What is Metalaw?

According to Dr. Ernst Fasan, Metalaw is “the entire sum of legal rules regulating relationships between different races in the universe.” Metalaw is the “first and basic ‘law’ between races” providing the ground rules for a relationship if and when we establish communication with or encounter another intelligent race in the universe. Dr. Fasan envisioned these rules as governing both human conduct and that of extraterrestrial races so as to avoid mutually harmful activities.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Metalaw, Lawyers, and the Giggle Factor

Back in 2004, radio astronomer Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute predicted that, if intelligent life existed elsewhere in our Milky Way galaxy, we would probably detect radio or other transmissions from such a civilization within 20 years, or by the middle of the 2020s.

That prediction was back in the news last week when this story ran about the rapidly accumulating scientific evidence for extraterrestrial life.  We're not there yet, but practically every month brings word of some new discovery that supports the Copernican suspicion that life on Earth -- perhaps even intelligent life -- is not some one-off freak accident but rather a relatively common phenomenon in our vast universe.

I also recently read this excellent 2005 paper by social psychologist Albert Harrison, now a professor emeritus at UC Davis, discussing the occupational hazards that social scientists and others face when wading into the scientific study of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

As the pace of discovery accelerates and the evidence accumulates, representatives of one field of human social endeavor, in particular, are conspicuously absent:  Lawyers.

Unfortunately, you can count on one hand the number of lawyers who have published or presented papers on the subject of Metalaw in the last 30-40 years (not including my own). Most of the generative (as opposed to merely descriptive) work on Metalaw has been done by a relative handful of individuals. As I've speculated before, I suspect this is due in part to lack of career opportunities for either academic or practicing attorneys with a professional interest in Metalaw.

Harrison suggests some other reasons why this may be, including lack of funding and the "giggle factor."  While his paper is addressed primarily to social scientists such as sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and political scientists, his reasons are probably equally applicable to the field of legal science.

You can read for yourself Harrison's suggestions as to why there are not more social scientists working in the SETI field, and I would encourage you to do that.  I want to focus just briefly on a few of the subjects relevant to SETI that he suggests can be illuminated by social science (and I am including approaches to legal science in that field, at least those that take an empirical, fact-based approach to the law -- which are the only approaches that make any rational sense to me).

In particular, lawyers could join other social scientists in studying potential long-term consequences of detection (Harrison specifically mentions "meta-law" as one possible area of exploration) as well as the potential nature of advanced technological civilizations.  Here and elsewhere in the paper, Harrison warns of the dangers of anthropomorphism when contemplating "the nature of unknown civilizations that are radically different from our own."  One viable approach to this, Harrison suggests, is to "seek principles of behavior that are 'universal' or 'deep' in the sense that they hold true across species, cultures, and historical epochs."

This is exactly the approach to Metalaw that I urged in my own paper that I presented at the 39th IAA Symposium on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, held concurrently with the 61st International Astronautical Congress in Prague in September 2010.  It's also an approach urged by others, including George Robinson, former counsel to the Smithsonian Institution.


There were a lot of space lawyers at the 61st IAC in Prague earlier this year, meeting concurrently with the International Institute of Space Law.  Unfortunately, few of them evidently have an interest in Metalaw.


Maybe it's the giggle factor.

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