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What intelligent alien life can tell us about morality

Stephen Hawking made some headlines when he recently argued that although it’s highly probable that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, it would be a grave mistake to try to actively try to establish contact with other intelligent beings. Reflection on our own history, on how European explorers dealt with technologically less advanced cultures they encountered, suggests that an encounter with technologically superior alien is likely to lead to a catastrophic outcome to us humans. So we should keep a low profile: enthusiastically sending signals to outer space (including statements by Kurt Waldheim!) is fatally foolish, and is also embarrassing, as it casts some doubt on our claim to be an intelligent life form.

The idea that an encounter with intelligent alien life is likely to be sinister is hardly a new idea. But Hawkin is surely right that this is not just a matter for science fiction speculation. We have no grip on the probabilities here, but even if they are small, the potential catastrophic outcome would make debate about the Iraq war or global warming seem almost quaintly irrelevant.

I have nothing interesting to say about the probability that there is intelligent Alien life out there, or that we might encounter it in the foreseeable future. And I do not know whether, if such an encounter did take place, it would be friendly or hostile. It seems to me clear enough that changing views on this question simply reflect the mood of the time. Hawking doesn’t know anything relevant that Carl Sagan didn’t. But we do live in times that are deeply pessimistic about reasons, and the optimism of Glasnost, the space shuttle and New Age spirituality seems so far…

Still, I think that reflecting on this question can tell us something about morality—if I may add some points to those Julian Savulescu has made in the earlier post on this. It’s clear enough that there is no necessary logical connection between technological progress, or intelligence, and moral behaviour. Here as elsewhere our only data is from human history, and the moral development of homo sapience has obviously lagged behind its technological achievements. A great deal of technological development today is driven by military aims or otherwise by greed. Still: even if moral progress lags far behind, we do think that our moral thinking has made great leaps in the relatively short period between today and the beginning of the industrial revolution, even if we have so far been rather poor in putting this progress to practice. We have, in various ways, gradually tamed if not fully overcome the tribal mindset of our distant ancestors, and some of the parochial biological imperatives associated with it. Are we to suppose that an intelligent life form vastly superior to us in scientific understanding and technological capacity would still follow simple goals not much different from those of the conquistadors?

To answer ‘Yes’ is to take a deeply pessimistic view, not only of possible alien life, but also of human morality. It is to predict that humans would not be significantly better in a hundred or even five hundred years, even if scientific and technological progress continues unabated. (And we mustn’t forget that such progress could include not only the ability to build grand spaceships, but also to change human nature—including our aggressive and self-centred motives.) And unless we take our own era to be especially blessed, we must, if we are to be consistent, probably also deny that we are (even at our best) interestingly better than distant past generations.

It’s at least mildly plausible that there is some weak link between technological advance and moral progress (a point echoed by the thrust of Julian's post)—even if the latter lags far behind, even if it might be too weak, and its plausibility too mild, to justify continuing the cosmic broadcast of those Waldheim tapes. But there are several further possibilities also worth considering. One possibility is that scientific advance does often lead to moral progress, but that genuine moral progress leads to a decline in interest in further technological progress, or at least in space exploration. Beings that are genuinely morally superior to us in dramatic ways just won’t find this a worthwhile goal. So whatever alien life we do encounter might be atypical, arriving at our doorstep only through a monumental moral failure, and thus potentially just as hostile as Hawkins predicts.

Another possibility is that scientific and technological progress does drive moral progress in ways that are compatible with (or even encourage) the kind of space exploration that would bring aliens to our doorstep, but that the moral outlook that this generates is far distant from our own primitive moral code. It might be that from this advanced outlook, it would be perfectly morally justified (perhaps even required) for these aliens to treat us in ways we would consider horrific by the standards of our primitive morality (after all it was not that long ago that equal rights to women, or homosexuality, seemed horrific to most humans—and still seem so to many). If this is so, then keeping a low cosmic profile as Hawkins recommends we are actually selfishly shirking our true moral duties…

There is a third possibility. In the article I linked to, Paul Davies suggests that if we tried to send a message to alien life forms, we should focus on Einstein and not on Bach. Physics might belong, as the late philosopher Bernard Williams put it, to the ‘absolute’ conception of the world, but our greatest music, art and literature might be too parochial, too tied to contingent aspects of our biology and environment, to be in anyway resonant to alien life forms. Might it be that morality is also contingent and parochial in this way? (Otherwise, why doesn’t Davies recommend sending Kant’s ‘Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals’ to space?) So it is not that superior technology won’t imply superior morals, but that it might not be associated with any kind of morality at all. Aliens who visit us and visit destruction on the Earth won’t be morally repugnant as we now think of conquistadors and slavers. They would entirely be outside of morality. If this is the right conclusion, then this might make us think differently about morality, whether or not we actually encounter aliens, whether or not they even exist.


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2 Comment on this post

  1. I think that while homo sapiens rule the roost here, in an intellectual sense, Dr. Hawking may well be correct in urging caution with other life forms that may exist with whom we may at some point in the future contact..

  2. A main factor to consider when we talk of alien visitation is the enormous distances between the stars. According to Einstein, nothing can travel faster than light and even at that speed travel between the stars can take many years or decades or centuries at a minimum.

    It is a real question if flesh and blood organisms can survive such a trip. What may have to happen is that mechanical devices such as robots and satellites will have to be used to cross the void!

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