It is fascinating that some intelligent creatures from another planet, creatures far more advanced than any creatures on earth, are represented in this episode as members of a motorcycle gang, clad in black leather jackets. In the 1960s, and even now, roving groups of motorcyclists, revving their load machines, have usually been viewed as outsiders, and as a threat to the peace and serenity of neighborhoods. If these ‘aliens’ are so much more intelligent than we are, why would they choose to appear in a form that would immediately make use suspicious of them?
Earth was also visited by vastly more intelligent creatures in “To Serve Man.” We noted the similarity of the possible world presented there to the one introduced in Hume’s thought experiment, where the roles are reversed. In that episode, the aliens, or “Kanamits,” made the decision to kill humans without making any judgment about the moral worth of humanity. Humans represented an easily available food source for the Kanamit population back home, so it was a straight forward matter to harvest humans for consumption.
In “Black Leather Jackets” the invaders from outer space assess the situation on earth as follows: “They are a stupid race, as our research told us, an inferior breed, given to killing, making war, greed, and cruelty to one another. The universe can well do without them.
The invaders have a further reason for ridding the universe of humans. The invaders need the space that earth’s current inhabitants occupy. So, they reason that (1) the universe will be no worse without humans, and (2) the invaders will be better off without humans. Therefore, humanity ought to be expunged from the universe.
Is this a good argument? We can start by asking whether it is sound, that is, whether the premises are true. The first premise is more philosophically interesting, since the second just just a claim about what is best for the invaders. We will return to that second premise shortly. Is a world in which humans don’t exist no worse than a world in which they do exist, or does the existence of humanity make the universe better?
This is a strange and difficult question, because it asks us to make a global assessment of the contribution of humanity to the goodness of the universe, and that requires assessing both the contribution of humanity to the goodness of the universe over time, and also assessing the overall goodness that exists in the universe, rather than goodness on earth. It is not clear how to make such assessments.
What reasons do the invaders give for their negative assessment of the impact of humanity? Scott, the one invader who has any meaningful dialogue with earthlings, cites media reports — newspapers, magazines, and radio, and conclude that the planet “is filled with hate, violence, and mistrust.” If this is an accurate account of their research, it doesn’t inspire confidence in their conclusions.
The invaders appear to be subject to the same sort of influence that the news media often has on us. When one picks up a newspaper and reads about conflict among nations, poverty, damage to the environment, poverty, and other problems, it is easy to come away with an overall negative assessment of the state of the world. These reports are selective and impressionistic, and reflect our interest in and reaction to extreme events, many of which are extremely bad. Even if their research included historical events such as the the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Holocaust, it is still unclear that what follows is that the existence of humanity, on balance, is a net negative.
The invaders are correct that there is much about our world that is in need of improvement. Indeed, there are challenges, such as dealing with climate change, that are so pressing, that the future of humanity may rest in the balance from harm inflicted from the “inside.” We may doom ourselves without the help of invaders from outer space. But that is a different claim than the claim that on balance, the universe would be better off without us. The urgency of dealing with these issues is great, precisely because we value humanity, and take the loss of humanity to be a loss for the planet, and perhaps, for the universe, to the extent that we can even venture to consider claims on that scale.
In “To Serve Man” the Kanimits were represented as so superior to humans in intelligence and strength that the circumstances of justice would not apply, since we would not be in any position to make our objection to their treatment of us felt by them. It is not obvious, however, that this applies to the invading extraterrestrial beings in “Black Leather Jackets.” They clearly have powers and capacities that we lack, but their plan of attack uses technology that we understand, and we could prevent the attack, if only we knew that they were our enemy. The fact that their assessment of the worth of humanity is based on such a shoddy evidential base suggests that they are not intellectually superior, in spite of the fact that they have traveled to our planet while we haven’t traveled to theirs.
Would the invaders be better off without humans? They would be able to secure our possessions, and meet the needs of their own people. But they would lose the possibility of learning from residents of another world, and perhaps of collaborating with them. One of their number, Scott, realizes this, but too late in the game to make a difference.
Hume, David, 1777, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals Section 3, “Of Justice” (also cited in “To Serve Man”).
Nussbaum, M. and A. Sen (eds.), 1993, Quality of Life, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Singer, P., 2002, One World: The Ethics of Globalization, Melbourne: Text Publishing.