Aliens and Morality

cthulu-and-adamWhenever 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

Ferengi_knife

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.

Loyalty

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.

Practical Morality

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.)

Conclusion

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.

alien-vs-predator

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.


Creative Commons License
SciFi Ideas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.scifiideas.com/contact.

  • Almsivi

    Great article, man. I like this. 🙂

    I will share my thoughts on this. I agree that advanced civilizations out there has to be moral, and has to value life.

    What i think is perverting our views on life outside, is our lack of spiritual knowledge, and “predator conspiracy”.

    Advanced civilizations knows that spirit is eternal, and they have technology to clone bodies (manufacture bodies in factories), and then to incarnate into them.

    So, when they die they can just incarnate knowingly again into a new grown up body, and continue to live without serious loss.

    This is why they are less afraid to die. But it may still be uncomfortable and slightly traumatic.

    So, if somebody kills another, he may just pay the price for the new body the disembodies spirit will need, and he will not go to a prison.

    But certainly if anybody kills dozens of people he will be imprisoned. Or if somebody destroys a spaceship, or hack important supercomputers, etc, they have prisons for that. And guess what, our planet Earth is that prison, for all those who committed some crimes out there in advanced civilizations. This is why we are so isolated from alien civilizations.

    I think that aliens, have strong feelings, and wide variety of emotions, and a few extra senses, maybe telepathy, astral vision, or X-Gamma ray senses, so they are even more sensitive than us, but they are just not afraid of dying that much, compared to us. It is probably painful to die, but far less than our pain/trauma here on Earth.

    It may be that in such advanced civilizations, they go around naked, and bodies are sterile, and they use sex purely for enjoyment, and to procreate they use factories. They use uniforms, clothes, etc, for space travel, or for protection from storms heat etc, but not to hide nudity.

    And some civilizations may even use robot/cyborg type bodies, they don’t even need uniforms, and space suits.

    And because their needs are satisfied more, there is less reason to rape, or to own/dominate others or to steal.

    Some mid level civilizations may still use sex for procreation, but they are still much more advanced than us, and they know that spirits are real beings, and bodies are just sensitive vehicles for real world living. They may live in astral realms for years if there is not a body to incarnate in. I don’t know much about astral realms.

    Because they can control even a spirit disembodied, it is not death that is considered a big deal there, but exile is a real punishment. Imagine somebody living within a nice group of folks, if he dies, he may be quickly back in another body, an continue his life. But what if he commits considerable crime against the group he belongs to, he may be exiled and that is bigger punishment.

    But within a society that offers many enjoyable opportunities and adventures, there is much less reason to commit any crime. There are solid strong reasons to stay moral and enjoy life in a great society.

    And they probably are mostly vegetarian, and eat meat only in special occasions (like turkey for thanksgiving). They may have variety of juicy tasty vegetables with all proteins needed.

    Also, they may have super advanced computer simulated virtual realities, where they can play all sort of games and satisfy their dark desires, and stay moral in real world.

    The predator conspiracy, is what i call, the whole business of Hollywood and companies that work hard to depict any alien life as highly predatoric, evil, destructive, etc. All sort of bad, fearful, evil associations are made connected with aliens. That is unreal.

    Even positive movies like Avatar had to be stuffed with violence. That is not a coincidence.

  • Mr. Ball, I do agree with your thesis: that “morality” are basically rules that allow individualists to live together as a tribal unit.
    The only nit I would pick is the “no murdering other group members” rule. I would say this contains the hidden assumption that murdering another group member adversely affects the group.
    This is of course true with humans, and it is difficult to imagine how it would not be true, but it is precisely the sort of assumption that crafty science fiction writers like to challenge.
    Thinking along those lines can lead to all sorts of fun, postulating weird alien biology or situations to turn that assumption on its head.
    As an example, I’m thinking about Robert Sheckley’s short story “The Monsters,” which contains the immortal line:
    “ ‘Damn,’ Cordovir said. ‘I have to go home and kill my wife.’

    “ ‘It’s a few hours before sunset,’ Hum said. ‘I think you have time to do both.’
    http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-05-16/entertainment/35456647_1_hum-stories-avram-davidson

  • Dan

    Good thoughtful post! I assume you are asking for comments. While I agree that survival and long term cooperative behavior will be necessary for any spaceship building civilization I’m not sure if aliens throughout the universe will subscribe to the moral tenets you describe. The bloody history of the British royalty, and the comparably gruesome Julio-Claudian Emperors of Rome, two of the most successful human civilizations in history seem to counterpoint the universality of your moral stances on murder, theft, doing unto others, and loyalty. Especially when it comes to outsiders. Unfortunately we have only one data point on how a technological civilization could evolve and that is us. We’re not exactly saints, singing kum-bye-ya around a campfire. Desmond Morris would likely describe us as dual sexed, Neotonous, Viviparous, Bipedal, Post-Brachiating, Plantigrade, Patriarchal, Hierarchical, Tribal, Hominid Primates. Changing any one of these could result in a drastically different cultural development. Add to that an alien biochemistry and alien world and who knows what would come out. I do believe that neotony (the retention of childlike behavior and physical characteristics such as our expanded forehead) is the greatest contributor to our civilization since sublimated curious play is what makes things like science and art possible, and childish chattering leads directly to language, music, and possibly mathematics. But would this apply to an infant who’s instinct is to eat his own nest brethren in order to maximize his own survival?

    As far as the preoccupation with mindless violence in certain science fiction circles I believe it’s driven by the prevalence of combat video games. The science fiction setup is purely a justification for the violent action. Peace negotiations with the enemy or having a beer(?)with a former enemy while sharing holovids of loved ones back home is never part of the game play.

  • You’re right Dan, human history is full of examples of moral hypocrisy, and that’s pretty difficult to reconcile.
    I guess what I’m really arguing is that morality = mutual self interest, but that doesn’t mean that mutual self interest always = morality.

    Man, I’ve had some puzzling and deep arguments since writing this 😀

    You’re not the first person today to suggest that alien biology could cause a different set of morals to evolve, but I’m not sure it would.
    Surely, society means forming groups and, regardless of biology, that means all societies would have to have the same basic rules to help them get along.

  • The idea about aliens eating their own siblings in order to survive is an interesting one. I’ve actually been arguing this one out on FB.
    Surely, a situation where members of the same family/group are eating eachother, competing violently rather than working together, cannot be considered a society. Rather it’s a natural state of animal anarchy in which cooperation is difficult if not impossible.

    As somebody on FB suggested, the competing siblings could grow up and leave the nest (the survivors, that is) and then become part of a society of cooperating adults.
    Yes, they could. And those adults would have to have a “no killing” rule in order to get along.
    Their morality would say that it’s ok to kill when you’re an infant, but not when you’re older, just as ours says that it’s ok to kill during wartime. There would still be a moral standard in place, it’s just a slightly different take on the same rule.

  • The other possibility (which is more probable) is that the victorious siblings would maintain strong competitive instincts and become violent adults, in which case they probable wouldn’t form cooperative groups.

  • Dan

    Weather or not alien biology would affect morality is full of science fiction possibilities. Lets think of one of the most basic of biological processes, digestion. Living things that feed on other living things (heterotrophs)have a universal problem. Are you eating it or is it eating you? There are many sci-fi horror films about this problem. The solution is to break things down to allow harmless pieces to pass through the cell walls that can’t take over your own cellular machinery. But besides not being 100% reliable, it’s inefficient. Like shredding a Chevy, melting down the chasis, engine, drive train, body and then casting and machining the parts to make a Ford. It’s necessary because of the armada of microbes, viruses that want in. So what about a planet where the intelligent species ARE giant germs and the crudeness of the biology makes microscopic disease organisms impossible? Maybe on such a world parts of what you eat could be incorporated directly into your body structure without an immune reaction. Maybe that take over does not result in death. Maybe that take over is more like a ‘change in management’.

    “Gee I wish I could help but Joe over there said he needed my knowledge in nuclear physics and an extra hand. So I let him eat mine!”

    Once again that doesn’t remove the ‘be excellent to each other’ trope. But it may make interpretation far more complex. Exploring these issues is one of the fun things about science fiction.

  • Dan

    I remember reading a story published in Analog about a brilliant but vicious race that bred in huge numbers by chewing out of their parent. The young would eat each other and the strongest and hungriest survivors ran a gauntlet including mines, barbed wire, and automated machine guns. The winners of the race were treated to food and would be trained (carefully) to be productive adults. Most were trying HARD to resist their instincts to kill and eat and their human patrons were divided on whether to nuke the planet or help them to evolve a civilized culture. I favored nuking but I guess that’s just me.

    • The Spartans did something similar, but they sent the children away to live wild in the woods during this right of passage.
      I’m not sure what that says about their morality. Of course, the Spartans weren’t so much a civilization as an army.

  • Somebody just posted this comment in a discussion on Linked In about this article. I thought it was worth sharing.
    Stephen Moffit wrote:

    “It seems to me that in order for ‘morality’ to be a prerequisite for living in a group, there needs, first, to be a concept of an individual, whose interests may be at odds with others. At the same time, these individuals need to work together in order to survive. If the aliens do not have a concept of the individual, then there is no need for morality.

    An analogy might be the human body. There is no cellular morality because the cells do not conceptualize themselves as distinct from the other cells. The cells function in relationship with one another, but there is no idea of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for the cells.”

    A very good point and well made.