The ethics of allowing uncontacted natives to remain uncontacted

This video has also been around a while, but I just saw it this weekend.

Watching this, I had three conflicting sets of emotions.  The first is amazement that there are still tribes in the wild that have not yet been contacted by the outside world.  I find that remarkable.

The second is a feeling of fear for these people.  Because sooner or later, they are going to be contacted, and history shows that there is a good chance that the results are not going to be good for their society, their worldview, their way of life, and their overall psyche.

But then there is the third, which is that who are we to decide whether or not these people should be contacted?  We could argue that the people themselves probably don’t want to be contacted and that we should respect their wishes.  I have two issues with that.  The first is that the people almost certainly have no clue what it is they’re avoiding contact with.  The second is that saying “the people” is lumping all of these individuals human beings into one monolithic group and assuming their desires are uniform.

Consider what life must be like for these people.  Infant death is probably common.  They probably are subject to dying suddenly from communicable diseases, injuries from accidents, and a host of other easily treatable conditions, at least with modern technology.  Their lives, by our standards, are probably short and harsh.

On the one hand, they know no better and might consider themselves happy.  Taking that away from them seems like a crime.  On the other hand, they don’t know what it is they’re missing.  In Jared Diamond’s book ‘The World Until Yesterday’, he describes how natives overwhelmingly choose modern lifestyles when they get access to them.  Having actually lived it, most of them don’t share the romantic view many of us have of living closer to nature.

In these situations, all we can do is ask what we would prefer in their situation.  I know that if an alien species was debating whether or not to contact us, because just the act of doing so would probably overthrow our entire worldview and way of life, I would still want that contact because, after the shock, I would expect life to eventually be materially better.  But I expect there would be a lot of people terrified by the idea, and would wish that the aliens had just stayed away.  Whose wishes should be respected in these scenarios?

In some ways, this is a moot discussion, because the people will certainly eventually be contacted.  (If they haven’t already.  The video is a few years old.)  If the local government or international organizations do nothing, that contact will most likely be by people who don’t have their best interests in mind.  In my mind, far better that their first contact be with responsible parties.  We shouldn’t let our feelings of colonial guilt lead to unnecessary suffering.

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7 Responses to The ethics of allowing uncontacted natives to remain uncontacted

  1. agrudzinsky says:

    People tend to view social processes as voluntary. On a personal level, we may control (or have an illusion of control) of our decisions – whether we “should” or “should not” do something. But when we consider larger groups, communities, nations, etc., social processes appear to me as uncontrollable as natural processes. They just happen – volcano eruptions or locust invasions. So, whether or not this tribe should be contacted or left alone is a useless question. It’s discovered. That’s a contact already. We can’t “undiscover” things, like we can’t “undiscover” nuclear weapons, for example.

    In this respect, it’s interesting to read the history of the Manhattan project. There was a similar dilemma: if we will not do it, others will. “Should” or “should not” is a moot question, as you mention. If people can, they will.

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    • Good point. Many things are inevitable, but we often resist that realization. When they are inevitable, the question isn’t whether we should do it, but how should we do it? If we stay in should-we? mode too long, others will do it, and we might not be happy with the results.

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  2. Hi Michael:

    You seem to put forth some really wonderful content; thanks and this one’s no different ! (Also, on a personal note, thanks for first following me on Twitter which led me to follow you back and thereby gain access to some exceptionally good writing already !)

    “We could argue that the people themselves probably don’t want to be contacted and that we should respect their wishes. I have two issues with that.”

    In the same vein, and perhaps this is implicit in your following exceptions, it is not clear as to whether tribes not contacted would be able to “meaningfully” decide that they don’t want contact. I believe that the best argument would be for maintaining status quo, but that position is perhaps without quantification. We maintain status quo but we won’t—even can’t—adjudicate whether it would be good or bad for either the tribe or the rest of humanity.

    On a side note, there are tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar islands (a territory of India but quite far removed from mainland) that haven’t been contacted, or contact has been revoked for quite some time, and the Indian government explicitly forbids trying to make contact. Apparently, even in light of the devastating 2004 Indian ocean tsunami, which greatly affected these islands much more so than the Indian mainland, the government of India did not allow contacting some of the tribes inhabiting these territories.

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    • Thanks Kaushik, and welcome! I’m also enjoying your tweets and discussion at Scientia.

      That’s interesting about the Andaman and Nicobar islands. It seems to have become something of a global consensus not to disturb native peoples, as apparently a lot of African governments do the same thing. As my post indicated, I’m somewhat conflicted by that, although I can see arguments on both sides.

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  3. James Pailly says:

    After watching the video, it seems to me the question of whether or not to contact these people is academic. They’ve already seen at least one aircraft, and if nothing is done the loggers are coming for them. For well-meaning people to leave them alone leaves them vulnerable to the less savory aspects of the modern world.

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  4. I have long been of the mind that not contacting them is cruel for the reasons you mention, although there is a very real problem with regard to exposing them to diseases to which they do not have immunity. As far as I’m concerned, that is the only thing that would give me pause. As a medical problem, it may be that it has a solution (vaccines or what have you).

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