Reasons to Believe

Star Trek’s Prime Directive and Moral Relativism

Star Trek Into Darkness, the second installment in director J. J. Abrams’ reboot of the classic sci-fi franchise, warped into theatres this week—and in case you don’t care for spoilers, skip down to the next paragraph. The film begins with Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) violating the United Federation of Planets’ “Prime Directive” (surprise, surprise) by revealing the technologically advanced USS Enterprise to a primitive civilization during an effort to save First Officer Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) life.

Wikipedia explains, “The Prime Directive dictates that there can be no interference with the internal development of alien civilizations.” The motivation for this guiding principle is the belief that whenever a superior civilization attempts to improve a less-advanced culture, however good the intentions, the results are disastrous.

As the Star Trek franchise progressed, so did the Prime Directive’s applications. For example, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the characters not only avoid influencing primitive societies with their technology, they also try to refrain from meddling in civil conflicts, correcting moral corruption, and even reversing natural disasters and epidemics that threaten to wipe out whole civilizations.

The Prime Directive’s moral implications provide a good example of what would happen if we took relativism to its logical conclusion. Moral relativism can be summed up by the catchphrase: “What’s true for you may not be true for me.” In other words, morality is subject to the ethics and values of an individual person or an individual society. While this belief is widely held today, it comes with serious drawbacks.

Star Trek’s Prime Directive demonstrates one consequence: that is, losing the right to judge or condemn another culture’s actions. In his book Without A Doubt, RTB philosopher/theologian Kenneth Samples elucidates,

The acceptance of ethical conventionalism (“whatever a person’s culture says is right is right”) means one culture cannot criticize the moral actions of another culture....Yet how can one accept a so-called system of morality that makes it impossible to bring ruthless people, such as the Nazis, to the bar of justice?

If Star Trek is anything to go by, such a form of relativism is not truly livable. Throughout the franchise, the characters’ own ethics clash with the Prime Directive—and sometimes triumph over it. Several characters argue vehemently against the Prime Directive. They question whether the Directive actually holds the moral high ground in all circumstances.

The issue boils down to the lack of an objective moral foundation. Christianity points to the God of the Bible as the one true source of morality. If we discover morality that stems from God, rather than determining it for our culture, or ourselves, then we can know for certain that some things are right and others wrong. We can enact justice, separate virtue from vice, and mend real deficiencies in our culture and others.

— Maureen

Resources: Check out these RTB resources for more musings on the nature of morality and ethics.

Subjects: Ethics