Ethical Aliens

Imagine a society in which every individual has access to power capable of destroying a city. How about capable of destroying a state? A nation? A world?

If you envision alien beings capable of interstellar travel, you are, by necessity, envisioning a society wherein individuals have access to such devastating power. If you look at the technological progress of humanity over the past several millennia, you can see this is already happening.

As technology progresses, individuals have access to more and more power. There’s a commercial running right now in which a guy says to a group of teenagers with cell phones, “You have more power in the palm of your hand than entire generations ever dreamed of.” Just a few of the kinds of guns routinely used to shoot up schools these days could have won many of the famous wars of the past.

A society capable of interstellar travel would have also developed other technology around that, and the power of that technology would be far beyond anything we could conceive of.

You want to understand what “technology we could never conceive of” means? Think about a dog acting in a movie, like Lassie or Rin Tin Tin. The dog has no way of understanding what a movie is and why the humans are trying to get them to do something weird, and do it over and over again. They can’t conceive of a movie at all. When they are shown a movie, they don’t know what they are seeing. Similarly, there must be things and activities that exist but that we cannot conceive of any more than a dog could conceive of a movie.

Anyway, maybe not all of that technology would be available to everyone, but enough of it would. This technological access would make each individual potentially very dangerous to the society as a whole. In order for such a society to exist, every one of its members would have to have an absolute commitment to ethics. Absolute.

Just imagine what would happen if the equivalent of the kind of person who shoots up a school were to emerge in such a society. He wouldn’t just be a threat to a few people. He would be a threat to everyone. Not only that, such an individual would be a potential threat to everything that society had ever accomplished. Such a society could not tolerate such an individual. He would have to be eliminated or somehow made less dangerous.

Such societies may exist in the universe. We do not know. Or, perhaps, this what finally ends any and all sufficiently technologically developed societies. Perhaps they all reach a point wherein just one misguided individual can demolish it all, and inevitably, one does. This is part of the plot of the magnificent science fiction film The Forbidden Planet from way back in 1956.

Or maybe this is the reason only a few such societies exist. Maybe evolution to the level of interstellar travel can only be accomplished after many times when society rises to, say, the level at which an individual can destroy a continent. It does this over and over, for millions of years, destroying itself again and again and again, until finally it manages to step beyond that point.

When Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, he made a rule for the writers of the show that members of the United Federation of Planets, the futuristic society he envisioned, could never be in conflict with each other. As far as I know, he never really explained why. He probably just had a utopian dream that mankind would evolve beyond conflict.

But, actually, this makes a lot of sense. A society in which the Starship Enterprise could exist would have to be absolutely ethical, and this commitment to ethics would have to extend to everyone. There could be no rogues or exceptions. Otherwise the entire thing would collapse.

A society with that level of technology could not risk contact with our planet. We are probably just clever enough to figure out how to use their machinery and access that power ourselves. They know what would happen if that were to occur. It would spell the end of our civilization and quite possibly theirs as well.

On our own planet, we have societies that are highly technological and societies that are not. When someone from a less technologically developed society gains access to the technology of a more highly developed society bad things can happen. On September 11, 2001 we saw what can happen when that occurs.

Societies on our planet that are technologically advanced are also advanced in terms of law enforcement. They have to be. Their legal systems are not in any sense perfect or flawless. But they are far more effective at removing dangerous people than those that exist in less technologically developed societies. There are all kinds of measures in place to try to help contain violence.

Citizens in technologically developed societies on our planet are monitored more closely than those in less developed ones. Facebook knows more about you now than the FBI or CIA knew about even the people they monitored closely twenty years ago.

A sufficiently technologically developed society would need monitoring systems like that too, or some equivalent, but they would have to be 100% effective all the time. There would be no such thing as privacy in such a society. It would be far too dangerous.

Buddhism has had a strong commitment to ethics from the very beginning. Misguided folks like Sam Harris and others imagine that we can slice meditation out from all of the messy “religious” aspects of Buddhism. They think that all that moralistic junk taught along with meditation — like karma, for example — is just old superstitious nonsense that no one needs to bother with in our much more enlightened times.

They’re wrong. Meditation is powerful stuff. And not everyone is ready to handle that kind of power. Entering into a meditation practice without also studying ethics is like giving someone an AR-15 without first making sure they understand the power they’re holding in their hands and the implications of what happens when it’s used wrongly. It’s like selling assault rifles to random teenage boys at stores in neighborhood strip malls. Not a good idea.

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