Protecting Aliens From Us—an E.T. Bill of Rights

By Kyle Munkittrick | October 22, 2010 8:58 am

His VP is The Great Gonzo.Remember in E.T. where the government finds E.T. and decides they should do all sorts of crazy awful experiments on him? Or how about in District 9 where an entire alien race is subjected to squalor, neglect, and vivisection? Or maybe in The Day the Earth Stood Still when Klaatu takes a round in the shoulder from some nervous infantrymen? What all of these movies have in common is that on present-day Earth, aliens have no rights. Despite a demonstration of equal or superior intelligence, a capacity for moral reasoning, complex culture, and peaceful intentions, aliens are regularly mistreated.

“Why should I care?” you might ask, gesturing with your cigarette holder and adjusting your pashmina scarf. You should care because either we are going to find aliens on an earth-like planet, like Gliese 581g, or they’ll find us first—and soon. We’ve got time, but not much, before we’ll be looking at some living something from another world.

Well why should aliens have rights? Because, as I’ve argued before, they have personhood. (Quick refresher: personhood is the idea that rights stem from aspects of an entity’s mind. For example, a sentient creature has the right not to suffer, and a self-aware creature has the right to self-determine. It doesn’t matter if the mind is in a robo-power suit, an ethereal protoplasm, distributed among a living swarm, or at the center of a writhing mass of tentacles. If a sentient, rational, and moral mind is present, it has personhood.)

If an alien can suffer, can reason, and can tell right from wrong, then it has rights and responsibilities. But what are they?

A Bill of Rights for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Draft)

I imagine the preamble would be pretty simple and to the point. Our goal is to outline what is protected (intelligent aliens) and what isn’t (probes, asteroids, King Ghidorah). Remember all those episodes of Star Trek where the Prime Directive gets the Enterprise crew in trouble because the non-warp civilization has no idea how to deal with aliens? Think of these rights as the Prime Directive in reverse—a list of rights to protect peaceful space explorers.

Preamble: The People of Earth recognize that any Extraterrestrial Intelligence that is sentient, conscious, autonomous, and recognizes other persons shall be protected by the rights articulated herein. The rights articulated remain in effect while the visiting Extraterrestrial Intelligence is within the scope of direct, immediate human interaction and does not present a clear and present danger to the People of Earth.

The main goal here is to prevent us from accidentally triggering an intergalactic war because we’re too jumpy. As Stephen Hawking pointed out, a superior species should have no trouble wiping us out if they wanted. It’s even more unlikely that aggressive intentions will be hidden or sneaky; even Independence Day only took 24 hours to go from first contact to Armageddon. If aliens don’t come out guns a-blazing, we should probably give them benefit of the doubt. Furthermore, peaceful aliens with personhood (like A.L.F.) would be protected while those without (the Blob), would not be. Pretty good so far! I’m a regular founding father.

On to the articles of rights. What are we trying to do with these articles? Protect the aliens from us. The same way the Bill of Rights is supposed to protect citizens from the government, we should be protecting aliens from humanity. Let’s take a shot.

Article I. The People of Earth shall, in a manner prescribed by national and international law, form a delegation of representatives appropriate to the Extraterrestrial Intelligence. This delegation will be entrusted with ensuring adherence to the values and articles within this document.

Just who, precisely, is going to interact with the aliens is quite important. My hope is that it isn’t a bunch of politicians, but actually some real scientists, philosophers, and the odd polymath (cough Jeff Goldblum cough) to round things out. Alright, now on to making sure we don’t mistreat our guests.

Article II. The People of Earth shall make no act of aggression, pre-emptive or otherwise, towards an Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Article III. The People of Earth shall not unjustly imprison, restrain, or delay the movement of any Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Article IV. The People of Earth shall observe the same standards of ethics—including dignity, autonomy, and informed consent—regarding any potential scientific or medical interaction with the Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Whew! No being mean, no prisoners, and no evil experiments – I just made a whole lot of science fiction stories very boring. In all honesty, my suspension of disbelief is most rattled by films where one of these three articles is violated. I just can’t imagine someone thinking it would be a good idea to imprison, shoot at, or dissect a strange, advanced, alien species. But it’s better safe than sorry.

Back to the task at hand. What we need to round things out is some sort of catch-all article, like the 10th Article of the Bill of Rights, to end this little list. Ah, got it:

Article V. The People of Earth shall act as to best preserve a peaceful relationship with the Extraterrestrial Intelligence while working to preserve mutual cultures and identities.

Boom! There it is folks, a Bill of Rights for our first visitors.  Any loopholes? As always, I’m sure the lovely commenters will provide fine fodder for thought.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Aliens, Philosophy, Politics, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: personhood, rights

Comments (34)

  1. Katharine

    Extension of the UDHR to non-human persons would work.

  2. dcwarrior

    Unjustly imprison, delay, etc. – is quarantine “just”?

    Do the ETs have freedom of contract with individual humans and companies? (this might be a problem if they can strategically make us economically dependent on them)

  3. ChH

    “sentient creature has the right not to suffer”?
    Cool! Where do I go for recompensation for the suffering I’ve endured?

    Seriously – as for loopholes – rules are made to be broken, and no matter how thoroughly you try to plug the holes, someone will violate the spirit of these rules and convince enough people that it’s OK to do whatever he wants. As evidence I submit the state of affairs in the USA in contrast to its constitution.

  4. Bigby

    It may seem obvious that ALF is self-determinant but the Blob is not… but exactly how are we to know that? What makes us think that anything obviously alien will also be obviously intelligent, or not. I personally expect that we’ll have absolutely no idea what we’re dealing with initially. And perhaps, not until it’s “too late”.
    I remember a science fiction story when I was youngster — during the Lincoln adminsitration — that dealt with this. Someone sees what looks like a really big ant, like hamster sized, he smashes it with a conveniant book only to find the dead little critter is wearing tool belt with some fairly sophisticated stuff in it. He takes the remains to the local white-coat guys and they show him a room with jars full of smashed dead mega-ants with tool belts. Ooops. First reaction is always, it’s a bug, kill it.
    If the aliens have any kind of smarts at all, and have peaceful intent, they’ll make first contact from a distance.

  5. JMW

    Now we have Plait’s Four Laws of Interstellar Diplomacy, to go with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics…

  6. @Bigby: Agreed that we won’t know for certain, but all of the sci-fi examples I gave things were pretty clear. I fought the urge to nerd out in the article over Mass Effect, but there are interactions with the Rachni and Thorian that echo exactly your sentiment — you decide, in the moment, if an entity 1) has personhood, and therefore dignity/rights/obligations and b) presuming personhood, was what it did so immoral as to warrant death? Personhood always hinges on a sort of universal Turing test and that test will always have false positives and false negatives.

    @JMW: Oy! That’s “Munkittrick’s Four Laws of Interstellar Diplomacy.” However, for mistaking me to be Phil Plait, you have sufficiently flattered me to earn forgiveness. All is well.

  7. whoschad

    Hey, those big-eyed aliens were the ones who started abducting and probing us first! I say we earthlings have the right to retaliate.

    The real problem here isn’t earthlings or extra-terrestrials. The real problem are the scientists (both earthling and ET). Scientists are the ones who always want to probe everything. Let the earth scientists and the alien scientists experiment on each other.

  8. Chris

    You forgot V. We welcomed them with open arms and they ate us!

  9. Josh Shuman

    Um, believe me, I can guarantee you that the first thing any major government would do to aliens they found would be to attempt to interrogate and/or experiment on them. It is not until an entity is shown to be sufficiently like “us” (i.e., that they look and sound and emote like the person who is doing the observing) that we would not do terrible things to them if we felt justified (and especially if we felt threatened). We can barely stop doing these things to our fellow humans, and research shows that the more physical differences someone has from ourselves, the more likely we are to see them as so different as to not even be human. So, your Article IV is necessary; although, I don’t think it would be followed by most of our military or political leaders if given the choice.

  10. Josh Shuman

    Um, believe me, I can guarantee you that the first thing any major government would do to aliens they found would be to attempt to interrogate and/or experiment on them. It is not until an entity is shown to be sufficiently like “us” (i.e., that they look and sound and emote like the person who is doing the observing) that we would not do terrible things to them if we felt justified (and especially if we felt threatened). We can barely stop doing these things to our fellow humans, and research shows that the more physical differences someone has from ourselves, the more likely we are to see them as so different as to not even be human. So, your Article IV is necessary; although, I don’t think it would be followed by most of our military or political leaders if given the choice.

  11. Are you kidding

    All of you must be kidding. Advanced BEINGS will not bother with us. Period end of story. We as a species haven’t even grown out of tribal warfare. Why risk contact with a hostile species. So that the advanced beings can waste their time filling out papers and writing up laws. Give me a break. It would be like us trying to reason with ants in the amazon. Of course intelligent life is out there, but why would they want to talk too us. What would we actually have to say to them. HI. Why would they want too? Our culture. Right? How seriously does anyone take a six year old when they throw a tantrum. We still have alot of growing up to do and that takes time. Until religion and science hump each other to death and sit at the same table all these rules are pointless. Besides I don’t think much about killing ants in my backyard when they bite my daughter.

  12. Troy

    If we don’t treat ET right, then I’ve lost all hope for our so-called Humanity. We hold ourselves so high, yet do dispicable things to even ourselves. If ET were watching, they would surely (and rightly) say “stay away”.

  13. Tbird49er

    Not sure we know what a sentient creature really is. What if whales were the aliens we meet? The human race has “been there, done that” with appalling results. Sad commentary on our prospects to do any better with aliens. Might try doing better here on earth before we start to “sweep someone else’s doorstep”!

  14. Brian Too

    A good effort. However I see a problem.

    As a practical matter, it is national governments who make and enforce laws. Anything supra-national has to go through some body like the U.N. And quite honestly, there are gaps in the U.N. you can drive a truck through (multiple reasons, let’s not get bogged down).

    Also, some people in positions of authority look at stuff like this with a jaundiced eye. They think, “that’s esoteric and unlikely. Also, why should we give away some of our freedom to act, considering that we don’t know what the future will hold?”

  15. scribbler

    Null hypothesis…

    If they can find and reach us, they are powerful enough to tell us what is what and if we find them, there isn’t a need to use hypotheticals since we already know how we react to the technologically backward who happen to be sitting on something we want.

    Why would we afford aliens more rights than we do others of our own species? Are they not all sentient and all the other things listed as “mattering”? Since we treat them as chattel, why would we do otherwise just because they are from another planetary system?

  16. Georg

    “Science, not Fiction”
    Excellent example for solving a problem nobody has
    or will ever have!
    The “best”(but extremely unlikely) will be some
    contact by wireless, if some advanced “people”
    dwell within some dozen light years.
    The only important thing then will be to develop
    the appropriate “politeness” rules for that messages.
    Receiving an answer will take years, so there will be
    ample time to discuss that.
    Georg

  17. I’m not so sure about this. We haven’t even come close to granting the most basic rights to all human beings. How are we going to do so with extraterrestrials?

    Tens of millions of women currently live as slaves. Nine million children die every year in poverty. A billion or so people can’t read. Look at how xenophobic people are towards people today. I fear our interaction with aliens would go more like “War of the Worlds” or “District Nine” than Star Trek. Our track record is not good.

    Still gotta try to do the right thing, though.

  18. I would have to imagine, unless the Vatican is successful in its attempt to convert aliens to Christ, then we are the ones who would probably need the bill of rights if they land..

  19. Jockaira

    This subject is covered extensively and entertainingly in Robert A Heinlein’s story “The Star Beast,” written more than 50 years ago. I recommend it highly. If you can read, you will enjoy it and the contemplation of questions it poses for all of us.

  20. For additional religious reflections on alien contact, see C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, “Out of the Silent Planet,” “Perelandra,” and “That Hideous Strength.” See also (if you can find it) “Religion and Rocketry,” an essay of his written at the dawn of the space age. He proposes that aliens may vary from us in spiritual condition just as much as in every other way, in which case there will be some races who will have plenty to teach us about God and goodness. He did not look forward to alien contact, expecting gloomily that we would merely disgrace ourselves again.

  21. scribbler

    Whatever steps out of the space ship, humans will meet them…

  22. lindamller

    I recollect how we did for Thomas Jerome Newton in “The Man Who Fell To Earth”…and he was a millionaire.

  23. Barbara

    This is great, but can we please make sure all humans have equal rights before ensuring Aliens do? It just seems kind of monstrous to worry about how we might treat Alien visitors when we can’t even provide food, medicine or drinking water(some very basic rights) to people across the world – even with all of our “modern” technology. Just a thought.

  24. ChH

    Barbara, food, medicine and water are goods, not rights.
    Rights are what governments and other people are normally not allowed to do to you – such as (nominally in the USA):
    – killing, enslaving or stealing from you.
    – preventing you from speaking, publishing, worshiping, petitioning or gathering with others.
    – confiscating your firearms.
    – forcing you to put up soldiers in your house.
    – looking through your private stuff.
    (etc etc)

  25. Chris Winter

    Bigby wrote: “I remember a science fiction story when I was youngster — during the Lincoln administration — that dealt with this. Someone sees what looks like a really big ant, like hamster sized, he smashes it with a convenient book only to find the dead little critter is wearing tool belt with some fairly sophisticated stuff in it. He takes the remains to the local white-coat guys and they show him a room with jars full of smashed dead mega-ants with tool belts. Oops. First reaction is always, it’s a bug, kill it.”

    The story was by Howard Fast, author of Spartacus, and called, appropriately, “The Large Ant.” Very good it is. I can also recommend “The First Men” and “The General Zapped an Angel,” which I read in the same collection.

    “If the aliens have any kind of smarts at all, and have peaceful intent, they’ll make first contact from a distance.”

    True, but the rules are still needed for eventual direct contact — assuming that’s possible. (If they breathe chlorine, or get chilly at 40°C, they’ll probably interact only with specialists.)

  26. Dante The Canadian

    All speculation. All these books by writers and scientists and theologins and philosophers are all speculative as to how people will react if Aliens openly make themselves known to us. We do not know how our species will react. Our species will not react in the collective. There will be mass hysteria, groups wanting to welcome the aliens, groups wanting to bomb the aliens and take them over, and everyone else in between.

    Think of an ET who is so technilogically advanced as to be able to travel here over vast distances. Think of how advanced a creature they must be. They must, firstly, have survived themselves as a species. They must have stopped going to war with themselves and stopped fighting and killing themselves. Their collective energies spent on the advancement of science and space exploration, either because they were forced to do so due to potential conditions at home that forced them to look outside their home planet for colonizing opportunities, or because they had the time and energy to spend towards such enterprises instead of self serving enterprises.

    So, if the aliens that come to earth are here looking for a new home, they may be less than friendly and curious to get to know us better. If they are scientists and forthright thinking as a species, they may look at us as the primitive animal much like how we view Chimps and Apes.

  27. scribbler

    Our “first contact” with any aliens will prolly be an earth sized particle wave with just enough energy to wipe out anything human…

    That or the technological equivalent of “free blankets”…

    Anyone read up on “How to serve man!”???

  28. vincentx
  29. Eagle

    In principal its a good idea. Such measures will improve our own laws and actions to bring a level of equal rights to humans as well as ET. Just to be sure there is also to be a Law where no “one species” can act in dominance towards the other. However, earth born humans are the planets “sovereign” species and Earth is not up for grabs by any other Galactic individual or group. This needs to be recognized in all areas of the Earth: Both our resources and people, business and earth bound creatures and Ecosystems etc. Once that is agreed upon “they” have right of entry/visit/domicilety (if that’s a word)…

  30. steveculbreth

    The Prime-directive is a term rarely used these days. We should realize the importance of this issue, as we use the meaning of this term in societies terms of adoption. The point is ; The mother can’t contact the sibling. When baby grows-up he can initiate contact, other-wise he could be traumatized. Just to be able to understand the WHY of their presence and just who they are will transform humanity.They will continue to travel to a place in time where contact is possible. ” The evolution of Ones self is Our greatest achievement”……Rockhead.

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