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This question is intended for anyone who does not espouse a belief in total "moral relativism."

If intelligent aliens existed, would it be our duty to treat them the same way we treat fellow humans? What about if they were killing each other off? Would it be our duty to intervene? If their culture espoused torturing one another for pleasure, should we then intervene? Are our morals truly Universal, or do they apply only to humans? If these aliens attacked us, would we be justified in any level of brutality during retaliation, or would we be morally required to offer them the same legal protections we offer ourselves? Is it possible that other intelligent life has what you may refer to as a "soul?" Or, despite their intelligence, are they mere beasts by default? What level of intelligence requires us to treat them the same way we treat humans?

  • Yes, for certain values of "intelligent", "duty", and "same." It depends. It depends. It depends. Yes, for certain values of "our morals." It depends. Irrelevant. No. Open question. – commando Jul 31 '14 at 3:26
  • Is this a homework question? It sounds like one. – virmaior Jul 31 '14 at 4:01
  • I'd recommend the SF short story "Do Unto Others" by Mark Clifton, which demonstrates that with aliens, explaining the meaning of "do unto others as you would do unto yourself" might be very dangerous. gutenberg.org/files/32181/32181-h/32181-h.htm – gnasher729 Jul 31 '14 at 21:41
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Why do you need to bring aliens into it? Cats, pythons and octopuses all have different morals than we do. Are we morally required to offer them the same legal protections we offer ourselves?

Ah, you might say, that's not the same question at all because cats, pythons and wolverines are not intelligent in the same sense that we are. But neither are your supposed aliens. Our moral sense is quite thoroughly interwoven with the rest of our cognitive apparatus, so a species with a very different moral sense must have a very different sort of intelligence than we do.

So I don't see how your question is any different from "What duty do we have to octopii?". That might be a hard question and one worth thinking about, but I think that bringing in the aliens only serves to obscure it.

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    @commando: I'm not sure we disagree with each other. All I'm saying is that whatever there is to be said about aliens ought to apply equally to octopii, and vice versa. (That is, as far as general principles go. Of course specific differences between octopii and aliens could lead to different specific conclusions from those same general principles. But since we've been told nothing about how these aliens differ from octopii, we have no way of speculating about what those differences might be.) – WillO Jul 31 '14 at 4:20
  • You're right, I was reading into your answer. -1 turned to +1, sorry. – commando Jul 31 '14 at 4:20
  • @commando: Thanks. I've just added a long parenthetical remark to my comment which I'm hoping will also seem right to you. – WillO Jul 31 '14 at 4:22
  • "Our moral sense is quite thoroughly interwoven with the rest of our cognitive apparatus, so a species with a very different moral sense must have a very different sort of intelligence than we do." I think that statement requires much more justification than you give it. Certainly our intelligence is implemented biologically, but why should that imply that any other arguments for morality based on reason would be any different for some other implementation of intelligence? – James Kingsbery Jul 31 '14 at 14:32
  • Possibly related: Social Octopus Species – Dave B Aug 1 '14 at 13:48
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If intelligent aliens existed, would it be our duty to treat them the same way we treat fellow humans?

Some philosophers such as Ayn Rand say that it's not a good idea to think about morality in terms of duty. Duty is often used to denote something you are supposed to do despite having criticisms of it: it is a demand that you should act irrationally. What you should do is work out what is in your rational self interest and do that. It may sometimes be the case that your rational self interest is served by entering into an agreement and fulfilling its terms, e.g. - getting a job and fulfilling the terms of your employment contract.

If aliens can create new explanatory knowledge then we may be able to gain something by cooperating with them. In that case, we should apply to them the same moral standards as we would apply to humans.

What about if they were killing each other off? Would it be our duty to intervene? If their culture espoused torturing one another for pleasure, should we then intervene?

We should advocate good ideas. Intervening in other ways might be a good idea depending on the context. If some of the aliens resist their bad culture then we might want to help them to escape, or even use force to stop their mistreatment depending on the circumstances.

Are our morals truly Universal, or do they apply only to humans?

Good moral ideas are universal. But I don't know what moral values you hold or whether they are any good so I can't say much about the applicability of your moral ideas.

If these aliens attacked us, would we be justified in any level of brutality during retaliation, or would we be morally required to offer them the same legal protections we offer ourselves?

We should apply the same moral standards to the aliens as to human beings. Dropping bombs might be a reasonable way to wage a war even if it sometimes kill civilians. Raping aliens wouldn't help win a war and would be evil and stupid.

Is it possible that other intelligent life has what you may refer to as a "soul?" Or, despite their intelligence, are they mere beasts by default? What level of intelligence requires us to treat them the same way we treat humans?

If the aliens can create new explanatory knowledge we should treat them as people, otherwise we should not. If they can create new explanatory knowledge we can engage in trade for mutual advantage if we and they follow the appropriate moral ideas. If they can't create new explanatory knowledge then they can't learn or impart good moral ideas, nor can they learn or impart good ideas of any other kind. Treating them as moral agents would make as much sense as treating you car as a moral agent.

The idea of a soul doesn't make much sense. Thoughts are abstractions but they always have to be instantiated in some material. The difference between humans and animals lies in the ability to create new explanatory knowledge, not in anything supernatural.

You might find it useful to read "The Beginning of Infinity" by David Deutsch.

  • "Duty is often used to denote something you are supposed to do despite having criticisms of it: it is a demand that you should act irrationally." That is debatable. Although Rand would certainly hold that, there are many who would hold that (1) Duty is a synonym for justice, and (2) to act with justice is to act rationally. – James Kingsbery Jul 31 '14 at 14:37
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    I can't fathom why people think Ayn Rand was a philosopher, a novelist at best. – D3L Aug 1 '14 at 5:34
  • What Ayn Rand books have you read and what are your criticisms of them? – alanf Aug 1 '14 at 7:27
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If intelligent aliens existed (as presumably they do) our morality in relation to them would have to take into acccount what behaviour or attitudes on our part benefit or harm them and what their needs are. They might be incapable, physically or psychologically, of killing one another. They might lead purely autonomous lives without dependence on the actions of others - among themselves or us. They might be compulsive truth-tellers or compulsive liars. They might not recognise the binding nature of promises - of any promise.

We should not know how to treat them until we knew what they were actually like.

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