You can’t be good without sci-fi

Science fiction provides the perfect backdrop for exploration on the borders of morality because it creates alternate realities which are limited only by the depth of our imagination. Promising technologies can be created, controlled, and finally be seen to unexpectedly turn on their former masters. New planets can be discovered and explored for ancient civilisations or exploited for basic resources. Alien species can threaten our planet with annihilation or they can teach us what it means to be human. In the world of science fiction all these possibilities can occur; new worlds, galaxies, and alien species can be created and destroyed over and over in myriad combinations – then it can all be written again. The remoteness of these new galaxies and the unfamiliar forms of alien species allows for an ethical discussion of current events in a way that does not threaten the personal identity of those directly involved. Science fiction allows a lot of nonsense to be bypassed and lets the viewer to look directly into the heart of important subjects1.

Star trek provides many clear examples of morality portrayed through the lens of science fiction. The most prominent ethical instruction which permeates many episodes is the ‘Prime Directive’ which constrains the actions of Starfleet personnel. Simply put, the Prime Directive prevents intervention into pre-warp alien societies so as not to interfere with the natural course of their cultural development.  In principle the Prime Directive is an absolute rule to be obeyed even when the inhabitants of a primitive planet are about to be wiped out. In practice, the crew sometimes engage in exceptions to prevent genocides (e.g., Patterns of Force) or stop devastating asteroid impacts (e.g., For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky). Although these violations are not without consequences for both crew and captain, the interventions are usually portrayed as the right action given the circumstances. The real-world political doctrine of non-intervention can be seen as the contemporary equivalent of the Prime Directive. Based on the principles of state sovereignty and self-determination it says that states cannot and should not interfere in the domestic affairs of others. This doctrine is also supposed to be absolute, frowning upon alliances and wars on foreign soil; it instead opts for the containment of problems within local regions. However, just like the Prime Directive, non-interventionism has been violated in recent history by several prominent countries. One clear example is the UN intervention in Kosovo which was carried out under dubious legal authority. The justification given was the prevention of a humanitarian crisis, similar to the reason in Patterns of Force. States will also rush to provide humanitarian aid in countries, like Haiti, which have been hit with natural disasters. Star Trek managed to give us a discussion of non-interventionism, covering both the reasons for it and the horrid situations that result from pursing it to the limit. All this was done in a neutral setting where the idea could be freely discussed away from any real-world political divides which hamper proper dialogue. Star Trek also gave us the moral reasons for breaking the Prime Directive long before humanitarian concerns motivated us on Earth to get involved in the domestic crises of others.

Although science-fiction regularly deals with broad, societal-scale ethics there is also a deep theme of personal morality promoted through the hero or heroine of each series. They are the ones faced with tough decisions and regularly have to balance competing interests when confronted with moral dilemmas. Because they are our heroes they usually make the decision that result in the best outcome in every situation, but sci-fi asks whether merely doing the right thing is enough. If the hero does the right thing but acts for the wrong reasons they will lose our respect and we will begin to question their ethical status.  Delenn, our heroine of Babylon 5, has to face this additional layer of complexity for her moral decisions.  In Comes the Inquisitor she enters a crucible designed to force out the motivations for her actions. Over and over the inquisitor asks who she is. Is she someone filled with pride, puffed up with her own self-importance, and desperate for the glory that will come should she save the universe from destruction? Or is she someone motivated solely by the desire to preserve life and even willing to pay the ultimate price “For one person, in the dark, where no one will ever know, or see’2? According to consequentialist moral theories, what determines the rightness of an act is the outcome alone. No consideration is given to the intentions that the actor was trying to put into practice. Babylon 5 asks whether the outcomes are enough to determine the morally of a given situation and the answers given is a resounding “No!’ As is said in the episode, “If you do the right thing for the wrong reasons, the work becomes corrupt, impure, and ultimately self-destructive.’2 Consider the war in Iraq, there’s no question that Saddam Hussein was a cruel and corrupt dictator and that removing him was a good thing for the Iraqi people. However, it would be hard to maintain that the political leaders at the time were acting with the intension of helping Iraq rather than for the wrong reasons which included political and strategic gain. These intensions corrupted the entire exercise and, quite rightly, leave a foul taste in many a mouth. This example shows that a person who performs a kind deed for another solely because of a selfish benefit is not truly acting in an altruistic manner. Without the right intentions, the moral actor is not really moral at all. Furthermore, good intentions are more likely to lead to good outcomes, while the cases of bad intentions leading to good outcomes are rare. Promoting good intentions as morally necessary is one way to improve the consequences of our ethical decision making in the real world.

Speaking of wartime conflict, science-fiction offers a way to discuss the morality of war without getting bogged down in the politics of more local events. We Earthers have a saying: in war, all things are permitted. This statement is explored and taken to its logical conclusion in Battlestar Galactica. In this alternate reality, humanity has built an army of advanced robots and employed them as slaves to perform the menial work necessary to keep a civilisation running. But the Cylons became something greater than their original design and have reached the point where they think and feel so much like their human counterparts it is difficult to tell them apart. The Cylons then turn on their former masters, determined to conquer all humankind. As the show progresses and most of the human military is destroyed, the remaining resistance turns to increasingly brutal acts in order to prevent the Cylons from achieving a complete victory. If the Cylons were merely mindless robots, the actions of the humans would not be morally questionable but because the Cylons share many of the same properties as humans the tactics used by the resistance are open to scrutiny. Even in the context of war, some lines should not be crossed. In the episode Flesh and Bone, a Cylon operative convinces the crew that he has planted a nuclear bomb aboard one of their ships. In this clear case of a ‘ticking bomb’ the interrogation turns to torture in order to learn its location. The bomb scenario is brought up ad nausem in the debates on torture and is usually seen as a trump card. However, Battlestar Galactica highlights a big problem with its use because, as it turns out, there is no bomb and the torture was ultimately pointless. The problem with all ticking bomb scenarios is that, in a real-life situation, the interrogator cannot know that there is a bomb, that the bomber will give up its whereabouts, or that the bomb can actually be stopped. It might be said that the Cylon should not have lied about the existence of the bomb in the first place and so the torture was justified, but this literally makes torture the punishment for lying, a completely unacceptable situation. The second wartime issue conveyed to us by Battlestar Galactica is that of suicide bombing civilian targets in the name of resisting occupation. In the episode rightly called Occupation, members of the human resistance start suicide bombing Cylon and, more controversially, Cylon-friendly human targets. Most people would consider any such act to be morally abominable but set in an alternate universe with humanity on the brink of extinction, Battlestar Galatica manages to make us sympathise with the beleaguered resistance and perhaps even elicits some approval for their actions. Although, by itself, the episode is not enough to change our minds on the tactic of suicide bombing, it is enough to give us pause when we hear of similar instances on this planet and ask ourselves whether we would do the same if under occupation by foreign forces.

We have now seen how science fiction can enlighten us on issues as broad ranging as non-interventionism, intention/consequence approaches to ethics, and the morality of war. By removing the cultural and political barriers that exist in everyday life, science fiction allows for an unprejudiced discussion of moral dilemmas. The fantastic tales provide a narrative that lets us approach ethics in an indirect manner but, as I’ve shown, the results are very much applicable in the terrestrial world. Science fiction is a moral thought experiment performed at the cosmic scale. Ultimately, science fiction gives us an external standard and a common frame of reference to draw upon when faced with our own ethical decisions. If you’ve never considered the problematic aspects of the Prime Directive, never understood why the Vorlons require pure intentions, or never felt pity for a robot in agony then you haven’t grasped the full range of ethical lessons that science fiction has to offer. Without an appreciation of scifi, how can you be moral?

  1. Gene Roddenberry (paraphrase).
  2. Comes the inquisitor, J. Michael Straczynski