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Themes in Science Fiction: Cultural Relativism and Absolute Morality

May 14th, 2010

Does Captain Kirk follow the Prime Directive — not to interfere with a developing alien species, or does he choose to do the right thing as he sees it?

Does the team on Stargate: SG1 let the people on an alien world follow their own laws, or try to impose their own moral sensibilities upon them?

This particular theme, that of believing in a clear right and wrong or in respecting a foreign culure’s right to have their own, differing morality is a classic for good reason.   It is a reflection of the battle that our own civilization has been fighting for centuries, and continues to fight in new and varied ways with increasing globalization.   Europeans went out into the world, bringing their guns, gods, and diseases, without much respect for the “savages” they found.   There is a shared guilt that many westerners feel today about the general lack of respect for foreign cultures our recent ancestors showed, and for their many sins involving some of the most heinous crimes imaginable, including genocide and slavery.

To oversimplify, it has generally been religious people that have believed in absolute morality, and missionaries bringing Western religion to foreign ports of call were one of the driving forces of colonization.   Liberal academics, with calls for diversity and ethnic studies, have been the ones pushing for relativism and refusing to acknowledge right and wrong without a cultural context.   (Note that atheist Sam Harris, in his recent TED talk, is something of a liberal academic pushing for a scientific method to discover an absolute morality).

To let you know where I am coming from, I believe that evolution of our species and the sociology that lets us be successful has given us the basis of our morality.   Moreover, genetic studies of various sorts show that there exists a diversity of morality among people (which lets evolution work, and muddies the waters for absolutists).   And in addition to that, that morality is ultimately not culturally specific, but species specific.

Let me illustrate what I mean by those assertions, which are not unfounded but perhaps not so easy to prove.   First, simply, our feelings of what’s right and wrong help us interact with each other in ways that overall work to the benefit of our species.   We usually do the right thing, especially when witnessed by others, but we also recognize that there are situations where good people may disagree about what is right or wrong.   For instance, how poor and hungry does someone have to be before stealing food is morally acceptable?   How much personal risk is it appropriate to take on to save someone else?   A group of other people?   Etc. The Book of Questions features a lot of ideas involving morally ambiguous situations.   And fiction, ah fiction, it’s really about putting characters into tough spots and seeing how they act and the consequences of those actions.

We love this stuff.   We thrive on it.   Talking about it, reading about it, watching it…all vicarious experiences that educate us about what is right and wrong, both through example and society’s response, and through our own reactions, our evolutionarily tuned sense of morality that constantly tests how we feel about what other people do.

Sometimes this stuff has too much baggage, and we ourselves have too much personal bias.   Religion and nationalism give us a bias toward our own side and it’s hard to see other perspectives clearly.   It’s possible, but difficult.   A movie like Dances with Wolves gave people the ability to identify with the Indians rather than the Cowboys, something interesting and rare after decades of traditional western movies.   A muslim today can see condemnation of female circumcision or the stoning of rape victims as not just an attack on acts many find abhorrent, but upon them personally even if they don’t like the practices either.

Enter science fiction.   When topics can be too touchy to handle directly, science fiction lets you move them to alien worlds and shake some of that baggage free.   Imagine reading some version of Avatar, perhaps with aliens that didn’t have quite so many obvious similarities to native Americans, back before Dances with Wolves — perhaps way before when the United States was actually at war with native Americans.   At that time Dances with Wolves would have been impossible to do, but Avatar could sneak in since it is about aliens.   Except it isn’t in most of the ways that matter to us concerning morality.

Now, I may not have picked the best examples here, but I suspect this point isn’t so deep to readers of science fiction.

What I want to say that may be fresher is that science fiction need not just express metaphors for conflicts here on Earth, and need not only explore human morality.   A species with a different ecological niche evolved to have a different sense of well-being and different social structures could well be expected to have a different but equally valid morality.   I’m talking something fundamentally deeper here than any cultural relativism.   I don’t believe all human cultures are equally moral — they can all have messed up aspects to them that have been institituionalized for the benefit of particular special interests.   I do believe that an alien culture could have elements that we would find personally morally reprehensible, but actually be not just acceptable but of the highest good for aliens.

This kind of story is hard to pull off.   Perhaps the best I’ve seen and can recall know is the work of Nancy Kress, specifically the aliens of the story “The Flowers of Aulit Prison” (which formed the basis for her Probability series).   I don’t want to spoil things, but because of the nature of a shared reality/consciousness, just how bad things like murder and kidnapping are differ significantly from a human perspective.   It’s worth taking a look.   Anyone know of other good examples?

We’re fascinated by moral questions.   There are many situations where there isn’t a clear answer, and the less clear, the more interesting.   And then there’s the power issue — if your own morality is offended, do you have the ability and will to impose your own values on others and accept the consequences?

That’s interesting stuff.

Almost any science fiction of any quality that involves aliens has elements of this conflict.   Sometimes it’s humans in conflict over whether to impose our morality on aliens, or vice versa.   Or simply the conflict that ensues once the decision has been made.   One of the reasons Westerners could be so inhuman to other peoples was extreme racism — the others weren’t human, so the same morality didn’t have to apply.   In the case of aliens, that is litterally true.   In science fiction, all characters are perceived as human, emotionally perceived, even when they are anything but.   It’s a mind trip to explore what the other can be like, to identify with that other.

This theme is never going to go away.   For tribal creatures like oursleves, we will be unlikely to set aside this conflict, and explorations will remain endlessly fascinating.

So you get a large fraction of the hundreds of Star Trek episodes dealing with this, and ten episodes of Stargate: SG1, and a major theme of the Battlestar Galactica reboot (are cylons essentially worthy of treatment as people or are they glorified toasters?), in our science fiction.   Avatar is a simpler version of some of those, but it did bring in over a billion dollars, and it wasn’t just the great special effects.

Cultural relativism, especially in the extreme form that involves aliens who may indeed hold a valid morality very different from our own, is fundamentally an intellectual exercise.   One must set aside feelings to embrace it, and strive to see things from an alien viewpoint.   The absolute sense of right and wrong comes from our feelings, and is strong and visceral — fundamentally human.   It’s the heart vs. the mind, an ancient conflict with infinite dimensions for humans with our bicameral minds that rely on the interplay of these to reach decisions about how to act.

So even if a particular episode of Star Trek or Stargate is sort of stupid, themes of morality can hold us enthralled enough to watch to the end.

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