SF/F as a lens for looking at the law

As Arthur C. Clarke once put it, technology is — at some sufficiently advanced tipping point — “indistinguishable from magic”.  An interesting question that follows from that realization is this: how big a difference is there, really, between the law of a “magical” society and that of a “technological” one?  Do we, cradled in a web of mobile technologies, really govern ourselves more rationally and deliberately than a common-law principality defending itself against shape-changing dragons?  Do we have fundamentally different conceptions of ourselves as human beings than we would if we were menaced by dragons — or adrift in refugee spaceships?  What can SF/F narratives tell us about the assumptions we make about the world we actually live in?

I watched the classic dystopian film Blade Runner a few nights ago, and was charmed anew at the oh-so-dated effects, puzzled (and pleased) by the dimensions Ridley Scott leaves unexplored, baffled by the atrociousness of Harrison Ford’s voiceover (Ford hated it too), but most of all, intrigued by the opacity of Deckard’s noirish police state.  The replicants, of course, have no rights – but what rights do the remaining humans have?  What might “civil rights” — not to mention empathy and compassion — become, in a society in which torturing, abusing, and killing AIs, particularly AIs that in all respects look exactly like humans, is not only acceptable but desirable?  What do those possibilities say about our conceptions of ourselves, of “right” and “wrong”? (Cue the Battlestar Galactica theme music, please).

Everyone knows the SF/F genres provide windows on alternative technologies, and thereby on alternative futures. But it’s worth coming right out to say what many SF/F fans already know: SF/F narratives provide windows on law, philosophy, ethics and sociology as well.  My friend Heather, a second-year student at Harvard Law School, is currently sharing a series of essays over at Fantasy Matters on just that topic.  Each essay represents a confluence of legal theory, SF/F, and philosophy.  In her second essay, for example, Heather explores the STNG episode in which Lt. Commander Data’s “personhood” is questioned in a Starfleet hearing.

As Heather observes,

The episode powerfully illuminates that there are at least two distinct perspectives from which we can make legal arguments. First, we see the traditional model. The question is whether Data is property and so both sides argue that, all of Data’s attributes considered, he’s more machine than person or more person than machine.

The second type of argument, the type Picard ends with, is radically different. Instead of making the legal determination based on facts about the thing being labeled (Data), the tables are turned and the judge is asked what the court’s decision says about them. To make a decision based not just on what Data is but based on what sort of people they wanted themselves to be.

In today’s post, Heather elaborates on the inferences we draw about motives – whether people’s actions are more like Hobbes’ Leviathan, or the altruistic Linux Penguin:

When you get down to it, we don’t actually think of our selves as the horribly myopic Gollum-like creatures we would have to be in order for pocketing someone else’s $100 to be so unquestionably in our self-interest. But, because we understand “self-interest” to mean greed, we confuse ourselves. In other words, we’re always going to ask and care about what’s in our self-interest. When we’ve decided that greedy things are always in our self-interest (because we’ve accepted the Leviathan understanding as an accurate description of selfishness) we then think the greedy thing is good for us. In contrast, imagine a world where our conceptualization of self-interest viewed the self as more Penguin-like. But, instead of Benkler’s view, where the Penguin is selfless, we understood that, being Penguins, helping others was quite often good for them and for us.

Heather’s series is a great fit for Fantasy Matters not only because she knows her fangirl references, but because SF/F worlds nearly always explore alternative societies that embrace very different conceptions of “self” and “self-interest.” While those alternative realities may be driven by new technologies like FTL (or the strictures of an internally consistent “magic”) the societies themselves, from the Borg to the Galactic Milieu, are not simply the mechanical products of alternative technologies becoming ubiquitous. As true SF/F fans know, the societies in the best SF/F narratives are complex reflections of the philosophical, sociological, and legal regimes that we may take for granted in our own world.

If you have a moment, go check out Heather’s posts and share your perspective – I know she’d be interested!

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