Alien morality

locutus, Star Trek TNGThe catalyst for Sea of Dreams was watching an episode of Star Trek- The Next Generation. I do not remember which episode it was, but I do remember at one point realising that all the aliens on the show were really just humans with ridges or markings on their faces.

They were human in the recognisable ways in which they interacted with one another and the basis for their social structure. Even the Borg are recognisable in their collective superiority and the need to be connected to others just like themselves. This led me to think about what would happen if we were really to encounter an alien, even something that did not fit our conceptualisation of ‘life’, something that was not carbon-based, did not require water or air, or even have a material form. From these thoughts, the basic story for the book was born.

Recently this line of thought also led me to a discussion about morality and what an alien morality would look like. Over the course of the discussion, it came to me that there was an unacknowledged assumption at the heart of our idea of morality. That assumption is that morality is necessary because there is discrepancy between a part and the whole; that is, that an individual or group has needs, desires or objectives that are at odds with the larger whole and that, if the part acted on its own particular wishes, it would have a detrimental effect on others.

If an alien did not perceive such a distinction, say, for example, it perceived the world as simply patterns of energy that interact in understandable ways, there would be no need for a concept of morality. Another possibility is that the alien is so integrated into its environment that it cannot conceptualise any activity outside of what the whole requires. An analogy might be the the cells of the body. Is there a morality for brain cells? They simply carry out the function that is necessary in that place within the ecosystem of the body. Even if something happens and they become cancerous, producing more of themselves than the environment can handle, there is no morality here. It is simply a matter of a malfunction in the cell.

I do not want to push this too far because I am sure there are counter-arguments for the examples I have come up with. What is most interesting for me is how we could use science fiction to push us to the edge of our convictions and ideas about ourselves and who we are. For me, the confrontation with these boundaries and the unknown beyond them is what is most exciting and where science fiction can bring a value beyond pure imagination. If, in the attempt to image a truly alien morality, we see the underlying assumptions and convictions that make up our world, that observation can open the door to new possibilities and new knowledge, as well as make a really interesting story.

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One thought on “Alien morality

  1. I love Star Trek for it’s unlimited possibilities and good, old-fashioned SF. You make a great point – all S.T. aliens are people with funny noses. I’ve also wondered what true alien life would be like – what if they didn’t have DNA, or breathed chlorine, or used liquid sodium for blood?

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