General Order 1
"As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Starfleet 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. Starfleet 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."
Oh, how well we know these words. Every StarFleet Cadet knows them by heart, the first General Order of StarFleet, the founding rock of the United Federation of Planets' never-ending mission "to boldly go where no one has gone before." In their infinite wisdom, with the help, guidance and tutelage of the esteemed member race, the Vulcans, the founders of the UFP saw fit to institute these General Orders for its then new space-faring branch, StarFleet. Exploring the galaxy, as we all know, is tedious work and it requires a strict regimen of responsibility and honor. In keeping with that notion, it seems wise indeed to make this particular Directive the first on the list.
But what does it mean?
There has been much heated debate over the centuries about this, the Prime Directive. What are the details of it? How does it apply? When can it be broken? Is it truly binding? Is it prohibitive or is it a safeguard- and if it's a safeguard, who does it really protect?
From the same writer(s) who brought you "A StarFleet Officer's Field Guide to First Contact" comes this, an easy-to-follow explanation of the Prime Directive, the bane of every starship captain's existence and conscience.
Let's start with the first sentence:
"As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Starfleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture."
The basic point here is that a sentient species' culture is revered and respected. StarFleet begrudgingly acknowledges this. So hands off. You are hereby told, in explicit terms, to not try and change the natural course of a culture's development. If their idea of a good time is to shave each other's armpits with a butterknife, then sit back and enjoy the show.
"Such interference includes introducing superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely."
Let's run with the shaving of armpits with a butterknife analogy... don't hand them a razor- they'll figure out how to make one on their own, eventually. We hope. And don't even mention the existence of a razor or, Gods forbid!, a micro-laser. If they're using a butterknife, then it's a sure bet that they haven't thought of anything better, that they're not advanced enough to. Let's suppose that this particular species is a peaceful one. You hand them a razor and, inevitably, they discover that it cuts skin as well as hair rather neatly. Frank is happily shaving his armpits one day with that new razor you weren't supposed to give him and his wife walks into the bathroom, bearing the terrible news that she has been cheating on him. Frank, in his surprise, accidentally cuts himself and marvels in the mirror at the blood trickling from his pits. Suddenly he gets an outlandish idea, a way to provide an outlet for that anger, frustration and surprise he has just gotten. Wife finds herself either dead or close to it and, suddenly, the community needs to create something it has never thought imaginable: a tribunal with the sole intention of figuring out what to do with Frank, the horrible razor-weilding monster.
Question: Who put that razor in Frank's hands in the first place without educating him on what not to do with it?
What if it was a micro-laser that had been given to him instead? And what if, in his surprise, instead of merely nicking himself he accidentally thumbed the controls to "mutilate", thereby literally disarming himself in the blink of an eye and then bled to death, due to the fact that his culture's medical knowledge is still archaic by our standards. Now his wife is alive, sure, but she's just witnessed an accidental suicide and the surrounding culture will get wind of other potential uses for these extremely advanced devices.
Rather than run the risk of flushing this peaceful culture's development down the drain, just keep your mouth shut about razors and micro-lasers. If you feel that you simply must help out, then try suggesting they use shaving cream. To date, we do not know of anyone who has killed or been killed in a freak shaving cream accident. Yet.
"Starfleet 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."
Believe it or not, this is not as clear-cut as you might think. Let's say that your ship is in peril- a warp core breach, let's suppose. Everyone aboard must evacuate, head for the lifepods! Did you know that those lifepods are rigged to self-destruct if a Federation Distress beacon isn't engaged? If it crashes and you don't get out in time with the portable distress beacon then guess what? You're alien worm meat. Sorry. Dem's the rules.
Well, we wouldn't want some troglodite species who has barely discovered how to make combustion engines to find that lifepod with an alien corpse inside it, now would we? Clearly, they're not ready for that kind of technology, so we have to eliminate it- and you along with it, if necessary. We understand that it was a desperate attempt at self-preservation, but if that primitive culture advances too quickly without learning about the responsibility that goes along with such technological advances, then they might end up waging war- either with themselves or with another primitive species. They might get cocky and try to take on an advanced species, which would have devastating effects.
The only time the Prime Directive can be disobeyed in a situation like this is if the primitive culture has somehow already discovered the presence of your ship while it's still in orbit. If they get fearful or paranoid, they might attempt an attack upon the ship, which they already know exists. At that point the captain has two options:
1) Attempt to leave orbit and keep the species guessing. If you are ill-equipped to handle the situation, then don't even try. You're better safe than sorry. And shame on you for getting caught in the first place! By the way, sending a message to the primitive cutlure such as "Is that the best you can do? You boneheads couldn't even scratch our hull plating! We could stomp you flat in a second. Be thankful we're leaving!" is not standard operating procedure and will most likely get you busted back to cadet so fast it'll make your head spin.
2) Attempt to initiate First Contact in a peaceful manner. Do the words "We come in peace" ring a bell? If, for some reason, you happen to be in charge of the ship with the captain missing in action then we suggest that you go with Option #1, inform StarFleet Command of the situation and let them take it from there. Only experienced diplomats should attempt a First Contact with a primitive culture- and successfully managing twelve significant others at the same time does not qualify as having good diplomatic skills. Ask Commander William Riker about that.
Fourth and last sentence:
"This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation."
Here comes the slippery slope of judgement. Is the moral obligation to be obeyed or is the Federation's security more important? That's a hard one to answer. In some circles, there is the sentiment that the Federation's existence is beholden to the ideals it was founded upon and that it is expendible in the face of those ideals. In other circles it is considered a higher moral obligation to maintain the safety and security of hundreds of thousands of Federation member worlds in favor of one primitive culture- "it's a numbers game," is a favorite quote amongst such people: 3 billion innocent lives versus 38 trillion innocent lives. Those're some mighty big omelettes we're talking about, huh?
It is doubtful that such a debacle will ever present itself to any StarFleet Officer. Should, however, you be faced with such a conundrum, then it will be entirely up to you on how to proceed- just keep in mind that you may face a court martial or even worse if you break the Prime Directive.
In any situation where the security of the Federation is not at risk, then the Prime Directive is to be observed. Period. You cannot be ordered or coerced into breaking the Prime Directive by any officer in StarFleet- regardless of rank or reason. If you are approached with an order to break the Prime Directive you are duty-bound to confine that officer to the brig. If the officer in question happens to be your captain, then you will be absolved of any wrong-doing in a mutiny trial... as long as you can prove that your captain tried to break the Prime Directive. If you can't prove it, you're toast.
Anyone who is caught breaking the Prime Directive without justifiable cause is considered to be less than StarFleet material and will be cashiered from service immediately, no arguments. The Federation was indeed founded on the highest of morals and ideals and expects its civil servants to observe those ideals at all costs.
The only time that you may "break" the Prime Directive by revealing StarFleet's advanced technology and resources is if, and only if, a primitive culture is advanced enough to send out a plea for help. Again, the judgement here is somewhat murky. Does said plea for help have to specifically mention help from StarFleet or could such a plea be general in nature ("Please help us. Anyone.")? Such questions- and decisions- are best left to the commanding officer. In such cases, anyone who refuses to accept orders from the captain is allowed to do so and those who accept the captain's decision will not be held accountable.
All other bets are off.