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


25.1.1  Basic Metalaw

Science fiction all too often portrays extraterrestrials as a kind of "interstellar Avon lady," providing humans with innumerable goods and services.78 At the other extreme, ETs are frequently described as murderous villains from the stars who conquer Earth and enslave humanity. Neither of these alternatives seems to represent a useful basis upon which to establish. metalegal relationships. There may be stringent rules limiting what one race will allow itself to give or sell to another, less-developed one. And if a society has a policy of. destroying every alien ship as soon as it is met, and then turning to attack the ET's home planet, someday it will tackle a civilization that is too powerful and will itself be destroyed. As one writer notes: "Interstellar checkers is not a viable mode of existence."1001

As the author has pointed out elsewhere,2001 the history of human expansion has been a sordid tale of subjugation, colonization and exploitation. The Europeans were perhaps most notorious in this regard. Natives of foreign lands were shipped back to the Continent and placed on. display as if mere zoo animals, even though they differed in appearance only slightly from the colonists. Our early settlers in this country displaced the Indians similarly, herding them into compact reservations on worthless land and imposing upon them our way of life and our system of government (to a large degree). And the technologically advanced nations weren't the only ones to expand by means of ruthless incursion and expulsion of indigenous races. The Aborigines ran out the Tasmanians, the Malays routed the Sakai, the Bantus expelled the Hottentots .... The tally of human aggression is virtually endless.

We see that a constant in human sociopolitical evolution has been the need and desire for security against foreign invaders. From this we may infer that any civilized alien race may regard physical security as a primary requirement in any first contact situation. We may call this the Principle of Defense.

But this notion is not easy to apply in practical situations. The main difficulty is in drawing the line between defense and offense. That is, must we wait for the ETs actually to attack us before we try to defend ourselves, or do we attack their strike bases before they can launch against us? That is, how far do we go with what military strategists call "anticipatory defense"? And there may be instances in which we do not realize we have been attacked until it is too late -- infiltration by human-looking androids, planetary inoculation with "propaganda viruses," and irresistible radio messages from the stars are common themes in the science fiction literature.

Another suggested basis for metalegal relations that has gained wide currency is the so-called Principle of Noninterference. The gist of this idea is that each culture should leave others entirely alone -- let them evolve naturally, with no help or interference from outsiders.

If cultural integrity is to be strictly maintained, the technically inferior race must be totally isolated. Yet the mere knowledge that advanced race even existed would probably be enough to interfere with the normal development of a society. Must we therefore insist that extraterrestrial civilizations remain in total ignorance of each other? Is cultural quarantine really desirable? And the whole idea of strict noninterference may be bad. As anthropologist Magoroh Maruyama once said:

Many anthropologists say: Don’t disturb this culture because it is the result of so many thousands of years of evolution that it’s perfect. Now that’s entirely a wrong idea, based on the Western kind of logic. Cultures change; all biological and, social processes change."3395

A third suggestion is that all ETs should simply apply the Golden Rule in their dealings with one another. This basic principle seems to crop up again and again in the philosophical and religious writings of humankind. For example: "What is hateful to thyself, do not unto thy neighbor" (Babylonian Talmud); "A man should treat all living creatures as he himself would be treated" (Sutra-Kritanga); "You must expect to be treated by others as you have treated them" (Seneca); "Do naught to others which if done to thee would cause thee pain" (Hindu Mahabharata 5.1517); "Great Spirit: Grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked for a moon in his moccasins" (Sioux Indian Prayer); "We should behave to friends as we would wish friends to behave to us" (Aristotle): "Hurt not others with that which pains yourself" (Buddhist Udanavarga 5.18); and, of course, "As you wish men to do to you, so also do you to them" (Christian Bible, Luke vi. 31). Applying the Golden Rule, we should treat aliens as we would wish to be treated ourselves. Conversely, they should treat us as they themselves would wish to be treated, assuming the universality of the metalegal principle.

But the late Andrew G. Haley, the world's first "space lawyer" and widely regarded as the father of metalaw, pointed out the fallacy in this approach far back as 1956, at the Seventh International Astronautical Congress in Rome.693 According to Haley, metalaw, defined as "the law governing the rights of intelligent beings of different natures and existing in an indefinite number of different frameworks of natural laws," would require a different moral basis than present Earthly law.

The traditional Golden Rule is starkly anthropocentric; that is, it reflects the subjective needs and wishes of humans. In the case of generalized contact, application of the principle would require each interacting species to impose its own sociobiologically-derived goal structure and motivations upon the other race. As Haley observed, to treat other sentient creatures as we would desire to be treated might well mean their destruction. Similarly, if ETs treat us as they would wish to be treated, it could destroy us. This conclusion derives from the simple fact that two sentient species inevitably must differ in their physiological, psychological, and sociocultural specifics. It would be better for each race to find out how the other desired to be treated, and to act accordingly.

Accordingly, Haley proposed the following as the Great Rule of Metalaw: "Do unto others as they would have you do unto them."693 In other words, we should treat aliens as THEY want to be treated, not as WE think they ought to be treated. This is a very simple means to ensure both the safety and the equality of metalegal partners.

However, in practice the Great Rule might be as difficult to apply as the Principle of Defense and the Principle of Noninterference. If we are to ascertain the desires of the other party, we may have to interact with them to a certain degree -- and this may cause sociocultural damage. George S. Robinson of the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University in Montreal has raised another issue:

Who, or what, determines that which is "injurious or hurtful to some other being"? If mankind is to make such a determination, it is of necessity one which is anthropocentric in nature. If an alien being is to make the determination, is not man deprived of some rights as an integral party? Or perhaps there is a compromise based on an understanding of all participants of the ultimate laws of nature permitting or tending towards a balanced universal ecosystem? If there is truth in the latter approach, again we must turn to the principle involved in Haley's Interstellar Golden Rule -- do not disrupt unilaterally the ecosystem of an alien sentient being.1079

Others fear that to treat aliens as they wish to be treated may imperil humanity. In the most extreme case, ETs may wish to be treated as conquerors. Remarks S.W. Greenwood:

The Great Rule of. Metalaw proposed by Andrew Haley appears to have aroused surprisingly little critical comment. It seems to me to be a highly dangerous approach to the problem of how to behave in the presence of an alien intelligence. Literally it appears to direct an Earthman to do whatever an alien desires. What should be done when an alien desires an Earthman to hand over his vehicle, his equipment, and his crew? It is evident that the Rule of Metalaw would often be unworkable.1181


Last updated on 6 December 2008