Thinking About Ethics

Lady JusticeNote: Although this post is tangentially related to the post titled “Thinking About Thinking,” this post should not be viewed as a follow up or Part II of the previous post. The previous post describes my initial thought process whereas this post describes what happened in my mind after my initial thought. Although both posts refer to the same Star Trek episode and address aspects of decision making, this post is not part of the previous post.

The Star Trek episode I mentioned in an earlier post is titled “Cogenitor.” There are many stories in the episode, but I am going to focus on the one that most obviously addresses decision making.

The Prime Directive (set of laws) that governs conduct of all members of the Enterprise is, according to Wikipedia, there can be “no interference with the internal development of alien civilizations.” For example, if during their travels, the Enterprise encounters a species of “slave owners” who prevent their slaves from reading, then teaching a slave to read would violate the Prime Directive. My prime question about the Directive is whether or not people who follow it (avoid teaching slaves to read) would, by their avoidance of interference, be acting unethically. The answer has significant implications about all religious doctrine and societal laws, rules, customs, morals, and actions. The answer is just as important today as it was thousands of years ago. How do you decide between what is right and what is wrong?


  • Is slavery so offensive that violating the Prime Directive is justifiable?
  • Who decides what is or isn’t morally and ethically offensive?
  • What qualifies a person or panel to create a law?
  • How can a person or panel to determine whether a violation of law is justifiable?
  • What is the difference between theft of information and whistle blowing?
  • Why are whistle blowers protected by law (in the United States), but people who leak information are persecuted by law?
  • What could stop immoral and unethical practices unless someone takes action such as whistle blowing, leaking information, writing, reporting, protesting, etc.?
  • Is the leaking top-secret information justifiable when the information proves the government is conducting illegal and unethical activities?

If you want to read a summary of the Star Trek episode, click here. If you want to view the full episode, click here. Please note that the video link may not work if you are viewing this post on a mobile device.

Thanks to CBS Entertainment, CBS Studios, the writers, actors, actresses, and all the other people who were involved in creating and filming the Star Trek episode titled “Cogenitor.” Thanks to Wikipedia for defining the Prime Directive. Thanks to Dave for sharing a picture of Lady Justice. Thanks to Wendy, Peter, Branden, and Allen for their efforts in finding and reporting the Star Trek episode I described with the precise ambiguity, distortions, and errors that often accompany brain injury, poor memory, and vague recollections.

1 Comment

  1. There are three beliefs about ethical decision making that I want to address in this comment. On one end of the spectrum, there are people who believe ethical decision making is simple because no decisions are necessary. A second, more democratic belief, is that decisions require little more than a majority. The third belief is that the decision maker must weigh the costs and benefits of making an ethical decision.

    In his book “Ethics 101,” John Maxwell suggests ethical decisions can be made simply . . . you don’t need to know the law, you don’t need to explore nuances of philosophy, you simply imagine yourself in the place of another. If we use the slavery example in your post, clearly ethical decision making is not simple.

    According to Wikipedia, “Utilitarianism has often been considered the natural ethic of a democracy operating by simple majority without protection of individual rights. . . .” Is Utilitarianism the rule of ethics I should follow? Can the rules of Utilitarianism protect the rights of minorities? If the goal is the greatest good for the greatest number, then in the case of “Cogenitor” minority rights are clearly not protected by Utilitarianism — only 3% of the total alien population are minorities. According to the rules of Utilitarianism, in the eighteenth century, Americans could have justified slavery on the basis that it provided a good consequence for a majority of Americans, because the majority benefited from cheap slave labor. This conclusion is simply appalling.

    My belief is that slavery is ethically offensive regardless of whether it applies to civilizations on Earth or on other planets. The Prime Directive, though well intentioned, does not address the following conflicts:

    • Should I follow my oath “not to interfere” or follow my belief that interference is valid for the slavery scenario presented in your post?
    • Which is more important . . . to protect those who are not able to protect themselves or to uphold my duty and promise not to interfere?
    • Even though inaction is mandated by the Prime Directive, will I do what is “right” even when my actions are unpopular and illegal?
    • What are the negative consequences (risk to self and others) of violating diplomatic protocol?
    • Do I have all the facts necessary to make a SMART decision?

    Human beings well intentioned efforts sometimes fail. We make controversial and poor decisions. Does this mean we should stop doing what we believe is right? How can we be sure of what is right? In the end, people must make decisions based on their personal values.

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