Against the Prime Directive

By Illustration Credit: NASA and G. Bacon (STScI) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsIn 1933, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky wrote, “people deny the presence of intelligent beings on the [other] planets of the universe” because “(i) if such beings exist they would have visited Earth, and (ii) if such civilizations existed then they would have given us some sign of their existence.” His answer to this argument against the belief in the existence of intelligent aliens is called the “zoo hypothesis.” It is the speculation that intelligent extraterrestrials are so much more advanced than we are that our healthy development requires being protected from knowledge of them, like zoo animals segregated from zoo patrons.

We are more familiar with the zoo hypothesis in the form of Star Trek‘s Prime Directive:

Nothing within these Articles Of Federation shall authorize the United Federation of Planets to intervene in matters which are essentially the domestic jurisdiction of any planetary social system or shall require the members to submit such matters to settlement under these Articles Of Federation. But this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII.

Franz Joseph clearly adapted it from the United Nations Charter, Chapter I, Article 2, paragraph 7:

Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.

In the Star Trek universe, the Prime Directive is cited as prohibiting any contact with any alien civilization until that civilization is sufficiently advanced. However, it is also cited as prohibiting any interference in the development of that civilization. It is cited especially as prohibiting interference in the internal politics of another society, which means that any involvement with any civilization—even after first contact—must have the informed consent of its lawful leadership. Someone must decide when a civilization is ready to know about each technology, and the Prime Directive prohibits any disclosure until that civilization has established a sovereign to provide such consent.

Thus, the Prime Directive advanced by the writers of Star Trek goes beyond the simple zoo hypothesis to endorse hierarchical governance such that each civilization has a single point of contact analogous to the role consciousness plays in each individual person. Many fascinating plots have evolved from the tension that exists between requiring each civilization to achieve unity and requiring the universe to accept disunity (e.g. honoring the independence of civilizations). There are obvious analogies to tensions regarding consent under suspicion of mental illness and to tensions regarding the (imperfect) sovereignty of parents in families.

A Trekkie might bring awareness of these tensions to the topic of gun control and to a quote falsely attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!” The quip seems to be evolving. Geoff Metcalf offers another version:

A Democracy: Three wolves and a sheep voting on dinner.

A Republic: The flock gets to vote for which wolves vote on dinner.

A Constitutional Republic: Voting on dinner is expressly forbidden, and the sheep are armed.

Federal Government: The means by which the sheep will be fooled into voting for a Democracy.

Freedom: Two very hungry wolves looking for dinner and finding a very well-informed and well-armed sheep.

I’d like to add to that:

Corporantia: Arms and legal process are both denied to anyone insufficiently informed to honor the necessary balance between predator and prey.

The quips poke fun at citizens and governments by comparing us to wolves and sheep, unable to master our own instincts and therefore unqualified to put forth any legitimate sovereign. Are humans really so lacking in self-awareness? Well…uh…yeah. Do you understand your brain well-enough to build someone else of equal intelligence? If not, then you are not self-aware. If you are not self-aware, then you are not a competent moral agent. Any democracy that you create would be illegitimate, like a nation of wolves and sheep.

The zoo hypothesis does not rule out the possibility that extraterrestrials are secretly active on Earth, protecting us like guardian angels, and invisibly interfering in our poorly-informed elections. That might be a good thing, but the UN Charter and Prime Directive, with their concept of sovereignty, inspire us to imagine that such interference might be immoral. The Charter probably isn’t an unbiased authority on this matter, since it was written by and for national sovereigns.

One of the architects of the United Nations, Winston Churchill, cited a now-famous quote in his address to the House of Commons: “…democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…” That is clearly false. It is often a bad idea to let children have an equal vote in the finances of the family or to expect the rest of the ecosystem to vote on how it should be managed (the bacteria would have a landslide majority). The only disadvantage of meritocracy is the sense of elitism experienced by the governed, and that sense is eliminated in these cases because the governed do not understand how they are manipulated.

Perhaps there is a stage of social development when the most clever members of society are not yet clever enough to manipulate the rest without being detected. At that time, the most clever might espouse something like the Prime Directive just to throw others off their scent, but it is a pretty dumb lie when you examine it closely. If two little children were fighting, wouldn’t it be immoral for parents to grant them a right to develop or otherwise obtain deadly weapons? Wouldn’t it be just as immoral to allow immature nations to develop weapons of mass destruction? Of course the most clever should guide/manipulate the rest; the interesting question is how transparent that manipulation should be (i.e. do we need to be fooled, or can we be humble instead?)

Another interesting stage of development comes when children reach the threshold of adulthood and it becomes less clear that parents make the better rulers. In terms of the zoo hypothesis, this stage starts when the people begin to calculate the improbability of being alone. The Fermi paradox is named after Enrico Fermi for leading those calculations. If those calculations inspire people to conceive the zoo hypothesis, they may begin to test the hypothesis by trying to freeload—shirking responsibility for their own development. Something like the Prime Directive may be warranted in that case. Like a parent pushing a child to become independent, Star Fleet may need to withdraw protection so aliens can verify the real possibility of destroying themselves.

That special and temporary application of the Prime Directive is a far cry from the UN concept wrapped in informed consent. The idea of informed consent was popularized by the judges of the Nuremberg Trials after World War II. Lacking the competence to judge actions in terms of their health outcomes, the judges instead proposed to discern morality in terms of having informed consent. But modern ecosystem managers monitor the health of the ecosystem, rather than seek the informed consent of its members. Likewise, doctors act for the health of their patients and rightly question the sanity of any patient who refuses to consent to treatment. If people are not sufficiently self-aware to form moral democracies, then they certainly should not be trusted to provide informed consent.

When we push a child to become independent, it is not because the child has withdrawn consent to be parented. It is because we know, and, hopefully, our children also know, that their health requires that they grow up. We would stop protecting our children even if they asked us to let them stay immature for the rest of their lives. The relevant measure is health, rather than consent. The relevant question is “When is it healthy to become independent?”

In Pen Pals, Picard claimed “…the Prime Directive has many different functions, not the least of which is to protect us. To prevent us from allowing our emotions to overwhelm our judgment.” However, the better tool to prevent emotions from overwhelming judgment is objective health measures. In Dear Doctor, Archer suggested that the Prime Directive is a principle of neutrality, that it is about not playing God. However, it is not playing God to follow health measures controlled by God. On the contrary, to instead seek the consent of a consciousness—even the consciousness of a foreign sovereign—would be idolatry.

If we care for each other and want to protect each other, then our focus should be on improving measures of health, and this is where the European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) goes sideways. It reads like the Prime Directive: Data that can be linked to a specific person shall not be shared, processed or even deleted without that person’s consent. Furthermore, that person shall have rights to change his/her consent: to erase the data or to examine and revise it. Imagine an accused adulterer demanding the ability to erase or revise the memories of an eyewitness! As with the Prime Directive, the GDPR forbids contact until the impossible practical puzzles of sovereignty are resolved.

The practice of the GDPR may look more like the zoo hypothesis where anyone is free to invade our privacy so long as the invader cannot be detected by the person whose privacy was invaded. We cannot testify, but we can observe and gossip. We can sell spouses evidence of adultery so long as the spouse cannot prove they got it from us. Does anyone really think relegating information to a black market will provide protection?

But the GDPR is worse than a useless distraction from our proper focus on health because it blocks us from doing exactly what is required to improve health measures: to conduct research. In order to grow-up, in order to heal, we need a more honest and accurate view of who we are. Were gay rights advanced by protecting privacy, or by bringing more accurate information about the nature of sexual orientation into the open? According to the GDPR, even if people consent to be understood, social statistics cannot be calculated without an impractical infrastructure to prove consent was obtained and to permit changes of heart. Thus, the GDPR makes truth about social health far more expensive to obtain legally, and that makes public schools less reliable than information black markets.

Why would the EU do something so stupid?

Smart people do stupid things because they are trapped by prior commitments, and the leaders of the EU are trapped by the people of the EU, who are in turn trapped by an inaccurate sense of self. Modern people easily buy into notions of sovereignty because they are insensitive to their interdependence. They believe that a consciousness can consent on the behalf of an entire person because they ignore the entanglements that blur the boundaries between persons and because they fail to empathize with the parts of a person that a consciousness fails to honor. They even believe that a government can consent on the behalf of an entire nation, despite evidence of internal diversity and artificial borders. At some level, we realize that sovereignty and consent are fantasies, but we have yet to reckon with the reality of interdependence.

I blame Star Trek for delaying that reckoning. Janet Stemwedel points out that the United States was fighting the Vietnam War when the series began and its enthusiasm for the Prime Directive might ironically have been the writers’ way of criticizing their own government. Ashley Meyers similarly points out that the Prime Directive made sense under a Cold War filter in which developing nations were “valued almost exclusively as pawns.” The GDPR likewise treats EU citizens as pawns in a tariff scheme whereby supervisory authorities are funded by GDPR  fees (recall that such taxation inspired the American Revolution). It is less about letting people be themselves than about collecting money in the name of letting people pretend to be something else.

Likewise, the Prime Directive is less about doing the right thing than about always having a scapegoat: a foreign sovereign to blame. Many wonderful ideas were explored in the Star Trek science fiction series, but its implication that future generations will endorse the Prime Directive may relegate the series to history’s catalog of political propaganda. The GDPR is one way that propaganda has now influenced situations far beyond the 1960s and far beyond the safety of fiction.