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.