Thought experiment: The United States launches a new satellite to study the earth. This satellite is the most advanced satellite ever engineered. It successfully goes into orbit and looks back to earth. Surprisingly, one of the first things it finds is an island that has somehow never been discovered before. An island the size of Hawaii. Somehow, no other satellite has ever seen it. No airplane has flown over it. No boat has ever accidentally run into it. But most surprisingly, we see from the satellite that there are people living on that island. Native people. Tribal people. A people that have culturally evolved with zero influence from the rest of the world for over a thousand years.
So what should the rest of the world do?
It’s certainly an interesting anthropological curiosity to study these people. A people who had been isolated from the rest of the world for over a thousand years. What is their culture like? How is their society organized? What religion do they have, given none of the big ones the rest of the world believes in have been introduced there? Do they have the same kind of morals that we do? What sorts of things did they do to progress, in the sense of technology (ie do they have bows and arrows? metallurgy? Glass? Domesticated animals? Transportation? etc.).
The problem here is the one Star Trek brought up with the Prime Directive: is it moral for us to interfere? I mean, what if they practice cannibalism? Or female genital mutilation? Or Spartan-esque eugenics? Or pedophilia? Do we have a duty to stop this? But wouldn’t that be a type of cultural hegemony? Or is it simply spreading enlightenment? What about introducing them to modern medicine that can stop an easily curable disease that’s given them problems for years? What about sending missionaries to teach them about our religions?
The problem is nobody owns that land as far as international recognition is concerned. The natives don’t have a deed proving ownership, so what recourse would they have against people coming in and taking it? And what would we even do once we got there? Perhaps we send in the anthropologists to observe. Even if observe is all they do, they will indirectly influence that society. And if anyone introduces those people to things outside their isolated land (anything from a screw to an iPhone), that will forever change them as well. Just think of the cargo cult culture. What about when people decide that the natives are poor and not well off, since their diet is meager (or hard fought, as in hunting) and infant mortality is high? Then you’ll have people trying to give them charity of some kind, which will influence their culture. And what if we find out that they have no written language. Someone better teach them to read and write, shouldn’t they?
Now imagine that the island is strategically significant. Lets say, for instance, it would give the United States easier military access to Iran. Now what does the United States do? Leave it alone and hope that Iran doesn’t take it over themselves?
But now let’s add something else. What if that new island has an enormous reserve of oil? The biggest and most untapped oil reserve left on earth. Now what does the United States do? What does the rest of the world do? The first one to annex the island gets the oil. Who is going to let anyone else get to it first? And who is going to stop them?
The idea behind this is that when we look at how people in the past have exploited natives in lands they “discovered,” we often like to think of the explorers as monsters. They were medieval. Imperial. Racist. Sexist. Ignorant. Greedy. They didn’t have the same respect for life that we do, nor the same appreciation for diverse cultures.
But how might people react nowadays to this Hypothetical Island? Are humans biologically any different now than they were back in the “Age of Discovery?” And don’t we all want easy access to scarce materials, the same way early explorers wanted gold, metals, crops (sugar, coffee, rubber, spices, etc.), and, lets face it, slaves? Near slave labor still exists in places like Bangledesh (cheap clothing), China (production, such as your smart phone), and the Congo (minerals, such as coltan for phones and diamonds), yet people will continue to buy those products, even knowing that those practices exist. People are used to a certain lifestyle, and giving it up is harder to them than knowing their lifestyle makes other people miserable. Why would anyone benefiting off the exploitation of Hypothetical Island care what’s happening to the natives of that island, so long as it provides cheap products?
But let’s say that nobody exploits the people politically and economically at first. What about ideologically? What if we discover that the governing system they came up with is strict communism? Or anarcho-capitalism? Or theocracy? Or fascism? Is it our duty to enlighten them on the benefits of some other system? If so, which system? Should we try to learn something from the native’s system, or just assume that because they’re primitive, that we know better?
The idea here is to realize that we’re just as human, biologically speaking, as people were 200, 500, 1000, and 10,000 years ago. The biggest difference is that we realize the ramifications of our actions. But with this realization comes a complex problem about how to treat other people. Is this dark aspect of humanity something we’ll ever get over, or is it an inexorable part of human nature? And would humanity ever have achieved what it has without this dark side? Have the achievements made up for the pain and suffering we’ve caused?