Whenever I have a conversation about alien societies, the issue of morality always seems to pop up. That’s because it seems to be at the heart of the most frequently debated question about alien civilizations, speculative or otherwise, that being “would aliens be hostile?” Ask this question in any pub, cafe, classroom or public toilet and somebody is sure to suggest that alien civilizations will have a “different concept of morality to us” which might cause them to place little value on life. The pre-programmed response we all seem to have to this notion is “ooh, yeh, that’s right.” Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s not right, at least in my opinion.
Now, it’s not that I disagree that any alien civilizations we come across out there in deep space are likely to be hostile towards us; there are all kinds of reasons for aliens to be mean to us, and us to them. Neither do I disagree that aliens are likely to have different cultural values and different ways of thinking. No, what I’d like to try and impress upon you in this article is that morality – the basic morality that is common to all human civilizations – is a universal concept common to all civilizations in the universe.
You see, it’s my understanding that morality is not a product of society but a prerequisite. It emerges from the need (or benefits) of living and working as a group, and no functioning society can develop without a moral code that is at least similar to our own.
We’re talking here about moral basics; the understanding that it is wrong to kill, harm, and steal from other members of your society, as well as the virtues that derive from this understanding such as kindness and compassion.
I’ve been heavily criticized for my ideas about morality in the past, sometimes because they take some of the fun out of poorly developed sci-fi villains, but mainly because they’ve been perceived as taking the “humanity” (whatever that is) out of ethics and replacing it with cold hard logic. A lot of people like to think of morality as being something almost ethereal or spiritual in nature (or precisely that in some cases), but the fact is that human morality is the result of nothing more than logical necessity. It has become ingrained in us as an instinct, yes, but one that we have adopted through our evolution for very logical and pragmatic reasons.
Let’s illustrate this by looking at how human morality has evolved side by side with human civilization and see if there are any alternate moral codes that could have been adopted by alien civilizations.
The Rules of Living in a Group
The key to the success of our species has been our ability to form groups and communities. Living in a group provides a number of advantages; there is obviously safety in numbers, it makes breeding easier, and most importantly it allows individuals to specialize. Specialization in certain skills is what has allowed human society to become so technologically advanced, and the same must be true of any advanced species. This unique arrangement has also led to a great deal of inter-reliance between group members, and this is where morality becomes an important ingredient. Each member of the group relies on the other to help out and do their part. As a result, not killing eachother becomes an important rule.
Rule Number One: Murder
Of course, it’s not like people got together and agreed on a “no murdering other group members” rule. The fact is, if you’re a murder enthusiast, you’re probably not going to form a group, or be allowed to coexist with a group, to begin with. People shouldn’t even have to be reminded of the “though shalt not kill” rule if they rely on other group members for mutual coexistence because it doesn’t make sense to kill somebody who’s actively helping you to survive the ice age, especially if all the other people in your support network are likely to hate you for it.
This is how “no murdering” became humanity’s number one moral imperative; through mutual self interest. It’s also why killing an enemy during wartime is still considered to be socially acceptable, the rule primarily applying to members of one’s own group, not those of its rivals.
Could an alien society exist that doesn’t have a “don’t kill members of your own group” rule? I don’t think it could. Aliens might kill humans indiscriminately, or even enemies of the same species, but they wouldn’t be likely to kill their own without just cause. Their society would never be able to progress beyond the tribal hunter-gatherer stage if this was allowed to happen.
There is, however, an interesting point to be made here about dominance struggles and corporal punishment. Both primitive and modern humans have killed members of their own society for both of these reasons, and aliens might do the same. There is obviously a deal of flexibility in when it is and isn’t acceptable to kill, even in our own society, and so there might be a dial that can be turned one way or the other in determining what aliens might find acceptable and unacceptable. But even if you were to dial it all the way up to “Klingon”, so to speak, you would still need to have established rules governing the killing of others, and a balancing risk factor to prevent an all-out murder-fest, otherwise an advanced co-dependent society would crumble into animalistic chaos.
Rule Number Two: Theft
Another important rule of human morality is “do not steal”. Again, this has evolved as the result of living in a group and is intrinsically tied to the formation of a society. As with killing, there are two basic reasons why it is considered morally unacceptible to steal from eachother; because we don’t want the people around us (people we rely on) to dislike us and possibly turn against us, and because the sharing of resources is fundamental to the survival of the group and therefore ourselves. It is precisely this instinct that gets everybody riled up about bankers bonuses, government corruption, and tax scandals.
This moral also goes hand in hand with the virtue of charity. We don’t steal from others for the same reason we find positives in giving and sharing with others; because well fed and well cared for group members make for a healthy, happy, and productive group, which in turn benefits ourselves.
The “no stealing” rule is one our society takes very seriously. In fact, while there are a number of socially acceptible reasons for people to kill, stealing seems to be considered sinful in every circumstance. Strange then, that this moral is less instinctual than the first, that it has to be more strictly enforced by societal means rather than our internal moral compasses. I guess this is because we evolved to be greedy long before we began evolving to live in groups.
Of course, while stealing is always wrong, stealing from your group is considered to be a much worse sin (hands up if you think stealing from your family is worse than stealing from a stranger). Again, this suggests room for movement in the aligning of an alien’s moral compass. An alien society might evolve to put more or less emphasis on this particular “commandment”.
An interesting species to look at in terms of greed versus cooperation is the Ferengi from the Star Trek franchise, a civilization with a slightly different moral code that I personally think is entirely practical. Even the Ferengi, who place greed and personal acquisition at the top of their list of priorities, have a “no stealing” rule. Such a society might not count it as a moral, but rather a practical law, but it would nonetheless be important to their society.
I personally think the Ferengi would have a very strong sense of stealing being sinful, what with possession being so important in their culture.
Rule Number Three: Do Unto Others…
It has been said that the entire of human morality can be summed up with the phrase “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Or, in the world of Bill and Ted, “be excellent to eachother”. It seems to me that even alien morality could be catch-phrased this way. If aliens have an advanced society, or at least one as advanced as our own, then they must understand that their actions reflect upon themselves and that it is in their own best interests to treat their fellow aliens with respect.
Of course, humans don’t always follow their own moral code. If they did, we writers would have nothing interesting to write about. The same hypocrisy might be true in alien cultures too, but like us, they would probably have a generally observed “don’t be a douchebag” rule, it’s just how group cooperation works.
In an alien society, not being a douchebag might mean don’t spit in another alien’s mouth, or don’t have sex with their children without asking first, or it might mean don’t look at other aliens when they’re talking (maybe it makes them feel self-conscious or something, I don’t know), but the douchebag rule is sure to exist.
For humans, this douchebag rule has gone one step further, evolving beyond logical acknowledgement into the emotive condition we know as compassion, and this is really the big question… would aliens feel compassion?
I don’t think compassion is an essential ingredient for the evolution of alien societies. Many social animals display signs of compassion, but there are some social animals that seem to get a long well without it (ants for example). Of course, compassion is obviously a very useful skill in developing those all important social bonds that hold groups together, and while a complex alien society could get along just fine with simply a conscious acknowledgement of the “do unto others” rule, compassion would certainly be advantageous to their social evolution. In my opinion, that makes it a strong likelihood.
This is a tricky one. Advanced alien civilizations might develop complex ideas surrounding the issue of loyalty, but if they live in groups of any size or structure then it’s very likely that they will some concept of what loyalty means and allocate it at least some degree of importance, depending on how competitive their existence is (or has been in the past).
Loyalty is an important part of the dynamic of any co-dependent group. Even in the large and complex society we live in today, we instinctively attach ourselves to many things through loyalty (even our favourite brands), and staying loyal to our family, friends, and country is of the utmost importance. It’s an exchange of trust that we give and expect to receive in return, acknowledging that you are part of one group and not another, and that the other group members can rely on you. A breach of this contract can be punished with anything from falling out of favour to execution for treason.
Any alien society – whether they are a race of warriors or peaceful, frolicking fruit-eaters – will value a strong social bond. Society is all about inter-dependence after all, and without mutual trust what is a group of individuals but a group of individuals?
There is an argument that aliens might use fear to encourage obedience instead of relying on loyalty, keeping members of a society in line through intimidation. Aliens might well use a strict approach to group and societal dicipline, but this is more a strategy. It can be used to enforce moral conduct such as loyalty, and it does not replace loyalty as a virtue.
Culturally Prescribed Morals
Not murdering eachother, not stealing from eachother, and generally observing eachother’s rights are the three basic moral tenants required of any society. They are what makes it possible for individuals to coexist and cooperate peacefully and productively. Of course, human civilizations have added to this list with a variety of different codes of conduct based solely on cultural attitudes, ideas, and beliefs. It is in these extra morals that an alien civilization gains some of that extra-terrestrial flavor and interest.
All kinds of moral values, virtues and rules could be added to the mix – rules about sex, technology, when it is and isn’t appropriate to breathe – but the three basic pillars must remain in order for the society to function.
So, I’ve outlined how morality has developed as part of our social evolution, and how it’s likely to evolve along similar lines in any advanced society, but now I’d like to add a twist to the tale. While morality is necessary for the development of any complex civilization, there may come a point when that civilization decides to reinterpret the rules provided to them in their evolution.
Over the past century, humanity’s instinctive morality has become increasingly less important, replaced to a degree with state prescribed morality in the form of the rule of law. With our advanced power of reasoning, we’ve been able to step outside of our own natural evolution, and our emotions, and examine how well our moral code actually serves us, and to consider new practicalities beyond our primitive sense of right and wrong. It’s also been demonstrated that morality can be adapted, and that through powerful forces such as nationalism, it can even be replaced.
Might an alien society, having evolved along similar lines to our own, reach a point at which it decides to replace its base moral instincts with simple laws of obedience, practicality, and logic? What might such a society look like, and to what extremes could it be twisted?
It sounds scary, but our species is pretty much at that point already. Morality is now enforced not based on individual instinct, but on what is deemed to be good for society on the whole. A whole host of despotic societies can be imagined based on this notion, and reality has given us many examples of how state-enforced morality has failed to punish douchebags for breaking the all-important douchebag rule. However, in most countries at least, morality seems to be surviving the shift towards practical big-picture thinking. You see, it turns out that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and what’s good for the gander, is generally good for the goose.
(It’s when religion is allowed to take over that things get messy, but that’s another subject for another article.)
Before you describe a species as having a “different concept of morality to us”, give a little thought to what morality is, how and why it develops, and the function it serves. Without a basic concept of morality as we know it, society cannot exist.
If you’re creating an alien species for a science fiction story (or perhaps for the Alien August competition) and you’re thinking of following the old cliche of saying that have no concept of morality, give a second thought to how their society has evolved, how it functions, and what stops them all bashing eachother’s heads in with heavy objects they’ve stolen. Without basic morality, societies cannot form and will never develop the complexity required to create advanced technology.
This doesn’t mean that advanced aliens can’t be hostile, just that their reasons for being hostile are likely to be much more interesting than simple mindless brutishness.
Understanding how an alien society functions is good world building practice, and understanding how they think is key to creating good science fiction.
Article written by Mark Ball.
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