A Conversation about Animal Rights and Star Trek: TNG

SM: So I was thinking about the value of the natural world for animals versus the sometimes materially more prosperous/leisurely one of captivity/domestication, and it got me thinking about the Prime Directive in Star Trek. So anyway, I wanted to ask, if you were an alien and stumbled upon earth in your interstellar ship in 2000 BC, would you overthrow the Pharoahs and free all the slaves or just let it keep happening?

Bernhard: Yeah, I never thought about animal ethics in that context. I guess I would uphold the prime directive.

SM: I’m not as sure about the Prime Directive as I once was. TNG is a genuinely post-scarcity environment, and letting more primitive societies suffer the hardships of material scarcity seems wrong. Especially observing them in secret for our own scientific curiosity. Picard alludes to historical instances of contact between technologically assymetric human societies to justify the Directive, but it seems like the argument is longer relevant in the time period of Star Trek. Aside from possibly dilithim (and that fountain of youth from the Insurrection movie), the species protected by the Prime Directive have nothing the Federation could want. There’s no reason to exploit them, or cause them any kind of harm.

I can see not giving them the replicators, to prevent them from making weapons and such, but you could build an automated food station in orbit that beams food to people periodically. And then make contact, and offer to educate them.

Bernhard: Well, if you lust power you could always instate yourself as king/God/leader of an entire primitive planet. The Federation isn’t interested in this, but individual members of the Federation might be. So this probably needs to be prevented (remember the episode when the Ferengi had gone through a worm-hole and ended up on a primitive planet and made themselves rulers). And some people/aliens might not be ready for space travel/knowing about aliens. It might have catastrophic consequences. But yeah, I guess the question is whether the root of all evil is resource scarcity. If so, then that’s an argument for helping primitive civilisations. On the other hand, there’s also a question if simply giving civilisations new technologies and resources will lead to enlightenment (so to speak). I guess incremental education might help with this. But this would undoubtedly require moral/ethical education, and that seems like a sticky issue. The other big question is whether or not cultures are to be valued in themselves, and whether cultures can survive drastic technological changes. I think the warp-drive clause is still a pretty good one.

SM: I guess I’m torn. The Prime Directive seems like a good idea, but if there were aliens as friendly as the Federation out there watching us right now, I would really prefer that they intervene. The fact that I’m going to have to work for the next 30 years or so is depressing as hell.

And I would say scarcity really is a huge driver of evil, perhaps even the fundamental tragedy of the human condition. It’s hard to imagine what could wrong by simply providing materially for a culture and then letting them sort themselves out. A descent into hedonistic debauchery by a sizeable segment of the populace seems likely. But any kind of violent conservative/religious backlash against this would find it hard to gain momentum; the poverty and malaise that makes a demagogue’s job so easy just wouldn’t be there. I feel like the smart and curious would be free to use their time for self-improvement, and the others would just idle their days away with holodeck porn.

Bernhard: Yeah, I would love to meet aliens too. But perhaps we can accept that the human race is not prepared for alien contact and understand why aliens would not be too keen on introducing themselves to us. It’s probable that despite their technological superiority, lots of people would try to kill them.

I think the Prime Directive is even more applicable to non-sentient beings. It’s not as if we can teach dolphins anything (other than how to jump through hoops and balance beach balls on their noses). But we couldn’t teach them how to improve their material situations. All we could do is just give them free food. And since they’re not really asking us for food, I don’t see that this is a good idea. I think the main purpose of the Prime Directive is to prevent the unforseeable consequences of our seemingly benevolent actions. If we were omniscient, then the Prime Directive might not apply. But at the moment, it takes a great deal of anthropocentric conceit to conclude that all animals want to be as sedentary, decadent, and purposeless as us. I honestly believe that animals in the wild are happier and feel more purpose than those in captivity (this despite the fact that the average life span for captive animals is greater than in the wild – that’s another topic – why are increases in the average life span seen as such an objective indicator that things are getting better?). But since I don’t really know one way or another, I opt to leave things as they are, rather than risk the potentially disastrous effects of my actions.

Now, domesticated animals are a more complicated story. If an animals chooses to live with a human, that’s fine. But I’m still torn about controlled breeding (especially since the costs in terms of animal lives are so high). And I really think people need to take the slavery analogy seriously. No matter how big your house is, you still have a captive animal. It is not free to make the choices it pleases. There will usually be a closed door or a leash preventing it from acting freely (maybe not so in the case of some cats – part of the reason why I think cats are a more ideal domesticated animal than dogs). And while there are some people who try to have an equitable relationship with the animals they live with, in nearly all situations, people get pets to fulfill an emotional need/emptiness. They try to justify having an animal with the notion that they are providing for them – their pets are their children, and they are being selfless in giving them care, food, and shelter. The argument holds a little more weight with adopted shelter animals. But it’s vacuous when people shop around for the breed they like most. They’re basically just buying a product at this point. In any case, no matter how well you treat the animal that you have captured, it still isn’t free. Hence the case against having pets.

SM: I guess I wouldn’t want the alien’s free stuff if the price was being taken away to live on their planet and wearing a leash in public. I would say adopting shelter animals is morally admirable though.


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