2.24.2013

Metalaw: Should We Stop Anthropomorphizing Aliens and Use the Anti-Golden Rule?


By on 11:10 AM

Science fiction with aliens tends to anthropomorphize, amoeba-ize, or monster-ize extraterrestrial characters. There are three fairly good reasons for this, and while they’re all understandable, they leave a big gaping hole for philosophical possibilities.

1. Aliens in books have to be within the realm of possibility for the books to sell well. Aliens with vague descriptions, inexplicable actions and motivations, and plot points hastily followed by exclamations of ‘but we have no idea what aliens are really like’ aren’t all that desirable in literature. So, if they’re intelligent beings, authors make them more or less like us -- just with different strengths, flaws, and cultures. If they’re monstrous enemies, they’re one-dimensional horrors –- and let’s face it, we do this with antagonists even if they’re human. If they’re not human or menacingly animalistic, we assign them to one of the other kingdoms of life categorization, usually either Bacteria or Plantae and so don’t have give them personality, thinking ability, or equal status.

2. We have absolutely no idea what alien life will be like. We only have ourselves, our plants and animals, and our microorganisms to go off of. Once humans actually come across aliens, we’ll have a bit more to base our story lines on (unless they’re microorganisms, which is the lamest level of alien awesomeness imaginable). But that’s not looking likely anytime soon, so we’re stuck (roughly) with what we know.

3. Science fiction almost never has the primary purpose of exploring alien neurology or psychology – at best, it’s an interesting sub-point. Sci-fi tends to promote capitalism (Heinlein), critique imperialism and militarism (War of the Worlds), or how people might react to alien invasions (too many to even name). Science fiction is a nerdy way to critiquing social mores, an interesting but anthropocentric motivation.

And, maybe because sci-fi is so anthropocentric, most of it contain undertones of the Golden Rule. ‘One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself’ might do pretty well for humanity (even though it can be ridiculously self-involved), but space-going and extraterrestrial-contacting protagonists rarely seem to get it right. In War of the Worlds, the narrator says that all the imperialistic humans are getting what they deserve, seeing as how death, destruction, and domination are exactly what they treated other native societies to.

This shows the negative of the Golden Rule, or the Silver Rule (‘One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated’), more than the pure Rule, but the concept stands. (And I really hate the narrator for saying this, because he’s a moron.)

In Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, the rule is outright violated: nobody treats anyone else how they personally want to be treated and a lot of things go wrong as a result of that. And in many of Heinlein’s books, characters are given therapy and rehabilitation until they not only follow the golden rule but want to be treated the way social mores demand.

So the Golden Rule is pretty important, and science fiction, taken altogether, seems to create the maxim of ‘follow it or suffer and probably die.

Not so according to Andrew G. Haley and advocates of metalaw. Following the Golden Rule in relation to extraterrestrials is apparently the exact opposite of what we’re supposed to do.

And this is semi-justified in a pretty cool way. Haley, the world’s first ‘space lawyer’ created the term metalaw in 1956. It’s based on Immanuel Kant’s philosophical ideas, which are hard chunks of metaphysical tongue-twisters, but relies most heavily on his Categorical Imperative:

"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law."

This applied to aliens more specifically (as specifically as a universal law can get) created an inverse rule Haley called the Interstellar Golden Rule. Rather than ‘doing unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ every intelligent being in the universe should ‘do unto others as they would have you do unto them.’

Let’s think about this.

So – rather than treating aliens as humans should fairly be treated, we should treat aliens as aliens should fairly be treated.

>In many respects this isn’t a bad idea. For one exaggerated example, imagine that aliens and humans are merrily interacting on neutral ground, but then one human accuses one alien of some sort of criminal act (let’s say breaking and entering). In the United States, the accused have the right to face their accuser. But we can’t very well do this if the alien’s culture mandates a duel to the death the second an accused and an accuser meet face to face or else the accused suffers an immediate and crippling loss of honor. On the flip side, the human should hardly be expected to engage in mortal combat.

People could argue that the laws of the location take precedence, but that’s a sucky cop-out that dodges the actual question at hand. It also only applies (if even then) in matters of actual law.

Maybe an intelligent alien species has good justification for a seemingly barbaric social hierarchy. Maybe no other alien species with a legal system agrees with the idea that corporations are people. Maybe a powerful species of militaristic aliens think consequentialism is a ethical idea punishable by planet-wide genocide. We just don’t know.

In any case, Haley put his foot down on being so anthropocentric, and he gets bonus for that.

On the other hand, this smells terribly like moral relativism, which makes me take the majority of his bonus points away.

We should by no means go around judging hypothetical intelligent societies by our values, but at the same time we can’t just accept that their culture fits their circumstances best and leave it be.

For (yet another exaggerated) example, if we come across an intelligent alien society that tortures and kills half of their offspring for fun and no better reason – no limited resources, no tribute to gods/more powerful aliens, no biological demand, no nothing – we can hardly say ‘No, keep going. And, by the way, here’s a few of our own children who want to study abroad.’

By the same token, if an intelligent alien species comes to our planet, sees warfare, gang killings, or wide-spread child neglect, and can do something about it that doesn’t involve mind-control or extermination, I’d rather like for them to do it. Or at the very least I’d hope they communicate some sort of censure.

Some ethical codes are actually superior to others. It’d be nice, in the event of the mixing and mashing of multiple alien cultures, we could come to a nice, civil, and altogether superior amalgamation of everyone’s moral code. That notwithstanding, we can’t just issue a blanket statement that each society will independently evolve in the best way possible.

And neither the Golden Rule nor the Silver Rule are awesome when it comes to hypothetical extraterrestrials we can’t even begin to understand.

Want to spread the debate over extraterrestrial ethics a bit farther out? Be sure to recommend this post on StumbleUpon – all it takes is a click! 

Rachel is the co-founder of How To Survive Alien Invasion Novels, and spends her time writing, studying, and reading what would probably be considered far too many books. Connect with her and Rusty on Twitter and Facebook, and click here to read more of her articles about alien theories and how to survive alien invasion novels.

About Syed Faizan Ali

Faizan is a 17 year old young guy who is blessed with the art of Blogging,He love to Blog day in and day out,He is a Website Designer and a Certified Graphics Designer.

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