Thought experiment: Bernard Williams’ aliens

This thought experiment comes from Bernard Williams. He asks us to imagine aliens that discover our planet. After contact, we learn that these aliens are far superior to us in virtually every way. From technology to health and well being. They experience no war or even any conflict. No one is oppressed or disadvantaged. However, the aliens maintain this through controlling the population enforcing strict rules. They inform us that all of our cultural practices are contrary to bringing about such a life. All of our cultural practices, our art, the style of our relationships, family and communities will all need to be rid of and conform to the alien rules. The aliens believe it is in our own interest to conform, so they will start imposing these rules on Earth.

The question Williams asks is: Would you resist against the aliens or cooperate with them?

This thought experiment can be helpful to understanding colonisation. The belief was held by many British colonialists that Indigenous people were mere savages and that dominance by them was justified since it was for their own good. Consider philosopher John Stuart Mill, who although was strictly against paternalistic rules being imposed on people by others, held exemptions for Indigenous peoples for similar reasons.

We could expand this thought experiment to construct analogies with current issues concerning indigenous people. Say those who resisted against the aliens failed. Years have passed and the world is ran by the aliens. Would you do all you can to preserve the art, culture, relationships and family/community structures as much as you can? If the aliens, after reflection, recognised that they were in error to remove these things from you, would you insist that the aliens have a duty to assist in repairing what was lost?

If you answer is that the aliens would have a duty, then governments that historically participated in colonisation have a duty to repair what Indigenous populations have lost. Or at least greatly assist as much as they can. If the aliens attempted to avoid responsibility by claiming that ‘it was a long time ago’ or ‘it was the previous generation of aliens’, would you accept these arguments? I would say you probably wouldn’t.

Of course, this thought experiment does not sufficiently cover specific issues regarding Indigenous people. However, I argue that it does offer an ability to empathise with them and acknowledge inherited responsibility of governments have for their Indigenous populations.

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I am currently completing my honours degree in Philosophy.

8 thoughts on “Thought experiment: Bernard Williams’ aliens”

  1. It sounds to me that the takeover would be inevitable, so I would probably work with them rather than against. Most things that people hold to be dear and very much steeped in illusion, so a break away from conventional values might at the very least help us to realize how fragile and insubstantial our egos really are.

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    1. Thanks Jason. An interesting answer, yes the probability of a successful resistance is something always considered in this thought experiment. And historically you would be correct if we are making this analogous with colonisation. Indeed, in International Relations the introduction to the concept of realism (the view that nation states can only go to war if it is in the national interest to do so), they mention ancient Greece where Athens threatens a small state (forget the name) to not resist their occupation or they will be annihilated. The small state goes to war regardless and they are indeed annihilated. Regarding illusion of certain values, yes you may be right. Nonetheless, would the aliens be in the right to impose thier supposed enlightened values on us without consent? Furthermore, say the aliens conclude that as adults we are too old to properly adapt, so the children will be taken to be raised by the aliens (sadly, regarding Indigenous Australians there is a direct analogy here). There are of course certain cultural practices that are so horrific they do demand intervention (FGM for example), but generally speaking I tend to hold a ‘soft’ cultural relativism. Or at least a relativism regarding intervention.

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      1. If my pet was a stuburn old dog set in his ways, and there was extra money kicking around, there may be no problem to have him go to school to learn a new behaviour, even if the majority of people believe they can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Regardless of popular opinion, would the dogs master be in the right to do so… Not sure if a higher intelligent species would have to receive our consent to recondition us, especially if we don’t know how to manage ourselves and care properly for the earth’s resources.

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      2. Thanks Jason. Oddly enough the comparison to how we treat non human animals was the context of Williams’ aliens thought experiment. The full essay is called ‘The human prejudice’.

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