The Italian contribution to the interstellar effort has been substantial, and I’m pleased to know three of its principal practitioners: Claudio Maccone, Giancarlo Genta, and Giovanni Vulpetti. It was with great pleasure, then, that I took Roberto Flaibani up on his offer of appearing in his excellent blog Il Tredicesimo Cavaliere (The Thirteenth Knight). Roberto had translated several Centauri Dreams articles into Italian in the previous year and was now looking for comments on the ramifications of human contact with extraterrestrials as we push into interstellar space. This article on Star Trek’s Prime Directive grew out of our talks and became part of a broader discussion of related articles on Roberto’s site. I thank him for continuing to translate my work into Italian, and now offer the original essay to Centauri Dreams readers.

I should probably throw in a qualifier — I’ve always enjoyed Star Trek but am hardly a rabid fan, getting most of my science fiction not from film or TV but novels and short stories. So this is a bit of a jeu d’esprit, one that acknowledges that the show has indeed spun out provocative and often controversial scenarios.

The Prime Directive embodies a flawed but useful ethical principle that should remain in place, though not without extensive revision. To understand why we need to re-think some aspects of the Prime Directive, let’s consider the context in which it operates. Because it grew out of ‘Star Trek,’ we have to posit a universe much like that one to illuminate the regulation’s strictures. Let’s assume, then, that humans become a spacefaring civilization on not just an interplanetary but an interstellar scale. That means that through whatever means, we have acquired ways of getting to the stars in short time frames, and that an organization has emerged within which this exploration continues, an analogue to the Federation behind the directive.

Why would the Prime Directive emerge in the first place? Here it is important to remember that in the ‘Star Trek’ universe, the directive is actually a regulation that applies only to Starfleet. Indeed, the series shows us that if a citizen of the Federation has decided on his or her own volition to interfere with another civilization, Starfleet is powerless to prevent such actions. The regulation doubtless was called for because the outermost wave of human expansion would be the exploring arm embodied in Star Fleet itself. What happens after a given region of space is first charted and explored is up to individual action, but the people most likely to be involved in first contact with an alien culture are those operating under Federation regulations.

All of this seems like logical extrapolation, and it is a tribute to the ‘Star Trek’ universe that despite the number of television episodes in various configurations and movies using many of the same characters, the storyline has been kept relatively consistent. If we ever do develop a way of sending human crews to other worlds, we will ponder the question of how we interact with any intelligent species we find there. And it’s likely we’ll consider a principle something like “the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution,” a phrase pulled from the text of the Prime Directive. What we are looking at is the development of ‘metalaw,’ a term devised by attorney Andrew Haley in 1956 to specify a system of laws that apply not just to human beings but to all relationships between intelligent species.

Evolving Metalaw and Human Culture

Why not simply resolve to treat alien cultures using the principles of the Golden Rule — treat aliens as we would wish to be treated by them? Haley went on to point out the problem with this approach in a paper called “Space Law and Metalaw – A Synoptic View,” recognizing that aliens are different from ourselves in ways we may not begin to understand. Treating them as we would like to be treated might cause them injury or even destroy them. Haley revised the Golden Rule this way: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” Robert Freitas, who has written thoughtfully on the subject of metalaw, notes that this ‘Great Rule’ has its own problems: “…in practice the Great Rule would be as difficult to apply as the concepts of noninterference and physical security. If we are to ascertain the desires of the other party, we must interact with them to a certain degree – and this may cause sociocultural damage. We still are left with the problem of developing nonconflicting, serviceable metalegal rules.”

We are in the earliest stages of developing ‘metalaw’ today, but a widening sphere of human activity among the stars will eventually force us to move the concept forward. Aerospace engineer Giancarlo Genta (Politecnico di Torino) has examined these questions in his book Lonely Minds in the Universe (Copernicus, 2007), studying the entire question of whether an alien being in today’s world could be considered a ‘person.’ An interesting legal issue would arise if we suddenly found ourselves face to face with a being from another world. We may believe in extending equal rights to all humans no matter their origin, but an extraterrestrial who walked out of a spaceship after landing on Earth would not necessarily be recognized by law as a ‘person.’ Would this creature be considered an animal? If so, would an alien animal have rights under existing law?

The Prime Directive can be assumed to have grown out of discussions exactly like these, and it hinges on the extension of the idea of personhood to alien intelligences. In his paper “Metalaw and Interstellar Relations” (cited above) Robert Freitas sees two routes to personhood:

  • The use of a clear morality; i.e., the ability of the beings in question to make moral or ethical judgments, even if those judgments do not necessarily coincide with our own
  • The presence of self-awareness, of being separate from one’s surroundings.

The presence of either morality or self-awareness is seen as the key to personhood. Here we seem to be splitting hairs in legalistic fashion, but the issue is important because human law revolves around the concept of the person. Metalaw, in other words, leads us invariably to the thinking that leads to the Prime Directive, which we can now quote in more extended form:

As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes introducing superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely. Star Fleet personnel may not violate this Prime Directive, even to save their lives and/or their ship, unless they are acting to right an earlier violation or an accidental contamination of said culture. This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation.

A Silence Between Civilizations?

We now find ourselves in a quandary, for the Prime Directive must be interpreted, just as any body of law or regulation must be understood and acted upon by those affected by it. If we read the text closely, we have no choice but to conclude that the only contact possible between two alien civilizations would happen when the two civilizations are at precisely the same point of development, or as Giancarlo Genta phrases it, the same cultural level. A right is assumed in the Prime Directive for each species to proceed through a ‘normal’ cultural evolution, one which cannot be interfered with by introducing superior knowledge or technologies.

A civilization less advanced than our own in terms of technology, then, would be one we could not contact directly. A civilization more advanced than our own would, if acting under the principles of a similar Prime Directive, be unable to contact us. If the Prime Directive were a universal principle, no species would be able to contact another unless it encountered one so similar to itself that the contact would be considered harmless. Given the wide variation in stellar ages around us in the Milky Way, it seems spectacularly unlikely that we would find a species this similar to ourselves, and all studies of alien cultures would have to be conducted with maximum secrecy to avoid contaminating the alien civilization in question.

This seems an unwise outcome on various levels, but there’s more. What do we mean by the ‘same cultural level?’ Culture is what we recognize around us in the form of the familiar accouterments of society and the technologies we use to provide and service them. But the very idea of an alien culture presupposes a development unlike our own. We could not assume that a culture that seemed similar to our own at the level it was at in the time of ancient Greece would necessarily undergo a similar period of imperial expansion on its planet, a gradual awakening to other cultures across its oceans, a period when learning was lost and an eventual renaissance. Nor could we assume that the beings who live within this culture operate with the same set of principles that we do, or that they would develop technologies comparable to our own.

Note the other flaw in the Prime Directive statement above. We are told that interference consists of introducing superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world ‘whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely.’ The statement implies that if a society is deemed capable of handling these advantages with wisdom, the strictures of the Prime Directive to not apply. But who is to make the decision as to the wisdom of an alien civilization, and how accurate can such an assessment be given the short periods involved in a first contact scenario? And what does the Prime Directive mean by not interfering with the ‘normal and healthy development’ of another culture? To understand what is normal and healthy for an alien civilization may be an impossible accomplishment, and certainly not one we could achieve without extensive study. No, the Prime Directive binds us too severely and limits any contact.

More Supple Rules of Contact

Where to go from here? We need a revised Prime Directive based on an evolving metalaw, one that recognizes that each encounter with an extraterrestrial civilization is going to be different from any other. Genta cites the eleven rules of metalaw compiled by the Austrian lawyer `Ernst Fasan, drawing on the earlier work of Andrew Haley. These are drawn from Fasan’s book Relations with Alien Intelligences: The Scientific Basis of Metalaw (1970), and contain the seeds of a future Prime Directive that should prove more flexible:

1. No partner of metalaw may demand an impossibility.

2. No rules of metalaw must be complied with when compliance would result in the practical suicide of the obliged race.

3. All intelligent races of the Universe have in principle equal rights and values.

4. Every partner of metalaw has the right to self-determination.

5. Any act that causes harm to another race must be avoided.

6. Every race is entitled to its own living space.

7. Every race has the right to defend itself against any harmful act performed by another race.

8. The principle of preserving one race has priority over the development of another race.

9. In case of damage, the damager must restore the integrity of the damaged party.

10. Metalegal agreements and treaties must be kept.

11. To help the other race by one’s own activity is not a legal but a basic ethical principle.

Here we have a set of guiding principles that do not exclude contact between civilizations of different levels of development and complexity. Instead, Fasan’s ideas form a framework that a future commander of an interstellar mission could consult to make decisions about the level of contact appropriate for that situation. Fasan cannot answer all our questions — in particular, we have the conundrum that the ethical concepts embedded here may be profoundly anthropocentric, and we certainly have no idea whether other intelligent races would agree or abide by such ideas. But the scant work that has thus far been done on metalaw points us to the need for an enhanced, more carefully thought-out Prime Directive, one that does not entangle an exploring party far from home with legalities that could compromise a beneficial first contact.

Here it is time to quote Genta directly:

Such rules are without doubt a good starting point on which to build the laws and ethics or relationships between species, but they have been elaborated by one of the sides only — and it could not be otherwise, since it is not even certain that the other sides exist. Moreover, if it is true that the other species with which we could come in contact are much more ancient than ourselves, it is likely that they already faced this problem and established rules for relationships among species.

The reality is that as we expand to nearby stars and beyond, we will learn from our early contacts with other civilizations — if indeed they exist — and shape our metalaw flexibly from each of these encounters. Metalaw cannot be other than an evolving set of principles, incapable of setting down as a Prime Directive that does not grow with our knowledge over time. The Prime Directive offers us a wonderful way to consider the issues. But we need to be aware that it is a template only, and that what we find among the stars will help us shape its future direction. We must also be thinking about these matters long before we actually get to the stars. As Robert Freitas reminds us, “When intelligent extraterrestrial life is discovered, mankind must be prepared, for in all of human history there will be but one first contact.”


Fasan, E, Relations with Alien Intelligences: The Scientific Basis of Metalaw, Berlin Verlag, Berlin, 1970. See also his paper “Discovery of ETI: Terrestrial and Extraterrestrial Legal Implications,” Acta Astronautica 21 (2) (1990), pp. 131-135.

Freitas, R, “Metalaw and Interstellar Relations,” Mercury 6 (March-April, 1977), pp. 15-17 (available online)

Genta, G. Lonely Minds in the Universe. New York: Copernicus, 2007.

Haley, A “Space law and Metalaw – A Synoptic View,” Harvard Law Record 23 (November 8, 1956).