Uncontacted Amazon tribes and the morality of the Prime Directive

Here is a story about some “uncontacted” indigenous group in the rain forest in Brazil. Sadly it sounds like some of them were massacred in this instance, but the topic I really wanted to discuss was the morality of leaving these groups out of modern society. We have science and medicine and wealth and modern conveniences that could markedly improve these people’s lives, extend their life expectancy and ease some the brutality and suffering of their primitive existence (or at least that of their children and grandchildren). Isn’t it a monstrous atrocity to withhold all of this from them? It seems that the motivation is some reverence for the idea of “noble savages” but it just seems cruel.

I see, perhaps, some parallels to the “Prime Directive” from Star Trek fiction:

I don’t think the Star Trek show ever dealt with situations like these, but imagine for a moment, if the Enterprise crew stumbled across planets in the following situations:

Inhabitants dying off in a mass extinction due to a plague / disease / effects of global warming that the crew could cure in a jiffy if it weren’t for that pesky Prime Directive.

Planet on the brink of or already engaged in a global war that’s sure to result in the civilization’s annihilation, but the Enterprise could put an end to in a few minutes, perhaps by killing a leader or destroying a critical structure.

Small group on a planet engaging in genocide of a more populous, but less capable of defending themselves group.

Isn’t it a terrible tragedy to stand by and let so many innocent beings suffer / die when it could be prevented, and with minimal effort? In other words, Isn’t the Prime Directive immoral? Don’t we owe it to these Amazonian tribes to get them a flu shot, a Big Mac, and Dish TV with the NFL Sunday Ticket?

It is a thorny issue; I did some longer reading on the issue for a college anthro course, and views on the right course of action widely differ. Here are some counterarguments/nuance I can recall:

  1. The history of these peoples’ interactions with moderns has been overwhelmingly awful. There’s an element of “first do no harm” in the care that’s taken in making contact.

  2. “Uncontacted” is somewhat exaggerated: many (most?) of these peoples have made contact or been contacted in the past, and some groups have regular interactions with their modern neighbors, representatives of the government, researchers, etc.

  3. Respecting the wishes of the tribes is regarded as important. If they want to be left alone, so be it. (And given the bad history, many do.)

One problem is that we might also expose them to pathogens they have never encountered and agaist which they have no immunity. better than giving them flu shots would be not giving them the flu.

If they’re truly completely uncontacted, then it’s only polite to stop by and introduce ourselves to the neighbors. But I highly doubt there are any actual examples of this any more.

If, on the other hand, they know we’re out there, and they make the conscious decision that they’d rather not have anything to do with us, well, that’s their call to make, and we should respect it. I believe this is the actual situation with all of the current “uncontacted tribes”.

Won’t someone think of the children?

Seriously, though. I don’t know the answer, but do we owe the children an education so that they can legitimately make a decision as adults? If they have no education, they really can’t enter modern society later with any chance of making a success of things. If the adults don’t want anything to do with modern society, fine.

It’s immoral to deny them the wonder of Amazon Prime.

Kirk…Picard…and Janeway got around that little Starfleet directive quite regularly…in the most dramatic of ways…quite entertaining…As I always say Star Trek is a guide to my whole life…it never fails me !!

Maybe you’re whooshing us, but the Star trek show did deal with situations exactly like those - in fact, pretty much any time the Prime Directive is discussed, it’s a situation like that, where, on the face of it, it seems obviously better to interfere.

In reality, I think it’s always going to be a mixed bag. Bear in mind that in past examples, missionaries and explorers often believed they had the best of intentions for the ‘savages’, but were probably wrong by our hindsight judgment.

So the key questions are:
How can we be sure we’re acting in their best interests, and not in our own? (I like to think we could make this judgment better nowadays, but the Dunning Kruger Effect is a powerful force)

How can we know the likely future outcome of contact? Even if we went in with medicine and purely helpful technologies, we’ll pollute with our own baggage we are also carrying.

I think the Prime Directive is boneheaded. I don’t think there is any way to derive such a hard and fast universal rule (I mean, in practice, the Star Trek universe also agrees with me - they had the Prime Directive, but found it impractical more often than useful)

What would your reaction be to the news that a benevolent country made the decision to kill America’s current leader in order to prevent future global war?

Would “Its for your own good” cut it as an explanation?

Leave them alone and let them live as they wish.

The history of contact is terrible for these tribes. If there were some way to demonstrate that this had changed, and that contact and relations would be much more likely to help than harm them, then I think it might be the moral and ethical thing to do. But there isn’t, as far as I can tell.

Until they live in such little houses as are reserved for the poor, work hard for 40 years at regular jobs that enrich their employers, get paid in order to survive, and from that pay pay taxes, watch TV all evening and elect a democratic parliament/congress to rule them, can they be considered truly human ?

My first thought was to just quote this line “We have science and medicine and wealth and modern conveniences that could markedly improve these people’s lives, extend their life expectancy and ease some the brutality and suffering of their primitive existence” and simply say “But they’ve survived as long as anyone else” and leave it at that.

However, I noticed at the beginning of your post something else that needs addressing, you mentioned that there was a massacre. That seems like a good enough reason to leave people alone if they choose not to be contacted. Surely, if they wanted to be part of modern society, have access to modern medicine, education, technology, they could find a way to make that happen. Maybe not today or this week but over the next generation or three. We call them “uncontacted” but wiki has a pretty good (if sparse) write up on a good number of them, including pictures. You don’t get that much information just by flying over them with a helicopter.

Anyways, in the end maybe they consider your life cruel. I’ve never understood why we feel the need to force our way of life on everyone we happen across whether they want it or not.

I think the jury is still out on what the optimal end game is for human society, and certainly whether or not modern culture/tech/medicine leads to happier or “improved” lives.

As a policy, the Prime Directive is idiotic. Like any other “zero tolerance” rule it replaces judgement with inflexibility.

Sometimes interfering causes harm. Sometimes it causes good. Mostly, it’ll do some degree of both. One cannot abrogate their own moral duty to improve the world because there are risks associated with action. There are also risks from inaction.

You must take whatever action you think leads to the best outcome while accepting the risks that it might not. If you are a good leader, you will consult with the wise and carefully consider all consequences, before doing anything. But failing to act in a timely manner might have consequences worse than doing something with incomplete information. And you are just as morally responsible for your inaction as your actions.

Woe be it unto any such peoples if the UN Declaration of Human Rights is applied to them.

OTOH, many of these tribes have extremely violent cultures and spend much of their energy killing each other. I have little sympathy for them and their lifestyle. They’d probably be better off if civilized, diseases and all, and they would certainly be improved on a moral level.

That doesn’t necessarily apply to all of them. But quite a lot, from what I’ve read.

Except there is no Prime Directive for the Amazon tribes.

These people are regularly in contact with the rest of us. If you’re really concerned with the morality of leaving them out of the wonders of modern civilization, what about subsistence farmers in Africa? It’s all well and good to talk about how modern civilization would improve their lives, but for the billion people living below the poverty line around the world that aspiration rings a bit hollow.

What, we’re just going to show up in Amazon with boatloads of TVs and iPhones and medicine and food and clothing and prefab houses and books and start civilizing these people? That will never happen because that costs money, and giving free stuff to poor people is anathema to conservatives like you. You aren’t in favor of giving food and medicine and consumer electronics to Haitians, or Guatemalans, or Nigerians are you?

So why does the fact that poor people in the Amazon are poor and have very little with which to buy modern tools irritate you so much? These are poor people who live by subsistence farming and hunting and gathering. They do sometimes trade for tools and such, you can find people wearing old t-shirts and carrying steel machetes all over the Amazon. The reason they don’t have more of such stuff is that they have very little of value to trade, because they are dirt poor farmers and hunters. It takes a big pile of plantains to trade for one machete, and then that trader has to load all those plantains back on his boat and travel a hundred miles back to a village to sell those at market. The economics don’t make sense.

This is why the Amazon tribes are isolated, not because there is some sort of social taboo against interacting with them.

Let me add one thing. They do have one thing that is valuable: the land under their feet. But to get that valuable land you have to clear off the people first, and turn the land into strip mines or plantations or whatever. So you can see why that doesn’t seem like such a good deal for them. “Welcome to civilization! Now get the fuck out. We don’t care where you go, but you can’t stay here.”


What makes you think I’m irritated?