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Much to my surprise, I find myself practicing something like Starfleet's Prime Directive.

This page is a stub, created on 2022-04-08 (last updated on 2023-02-04). Its contents are notes on the issues and angles I want to address about this topic.

For at least a few decades after really getting into Star Trek in high school, I'd been rather skeptical (and perhaps even derisive) of the Federation's "highest law". I won't go into a full description of it, let alone a full analysis, since that's not really my point here. But in short, if you can't be bothered to click through, it's a prohibition on Starfleet officers' interfering in the natural development of pre-warp (ie, less advanced) species.

I had (and to some extent, still have) a few problems with this, including

  • how it smacks of moral and cultural relativism
  • how absurd it is that it's been elevated to General Order 1
  • how it requires tolerating tremendous suffering
  • how it's essentially premised on a false dichotomy

But as a guideline or cautionary principle, I think it's very worthwhile to consider. Even the best intentions can have unforeseen adverse consequences, and the Prime Directive is trying to avoid such ill effects. (The most stark example of what might be avoided is giving a relatively primitive culture advanced technology in the spirit of trying to help them, and then they turn around and annihilate themselves with it.)

Epistemologically, one thing that I like about the Prime Directive is that it parallels the idea of respecting others' context of knowledge in communicating with them. Skilled communicators will often take great care to consider their audiences' contexts of knowledge, using language and concepts that will make sense to them; they meet them where they are. An application of this idea that's very near and dear to my heart is pedagogy: A teacher's role is not to dole out answers to be memorized, but to foster the natural curiosity of children to find genuine understanding, which is accomplished (in part) by tailoring lessons to that context. A teacher doesn't dispense knowledge, but rather provides children with a roadmap so that they can take the journey in acquiring it.

And the Prime Directive reminds me of this principle. A more technologically and philosophically advanced culture needs to take great care to engage with a less advanced culture in a way that respects their ability to learn and grow in a healthy way. However benevolently and generously intentioned, doling out technology to someone who's not ready for it can stifle development, if not lead to outright disaster. Often, the struggle itself and the perseverance over it are so much more important than some concrete end. (I don't want to get into it here, but I definitely distinguish struggle from unnecessary suffering.)

And while the Prime Directive operates in a fictional universe, we see some of the same dynamics at play in how we approach humanitarian aid in the real world: Sometimes, flooding starving countries with free food completely destroys whatever vestige of a food industry they had. That's just basic economics. And so we're left with a horrible dilemma of alleviating the suffering of real people today, while fucking over their future and their children. I'm not at all surprised that more wealthy countries often end up giving aid without considering the long-term consequences, given that the prevailing "moral wisdom" of the day is informed by immediate-gratification altruism. Personally, I tend to take a principled, long-term view of such situations, and so I'm less inclined to try to help. But I'll readily admit that I don't have the answers here, and this is related to how I struggle with what to do when I'm confronted with a homeless person begging for money.

Giving aid (food, money, etc) versus not giving aid is a false dichotomy; there are many things in between. The same applies to teaching: It's not "give all the answers" versus "sit back and leave kids to their own devices altogether". And so you might imagine a similar analysis of the Prime Directive. In the Star Trek universe, though, Starfleet has decided that the risks of fucking things up are just too high. I don't like it, but I get it. But in recent years, I find myself gravitating more and more toward something that reminds me of the Prime Directive, in my operational approach to dealing with the world around me.

Once upon a time (particularly in college), I really did want to change the world, to fight for the future. Boy, I was piss and vinegar about everything philosophical and political, as I ran my college Objectivist club, LOGIC. There's a lot more to say about that, including how it didn't really require nearly as much polemical, unpleasant conflict and acrimony as it had, but my immediate point is that I engaged in a lot of activism, including weekly reading groups, building a social community, and putting on some very high-profile events on topics including freedom of speech, the destructive effects of religion, philosophical defenses of capitalism, a woman's right to abortion, how free immigration and open borders are necessitated by and only truly justified by capitalism, and even the proper nature and role of love in a person's life. In discussing this with a friend in April 2022, I realized that what gave all this meaning to me was not even making a positive impact on the world, however much that might have also been the case, but that my efforts were about the truth, damn it!, another manifestation of my "worshiping at the alter of the supreme sanctity of the truth". In my heart of hearts, I didn't give a shit about anybody else or if I changed the world for the better; it was all about my passion for the ideas, and the fervor with which I pursued my activist efforts was more about other people's also grasping the truth. (Okay, if I'm being serious, I did care that I positively affected other people, but I experienced that as a happy--even if necessary--coincidence.) Now, an idea is true because it reflects (a mind's grasping, through an objective process) the facts of reality. So it's not like the truth was somehow divorced from making the world a better place; these are logically and necessarily integral to one another. But what's important about this is my motive in activism, since that helps explain how my path unfolded with time.

And then, in the course of life after college, a ton of stuff happened:

  • I started learning about Positive Discipline as a theory of parenting and how to apply its lessons to adult relationships, particularly assuming positive intent and conflict-resolution skills.
  • I got very into Manager Tools, again, extracting principles I could apply to everyday life.
  • I learned about Authentic Relating and Circling, which helped me to attend better explicit focus on others' experiences and their world.
  • I started meditating regularly, which generally helped my ability to focus and attend to my own emotions as they happened, allowing me to better act from a place of sobriety and wisdom when in the grips of limbic-system hijack.
  • For about a year, I dated a Muslim who grew up in the West Bank, and despite our obviously having very different explicit viewpoints about religion and what's going on in the Middle East, we never had a single interaction that even remotely resembled an argument. And that wasn't conflict-avoidance or repression or sweeping things under the rug in a way that breeds resentment, but just that I didn't feel the need to convince him of anything. I told him that it wasn't my job to save his soul, and that people believe what they do for their own reasons and if they change their minds, it's on their own timelines. I was happy to share how I came to my beliefs, but I was not interested in trying to convince him of anything. (And his approach was quite symmetric.) His operational philosophy was relatively secular, and what was/is going on in the Middle East was not relevant to our everyday lives together, so for the most part, none of this stuff even really came up; there was no need to artificially introduce topics that just didn't make any meaningful difference. This relationship was a manifestation of significant growth on my part and a concrete example of really letting things be and being at peace with other people being their own way.
  • I was introduced to Attachment Theory as a way of understanding behavioral dispositions in a relationship context, and I found it to have significant explanatory power in terms of behavioral patterns and significant value in terms of engaging effectively with others. (I also learned a lot about how to manage myself and overcome dispositions that weren't serving me, which included the extent to which my anxious-preoccupied tendencies had been magnifying the urgency I felt in convincing other people of the truth.)
  • I took a class at a then-local yoga studio called Mindful Communication and Empathy, which was based on Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication.
  • I devoured all of BrenĂ© Brown's work, and her exploration of "people are generally doing the best that they can" helped me to fully integrate everything I learned from Objectivism (in terms of the harmony of people's (genuine) interests), Positive Discipline, and my own introspective and extrospective experience, leading to a radical shift in how I approach the phenomenon of judgment. This was probably the most meaningful factor in changing both my immediate emotional reaction to things that happen in life, as well as how I respond to those things behaviorally.
  • I read numerous other books that served to enhance, refine, and create connections across my understanding of so many of the above topics, including
  • I got very involved in the Peak Living Network and especially cocounseling.

Now, I still struggle with being misunderstood, in all the same but the truth! kinds of ways, but I've managed to find more peace and equanimity about that and especially with regard to not-about-me truths. I truly believe that people are doing the best that they can and that they are benevolently motivated in the beliefs that they hold. So nowadays, it's not nearly as dysregulating for me when people believe dumb-ass shit, no matter how destructive their views may be for their own lives and for the lives of others. (In a lot of ways, when people are wrong, I'm more readily able to experience that as "sounds like a personal problem".) Heck, I've believed dumb-ass shit in my life, and I know that I was doing the best that I could, sometimes erring rather grievously and culpably. And I know that people need to figure things out on their own timelines, just as I had to, and that brow-beating them with the unassailable logic of my arguments isn't likely to have a positive influence.

Nowadays, I tend to be content just sharing my own experience: Here are my viewpoints, and here is how I came to them. Sometimes, I might share concerns about certain other approaches in the abstract, but not with a motive to convince. I've long stopped arguing on Facebook, which I described a little bit in my post on my return to Facebook. And I've found myself naturally gravitating toward just writing for no audience in particular, with no particular goal other than self-expression, and not especially caring that many fewer people read my website than might read and engage with Facebook posts. Part of me is just tired, and my moving away to the mountains is a manifestation of the extreme exhaustion in my soul, no doubt at least somewhat a function of some severe introvert debt accumulated over decades of enduring people because they are the vehicles for the exchange of ideas that I find so invigorating. But whether chronic fatigue or just truly being okay not urgently needing people to believe anything in particular, I'm much more consistently on the premise of "live and let live" in my everyday life.

And here's the maybe-unintuitive kicker: I am no less confident in the truth of my convictions. I am still as judgmental as ever (just more privately so). I still think I know what's best for me, and I often think I know--at least in some delimited context--what's best for others. I still have strong views on individual rights and what the proper role of government is (and isn't), to say nothing of philosophical issues in all other branches of philosophy. What's changed is how I relate to others and the world around me: However much I may be right about anything, it's not my job to convince, to save, to change, or even to teach.

Okay, so how does this relate to the Prime Directive?

It's probably worth quoting from my about-me page:

I scrupulously avoid reading any news except tech news. I'm blissfully and self-righteously ignorant of current events. I find that most news disproportionately reports on the sensationalistic negative stuff going on around the world, perhaps catering to a sort of schadenfreude. Aside from finding that distasteful on philosophical grounds, I think it misrepresents the proportion of bad and good in the world and skews our perception of how good life is. There is so much good and wonderfulness in the world; I'd rather focus on that. And I'd much rather risk having a disproportionately positive view of the world than negative. Moreover, I have close to 0% control over nearly 100% of the negative stuff reported in "the news", and there's very little I can do differently on the basis of "being informed"; so what's the point? Yes, sure, I can fight for cultural change in the long term, but being informed of broad trends and certain major current events is inescapable, no matter how well I avoid explicitly pursuing "the news"; I don't need to be inundated with negativity to have a motive to live a good life and work to improve the world (if anything, that negativity would sap my energy to do so).

I've found that my time and energy and focus are much better invested in my own life. I'm not knocking others' interest in and pursuit of activism, but for me, in my context, this is what it means to be genuinely selfish, to be practicing self-love, to be enhancing my prosperity, and to be pursuing my happiness and long-term self-interest. The ROI on a home-improvement project or just enjoying a quiet cup of coffee, sunbathing naked on my deck, looking out onto the mountains is orders of magnitude greater than arguing on Facebook, participating in rallies/demonstrations, lobbying for cultural or political change, or even (less antagonistically) organizing educational workshops to spread good ideas. This is why I don't get educated on or involved in the drama du jour, no matter how awful it might be, whether it's racial tension in our country, international conflicts, widespread sexual predation based on abuses of power, public health crises, or celebrity antics. I have very little control over these things, and to whatever extent I can have a positive influence on the world by it, forming or sharing opinions about these issues is just not worth it, not when I could instead do something that actually brings me joy. Going back to that Ayn Rand quotation, that "Anyone who fights for the future, lives in it today." [sic], I am fighting for the future--my future--the future that I can best affect and control. Others' futures are not my problem, and to the extent that our future affects me and is my problem, like I said, it's just not worth it.

Okay, okay--Prime Directive. So the way that I now somewhat jokingly characterize my attitude (which I first explicitly formulated in a conversation with my dad in March 2022) is that with all the hoopla going on in the world all the time and how so many people react to it in such an unhealthy, uncalibrated way, I often feel like I'm an alien or time-traveler stuck on Earth in the 21st century, watching as things unfold, because the Prime Directive prohibits my interference in the natural development of this less advanced culture. (Yes, I'm that arrogant.) It sucks, because I'm still in the culture (no matter how far into the mountains I might flee) and therefore subject to the consequences of what humanity does, but look--people need to figure things out for themselves on their own timelines. It's not my job to go about convincing people of the truth, however right I may be. If I start arguing against some government regulation because it represents a violation of individual rights and would have a disastrous effect on the economy, I may be right, but many in our society just aren't ready to hear that, when there are much deeper cultural and philosophical matters to be addressed first. It's like Starfleet sharing a technology with a culture that hasn't yet developed the wisdom to use responsibly, which they might have, if they had had to struggle to develop the technology themselves in the first place.

Look, I'm mindful of wanting to avoid a false dichotomy here, so despite my dramatic, extreme, and unqualified characterization in the preceding paragraph, I don't think that practically, I'm just completely withdrawing. The alternative is not "argue about politics" versus "shut the fuck up".

There are a bunch of variations on a certain idea in our culture, like "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." and "I can show you a map, but you ultimately have to walk the path.", and there's great value in that idea. A good teacher will help students to take the journey, instead of merely having them memorize details about the destination. There's often no shortcut to the destination, and any attempt to circumvent the work leads you to falsely believe that you've reached your goal, because it looks and feels so much like you've reached it. (In epistemology, this is like trying to skip the hard work of experience-based induction and just get at principles directly (so-called "intrinsicism"), which really just leads to rationalism and floating abstractions, however much it may feel like bona fide knowledge.) There are many unpleasant consequences of just dispensing "knowledge" in this fashion that breeds second-handedness, appeals to authority, and authoritarianism in general, but an example of a symptom that jumps to mind readily from the not-too-distant past is all those inane arguments that people had about whether Pluto is a planet, the vast majority of which were little else than a battle of parrots, all of whom insisted that their elementary school teachers' revelations were the real truth.

But here's the thing: I am not here to be anybody's teacher, and certainly not when nobody has asked for my opinion. So really, it's not my job to even show anybody any proverbial maps. Sometimes, what you have to do is grope around in the dark or get lost, and then you learn the terrain better than you ever might have if somebody had shown you a map.

That said, I'm still passionate about ideas and the truth, so out of sheer excitement, I sometimes can't help myself but engage with someone who is similarly interested. So being mindful of the Prime Directive (and the pitfalls it warns against) and wanting to avoid a false dichotomy, I try to engage much more thoughtfully and carefully: I tend to describe my own journey, not in the spirit of providing others a map, but just to share my experience. If that influences them positively, so much the better, but that's not my goal. The closest analogy I can think of in the Star Trek universe would be sharing the story of humanity's development and scientific progress, even describing the specific discoveries and how they were arrived at (from a history and philosophy of science perspective), but not directly sharing any technology or Wikipedia articles about how things work, either concrete inventions or abstract scientific principles.

Side note: Interestingly, this is a terrifically dramatized point of tension in another of my favorite shows, Stargate SG-1, where the ascended Ancients have a policy of non-interference in the "lower planes", which creates much consternation for our protagonists, who desperately want their aid in combating powerful forces of evil. In the Stargate universe, there's a lot more explicit exploration of this non-interference policy than in Star Trek of the Prime Directive. Oh, and you know that common argument that atheists give against the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent god, Epicurus's trilemma? Well, that totally falls flat for me now. Though I'm still an atheist (obviously, perhaps), the argument makes no sense: Benevolence does not consist of solving others' problems for them, of vanquishing evil for others' sake, of paternalistically robbing people of the dignity and opportunity of struggling to achieve a happy, prosperous life. (Basically, I'm challenging premise #2: "If God is not willing to prevent evil, then he is not all-good.") It certainly raises some interesting questions for me about what I would do if I suddenly acquired infinite control over time, space, and matter (in the spirit of Star Trek's Q), particularly because I have zero interest in power over others, however much I have a Slytherin-like ambition for "power-to" and even wear The One Ring on my finger. And it's especially complicated by the fact that if I had such magical powers, morality would be totally different for an entity like me, since the rules of human ethics, derived from the nature of being human, would not directly, immediately, or obviously apply. I'm projecting a bit based on my current psychology (as against how it would evolve based on this infinite power), but I'm inclined to believe that I would simply take my leave of humanity. I don't see a problem with interfering in a way that I might today if I had better natural human skills (eg, stopping a mugger or a rapist), but would I snap my fingers and change our political system? Would I also have to magically change people's minds and hearts? If I essentially have to recreate reality, isn't that like using the cheat codes in a video game (or rigging the Holodeck to fulfill all my whims)? Would it rob me of the enjoyment of all subsequent experiences, or is that just my current human psychology talking?

Another dimension of all this is one of those points of irony: Sometimes, the more you explicitly go after a particular goal directly, the more you actually undermine your ability to achieve it. (Abstractly, this is often a manifestation of failing to differentiate between a goal and a standard, but that's a topic for another post.) In the present context, the irony is that sometimes, you end up influencing people for the better much more powerfully by just living a good life and leading by example, without needing to tell people how it is. If you try to change people or influence them, you often drive them away instead. (Heck, just ask almost any parent.) That's not to say that you can never have a primary motive to influence people, but the point is that you have to be so so careful about how things might land with them. But for me, since I stopped wanting to influence other people (becoming even more self-involved, if you can believe that!), I've ironically had much more of a gentle, subtle, subconscious, and therefore powerful, impact on them. And while not motivating, it's definitely gratifying.

So, to sum up, here's basically where I've landed in my life so far with respect to the Prime Directive:

  • I don't need to argue with anybody about anything.
  • Getting involved in our culture's drama does not serve my interests.
  • I leave individual people (and humanity in general) to their own devices with respect to figuring things out on their own timelines.
  • I'm happy to share my own experience.
  • All in all, this is probably a reflection of even greater / deeper / more consistent egotism/self-centeredness than I had manifested before.

I wonder how this approach will evolve, especially after I have a kid.