The ethics of science fiction

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.

3 thoughts on “The ethics of science fiction

  1. A good topic for a sequel article: “conservative SF.”

    While you’re right that, traditionally, SF assumes liberal virtues, conservative SF writers and fans have always wanted to get their share of the credit, and there are conservative tropes throughout SF.

    There’s the individualism you mentioned. Conservative SF wants to claim that as a conservative virtue. After all, caring about other people just means you’re less independent. Therefore, a social democracy that cares for its people is The Man, forcing uncool cooperation on cool rebel individuals. Even Snake Plissken (though John Carpenter is a liberal), who hates the smug, fascist powers that be, also can’t stand to do a favour for humanity, because that’s not cool. Both Escape movies end with him seemingly sending the world back into the dark ages.

    Or military SF. The military can be viewed as a liberal organization, despite its conformism. We’ve talked before about how it gives everyone in it a role, and there are no surplus/disposable people. It also (in theory, anyway) has its own free health care system, housing, food, and education. You have to be tough to make it in the military, but once you’re in, you’re all in it together. “We’re all in this together” is definitely not a conservative value. “Every man for himself,” which is a conservative value, is not a military attitude. In fact, you’d probably get your ass kicked if you took that attitude in the army.

    One of the problems with (the movie) Starship Troopers was that, on the big screen at least, it didn’t come across as satire (even though the director explicitly said it was a satire of American martial values). All the characters the movie wanted us to like were conservative tough-guy types. The black female Sky Marshall that wanted to negotiate with the Bugs resigns in disgrace. The merchant class, represented by Rico’s dad, is punished for not joining the army yet still having a lot of wealth and influence, when the asteroid vaporizes Argentina. You could say that Rico’s dad is rich and therefore it isn’t conservatism, but look closer, and he’s a wealthy liberal boomer who benefits from capitalism but hates war.

    Then there’s scientific progress. In a lot of SF/horror movies, like Food of the Gods II (AKA Gnaw) (1989), Watchers II (1990), and Man’s Best Friend (1993), it’s those stupid animal-rights activists that let the monster out of its cage and we’re supposed to like it when the the thanks they get from the monster is that it kills them.

    Sometimes labour unions try to stop the new technology because it kills jobs, as in I, Robot (the book—though Isaac Asimov was also a liberal).

    Anti-utopianism is another one. For some reason, despite SF being all about change and vision and seeing things in a new way, writers just can’t accept the idea that life should be easier than it is. I think this comes from a deep-seated conservative impulse, combined with the Puritan work ethic.

    And this is just in mainstream SF. We could get into libertarian SF, but that’s more consciously conservative. I’m thinking more about the conservatism that worms its way into the collective unconscious of middle-of-the-road SF authors and screenwriters.

  2. Wow. I don’t think I have to right a sequel article…. you just did it for me! 🙂

    The modern trend of equating libertarianism with conservatism is just an offshot of the weird dos-y-dos (SP?) of the definitions of liberal and conservative. Historically, the liberals were the radical individualists and tax protesters and the conservatives were the ones definind, God, Government, and the System.

    But then the fucking baby boomers came along and turned things upside down. The strange way they went about selling out in the 80’s and the whole “Government IS the problem” tactic that Reagan used to convince them that they were still fighting The Man fucked everything up proper.

    Now it is up to liberals to remind people that government is there for a reason, and it’s the goddamned “conservatives” who are the barbarians at the gate who want to burn everything down.

    Makes me sick.

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