[extropy-chat] Prime Directive

Anders Sandberg asa at nada.kth.se
Wed Oct 25 23:46:00 UTC 2006

The prime directive places the independent cultural development of a
species higher than the welfare of its individual members (shades of "the
needs of the many"?). While this sounds nice on paper, it has many nasty
consequences. It means that the Federation should just look on when
preventable disasters happen, even when inaction would be regarded as a
moral outrage when occuring in respect to a non-protected culture. If the
directive is regarded as an ethical principle then it is presumably
universal, and should also apply to the Federation. So the cultural
development of the Federation is more valuable than the lives of any
number of inhabitants. This way one gets a nice foundation for

If it is not an universal principle, then the Federation just has it as a
habit or cultural decision. If another group like the Romulans wants to
meddle it is OK, and the Federation can at most wring its hands or send
warnings to the Romulans.

If it only applies to every civilisation that is not sufficiently "adult",
then one has to define what constitutes civilizational adulthood (in the
Star Trek universe I guess spaceflight would be a likely definition, but
as we have seen in a myriad of episodes there appears to be bundles of
spacefaring primitives out there). But if the value of independent
cultures is so high as to merit the sacrifice of many individuals, then it
appears likely that this value would be diminished by them getting adult
and joining the interstellar community since the individual culture now
would be subjected to globalization (OK, galactization).

The directive might be pragmatic in the sense that intervention brings
disaster. In the IMHO rather silly novel _Omega_ by Jack McDevitt
everybody is firmly convinced that less developed civilizations will be
totally culturally crushed by any contact with a more advanced one. This
is said to be based on terrestrial experience, but as India and Japan show
it is empirically not true. Even if it was true it does not seem to be a
strong enough reason to avoid intervening against a threat against the
survival of an entire alien species. In the novel what could have been a
very straightforward rescue effort is turned inefficient and downright
silly just to prevent any cultural contamination. But ethically,
delaying/risking saving the inhabitants in order to ensure the survival of
their culture is equivalent to first sending in rescuers to salvage all
museums, libraries and archives, and once they are securely saved turning
to the injured. It takes a very warped moral system to sustain that. And
the assumption of this paragraph was that the directive was pragmatically
based rather than a moral principle. So at best

I agree with aristos Gabriel - if they got smallpox and I have a vaccine
I'm going to give it to them, regardless of what they think. But I'm going
to leave it up to them to think it. The authenticity of a culture comes
from interacting with the outside universe (including other cultures), not
from isolation.

Anders Sandberg,
Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics
Philosophy Faculty of Oxford University

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