Friday, July 22, 2016

The Prime Directive Fallacy

In honor of the release of the Star Trek Beyond movie, I thought I'd comment on the central pseudo-moral dilemma of the Star Trek universe: The Prime Directive. I say "pseudo" because the posed moral dilemma is based on evolutionary theory, which cannot support a rational, objective moral system at all.

Every Trekkie knows what the Prime Directive means, but I'll just rip off the short statement from the original episode from 1968 it appeared in, via Wikipedia:

No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations.

Later in the article there's a statement from Star Trek: Next Generation character Captain Jean-Luc Picard:

"The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous."

The purpose of the Prime Directive then, is to prevent the United Federation of Planets, to which all the main characters in the Star Trek universe belong, from interfering in the development of less advanced alien cultures. Since the mission of Star Trek characters usually involves the discovery, study and establishment of diplomatic relations with alien cultures, the Prime Directive plays a central role in creating dramatic tension and often moral dilemmas.

The Prime Directive made it's most recent appearance at the beginning of the last movie, Star Trek Into Darkness.  At the beginning of the movie, the Enterprise crew is studying a very primitive but sentient and intelligent alien race on an alien planet and finds that a nearby volcano is about to erupt. The eruption will likely wipe out the entire race, so they cook up a plan to prevent the eruption. Spock beams inside the volcano to plant a special explosive that will seal up the volcano and prevent the eruption. Unfortunately, they are not able to beam him out again without taking the Enterprise out of its hiding place in the ocean, revealing themselves to the indigenous population and violating the Prime Directive. Spock prepares to die, sacrificing his life in obedience to the Directive, but Kirk decides to violate it in order to save Spock's life. As the Enterprise crew leaves, we see a scene of the indigenous alien race drawing a picture of the Enterprise in the dirt and bowing down in worship, forever changing their religion and presumably justifying the wisdom of the Prime Directive by showing what happens when it is broken. Kirk neglects to mention the violation in his report on the mission, but Spock, of course, does, resulting in Kirk's demotion from captain.

As a fan of the Star Trek franchise, I have become quite used to the various sorts of moral dilemmas offered by the Prime Directive. I've also had the experience of growing up in a household which strictly regulated entertainment options based on Christian moral directives, which was often in tension with virtually every entertainment option available. But the science fiction franchises of Star Wars and Star Trek often escaped the usual rules, probably because my mom liked them. We used to watch reruns of Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) in the 80s when I was growing up, and when The Next Generation came out it became a weekly family event for years. We were equally excited when Voyager came out, but my dad nixed that one permanently after one very early episode in which a Native American character showed the captain how to have a spirit vision and meet her animal spirit guide, which she did. I have since watched the entire series on Netflix, and the spirit guide never made another appearance after depriving me for years of probably the best writing and story-telling in the Star Trek universe outside of the story progression of the movies Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan through Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. To date, I have seen every episode of TOS, The Next Generation and Voyager, as well as all the movies. There are two other TV series, Deep Space Nine, of which I have only ever seen a few episodes, and Enterprise, which I am currently making my third attempt to get through the first season. Enterprise tells the story of the very first Enterprise ship and its crew, which occurs during a very early stage of the Star Trek universe as mankind begins to first explore deep space and before the formation of the United Federation of Planets. Because of my upbringing, I often reflect on moral dilemmas and values in the shows and movies I watch, and I just watched a humdinger of an episode of Enterprise involving the Prime Directive called "Dear Doctor".

The "Dear Doctor" episode is narrated by the ship's doctor, Dr. Phlox, who is one of only two alien crew members aboard. His narration takes the form of a correspondence with a human doctor practicing on Dr. Phlox's homeworld of Denobula, as they share with each other their experiences practicing medicine in each other's alien cultures. Throughout the episode, Dr. Phlox often comments favorably on the extraordinary compassion shown by human beings, especially towards strangers and other species, including the captain's pet dog Porthos and the sick alien crew of a ship they come across. This ship happens to be from a planet containing two sentient humanoid species, one of which, the Valakian, is suffering from a mysterious and catastrophic disease threatening their extinction. The Menk on the other hand are not affected by the disease, and are primitive compared to the Valakians. Both species are considered technologically inferior to the humans though, and the Vulcan character spends most of the episode warning the Enterprise's human crew about interfering in an inferior culture. This takes place before the Prime Directive is written, but the Vulcans apparently have their own version of it, and that is not to engage with alien races before they have developed warp drive, which neither of these alien species have. However it is decided to help them anyway due to the fact that they are already aware that warp drive exists and have already met other alien races.

At the episode's climax, Dr. Phlox figures out that the disease affecting the Valakians is a genetic condition. He also comes to the conclusion that the Menk are on the verge of something he calls an "evolutionary awakening", apparently meaning some kind of major evolutionary advancement. He concludes that if things continue as they are, the Valakians will become extinct in 50-100 generations, and the Menk, though currently technologically and evolutionarily inferior, will supersede them and become the sole intelligent humanoid race on the planet:

"Captain Archer: A cure, doctor. Have you found a cure?

Dr. Phlox (visibly uncomfortable): Even if I could find one, I'm not sure it would be ethical.

Captain Archer: Ethical?

Dr. Phlox: We'd be interfering with an evolutionary process that has been going on for thousands of years. 

Captain Archer: Every time you treat an illness you're interfering. That's what doctors do.

Dr. Phlox: You're forgetting about the Menk. 

Captain Archer: What about the Menk?

Dr. Phlox: I've been studying their genome as well, and I've seen evidence of increasing intelligence, motor skills, linguistic abilities. Unlike the Valakians they appear to be in the process of an evolutionary awakening. It may take millenia, but the Menk have the potential to become the dominant species on this planet.

Captain Archer: And that won't happen as long as the Valakians are around.

Dr. Phlox: If the Menk are to flourish, they need an opportunity to survive on their own.

Captain Archer: What are you suggesting? We choose one species over the other?

Dr. Phlox: All I'm saying is that we let Nature make the choice."

Dr. Phlox then reveals to the captain that he has found a cure for the disease, but believes he should not give them the cure due to the fact that it would interfere with the evolutionary trajectory of the planet. The captain at first disagrees, but comes back the next day after sleeping on it and has changed his mind:

"What I've decided goes against all my principles. Someday, my people are going to come up with some sort of a doctrine. Something that tells us what we can and can't do out here, should and shouldn't do. But until somebody tells me that they've drafted that "directive", I'm going to have to remind myself every day that we didn't come out here to play god."

In the end, even though they have a cure for the disease, they refuse to give it to the Valakians. In fact, they don't even tell the Valakians there is a cure, thus possibly condemning an entire race to extinction. In the process, the show lays the foundation for the Prime Directive explicitly on evolutionary reasoning and in opposition to human compassion.

There are many things that could be said at this point. We should note here the juxtaposition of Nature and humans as competing gods. Humans aren't allowed to make the choice of whether or not to save a race from extinction because then we would be "playing god", but Nature is allowed to make the choice. Nature is god in this formulation. Evolution is the principle from which morality is derived, and that is the function of God in any religion. We should also note the tension it creates between leftism and evolutionary theory. I have commented before on the leftist moral system based on human compassion or empathy for others who are suffering. In leftism, human beings are god, and our morals come from our own feelings. If evolutionary theory is god instead, then it will at times differ from leftism in its moral doctrines. The moral dilemmas posed here clearly demonstrate that Judeo-Christian morality has been driven out of pop culture, as it makes no appearance at all.

We should also note the similarity between Dr. Phlox's argument and that of Adolf Hitler, who reasons in Mein Kampf that the French practice of contraception and abortion goes against evolution because preventing births removes the ability of Nature to evaluate the fit versus the unfit:

"It was possible to adopt the French example and artificially restrict the number of births, thus avoiding an excess of population.

Under certain circumstances, in periods of distress or under bad climatic condition, or if the soil yields too poor a return, Nature herself tends to check the increase of population in some countries and among some races, but by a method which is quite as ruthless as it is wise. It does not impede the procreative faculty as such; but it does impede the further existence of the offspring by submitting it to such tests and privations that everything which is less strong or less healthy is forced to retreat into the bosom of tile unknown. Whatever survives these hardships of existence has been tested and tried a thousandfold, hardened and renders fit to continue the process of procreation; so that the same thorough selection will begin all over again. By thus dealing brutally with the individual and recalling him the very moment he shows that he is not fitted for the trials of life, Nature preserves the strength of the race and the species and raises it to the highest degree of efficiency. The decrease in numbers therefore implies an increase of strength, as far as the individual is concerned, and this finally means the invigoration of the species.

But the case is different when man himself starts the process of numerical restriction. Man is not carved from Nature’s wood. He is made of ‘human’ material. He knows more than the ruthless Queen of Wisdom. He does not impede the preservation of the individual but prevents procreation itself. To the individual, who always sees only himself and not the race, this line of action seems more humane and just than the opposite way. But, unfortunately, the consequences are also the opposite.

By leaving the process of procreation unchecked and by submitting the individual to the hardest preparatory tests in life, Nature selects the best from an abundance of single elements and stamps them as fit to live and carry on the conservation of the species. But man restricts the procreative faculty and strives obstinately to keep alive at any cost whatever has once been born. This correction of the Divine Will seems to him to be wise and humane, and he rejoices at having trumped Nature’s card in one game at least and thus proved that she is not entirely reliable. The dear little ape of an all-mighty father is delighted to see and hear that he has succeeded in effecting a numerical restriction; but he would be very displeased if told that this, his system, brings about a degeneration in personal quality.

For as soon as the procreative faculty is thwarted and the number of births diminished, the natural struggle for existence which allows only healthy and strong individuals to survive is replaced by a sheer craze to ‘save’ feeble and even diseased creatures at any cost. And thus the seeds are sown for a human progeny which will become more and more miserable from one generation to another, as long as Nature’s will is scorned.

But if that policy be carried out the final results must be that such a nation will eventually terminate its own existence on this earth; for though man may defy the eternal laws of procreation during a certain period, vengeance will follow sooner or later. A stronger race will oust that which has grown weak; for the vital urge, in its ultimate form, will burst asunder all the absurd chains of this so-called humane consideration for the individual and will replace it with the humanity of Nature, which wipes out what is weak in order to give place to the strong.

Any policy which aims at securing the existence of a nation by restricting the birth-rate robs that nation of its future."

Note that Hitler recognizes the same tension between Nature and Man as dueling gods, preferring Nature. Hitler here disagrees with the French policy and also that of the American Margaret Sanger, the founder of the American Birth Control League which later became Planned Parenthood, who believed that contraception could be used to eliminate poverty, disease and crime because those things were genetic and could be restricted by restricting births to the already poor, infirm and criminal. Hitler's innovation was that Nature should be allowed to make the choice, and that human beings should not interfere. Of course, Hitler and the Nazis interfered liberally after adulthood through their muscular eugenics program, making the choice themselves as to whether homosexuals, mentally retarded and physically deformed people should procreate. And of course they chose to attempt the extermination of the Jews, whom they deemed an inferior race parasitic on the German and other races. Presumably at this stage Dr. Phlox would argue that the Holocaust was an even more extreme example of a superior race making choices for an inferior race rather than allowing Nature to take its course. I imagine Hitler retorting that the Aryan race is also part of the natural order, and their striving in war and removal of parasitic races like the Jews is part of Nature's struggle to sort out the fit from the unfit, the strong from the weak, that the strong may survive and improve the species.

Dr. Phlox's contention that superior races should not interfere with inferior races assumes that superior races have moral responsibilities that inferior races do not. If the Valakians had figured out the cure for themselves, this would not violate the Prime Directive, nor would it violate evolutionary principles. It would merely justify Nature's choice to favor intelligence and technological ability over genetic stability. But if a third race, superior to both Menk and Valakian provided the cure, that would be a violation of Nature's choice because...why? Why shouldn't Nature reward the technological capability of spaceflight? Why shouldn't the Valakians, because of spaceflight, be able to find superior races and obtain a cure from a superior race? What if the Valakians were telepaths and read the minds of the humans, knew they had the cure and stole it? What if the Valakians found out the humans had the cure and used their mind control technology to convince the humans to give it to them? What if the Valakians had evolved to evoke sympathy from other races, causing humans to have pity on them and give them the cure? On the other side, why shouldn't human compassion be favored by evolution to help them befriend and preserve other races and help humans obtain knowledge they may not have otherwise obtained, or simply to avoid continual conflict that would damage them?  What if the Valakians found the cure on their own, then discovered humans had withheld it? What if they retaliated by destroying the human race? Would not human compassion have prevented this and been favored by evolution? Or what if the Valakian disease had been bacterial or viral instead of genetic? Would it then have been okay for the humans to cure it, even though that would be making the choice to preserve the Valakians even though their immune system was inferior to the Menks? Or what if the Menk had intentionally introduced the disease to wipe out the Valakians? Would that be wrong even if the evolutionary result would be the same as if they hadn't? Would it not be Nature's justification of the Menk superiority in biological warfare? Or suppose the Valakians had discovered a disease that would wipe them out and kept it contained in a lab, and a Menk had stolen it and introduced it to the population. Would that not be Nature's choice to justify the Menk superiority in subterfuge? Or would it be wrong since the inferior race made a choice to alter their evolutionary relationship with the Valakians? Is it morally acceptable, according to evolution, for a technologically inferior race to wipe out an superior one through war or subterfuge? The problem quickly becomes apparent. If our standard really is evolutionary theory, than no race is inferior or superior to another except through the simple fact of survival or extinction. Survival or extinction is the only justification. Neither survival nor extinction can be separated from human behavior. Behaviors are part of why some species survive and others don't. Behavior cannot be held responsible for altering the course of evolution unjustly because behavior, including moral behavior, is part of evolution.

Here we come to the crux of the issue, which I will call the Prime Directive Fallacy. Are human moral choices always consistent with evolution because we are part of the process, or are we above the evolutionary process somehow such that our choices can interfere with the proper operation of evolution?  The Prime Directive Fallacy, which I have alluded to before in the context of global warming, is the idea that even though humans are products of and participants in the natural order, we can somehow make choices which interfere with that natural order. The Prime Directive Fallacy was introduced in Western civilization after World War II to explain why the Holocaust was wrong without rejecting Nature as god. If I choose to get married and have ten kids because I am highly intelligent, or if I choose to get a vasectomy and never reproduce because I have back and heart defects, then each choice has a clear evolutionary consequence. But evolutionary theory cannot tell me which is the right choice. What it can tell me is that my faculty for making the choice is a product of evolution, and whatever choice I make is consistent with my decision making faculty and is therefore part of evolution. I cannot make a wrong choice, because my decision making faculty is determined by evolution itself. My choices, whatever they are, are also Nature's choices, because Nature's choices are manifested in my behavior.

We reject this, because we know that the Nazis' attempt to exterminate the Jews was wrong. If we can make no other moral claims, we can make this one. Failing an appeal to Judeo-Christian morality under which humans are not products of the natural order but are rather products of the Judeo-Christian God, we must commit the Prime Directive Fallacy, that superior races have moral responsibilities towards inferior races. It is a fallacious attempt to introduce morality into an amoral philosophy. Thus the Nazis were wrong to attempt the extermination of the Jews because that would interfere with evolution and with Nature's choice. Never mind that the Nazis are just as much a part of evolution as the Jews. Never mind that human behavior influences evolutionary outcomes just as much or more than blond hair, blue eyes, or intelligence. Never mind that evolutionary theory cannot dictate moral choices to humans because only ends, not the means, matter in evolution. Never mind that the Prime Directive Fallacy prescribes genocide by omission in exchange for precluding genocide by commission. Never mind logic. Evolutionary theory cannot be wrong, and since it cannot be wrong, it cannot be irrelevant, even to morality itself.

Now that's whack.