I have tried to tackle this issue before but never got satisfactory results. Tonight, I will take another crack at it.
First of all, I need to clarify just what we are talking about. I am not talking about the role of ethics in science fiction media. There have been lots of science fiction tales that revolved around ethical questions, of course. In fact, those tend to be my favorite kind. But this article is not about them.
Instead, I will attempt to address the common ethical nature that forms the bedrock of science fiction. It is elusive and gets easily lost in the manifold diversity of science fiction, but there are actually certain moral foundations that run so deep in science fiction that we fans don’t even notice them most of the time.
If I had to summarize them, I would say they are the high minded ideals of liberal intellectuals. These are the very ideals that drive social progress and have brought us into the modern world, as well as being the highest ideals humanity has ever conceived.
For example, science fiction heavily favours freedom, especially freedom of thought and expression. Whether it takes place in an anarchist utopia or a fascist dystopia, science fiction makes it very clear which side it thinks is right, and it is nearly always the side of freedom.
Rare indeed is the science fiction story that suggests we would all be a lot better under authoritarian rule. The dictator might win or he might lose, but he’s almost never the hero. He’s never right.
Similarly, science fiction heavily favours diversity. This is a facet of science fiction’s strong belief in open-mindedness. Science fiction teaches us to think before we act, to step out of the herd and take a look around at what is really going on, and to question our beliefs constantly.
These are classic liberal virtues, and they are the virtues upon which modern society was built. Despite the infinite delusions in infinite variety of social conservatives, all modern societies were built by people who were the radical liberals of their era, just a bunch of crazy intellectuals with unrealistic ideals of freedom and equality, and it is exactly those kind of people who have been pushing society forward ever since.
Speaking of equality, that is another virtue science fiction promotes. It goes part and parcel with its belief in diversity. Science fiction believes that diversity is always a good idea and that the operating principle of diversity, namely tolerance, is a primary principle from which modern civilization springs.
The more we tolerate one another and are willing to just let people be who they are without judgment or suspicion, the more free society is and the better off we are as a species. The history of the twentieth century can be seen as a long struggle to learn to accept those different from us, and the process continues to this day and will probably continue well into the next century. We are still a young species, and we have so much to learn.
Speaking of learning, science fiction also believes in the value of knowledge, education, and, of course, science. Despite the proliferation of “What hath man wrought?” science fiction stories where science leads to a terrible catastrophe, science fiction believe in science, progress, and the value of teaching what we have learned to the next generation so that they can pick up where we left off.
In general, science fiction is strongly humanitarian. It seeks the well-being and comfort of all us crazy humans and even three headed green space men, if they are sentient like us. It embraces a very broad conception of compassion that encompasses all of humanity, even if that humanity is found in the body of an alien, a robot, or a cloud of plasma drifting through space.
A classic example of this higher compassion is my favorite Star Trek original series episode, The Devil In The Dark. In it, Kirk and Spock face a genuinely frightening and completely alien creature call the Horta, who by the time the episode starts has already killed 50 miners.
The miners, of course, want the thing dead, and if you are a human being watching the episode for the first time, so do you. Every instinct in our bodies says that if something kills us, we band together hunt it down and kill it, period.
These are the same instincts that made us deadly opponents despite our seeming weakness back in our hunter-gatherer days. Any predators that threatened us soon learned the error of their ways. We may seem weak as individuals, but when we band together, we can beat anything, no matter how big.
But Kirk sees past that. Even when Spock is ready to phaser the Horta into oblivion, Kirk tells him to hold up and it is then that we learn that the Horta is just protecting her eggs, and that if the humans leave her eggs alone, she will leave them alone. And Kirk then convinces the rest of the miners to forgo revenge for their losses and live in peace with the Horta that killed 50 of them.
That represents such a high ideal of understanding and compassion that it still leaves me breathless to imagine it. If Kirk and Spock had hunted down the Horta and killed it, few of us would have questioned it. That is what you do when animals threaten humans, let alone inhuman monsters. Even the highly civilized people of today simply accept this truth. We can live peacefully with the animals most of the time.
But if you threaten one of us, the deal is off.
And yet, Kirk listens to his heart and his mind instead of his primal instincts, and the folly of what they had been about to do to the Horta is revealed when the Horta uses its acids to etch these words on a piece of rock “NO KILL I”.
Those are the three most poignant words in all of science fiction, in my opinion.
So in more or less conclusion, the ethics of science fiction are the highest ethics of humanity : freedom, compassion, cooperation, tolerance, peace, progress, knowledge, and the never ending pursuit of higher morality that has driven humanity to this enlightened age and will drive it still further on, till one day the people of the future will look back at us and wonder how we endured lives of such chaos and savagery.
Some say that science fiction only appeals to intellectuals. I would counter that recent box office receipts belie that. But even if that was true, it is we intellectuals who push our societies to better themselves.
And by and large, it is science fiction that pushes us.
See you tomorrow, folks.