Meta-Ethics and the Fermi Paradox

Why haven’t we seen evidence of alien civilizations, yet? There are billions of billions of stars, and planets around most of them — surely, if a civilization were even a few thousand years ahead of us, technologically, we would notice signs of their advancement? Wouldn’t they capture as much of the energy of their star as possible? Wouldn’t their probes already be in our neighborhood? I suspect that the reason we see no advanced civilizations is because most never make it past the point we are at now. It’s a matter of ethics.

We each have an ethical perspective, and those perspectives differ, yet they also ‘cluster’ into patterns of behavior which we can use in a meta-ethic: How do we manage our diversity of ethics? The ethical way to handle ethics disagreements. In particular, what do you do with people who are narcissistic, Machiavellian psychopaths? How does our response influence expectations surrounding the possibility of alien civilizations?

Hunting Vampires

Psychopaths are like a virus — they require a host. Their lack of empathy allows them to calmly lie to and mercilessly exploit others. A psychopath prospers when surrounded by naive empaths, while a country of psychopaths implodes upon itself. As long as empaths are numerous, these psychopaths also see personal gain from banding together, reducing the risk of their persecution. However, whenever the abundance of psychopathy crosses a threshold, those psychopaths are no longer bound to mutual defense. They turn upon each other, recognizing that the other psychopaths are competition for a limited pie.

This self-destruction motif is a kind of meta-ethic: things go badly for everyone when psychopaths are numerous, and psychopathic narcissism is a detriment to people with all other ethics. Therefore, most ethical stances recognize psychopathic behavior as unethical. Only other psychopaths are okay with it, and they are necessarily few.

Yet, who grips the levers of power? While people with a preponderance of psychopathic, narcissistic, and Machiavellian traits make up perhaps 1% of the population, their numbers are closer to 4% among lawyers, police officers, surgeons, and politicians. Which isn’t really surprising — psychopaths gravitate toward posts with influence, to extract as much as possible for themselves, while compassionate and loyal people become math teachers and marines. If we encountered another civilization, might it be ruled by psychopaths, despite an abundance of empaths? It seems that our world is proof of such a possibility. What happens when two like that meet?

The Pilgrim’s Dilemma

Lets simplify: if two civilizations are both compassionate, they have a great time when they meet. Both win. Yet, if one civilization is compassionate, while the other is ruled by Machiavellians, the compassionate one is subjugated or destroyed. Machiavellians win. However, if both civilizations are Machiavellian, they will be locked in vicious struggle for resources, incapable of trust and peace. Both lose.

A slight complication to that example: your civilizations are at different levels, technologically and developmentally. Both win from compassion, though the lesser civilization wins more, proportionately. Both lose from struggle, though the advanced civilization loses less, proportionately. If either drop their guard to a Machiavellian neighbor, they are enslaved or consumed.

Because the lesser civilization wins more from cooperation, while struggle would likely destroy it, it is strongly incentivized to seek cooperation. The advanced civilization, in contrast, would gain little from cooperation, and lose little in a fight —while it must not allow the lesser civilization to manipulate it. The advanced civilization would bet best if they subjugate or eliminate the lesser civilization, because that thwarts the risk of their destruction. The lesser civilization can only hope for kind treatment, not their neighbor’s trust.

Growth Rates

If two civilizations, a Machiavellian and a compassionate one, are expanding and developing from the same moment onward, we can expect the compassionately led civilization to achieve a higher growth rate. Machiavellian narcissists squander resources on their own pleasures, as Sun King, as well as on the intrigue necessary for their control, as Stalin. A civilization ruled by compassion uplifts and improves life for all, and seeks long-term benefit. It can recover more rapidly from set-backs, and it can take advantage of new technologies without protectionism or militarism getting in the way. Kind civilizations race ahead of foul.

So, there is double reason for distrust — if a larger, compassionate civilization encounters a backward neighbor, that neighbor may be stunted because of psychopaths, and it cannot be trusted. When advanced and lesser civilizations meet, the advanced one must assume that the lesser civilization has more destructive ethics. If we met advanced aliens, I would worry about their assessment of us: we spend huge sums for war and oppression. I doubt they would ever trust us.

Why don’t we see such an advanced life prospering all around us? I suspect that, just as we have, those civilizations fall ill. The virus of psychopathic behavior makes hell of any technological heaven. Unlike the meeting of worlds, psychopathy is already well-mixed into the crowd of this world. That mixture allows psychopaths to profit more than the compassionate, and as technology advances, the psychopaths have more and greater opportunities for mutual destruction.

A naively compassionate civilization, unlike our simplified ‘advanced civilization’ mentioned earlier, having never met psychopaths, would not think to distrust them, and would quickly fall prey to deceit. After that, the psychopaths could be expected to waste and war until none remain. So, the only advanced civilization we’re ever likely to meet will be one which has overcome its plague of psychopaths, and is rightly wary of creatures like us. How do we overcome our own plague?

Marshmallow Morals

Cuddly morality cannot gird against narcissists. The meta-ethic is that, to protect all the diverse ethical stances from being subjugated alike by psychopaths, decisive action against that psychopathy is necessary. What would be decisive against psychopaths?

A key feature of narcissistic psychopaths is their resistance to negative reinforcement. They don’t develop a sense of consequences, instead condemning all their punishment as unjust, even as they themselves seek to punish others for lesser crimes. To the narcissist, this double standard is fair — because they are more important than the rest of us, and their excuses are valid. We can’t rely on threat of punishment to deter psychopaths from abuse. We must accurately identify and eliminate psychopathy, or at least sequester or medicate away the Machiavellians. Arguments don’t work. Deterrents don’t, either. They need to be removed, physically, from all sources of power and influence.

I doubt that we will overcome our ‘harm to none’ marshmallow, and accept that ‘harm to psychopaths’ is a valid and valuable meta-ethic. Without that policy, all our various ethics are at risk.

When an ethic appeals to a ‘just world, just creator’ or ‘fairness in the afterlife’ or ‘karma from past lives’, it enables psychopathy to retain control. “The psychopaths will be thwarted by divine will, in another reality.” So, they reason, it’s perfectly fine to be naive. Psychopaths need people like that, and would prefer to encourage that naivete, because it ensures a pool of easy marks.

The meta-ethic, then, imposes upon these ‘just worlds’: by naively collaborating with and feeding psychopaths, these ethics participate in the psychopath’s deprivation and abuse. They are accomplice. While the greatest freedom possible should be given to our choice of ethics, those ethics must necessarily prohibit abetting evil in the name of slight virtue. This meta-ethic dictates support for, or at least indifference to, inhibition of the Machiavellians.

Will we devote funding to research the root causes of the dark triad — narcissism, lack of empathy, and manipulation? Will we find a cure, or steel our resolve to imprison or kill psychopaths? We haven’t yet. And technology, by concentrating power and eliminating humans-in-the-loop, will make our task more difficult. Our chances are slim to none, considering Fermi’s Paradox. Expect psychopaths to ruin everything as soon as they can. That is why the night sky is silent.

Written by

Easily distracted mathematician

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store