Starfleet’s moral relativism problem: is it ever ok to condemn another culture?
Central to all of Star Trek has always been the Prime Directive – that set of rules that governs our intrepid space explorers from Captain Kirk to Captain Janeway and everyone in between. Poor Captain Archer existed in a time before, and I’ve often pitied him for having to shoulder the burden of having to make some really questionable ethical decisions without having a Prime Directive to shift the blame to when it turned out his decisions really sucked.
At its core, the Prime Directive dictates that Starfleet cannot interfere with the internal affairs or development of alien civilizations. Some of the best Star Trek episodes involved our heroes clashing with the ethics of a rigid application of this doctrine, but there was always one implication of the Prime Directive that bothered me – the idea that we shouldn’t judge other cultures through the lens of our own because who’s to say what’s right and what’s wrong?
This philosophy of moral relativism argues that there are no universal moral standards – sentient beings are completely at the mercy of their own societies to impart a code of moral behavior and whatever it comes up with is “good enough.” There may be common themes among many societies in terms of morals – most seem to agree it is wrong to commit murder, for instance – but ultimately, what is “right” according one society is not guaranteed to be “right” for another. And let’s be honest with ourselves – even with the topic of murder, we still fiercely debate exceptions to the “no murder” rule such as war, capital punishment, or self-defense.
Our own society provides an incredible patchwork of thorny moral and ethical issues that we still have yet to decide upon. We debate things like abortion, torture, slavery, free speech, and more. We probe these issues by asking ourselves questions like, “At what point does life truly begin?” and “Is torture ever justified?” We explore them by posing philosophical experiments like the Trolley Problem and asking ourselves whether it is morally acceptable to kill one person to save the lives of two or more others.
How does that line go again? Something about “needs of the many” or something?
But at the end of the day, might (in terms of numbers) makes right in moral relativism. While I don’t subscribe to that theory, there are times when our beloved Star Trek characters do under the guise of defending the Prime Directive. On the surface, it sounds very peaceful and anti-colonialist. After centuries of watching many empires from the Romans to the British set fire to cultural diversity – and given arguments that many Western nations continue to do this today, just without being quite as invadey – this sounds like a nice change of pace. Live and let live. But this also creates a mind-boggling acceptance of suffering, genocide, exploitation, and oppression within Starfleet.
One of the first chronological examples of the faults of moral relativism is found in the Star Trek: Enterprise episode, “Cogenitor.” Archer and his crew meet an affable, three-gendered species called the Vissians, but we quickly learn that only two of the society’s genders have any real rights. The third gender is referred to as a “cogenitor,” and Trip Tucker ends up on Captain Archer’s shit list for teaching it how to read and putting ideas in its head. When the cogenitor later begs for asylum, Archer refuses. It gets worse – the cogenitor is sent back to the people who basically treat it as chattel and commits suicide, and Archer points out that Tucker’s interference led to its death and will mean the Vissian couple will probably never get to have a child. No winners in this ethical dilemma of an episode, only losers. Until you remember none of this would have happened in the first place if the Vissians had just treated the cogenitors like people.
In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Angel One,” we encounter the cringe worthy society of Angel I, a planet of misandric women who oppress men. We all got a few giggles at the ladies of Enterprise-D being suddenly held in higher regard than their male counterparts, but things get very dark when Beata, the Elected One of Angel I, decides some dudes need to die for spreading heretical teachings that imply men are equal to women. We get a sort of cop out solution in which Beata has a change of heart and decides to banish rather than execute these “heretics” after Riker makes an impassioned speech about basic rights, but Riker was more than willing to let things go bad if need be, because, “The Prime Directive” and “Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
The 80′s were a weird time. That outfit is a few inches of fabric away from having a codpiece.
In another Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “Symbiosis,” we’re introduced to the Ornarans and Brekkians and we find out that after an ancient plague, the Brekkians started peddling an expensive and addictive drug to the Ornarans and calling it a “treatment.” There’s no plague anymore – the Brekkians just control the Ornarans through their drug addiction. Dr. Crusher finds a way to synthesize this drug and offers to help wean the Ornarans off their addiction, but what does Captain Picard do? He tells her to mind her own damn business because it’s not the Federation’s place to tell the Brekkians that it’s wrong to deceive and enslave the Ornarans through an addictive drug.
This episode also gave us one of the weirdest brawls in Star Trek history. Like a Reefer Madness for the 24th century, if you will.
And this is the most uncomfortable part of moral relativism – who gets to draw the line and where do we draw it? On one end of the spectrum, we have moral relativism which claims anything goes – societies should be able to torture animals, employ the slave labor of children, and oppress women as they see fit – just as long as enough people agree it isn’t wrong to do so. At the other end of the spectrum sits moral absolutism, a theoretical construct that would result in a perfectly unified, homogenous culture, but one that would also strip away many facets of culture that lead to human diversity.
If Star Trek is supposed to serve as a guide for how we might become a more progressive society, it does a terrible job a lot of the time. Now, there are many instances of our protagonists saying “to hell with the Prime Directive!” and taking what most of us would agree is the more morally praiseworthy route. But there’s no rhyme or reason to it. Just look at how they treat the Borg. Why is it ok to let some societies oppress men or drug another species into submission but it’s not ok to let the Borg assimilate the galaxy in their ultimate quest for perfection?
I’m going to guess the answer is that until the Borg decided to stick nanoprobes in a Federation citizen, the cheerful little robots simply weren’t the Federation’s problem. We might argue that the Prime Directive certainly has provisions for self-defense - how ridiculous would it be to consent to being annihilated or assimilated just because the Federation is afraid of offending another culture and refuses to draw a line in the sand where right stops and wrong starts? The slope gets slippery here though. We could say this mirrors the concept of large Western nations trying to police the rest of the world and impose their customs on other societies - but how many of us watched documentaries about the Holocaust in school and wondered why the hell previous generations allowed shit to get that bad? How many of us continue to stand by while people in Iraq and Syria live under the threat of the Islamic State? I doubt most people even realize what’s going on in the Philippines or Venezuela right now because hey, “Not my country, not my problem.” It is a huge gray area for what constitutes forcing certain customs on unwilling societies and trying to genuinely help people, but if we can’t agree that Nazi extermination camps and religiously motivated beheadings are bad and need to stop (even when they aren’t happening to us personally), I’ll be surprised if we ever make to the 24th century. It makes me wonder how exactly Earth “solved its problems” and created a utopian society in the first place with this attitude of moral relativism.
Let’s face it – we have no shortage of modern travesties that sound ridiculous in the context of this philosophical approach. The Chechen Republic has been reportedly rounding up gay men and torturing them in recent months, and moral relativism would have us shrug and say, “But their culture says homosexuality is a sin.”
To anyone who actually thinks that, fuck you.
Bacha bazi, a practice where adolescent boys are groomed for sexual relationships with older men, remains pervasive in many Pashtun societies. Moral relativism would tell us that we shouldn’t condemn predatory pedophilia because to do so would mean unfairly imposing our Western beliefs on their culture.
Just because one culture says widespread sexual coercion is ok doesn’t make it so.
I could keep going on, but this post is already long enough. The bottom line is, all too often, Star Trek lazily glosses over a lot of moral and ethical dilemmas by using the argument, “Who are we to judge?” June is Pride Month, and in honor of LGBT individuals all over the globe who all too often have less rights than their cisgender heterosexual counterparts, maybe we should avoid looking to the “progressive” future of Star Trek and instead ask the question, “Who are we to not judge?”
While I can’t resolve one of the greatest philosophical questions ever devised, someone once gave me a great piece of advice that I think applies to this idea of moral relativism: no person’s belief is inherently worthy of respect, but every person is.