarily a flaw in StarTrek, which was ultimately a dramatic presentation, but the nearly-religious (hypothetical) adherence to the PrimeDirective by various fans is. The reality would, as usual, require balancing many conflicting influences to come to the most right decision.
StarGate? shows the immorality of StarTrek's Prime Directive by having the AscendedAncients? follow it. It's a lot easier to see how bad it is when the heroes are at the primitive end.
It seems to me that, even in the StarTrek show, strict adherence to the PrimeDirective is often considered the wrong thing to do; it's just that if you're going to overrule it, you'd better have a darn good reason and be aware that you may have to defend yourself before a court.
Another interpretation is that the Prime Directive itself is not specific law in the Star Trek universe; instead, it's a generally agreed-upon standard of behavior backed by various Federation regulations. An analogy is the phrase "separation of church and state," which isn't explicitly stated in the U.S. Constitution, but has become shorthand for a broad concept with various legal backing.

Thus, a member of the Trek society can break the Prime Directive, and there may be no legal repercussions. On the other hand, it's considered a bad thing to do if all other things are equal. On the gripping hand, as James Kirk showed, all other things are rarely equal. If two societies are bent on eradicating each other, stopping them is sometimes more morally right than following the Prime Directive (according to the Trek society's moral standards).
Call it coincidence, but the other day as I was heading to a local art gallery, it was overcast and a significant crack of lightning shot across the sky followed by inclement weather. Later that week the paper reported a slab of concrete fell off the local bank, thankfully no one got hurt. In memetic communication terms one could imagine the aliens saying “There’s Prime, and it is a Direct Hit”. Possibly poor alien (or little “g” god) humor :-(


The question to ask is: IsItSafe? ? Yeh?


Leaving a society alone does not mean they are abandoned. I'm not a big fan of StarTrek but I'd expect the Federation could drop a probe of some kind past inhabited planets every few decades or so, just to make sure things are running smoothly enough. Oh, half the planet's covered in deadly radiation? Maybe it's time to swing by and pick up survivors. Two giant warring nations competing to have the latest technology? They're coming along fine. StarGate? intentionally took the concept to its extreme, but still touched on the concept that seemingly-big conflicts are trivial in an even grander scheme of things.


In the background of the Prime Directive (and similar concepts from elsewhere in Science Fiction) is the goal of limiting CultureShock to something that the species involved can survive. The Federation rule of thumb - that the discovery of WarpDrive entitles new species to open contact - is a pragmatic one - if a species is capable of visiting nearby stars, then you can no longer avoid them just by ignoring their home system. While we might want sufficiently advanced aliens to give the UN some working prototype fusion reactors, we wouldn't want them to give North Korea an ethnically-targeted biological weapon. Even giving us access to their libraries would probably be a bad thing in the long run - modern education illustrates the problem of learning from authorities - you end up with PlugCompatibleInterchangeableEngineers who can compute factorials in a dozen different languages, but fail the FizzBuzzTest. In the same way, learning new technology from the alien databases (unless they've solved the problem) could leave us, several generations down the line, when our tech-base caught up, without the tradition of innovation to develop our own new technologies. On the whole, I am in favour of the Prime Directive, even if it means I'll never get to meet an alien...

Of course, on StarTrek itself, the actual rule about non-interference seems to be: "Whenever you are about to interfere in a primitive culture, you must look serious and mention the Prime Directive before you go ahead and do whatever it is anyway" - which is itself a valid position - as with using GoTo the true goal is not absolute prohibition, but to make sure you have a good enough reason for doing it. -- rmsgrey

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