Justice Dilemmas (S01:E21)

I’m examining the impact Star Trek: The Next Generation had on my formation. The introduction to this series can be seen here.


The Enterprise finds a nearly destroyed freighter and saves four of its inhabitants. But when it’s discovered that those four are involved in a planetwide cycle of addiction and exploitation, Picard and Dr. Crusher strenuously disagree on the best course of action to take.

This is a case study in the most compelling elements of the Prime Directive: What is our responsibility to help a foreign culture find justice and health? What are the limits of our own wisdom in doing so? How do we guard against our own potential for ethnocentrism and abuse? When is it appropriate to stand by and do nothing? When must we act?

On one hand, Dr. Crusher sees an issue of exploitation and abuse with a medical foundation to it, and sees a way for her to help. She feels the race being abused has a right to a better life, and she can give them that, and ease the suffering of the transition.

On the other hand, Captain Picard sees that they have no previous relationship with this world, and so he feels the Prime Directive must guide him. While offering life-saving assistance to the freighter passengers was within the Enterprise’s mission, interfering further in the two non-Federation cultures is strictly forbidden. Under the PD, it is only the relationship between said culture and the Federation that shapes Picard’s actions; any ethical, moral or justice interpretations of the situation are irrelevant. Picard mentions the importance of not imposing earth values on others, and names a history of well-intentioned interference being disastrous. He insists they follow the rules that have been put in place to minimize the paternalism that they are capable of acting from.

Now, application of the Prime Directive is not without interpretive issues. And Picard’s interpretation happens to allow the exploitation to continue short-term. But he does not fix a problem that will be an obstacle to long-term continuation of the addiction cycle… and so there is a hope that the passage of time and the effects of the cycle itself may lead to it being broken.

The fandom gave Picard grief for his solution here, and he was considered weak by some for allowing his hands to be tied in a situation where some felt Dr. Crusher’s answer was the obvious one. Certainly, Kirk wouldn’t (and didn’t) give a shit about the Prime Directive when he decided he wanted to act. But Picard grappling with a code of ethics was much more compelling and inviting to me. I was actually reminded of this episode repeatedly, over later years, in two contexts. One was my exploration and creation of my own professional ethics as a pastoral counselor. Even in a counseling situation – where consent has been given – there are times to intervene, and times where it would be damaging to do so. Learning the difference is not so easy, and trying on various guidelines is usually a part of the learning process. The other context has been… well, any situation where more privileged groups are looking for the best way to be of service to less empowered groups. It can be very easy for an outsider to completely misunderstand the needs of a group, or misread entirely the best way to be of service to them.

They are perennial questions: what is the best response to discovering exploitation? How can we shape our role to be the most nurturing and empowering it can be? How do we build right relationship across vast differences in values and beliefs?

1. From Wikipedia. The two actors shown in this screencap also played Khan’s son (Judson Earney Scott, left) and Kirk’s son (Merritt Buttrick, right) in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. This was one of Buttrick’s last roles before his death from AIDS-related complications in 1989.

Published in: on June 10, 2012 at 11:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

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