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Friday, 12 November 2021

A devil's bargain

Image by Pulp-O-Mizer
Not many fantasy stories are more often cited as thought experiments in moral philosophy than as fiction. I’m thinking of “The Space Traders” by American lawyer Derrick Bell. In a nutshell: super-powerful beings arrive on Earth and offer the United States money, energy and technological advances if all the non-black people agree to hand over all the black people to the angels/devils/aliens.

The Trolley Problem it ain’t. We can’t know what other people will do when faced with an ethical question. It’s hard enough to predict what we’d do ourselves; look at all the people who are convinced they’d have stood up to the Nazis if they lived in 1930s Germany. Derrick Bell takes a misanthropic view -- in his story there’s a referendum and the black Americans are handed over. If Germany had held a referendum in 1940, would the majority have voted to exterminate the Jews? They certainly colluded with that policy, but it was framed in a way that allowed the average citizen to tell himself that he didn’t actually know what was going on. Being confronted with the stark truth and voting on it – morally pulling the trigger, so to speak – would be a different story. We hope.

And the Jews had been demonized in Nazi propaganda for years. Posters claimed they’d betrayed the country, hoarded gold, spread disease – all sorts of conspiracy nonsense, and (as now) there are always idiots who’ll believe it. But for citizens to turn against a group of fellow citizens out of a clear blue sky – whites against blacks, or blacks against whites, even given the dire racial history of the Confederacy -- would be a whole other matter, surely? We cling to the hope humanity is better than its worst moments.

And yet… Islamic State threw gay men off rooftops and then stoned them if they survived that. The people who flocked to join IS presumably condoned it. Even so, it’s not the same as voting within a normal society to murder a group of people. IS was a self-selected band of extremists; we’d expect them to behave like rabid fanatics.

It seems like it might be easier to turn on a subgroup if belonging to that subgroup is a matter of choice rather than an accident of birth. The English in Tudor times might have voted to round up Catholics, if voting had been a thing. The Khmer Rouge, in common with many populist movements, hated intellectuals and was happy to persecute them. Crusades and holy wars throughout history have been all about exterminating people who don’t believe in your big guy in the sky.

Derrick Bell’s story would be more interesting if, instead of making his fictional citizens outright monsters, he’d presented them with a choice that was more honestly and credibly tempting. “We want all your incarcerated criminals,” the aliens/angels could have said. “No harm will come to them but we’re taking them away from Earth.” Even without the offer of extraterrestrial super-tech, getting rid of those inmates immediately saves the US about a hundred billion dollars. Tempting yet?

It’s still an absolutely appalling scenario. With no idea of what fate those exiles are going to face, a vote to hand them over is heinous self-interest and nothing more. However, until very recently a referendum on capital punishment in the UK would have voted in favour of sending some criminals to their death. That’s a lot worse than being banished to space. As a society we don’t make serious efforts to address the root causes of crime, nor to rehabilitate the criminals we have. In a sense we’re already consigning them to exile from humanity, and we’re not even getting fusion power in return.

How might this sort of ethical Gordian Knot be presented in a roleplaying scenario? An example from our Last Fleet game: the war has been going badly for the fleet, and the Corax offer a deal. Humans can live in peace, but they will be settled on one world and they have to give up all their technology. Effectively it would be a return to a primitive Eden. The Corax undertake to watch over the human planet, ensuring no disease or asteroid impact would ever be an existential threat -- but also to make sure we never develop science that could get us off the planet. The deal in a sense is that the Corax are offering to become humanity's gods. Immediately it gets interesting because some will want to take the deal ("We get to live. Our descendants will know peace, not endless war.") but others will bitterly oppose it ("So the human race becomes the pets in a Corax zoo?") If it's presented as a genuine and tempting option, it could cue a lot of gutsy inter-party conflict. I should add that in our game the Corax were not interdimensional fungi (wtftm) but creations of humanity ourselves. A war against your own rebel children is obviously more interesting than one against a genuinely alien Other.

Or it could be a bargain like the one Clark Ashton Smith postulates in his story "Seedling of Mars". The alien's offer ends up dividing humanity into two warring camps -- which might well have been the intention all along.

Going back to "The Space Traders" idea, the choice needn't hinge on an entire racial or ideological subgroup. People in the millions are abstract. What if it's a single individual? You can have all these wonderful things: free energy, unlimited resources, miraculous medicine, nobody goes hungry… and in return you give us one person. One human being for the lives of billions yet to be born.

What would you do?


  1. In your idea I'm not sure that is executing criminals is worse then turning them over to aliens, after all we know nothing about what the aliens plan to do with them or what their capable of

    That is why killing them on Earth could be better, after all despite how inhumane the death sentence is because we don't know what the aliens plan to do with the criminals it could be a bad idea

    That's why its possible that the ways some/most, Earth countries carry out executions are more humane then what the aliens would do

    1. Good point. The UN declaration of human rights prohibits cruel & unusual punishment, but not even all countries on Earth abide by that. All forms of capital punishment are inhumane, but the aliens might have much more horrible and lingering ways of killing their captives than are normally used by humans on humans.

    2. The setup for the "we want your convicts" scenario explicitly states that the aliens guarantee that no harm will come to them. Either we accept that implicitly or we don't. If we do, the convicts are definitely not going to be worse off in alien hands than in our own. If we don't, then the promised rewards are equally in doubt and the deal should be rejected out of hand.

      We shouldn't accept such a statement, of course. Not without making sure that the alien definition of "harm" includes mental and emotional trauma from being separated from family and friends, or involuntary but painless surgical modification to adapt them to a new environment, or being used to host alien larva until they're ready for safe extraction, etc., etc.

      Regardless, the convicts themselves should have final say in the matter. Most likely some of them will happily go along to the stars even if their safety isn't guaranteed, maybe even many of them. Most Terran prisons are hellholes. Many others will refuse. A few will likely commit suicide if coerced into going.

      How will the aliens react to that kind of split decision by the convicts, especially when (not if) some
      governments refuse to coerce those who won't volunteer to go? What about schemes like mass pardons just before the deal is signed, or governments "convicting" unwanted parts of their population so they'll be removed for them?

      That province rebelling against the central government? Yeah, we're declaring that an open-air prison and all the inhabitants are convicted of treason in absentia. Take 'em away, xenos. We'll move our loyal citizen in after you've gone. Carry it further and declare entire groups illegal - ethnicities, religious believers, political organizations, social media users, the list goes on. Insist on the fiction that they're "incarcerated" because they can't cross your state's border, your whole country is a prison and everyone is either a convict or a correctional services employee.

      Kafka would have loved the idea.

      Quite frankly, I can't see any even vaguely realistic situation where the aliens wouldn't wind up wondering why they ever thought dealing with humanity as a whole was going to work out well for them.

    3. Oh, and the other thing I note - the aliens don't say they won't bring the convicts back eventually. Me, I'd be a little leery of this being a weird way to recruit an army of cannon fodder with a serious case of hate for their old homeworld that sent them off to slavery among the stars. Too much David Drake in my past reading, I guess.

      An ironic version of Bell's original story would be for all those black (and I presume many brown?) folks to come back from the stars as hyper-evolved super-beings who galactic civilization has made responsible for not letting the rest of humanity behave so horribly in the future. At which point an awful lot of indigenous peoples across the globe can quite rightly ask why they didn't get a ride too, and galactic civilization can slink off in shame. "Bloody humanity, why are they so factionalized? It's not like they've got different numbers of limbs or broadcast telepathy of conflicting wavelengths or anything important like that!"

    4. The story does look at humanity's problems through the powerfully distorting lens of US history, but that's become increasingly relevant in the era of social media as many English-speaking cultures are acquiring American assumptions and attitudes. Derrick Bell was more prescient than he knew.

    5. While we're on that tack, a question aliens could ask: "For the sake of a civilized society, would you give up private gun ownership?" Just thinking about that having read this:

  2. There's of course the famous Talmud saying (paraphrased here): "But man was created alone to teach you that whoever kills one life kills the world entire, and whoever saves one life saves the world entire".
    And that's how it should be, isn't it?

    1. Absolutely. As Donne put it: "Never send to know for whom
      the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

  3. "What if it's a single individual? You can have all these wonderful things: free energy, unlimited resources, miraculous medicine, nobody goes hungry… and in return you give us one person. One human being for the lives of billions yet to be born.

    What would you do?"

    If we're limited to info presented, I immediately volunteer to be that one person. This isn't a hard choice at all on a personal level, no matter what the aliens plan to do to/with me. There is nothing I could possibly do with my life that would benefit humanity more than going along with the deal as presented.

    And no, I don't expect everyone (or even anyone) else to feel the same way and won't condemn them for choosing differently, because it's not my right to do so. For better or worse, my social contract with the rest of humanity does not insist on the self-sacrifice (if that's even what this is) of others.

    Easy answer aside and assuming the deal-makers won't take a volunteer, you make no decisions without getting answers to a lot of questions. Start with the obvious.

    Why are they offering this deal? Who's this person they want, why do they want them, and why didn't they ask that person themselves instead of apparently forcing us to do so? And critically, when asked how does that person feel about the deal?

    What happens if we refuse the deal, either because the person doesn't want to volunteer and we won't force them, or because the aliens can't prove the truth of their statements and intentions? They've shown the carrot, is there stick in the shadows?

    And what happens in the long term if we take the deal? "No one goes hungry" for how long? They offer miracle medicines that will inevitably lengthen lifespans and radically increase human population, which will change human civilization forever inside of a generation or two. Is this a transparent attempt at social engineering? If so, what's the goal? I will absolutely look this gift horse in the teeth, thanks Mister Fictitious Alien.

    I know this is supposed to be an ethical puzzle rather than a exercise in logic, but when you leave so many obvious questions unanswered in the premise the whole concept falls flat even as a thought experiment.

    1. I'd jump at the chance myself, Dick. As you say, even if it went badly you'd know your sacrifice had improved the lives of billions of people. And I doubt if any highly advanced intelligent species would derive their kicks from pointlessly torturing lesser beings -- though that might just be wishful thinking.

      As for how to bring about the utopia. As the late Hans Rosling often explained, we've been making steady progress in reducing extreme poverty/hunger and increasing healthy lifespans for the last century or more. Free unlimited clean energy, super-intelligent AI, crops modified to yield more food value, and advanced medicine would all play their part -- but only if made available to all mankind.

      So that part of it is not only a logic puzzle; if we're not civilized enough to pass the ethical test, probably we're not civilized enough to distribute the benefits fairly.

  4. Replies
    1. I will admit that I've known people that I've disliked enough to send them to a unknown and possibly horrible fate

      Thankfully the last time I saw the last person I disliked that must was back in January 2,012, which was almost 10 years ago

    2. Ooops on the 1st line of Paragraph 2 I meant to put much but by mistake I put must

  5. I've had a very good, in my opinion, idea for something Jamie and Mark could use if they ever did A Falcon RPG. What do you think?. Also I've spotted a few spelling mistakes

    In Lost in Time/Book 4, you are guaranteed, I think, to at some point end up in a alternate reality in which Falcon, The Time Agency and the entire government are evil and if you get captured or are forced to surrender then no matter you're dead within, I think, 6 paragraphs

    But in that universe because Falcon, The Time Agency and the entire government are evil it makes sense, to me, for Yalov/the main villain of our reality, to in this reality be a bad guy who turned good

    That's why in Jamie and Mark do A RPG in which the players can go to this alternate reality and The Characters are either captured or are forced to surrender The GM could have them saved by this Realities Yalov, who, like I said earlier, would be a bad guy who turned good

  6. Ah, but the possibility of changing timelines opens up a vast number of potential stories, if Falcon were to prove interesting interesting in the future. You want to go back in time and make it so that Falcon was never born, and readers/players have to take his place? Totally doable.

    Re another timeline (or universe?) where the good guys are baddies, and vice versa... that's always fun. Several Star Trek series, most notably Star Trek: Discovery, have got a good bit of mileage out of the 'evil parallel universe' idea.

    Of course, as Spock - and South Park - have proven, evil doubles from an evil alternate universe must always have an evil goatee beard. That's a must.