The issue has apparently been raised again related to a topic near and dear to this website: Star Trek. I suppose it was inevitable that I got back to it, as it's one of great moral significance. Obviously we are dealing with fiction, for which we should be thankful, in that there's no need for personal involvement and loss to muddle the issue. That still doesn't mean the issue isn't important, because that which we endorse in fiction we may be convinced is important for reality, such as the impact of the film The China Syndrome on the attitudes of people towards nuclear power.
The issue comes from an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise, which I reviewed some time ago. The situation from the episode is this: an alien species called the Valakians make contact with the Enterprise crew, as there is a massive pandemic sweeping their world. Captain Archer has Dr. Phlox, their only physician on Enterprise, try to help them find a cure. In the course of his examination, he uncovers two things. First, that the disease is genetic, and that their entire race will die from it, and that it is natural, built into the DNA. The other is that the second, less developed race (the Menk), that is on the verge of an evolutionary leap forward, but that that won't happen with the Valakians around.
Faced with this situation, Phlox convinces Archer that they should not turn their cure for the disease over to the Valakians, that they should be permitted to die out so that the Menk can reach their full potential.
It was and is my position that this decision was grossly immoral, that it was an act of genocide.
Dr. Phlox's Incompetence
Dr. Phlox performed two extremely obvious errors in the course of his study of the Valakian condition, which will be examined here. They illustrate different points related to the final judgment of his guilt or innocence in this.
The first point is his revelation of the nature of the Valakian condition, and what immediately follows. He identifies it as a genetic condition. He then states that he will search for a cure by studying the immunity of the Menk. However, this is nonsensical, as one is not immune to a genetic condition, as it's not a contagious disease. To think otherwise would be like thinking you could catch blindness from a blind man if you shake his hand, or diabetes if a diabetic coughed on you, and that it's only some kind of immunity that is protecting you. And given the statement that the Menk and Valakians are not biologically compatible, it would not provide any kind of useful medical information.
Second, Dr. Phlox's views on the Valakians and the Menk from an evolutionary perspective shows he is extremely misguided in his understanding of how they work. We will cover that more in a moment.
Thus what we see from Phlox's gross misunderstandings of basic facts of biology that he is likely wrong in his interpretation of the data regarding the future of this planet. The only comfort that could be taken from this fact is that it could mean that he was just as mistaken about his cure and that there was nothing either could have done to save them. Regardless, this is a case of clear-cut incompetence leading to the decision.
Misunderstandings Of Evolution
The position adopted by Phlox and Archer is based on two serious misunderstandings of evolution. Phlox believes that the Valakian's have been evolving this way naturally. However, that is nonsensical on its face, because evolution by definition is the act of being better suited to survive. A species does not evolve into extinction, as the entire purpose of evolution is to avoid it.
Likewise, his beliefs about the Menk are based upon his belief that they are ready to take an evolutionary leap forward. Evolution does not work that way, as evolution is a reactive force. This is indicated by the fact that Phlox's own position is based upon the idea that the Menk will never reach their full evolutionary potential with the Valakians around, because their presence would prevent it. That is possibly correct, as it's all environmental forces that direct a species evolution. But Phlox then seems to believe that this one factor is the only one inhibiting this evolutionary advance, and is willing to allow an entire race to die even though there could be other factors that would prevent their leap forward, or that the very thing pushing them forward is the presence of the Valakians and their advanced society.
Despite a thorough understanding of the laws of motion, thermodynamics, fluid dynamics, and other disciplines, as well as over a centuries worth of meteorological data, we cannot accurately predict weather as recent as next month. We cannot even reach a consensus on the current stage of Earth's climate among scientists who are experts in that field. If we cannot agree on whether or not global warming exists with all we know, if we cannot figure out whether it will rain or not on March 4, 2042 in Springfield, IL, then how can anyone think we would be able to accurately predict the results of evolution fifty thousand years from now?
Once again, the entire idea of this so-called dilemma is called into question. We cannot know that Phlox's interpretation is even correct. After all, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there were instances of innocent people being attacked because they were Arab, or just looked like Arabs. Isn't it possible that while an advanced species is suffering horrible while a weaker one stands by unharmed that in its final years, the Valakians might irrationally blame the Menk for this? That they might wipe them out in an act of deranged vengeance. How does that fit into Phlox's equations? Indeed, given his ignorance of evolution overall, he could be wrong on both counts, and we could be left with a decimated Menk and Valakian population, and now two species that lived together in harmony would now be consumed by mutual hatred. That is the point about trying to hypothesize about the future, you can't assume your outcome is the only likely one. Evolution is not predestined.
Does This Qualify As Genocide?
Let us begin by examining it case by case, each death resulting from the lack of treatment. The question is, would it be murder? Murder is differentiated from other losses of life by the inclusion of depraved indifference ("To constitute depraved indifference, the defendant's conduct must be 'so wanton, so deficient in a moral sense of concern, so lacking in regard for the life or lives of others, and so blameworthy as to warrant the same criminal liability as that which the law imposes upon a person who intentionally causes a crime. Depraved indifference focuses on the risk created by the defendant's conduct, not the injuries actually resulting." Source). In other words, taking an action and knowing full well that it causes a risk of death, and continuing without concern for that consequence, is murder. If a doctor refused to treat a dying man because he was black, I don't think anyone beyond lunatic extremists would say it was anything short of murder, that the doctor knew that not treating would lead to death, and that his refusal to act was depraved indifference.
But of course, the actions we're describing aren't ones of obvious prejudice, so how does that play in? Well, let's imagine that the doctor instead had two patients. Patient A (Sarah) is nearly blind and needs a cornea transplant. Patient B (Jane) suffers from Wilson's Disease, a genetic disorder that is fatal. Without a donor for Sarah, she'll live a full life, but be unable to ever see again. Without a donor liver for Jane, she'll die. Through an unusual accident, a blind man sadly suffered a fatal accident, and his liver could be used for Jane. However, wanting to ensure Sarah lives a full life, he denies Jane the liver and allows her to die so that Sarah could have her corneas.
In this case, we have the same thing: the doctor has chosen to allow the genetic disorder in one patient to take its course even unto death, to provide a quality of life improvement for another patient - again, not survival, but merely a better existence. He makes no effort to save the patient who is dying, and it is not a life or death reason for him to refuse her, he just has decided to allow nature to take its course. Knowing that course will be certain death, and knowing that he has a means to stop it (or to attempt to stop it), is depraved indifference - he is a murderer.
Of course, one might argue that it's not quite the same, because Sarah could always just get another donor, it didn't need to be Jane. Yes, but that actually hits the hypocritical nail right on the head: that is based on knowledge of the future. For all we know, Sarah won't ever get a transplant. And for all we know, the Menk will reach their full potential even with the Valakians present. Both are based on a best guess, but neither is a guarantee. Sarah may have complications that will prevent future transplants, and the Valakians may (with the use of the warp drive they asked for from Archer) set up enough off-world colonies that they could turn substantial areas of their planet over to the Menk to allow them to meet their full potential. After all, it was human beings who decided to make sure salt-water crocodiles in Australia were allowed to live and thrive when they were close to being wiped out, and they're animals that kill people! If we, flawed twenty-first century humans that we are, are capable of showing that kind of kindness to a mindless animal that will kill us if it suits them, how much more likely is it that an advanced sentient species will one day decide to allow another sentient species room to grow and advance? So there really is no difference here at all, except that Jane's actually in a worse predicament - the transplant may not work, but we still expect her doctor to try. Phlox has a cure that will work, and still won't use it.
So, if the act of allowing one person to die for the sake of another's quality of life is depraved indifference, then it is murder to do so. Thus, every person Phlox and Archer refused to treat was a case of murder. And if one is responsible for murdering every member of a race, then there is no other word for that then genocide.
Is There A Moral Dilemma?
One could argue for there being a moral dilemma based upon the facts as Phlox presents them: should the Valakians' disease take its natural course if it will allow the Menk to reach their full potential. However, that's based on a few flawed arguments. First, the fact that Phlox is correct, which as we've established is based on misapplied science and therefore his conclusions are highly questionable. He could just as likely be wrong, given those mistakes. Second, motivation does not alter moral truths. Star Trek has had situations where characters attempted or committed genocide, and until now they have always been the villains regardless of their motivations. For example, when Section 31 created a morphogenic virus to kill all the Founders during the Dominion War, it was an act condemned by the protagonists, even those who knew that a long drawn out war between them would wipe out the Federation and lead to a projected 900 billion deaths. If there were 900 billion Menks, it would certainly be a sign that they weren't being held back by the Valakians.
The fact that this was an internal matter is also not a justification. Perhaps most notoriously, Archer himself decided that the detained Suliban in Tandaran internment camps didn't deserve to be there, and not only helped execute their escape from prison, but directly attacked the Tandarans, destroying equipment and defenses and probably killing some of them. Despite being a purely internal Tandaran matter, Archer became involved in the most direct and brutal manner possible. If there is justification in fighting to free those who are imprisoned, then there should be even more justification in exerting minimal effort to avert extinction.
The fact is, the Valakians and the Menk enjoyed peaceful co-existence, far better than the Suliban living among the Tandaran. To say that the only hope the Menk had of reaching their full potential was to let the Valakians die out is to say that the Menk are more deserving to live, and to assume that the relationship between them could never become one of equals. It is not a moral choice to say extinction over co-existence. This is only a moral dilemma if one decides that human morality takes second place to the will of nature, but what does that mean?
Nature Taking Its Course
"Nature" is a word often used by people who want to refer to a force or process as if it were aware of itself. For instance, in the film Jurassic Park, the ecologically-friendly Dr. Malcolm weasels around the issue of cloning dinosaurs versus cloning endangered species by saying that "nature selected [dinosaurs] for extinction." This is an opinion that has at its heart the idea that there is something beyond our understanding going on that we should not meddle with. While it may be true that there are some things we likely shouldn't meddle with for our own good (as we don't fully understand the science we're exploring), it's usually used instead as it is here, that we don't know the plan that has been laid out in that we are interfering.
"Nature" in this context, is for all intents and purposes no different than the word "God." It presumes that a decision has been reached, and mere mortals shouldn't interfere in it. Phlox's opinion is that they let "nature make the decision." This is an issue of metaphysics, but for simplicity it should boil down to this: if there is the possibility of a plan, and we are not told of what our purpose in that plan should be, and we have free will, then we have no recourse but to do what we would do even if there was no plan. What other choice would there be? We can no more know when we should act than when we shouldn't, nor could we know what natural events we should interfere with than those we should not (because all things not caused by us are natural, thus a disease is natural). If a doctor had found a cure for AIDS, but refused to give it because he felt nature had selected it as a means to keep homosexuals in check, would we as a society praise him for his choice? For all we know, the doctor could be correct, since we do not know "nature's" plan, yet I doubt many would be advancing that position.
If "nature" then does not have a plan, but is simply a descriptive human term applied to an abstract, than there is also no reason for us not to take action. All species interact with the natural world in one way or another, and those which are natural are not necessarily good. Some ants, by their nature, enslave other ants. It's natural, yet we as human beings see it as a moral evil - some go so far as to not wanting to use inferior species for our own benefits! Yet "nature" endorses slavery and exploitation. We instead have a moral code that is not in concert with that. In my original review, I unwittingly enraged someone by saying that evolution states that a man with bad legs or a with diabetes dies. What I was attempting to show was that while that may be what evolution states, that's not what humans accept. If a man has bad legs, we do not allow him to die of starvation, we interfere in the natural events and provide him with leg braces or a chair so that he can care for himself. If a man is diabetic, we do not let him just die, but provide him with medicine and treatment so that he can continue to live a healthy and productive life. We do not embrace nature, we resist it because we believe it is the moral thing to do, and we are rewarded by the presence of those others to enrich our society.
Whatever nature has set in motion is not justification to allow it to continue if it is in conflict with our morals. If that were true, nothing short of human-induced physical disability should ever be treated by a doctor, because the rest are all natural, from an allergic reaction to a birth complication to Wilson's Disease.
It Comes Full Circle
Three years after the events with the Menk and the Valakians, two crew members of the Enterprise were infected by a virus. This event reconfirmed the notion of Phlox's incompetence, as he identified it as a silicon-based virus, which would be impossible to infect a life form that does not, in fact, have silicon in it to replicate the virus (since the only thing a virus does is get into a cell and force it to replicate itself). The two crew members would die within hours of exposure.
This event was observed by two Organians, who had a similar philosophy of non-intervention, and who could cure the disease. Because of their philosophy, they chose not to. Upon learning of this, Phlox states that their "behavior is appalling," thus showing that withholding the treatment for two people is clearly wrong in his view - how much more so then the withholding for an entire race? Archer's opinion is likewise at odds with his behavior here: "Maybe you've evolved into beings with abilities I can't comprehend, but you've paid a hell of a price. You've lost compassion and empathy. Things that give life meaning. And if that's what it takes to be advanced, I don't want any part of it." Archer and Phlox apparently held compassion only for the Menk, and believed the Valakians deserved none. And remember, the Valakians peacefully co-existed with the Menk; the sole crime for which they would be wiped out was the fact they existed. In fact, the true irony of this is that, had the Valakians been more ruthless and wiped out the Menk eons ago, then there would have been nothing at all to stop them from being saved. For choosing to instead live in peace with the Menk, they were sentenced to extermination.
This is not relevant to the moral discussion here, but since the topic comes up so often in conjunction with this discussion I feel I should address it here. It's frequently mentioned that the ending of this episode was changed by the network. However, it should be noted that all that was changed was that Archer did not know Phlox had a cure, and so he didn't decide to withhold it. Instead, Phlox alone decided to not tell Archer about it to make certain it wouldn't be given to the Valakians. So the only effect the network meddling had on the story was that Archer was just as culpable as Phlox was.
I have often said in regards to this and similar topics this thought: It's difficult to imagine a man callously holding a life preserver while another man drowns, and not only taking no action, but calling himself moral while doing so. While intervention should always be carefully considered, there is nothing about strict non-intervention that is in any way enlightened - a choice to do nothing is a choice nonetheless. A rigid philosophy is no substitute for human compassion and clear reason.
Star Trek: Enterprise was a prequel series within the franchise. It would be intriguing to find out what became of all of this. Imagine the damage if, say, the Romulans cured them of their condition and armed them with the knowledge that Starfleet was content to let them painfully die out... I don't think they'd be complimenting them on their compassion.