Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


22.3.1  Extraterrestrial Ethics

A bewildering variety of ethical-moral systems have been devised by humans and human societies on this planet. The Golden Rule, which appears in the teachings of most of the world’s major faiths, and the Ten Commandments of the Mosaic tradition are prime examples of traditional religion-based ethics. Buddhist moral teachings involve a code of behavior known as the Noble Eightfold Path, consisting of understanding, right-mindedness, careful speech, moral action, sane living, steadfast effort, attentiveness, and concentration. Confucius insisted, alternatively, that a superior man has nine aims: To see clearly, to understand what he hears, to be warm in manner, dignified in bearing, faithful in speech, painstaking at work, to ask when in doubt, in anger to think of difficulties, in sight of gain to remember right.

The Navaho people traditionally adhere to five basic canons of ethical behavior:

1. Security -- health, long life, and industry are primary goals of life.

2. Decorum -- sobriety, self-control, and adherence to custom are valued.

3. Reciprocity -- care for parents in old age to repay them for their parentage; loyalty and altruism among relatives.

4. Benevolence -- behave to everybody as if they were your relatives, a broad ethical generalization including hospitality and other forms of generosity.

5. Avoid Excess -- excess, even in approved behaviors, is evil.3039

Many ethical systems seem "wrong" by Western standards, as for instance the old Eskimo belief that geronticide (allowing the aged to die) was moral. Still stranger perhaps are the Ik, a human tribe inhabiting northern Uganda which displays no love. Under conditions of extreme privation, the society has adopted an every-man-for-himself ethic. Children are turned out to scrounge their own food almost as soon as they can walk. Wives go out in search of food and feed themselves, bringing nothing back for their starving husbands. One observer reported that in two years he never saw one act that could even remotely be construed as love.2917

There have been few real attempts to forge a general theory of moral systems in keeping with the spirit of ethical relativism urged by cultural anthropologists having field experience in dealing with "alien" cultures.3040 One notable exception is the taxonomy of moral judgement devised by Harvard social psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg in relation to the development of ethical standards of behavior among human children.3024,865 Kohlberg recorded and classified verbal responses to specific moral dilemmas. These he used to define six sequential stages of ethical reasoning through which people may pass during their mental maturation. Typically, the child moves from primary dependence on external controls to increasingly sophisticated internalized standards. Kohlberg used 25 different "dimensions of morality" to characterize each of the six stages of ethical maturity, two of which are given in the table on the following page. Sentient beings on other worlds, given a basically human mentality, might be expected to pass through similar stages of moral judgement -- or to stress any particular one of them.

Some anthropologists hold that there exist a number of universal issues upon which any society must take a value position. In developing this approach, Florence Kluckhohn and Fred Strodbeck discovered that most societies have a dominant worldview along five major dimensions of value orientation.3070 In theory, claim the anthropologists, we should be able to characterize the value system of any society in terms of its position on each of the five issues (Table 22.1). A more refined system will be needed, however, before this approach profitably may be applied to extra terrestrial cultures.


Table 22.1 An Anthropological Classification of Major Value Orientations
Universal to All Human Societies
(after Kluckhohn and Strodbeck3070)
Possible Value Orientations
Human Nature
Mastery over Nature
Harmony with Nature
Subjugation to Nature


However, the above generalizations may be hopelessly anthropocentric in the extreme. As E.O. Wilson notes:

Self-knowledge is constrained and shaped by the emotional control centers in the hypothalamus and limbic system of the brain. These centers flood our consciousness with all the emotions -- hate, love, guilt, fear, and others -- that are consulted by ethical philosophers who wish to intuit the standards of good and evil.565

ETs having different kinds of sentience and alternative modes of emotionality will undoubtedly also differ from us considerably in their ethics. The hive mentality of a genetic sentient, for instance, could not recognize any morality of individual behavior because such behavior is not subject to individual choice (it is preprogrammed genetically).974 A neocortical alien, freed from the shackles of hormonal emotionality, might develop a coldly rational but highly complex system of situational ethics in which summed probabilities of success would be balanced against danger in a kind of calculus of personal gain. Intelligent but extremely solitary creatures such as sentient octopuses might harbor no ethical notions of truth or reciprocity, never having had seriously to deal with other beings of their own kind on a social basis. Theirs may be a perfect libertarian, "love thyself, help thyself" morality. Another society of creatures having an excess of female births may permit infanticide or uxoricide (wife-killing) as a dominant component of the local ethos.3096 In still another culture, cannibalism may be biologically necessary for the survival of the race, elevating murder or suicide to the stature of deeply moral behavior.2948,3238 Yet it is probably true that the ethicality of each sentient race is in some sense hostage to the biological, ecological, and psychological heritage of the species (Table 22.2).3051,565


Table 22.2 Kohlberg's Typology of Moral Stages in Humans865
Motive for Rule Obedience or Moral Action

Value of Human Life

Individual is responsive to cultural rules and labels of good and bad, right or wrong, but interprets these labels in terms of either the physical/hedonistic consequences of action (punishment, reward, exchange of favors) or in terms of the physical power of those who enunciate the rules and labels.
Stage 1. Punishment and Obedience Orientation Physical consequences of action determine its goodness/badness regardless of the human meaning or value of these consequences. Avoidance of punishment and unquestioning deference to power are valued in their own right, not in terms of respect for an underlying moral order supported by punishment and authority. Obey rules to avoid punishment The value of human life is confused with the value of physical objects and is based on the social status or physical attributes of the possessor.
Stage 2. Instrumental Relativist Orientation Right action consists of that which instrument-ally satisfies one’s own needs and occasionally
- the needs of others. Human relations are viewed in terms like those of the marketplace. Elements of fairness, reciprocity, and equal sharing are present, but are always interpreted in a physical, pragmatic way. Reciprocity is a matter of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours," not of loyalty, gratitude, or justice. 
Conform to obtain rewards, have favors returned, and so on. The value of human life is seen as instrumental to the satisfaction of the needs of its possessor or of other persons.
Maintaining the expectations of the individual’s family, group, or nation is perceived as valuable in its own right, regardless of immediate and obvious consequences. The attitude is not only one of conformity to personal expectations and social order, but of loyalty to it, of actively maintaining, supporting, and justifying the order and of identifying with the persons or group involved in it.
Stage 3. Interpersonal Concordance Orientation ("Good Boy--Nice Girl" orientation.) Good behavior is that which pleases or helps others arid and is approved by them. There is much conformity to stereotypical images of what is majority or "natural" behavior. Behavior is frequently judged by intention--"he means well" becomes important for the first time. Approval earned by being "nice," Conform to avoid disapproval, dislike by others. The value of human life is based on the empathy and affection of family members and others toward its possessor 


Stage 4. "Law-and-Order" Orientation toward authority, fixed rules, and the maintenance of the social order. Right behavior consists of doing one's duty, showing respect for authority, and maintaining the social order for its own sake. Conform to avoid censure by legitimate authorities and resultant guilt. Life is conceived as sacred in terms of its place in a categorical moral or religious order of rights and duties.
Clear effort to define moral values and principles which have validity and application apart from the authority of the groups or persons holding these principles and apart from the individual's own identification with these groups.
Stage 5. Social Contract Legalistic Orientation
Has utilitarian overtones. Right action tends to be defined in terms of general individual rights and in terms of standards which have been critically examined and agreed upon by the whole society. Clear awareness of relativism of personal values and opin ions and corresponding emphasis on procedural rules for reaching consensus and a "legal" point of yiew which incorporates the possibility of change due to rational considerations of social utility. Free agreement and contract is the binding element of obligation.
Conform to maintain the respect of the impartial spectator judging in terms of community welfare, Life is valued both in terms of its relation to community welfare and in terms of life being a universal human right.
Stage 6. Universal Ethical Principle Orientation Right is defined by the decision of conscience in accord with self-chosen ethical principles appealing to logical comprehensiveness, universality, and consistency. These principles are abstract and ethical (the Golden Rule, the categorical imperative); they are not concrete moral rules like the Ten Commandments. At heart, these are universal principles of justice, of the reciprocity and equality of the human rights, and of respect for the dignity of
human beings as individual persons.
Conform to avoid self-condemnation. 


Belief in sacredness of human life as representing a universal human value of respect for the individual. 


But perhaps a "universal" system of ethics can be imagined. A few xenologists openly have speculated that a fully generalized and universally applicable moral code may have to be based upon negentropic principles inherent in all biological, intellectual, and sociocultural processes in the cosmos1532,2617 This viewpoint leads to what the author would like to call thermodynamic ethics.

From a thermodynamic standpoint, both life and culture may be viewed as highly improbable states of matter which absorb information from the environment in order to build internal complexity. According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, such processes are permissible if an energy flow may be established. Consumption of negentropy is the major activity of all lifeforms. Absorption of entropy (randomness, disorder, loss of information) is the very antithesis of life. Dr. Ernst Fasan, a well-known international jurist, suggests that the ultimate immoral act is for one sentient being to "inflict entropy" upon another.372 Robert B. Lindsay, a physicist, has proposed a generalized ethical rule which he terms the Thermodynamic Imperative:

All men should fight always as vigorously as possible to in crease the degree of order in their environment, and to consume as much entropy as possible.3013

Thermodynamic ethics dovetails comfortably with many cherished ideals of virtuous conduct. For example, lying is immoral because it results in the assimilation of useless or erroneous data by another. Sloth is "evil," since it contributes no negentropy to the universe. Murder is wrong, unless its commission prevents more severe entropic disturbances elsewhere in the system (e.g., prevents a mass murder or terrorist action). Motherhood is "good" in low-density societies, because each individual born augments the negentropic biological mission. In high-population environments, however, motherhood may not be "good," because the presence of too many individuals tends to break down the social system and destroy stored cultural information.

The general theory of thermodynamic ethics permits xenologists to make one further prediction. Civilizations at higher cultural scales control more energy than lower cultures. More energy means that more entropy can be consumed. It therefore follows that energy-rich societies can afford more comprehensive and complex systems of morality and law. In short, though they may not choose to do so, Type II civilizations can afford "higher" ethics than Type I cultures.


Last updated on 6 December 2008