Thought-experiment August: Pick your alien invasion

Alien beings have scanned your brain and determined you are the perfect person to conduct a little ethics experiment. They are immensely powerful trans-dimensional beings, but almost entirely void of ethical thinking. They relish doing ethics experiments, to see what all the fuss is about it in humans.

So they approach you and give you the following choice: X or Y will be completely obliterated—You pick which.

X: In a distant galaxy (far far away) there is a nonhuman civilization that encompasses thousands of worlds, each containing tens of billions of inhabitants. This species is rich and complex, with hundreds of thousands of years of art, literature, and science.

Y: Your own state (say, California), as well as every library and museum on Earth (including digital libraries). Your immediate family will be removed from harm up to second cousins.

This is all you know.

Is it X or Y for the furnace?

Note: There is no Twilight Zone trick here, with later an alien race having to choose their or our world for destruction.

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15 comments to Thought-experiment August: Pick your alien invasion

  • Heidi

    Random killing is unethical, so how could either choice be ethical?

  • Mark

    Neither choice is ethical, but my initial and strong feeling is that numbers and quality win out. A whole civilization advanced so far they make us look like animals in exchange for, well, a few million animals?

    Dunno… if such a choice must be made, I’m sorry to say Virginia is outta here.

  • Cap

    My initial thought would be Y. Destroy an entire race of individuals, or very few, in comparison I would probably go for West Virginia.

    Killing on any level would be, I feel, unethical, and I feel that some major damage would be done to your psychological well-being, but destroying one state that is of personal value, (or more so than a distant civilization) I feel would be more ethical than destroying a civilization.

    The issue I have with these thoughts is how do we know the aliens are telling the truth. How do we know there’s another civilization that they can destroy? How would they destroy them and would it take thousands of years for them to get there? These questions would make it very difficult to make a decision.

    Should you risk it?

  • Mrs.Andy

    Having been presented with ethical puzzles in the past, I can’t help but wonder what unknowns about the other worlds would make me change my mind.

    For example, if you had to choose between saving an 8 year old child or an 80 year old man from certain death, which would you choose? Would you change your mind if you knew the 8 yr. old had terminal cancer and the 80 year old man was the prophet?

    It might seem noble to pick the unknown over the known because of numbers but I can’t be sure. We humans obliterate millions of organisms on our own planet without a second thought. Should we feel more guilty for knowingly destroying an unknown civilization than we do for being willfully ignorant about destroying our own planet?

    Without a way to know any more about X, I would have to save Y. Loyalty to my planet and my species would prevent me from sacrificing my home for something I could never know or compare.

    Perhaps I should add the disclaimer that outside of my husband and kids, I haven’t got any relatives in my “home” state that I’d miss all that terribly anyway. Maybe the aliens made a mistake by choosing me!

  • Matt A.

    “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”

    I suppose I would pick Y, if there were no recourse to choosing, but I think that I would look really hard for an out.

    Either that, or go all Die Hard, take over the alien ship and give them a lesson in practical ethics. :D

  • Heidi and Mark. Right. This is not an ethical choice. It’s a forced choice between two evils.

    Matt A. Extra points for Star Trek quote.

    Cap and Mrs.Andy comment on something important: The more information you have the better decision you could make. If you could see the alien race’s literature and art and it was of greater worth than ours (whatever that might mean) you might decide they are worth saving. If you looked and saw they were cruel and merciless to other beings you might choose otherwise. If you could ask them five questions, what would you ask to help you make the decisions?

  • Mrs.Andy

    I have a hard time separating religion and ethics when it comes to the “why” questions. I know what questions to ask from a religious point of view but I don’t instinctively know how to translate that into ethics.
    Religiously, I would want to know if the X’s were souls (by LDS definition that is a spirit child of God + a physical body) in a state of mortal probation being refined in order to become more perfect beings. So, how do you ask that as an ethics question?
    I would also want to know whether X or Y was going to be vulnerable to some kind of inevitable destruction or collapse in the foreseeable future. Why save something that is going to be gone soon anyway? If we knew that the earth was going to be wrapped together like a scroll the week after this big dilemma, we might make a different choice – the people who would be wiped out would only be short changed a week, right?
    Another religious question – if all of our cultural and historical archives were gone (by the way, is there a loophole there because many libraries could be re-established through compilations of private collections), could we expect that God would restore what had been lost and allow religion to go forward? (What a clean slate that could be!)
    I would want to know the consequences of either choice and whether the fallout from X or Y being destroyed would eventually impact the other group. Would group X eventually come to Earth and take over the planet if they weren’t destroyed? We could be passing up a significant pre-emptive strike!
    I would want to know whether either group would suffer when they were exterminated. If all things were otherwise equal, I would opt for less suffering. It would also be significant to me to know if only the physical matter would be destroyed or if even the spirit matter would be destroyed. It is really strange to consider whether or not aliens would have the capacity to destroy a sprit that God created out of self-existing intelligence. Of course that begs the question of why God would be permitting these aliens to roam around meddling with His work and glory.
    I don’t blame the aliens for being perplexed by ethics. Coming up with questions really makes it obvious that what is ethical to me based on my values and experiences makes a large part of my concept of ethics very subjective. I would not be at all surprised if there were strong cultural trends in the answers to these kinds of questions if they were asked of people from different backgrounds.
    (Someday I will be banned for writing responses that are longer than the original post.)

  • Cap

    As far as seeing art depicting violent acts or literature indicating a violent history is not so different then ours. You look at art as from the Greeks, there are men holding spears, stabbing people, you have many accounts of violence, and you the same today. Humans are violent. But we are also kind and empathetic. So what is more true? If the questions was posed to an alien to us and we were the civilization being destroyed for choice X would we–being violent–be spared?

    Also, (now this is the science part of me coming out), how far away is this civilization? Even if these aliens travel at light speed it could be thousands of years old. They could have changed. But for the sake of the argument I’ll say they can jump or warp through space and bypass this laws of relativity.

    And so, if what they show me is up to date here are my questions:

    1. What is the major religion of this species?
    I find it hard to ask “what is their view of life?” or anything regarding that because I would assume that they are individuals and not like ants. But I should ask.
    2. Are there individuals ideals and thoughts?
    3. How many individuals are there?
    4. What is the location of the star that their planet is revolving?
    5. Can you bring one to meet me?
    That one would be more of a request.

    The questions are hard to ask because I feel that depending on the answer the following questions could vary. Oh well. Those are my questions and thoughts.

  • I would first move to Washington DC (there is no state), and then tell them “Y”. Of course, I would insist on the aliens coming over for lunch on that day….

    In this way, we get rid of two groups of unethical beings at once.

  • 1) Why are you destroying either one?

    Then depending on the answer, I’d ask others. I’d probably refuse to choose because I’d not want to be their fall guy for the decision, especially if the only reason they are considering destroying either is for a moral exercise.

  • JJP

    I can’t help but to recollect my philosophy class, specifically on ethics. The Consequentialist view on it would be to pick the choice that would the contribute to the greatest amount of happiness. So I’d have to pick Y. But it could also go the other way, what if this mysterious race had existed so long that they became a sad and lazy race, and destroy it wouldn’t decrease any happiness? I think I’d also want to meet one of the aliens to properly make my choice. But I think I’m still going to go with Y.

  • Excellent discussion all! I’ve been away at my other blog. Now back to this one.

    Everyone (rightly!) wants more information, but that’s the trick here. You don’t have it. Just crazy aliens out to wreck destruction in what is an essentially horrific choice. But in some sense, that is the nature of all ethical choice. We never have all of the facts at our disposal and at some point we have to make the best decision we can. Blind to certain realities.

    I would probably pick Y too, but mostly for selfish reasons. I would want to appear noble enough to have sacrificed my own people in a demonstration that my love for cultural uniqueness trumped my own speciocentric tendencies.

  • Well, if I can’t know any more than I do then I would take a gamble and pick Y for destruction. There can’t be civilization any worse than humanity. I consider myself somewhat of a Calvinist Mormon in my beliefs about the degenerate state of the human soul. Even the best people are, deep down inside, the most vile of creatures.

  • A number of years ago I took a Psyc class at Westminster College in SLC, and we were presented with the “rowboat” ethical question. I told the teacher I wouldn’t participate in the question, and she graciously let me listen and didn’t dock by grade. I would do a similar thing and tell the aliens that I wouldn’t choose either solution. All they could do is kill me if they wanted to.

  • eric

    Why do we go to war? Because mine are more important than theirs. My freedom and posterity is more important than theirs. That of my neighbors is more important than theirs; but only when it comes right down to it. Otherwise I do all I possibly can and must do all I can to prevent it.

    But we destroyed many cities, families, lives, etc. in a quest to merely end a war. Not even to protect the mainland of the US. Now, in this theory we’re not at war, so this is not retaliation, but when we dropped atom bombs on children in Japan we weren’t retaliating against those kids, and we killed them nevertheless. It’s a brutal, murderous, satanic thing. I would never want to make that decision.

    But faced with it, I would pick X where it concerns others in my state I have no right to sacrafice. Although I’d gladly and freely give my own life and erase all hope of temporal posterity for the foreign alien race.

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