Situational Ethics in Star Trek Voyager

In the past few months, I have begun watching all of the Star Trek series, starting with The Next Generation and have recently started the series, Voyager. Though I am relatively early in the series I have already seen a stark change from the way the crew of the Enterprise interpreted the Prime Directive when compared to the crew of the Voyager. I noticed the difference very early in season one of the Voyager and began to wonder what is the catalyst for this change.

The premise of Star Trek Voyager is that during Capt. Janeway’s first command mission of the Voyager class starship is to track down a group of Federation citizens known as the Maquis who had launched a military resistance in the Badlands against the Cardassians. While in the Badlands, the Voyager is chased down and eventually enveloped by a powerful energy wave, which ends up damaging Voyager, killing several of its crew, and stranding the ship on the far side of the galaxy, known as the Delta Quadrant, more than 70,000 light-years from Earth1. The remaining crews of the Voyager and the Maquis decide to join forces to make the return journey back to Federation Space, which unless they are able to find a stable wormhole or advanced technology will take them close to 70 years.

This premise is different from the premise of both Star Trek Next Generation and Deep Space Nine as it places the Starfleet crew in a precarious position. They do not have the advantage of being a known power nor are they able to rely on the power of the Federation to provide resources and help when they are in distress. They are also facing the traumatic reality of being separated from their homes and families for the next 70 years. I believe that this leads to the willingness to ignore or circumvent the guiding principle of the Federation, the Prime Directive.

It is interesting to see the ethical decisions made throughout the crew when giving the chance to save their lives, lessen their hardships or shorten their journey. Unlike the crew of the Enterprise, the Voyager crew is filled with Maquis members who are there out of necessity and not choice but even trained Starfleet officers will sacrifice the Prime Directive from time to time in favor of their own interests. I believe the decision to ignore the Prime Directive comes from the fact that the crew is made up of privileged people thrust into a powerless position and being unable to sustain the empathy and perspective needed to make decisions that sacrifice their comfort.

Privileged people who have always experienced life from positions of power can not empathize with how their decisions will affect others as easily as people who have always been marginalized. While they almost  always recognize the conflict of interests, I have witnessed the crew of the Voyager more times than not, decide to violate the directive for their own gain. Most notably so far in my watch of the series the episode “Prime Factors” sees the crew grapple with their experience with a species who has the technology that could possibly cut their journey home in half. That society has their own version of the Prime Directive and tells Capt. Janeway that they will not be able to share the technology with them, meanwhile members of the crew defy the orders of the Captain and seek to obtain the technology behind her back.

While the attempt is ultimately unsuccessful, it is worth noting that until that point the Starfleet and Maquis crews, while working together were split in their loyalties. This is the first time that both factions came together and they did so in order disregard the orders of their captain and satisfy their own convenience. I love the Prime Directive and believe it is an implicit acknowledgment of the perils of colonialism and imperialism. However, while I disagree with this disregard of the guiding principle by the Voyager crew, I do appreciate the realism in this decision.

As Professor Dumbledore so eloquently puts it in another story I hold close to my heart:

Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.

The crew of the Voyager is in the middle of tough times and continuously choosing what is easy over what is right. I still have six and half seasons to go and I hope these choices begin to change though I would not be surprised if they don’t.