Earth, far future: We built multi generation ship which can get 20 000 people to another solar system in next 20 generations (600 years)

For scope of this question assume that ship itself is well built and it will indeed be able to carry people and material to its destination and technology wise, the mission will be success.

But what about the people? Some of the things about multi generational ships were talked in separate questions, but one I believe was not:

What cultural norms would be the best for crime fighting?

I have to admit something: I personally cannot understand what is so good on cultural norm of locking people away if they misbehaved. And I cannot understand it even more in setup where these 20 000 people are locked away in broader meaning of sense.


  1. Space travel is hard and things will get broken beyond point of repair-ability on the ship.
  2. Society to build and send this ship is still scarcity society and people to board the ship commonly have idea "one thing is more valuable than another".
  3. Given assumption 1, there might be times on the ship where everyone has to follow strict rules in order to survive the travel
  4. Someone will misbehave in 600 years and break the rules.

I have come up with one solution to this which is completely away from current western world cultural mindset: Have everyone in generation 1 agree to be constantly watched and accept constant monitoring as cultural norm.

Also, I think that as of punishment, the system should be rather tough on people. I am actually toying with idea of human torture being culturally acceptable on the ship. Example: You steal something, we can see you. And because we did see you, we will cut off your hand as your punishment.

I personally do not like my original idea of the solution. Therefore I ask in this forum: How should the ship approach Law and Order on ship?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I started watching a rather campy television series called "The 100." The ship orbits the Earth and no matter what crime is committed the perpetrator is sentenced to death by ejection into space. $\endgroup$ Jan 26, 2016 at 15:41
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @TheAnathema - "The 100" comes up short in several regards. For example, let's say that your most expert technician commits an infraction. Are you going to execute him? If you do, everyone will suffer. Such a ridiculously severe system would never last, as people would revolt against the injustice. The reason they use to justify it in the show is that their station is overpopulated, and unless they cull a large number of people everyone is going to die. However, this is not the situation on a generational ship where the population is carefully managed and maintained. $\endgroup$
    – AndreiROM
    Jan 26, 2016 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ This isn't a forum. Never, even accidently, say that it is a forum where new users can read. Otherwise we'll have people posting edits as new answers, and using l33t sp34k all the time. $\endgroup$
    – wizzwizz4
    Jan 26, 2016 at 17:32
  • $\begingroup$ "I have come up with one solution to this which is completely away from current western world cultural mindset: Have everyone in generation 1 agree to be constantly watched and accept constant monitoring as cultural norm." How is this completely away from western mindset? Nearly everyone accepts on constant monitoring to various people. $\endgroup$
    – Bounce
    Jan 27, 2016 at 12:23
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, it will be a cultural norm that Law and Order spin offs will be being made in 600 years. $\endgroup$
    – smithkm
    Dec 9, 2019 at 17:02

10 Answers 10


Torture is the last thing you should resort to.

Mutilation should never come into play.

People can and will submit to quite a few rules in the interest of a certain goal, or ideal, however you're shooting yourself in the foot by mutilating your own crew.

Initial Crew

The original crew of your ship will have several things in common:

  • They are trained professionals
  • They understand the importance of their mission
  • They all accept that they are making a decision with far reaching implications for themselves, and for their children
  • They understand that whatever their lives were like on Earth, life on the ship will be nothing like it

In order to safeguard the success of the mission it's only natural that much stricter rules, procedures, and laws would be enforced than anyone had ever lived under before. These people will understand this.

However, the longer the mission drags on, and the more their situation sinks in, the more people might start misbehaving. After all, the first 19 generations are nothing more than caretakers meant to get the "bus" to its intended destination. It's their great-great-great-great-....-great grandchildren who will reap the rewards of their work.

And to that effect, some pretty heavy duty indoctrination, and manipulation will be necessary.


Each and every person is a valuable asset on board your ship. They have specific training - they are not easily replaced. You have no pool of "spare" professionals from which to draw new crew members either - you have to wait for kids to grow up. Furthermore, that crew member will most likely mentor his/her replacement.

Locking people up because they lose their marbles and pose a danger to themselves and others should be perfectly acceptable. However, maiming that crew member, or killing him should be an absolutely last resort.

Instead, the focus should be on rehabilitating that crew member, with brainwashing, and other psychological manipulation being perfectly acceptable means of dealing with the psychoses which will invariably arise.

Human Nature

Frankly, I think you're pretty screwed as far as maintaining control of your crew is concerned. It's human nature to seek privacy, to buck authority, etc.

There will be places on the ship where people will build their own little unsupervised spaces. Where they will have hidden contraband, or meet to mate with someone other than their assigned partners, etc.

Teenagers will rebel against their assigned roles on the ship, and the injustice of having that future chosen for them.

Power-hungry ######## will try to over-throw the leadership and gain command & control of the mission (practically guaranteed to happen sooner or later).

Contraband will develop, with people who have access to the stores of supplies skimming off the top and trading it for various items or favors.

Additionally, you will also have to deal with Command crew members using their perks and privileges in illegitimate ways - such as detaining people they perceive to be their competition in some way (for their position, or for the attention of a mate, etc.)

Maintaining Control

You have to be able to monitor these people at all times. I would suggest implants, with a monitoring AI who acts as people' psychologist and conscience at all times.

This AI would not report all transgressions to Command ... only the serious ones, so that people would feel that they can trust and confide in it. The AI could also be a master manipulator, being able to either delay or confuse people when they have dark thoughts, or simply convince them that their course of action is not a good one.

The reason I advise such an approach is because a human crew cannot realistically monitor everyone's implant feed - you'd need more watchers than crew. Humans are also prone to corruption. But an AI, as long as it itself does not go nuts, is more or less the "deity" that generation after generation can look to for guidance and enlightenment.

  • $\begingroup$ While reading your answer I edited it and corrected few bits to ease reading. Hope you do not mind ;) $\endgroup$ Jan 26, 2016 at 14:54

Well on a ship that will always have duties to be performed, locking people away in a cell seems to be counter productive. There are different kinds of trouble to worry about here. General crime, and social unrest.

General Crime

So work gangs. Those who break the 'law' get to do the crap work or dangerous work that needs to be done. If they refuse then you cut their rations. I also expect that much of the crimes would be rather petty, since in reality everything on the ship belongs to everyone else. Everyone needs to pull their weight in order to keep the ship running smooth, people fed and healthy, children educated etc. However, people do become jealous, and do have disagreements so physical altercations can happen, maybe even death or severe trauma.

In these cases, where work gangs might not be sufficient, they should be marked with a symbol, announcing their crimes to be socially shunned and watched much closer. In cases you get a true sociopath that is a danger to anyone, they need to be 'recycled' in order for them to help pay back the society they have damaged.

Social Unrest

This is more troublesome, since social unrest generally indicates there is a problem that is not being taken care of at some level. Is there just one or two people who loudly disagree with the current power structure? Or is it a deeper issue.

The obvious kooks can generally be ignored, since most people will find them entertaining or feel pity. Those who are really stirring up social unrest are another matter. In a small community (even 20000 isn't really that big) with limited resources and limited options, trying to make peace is the best option. However, humans have been trying for years to deal with strong ideological points of view with different measures with differing levels of success.

So the important part is to not alienate anyone group to a point it feels rebellion is even a reasonable threat. The best way is to keep people satisfied in their jobs and not have a very stratified society. The mission is a success or failure for EVERYONE on the ship and everyone should be working to make that success, and feel they are contributing to it as well. Meaning the best way to stop crimes are to reduce the reasons for them. People who are appreciated for their contributions are less likely to be discontent and cause problems. (teens will have to learn to get through that too).

  • $\begingroup$ I hadn't hound of general social unrest. $\endgroup$ Jan 26, 2016 at 15:43

Despite some bumps and loops, the general global trend is to condemn torture and the death penalty as inhumane and therefore abolish both. It’s relatively safe to assume that this trajectory will not divert long-term, so it will be unthinkable for the society that launches the generation ship to implement a legal code that included such punishments.

That being said, in a rather small community of 20’000 people and effectively no communication with anyone else – i.e. it’s not like a small town, but like a planet with a tiny population – it’s not unlikely that eventually a mob will lynch someone or some charismatic power appeals enough to the lower instincts of people so revenge becomes acceptable once again and hence physically harmful or life-terminating sentences could be introduced in a later part of the long-term journey. That means, some achievements of a global human civilization may regress on a generation ship.

The homicide rate in the most developed countries currently is approximately 1 per 100’000 inhabitants per year (e.g. most of West and North Europe), globally it’s more than one order of magnitude higher. It tends to be less in oppressive systems with draconic measures and in rich states with working welfare system – roughly spoken. It also tends to be less in mostly closed societies where there is little conflict due to cultural differences and social inequalities. A single event can have extreme consequences, of course (e.g. the Oslo/Utøya attacks tripled the 2011 homicide rate in Norway). Unless something goes very wrong (as it tends to do in fiction), murder will probably be rare – less than a dozen per generation perhaps.

There are other crimes, of course, theft and fraud for instance. Depending on how members for the small society were initially selected and on how it works and deals with its limited, recycled resources, some crimes are less likely than others, especially during the first few generations. Greed and envy, for instance, will hardly motivate crime if everyone started with about the same level of wealth (i.e. relative worth of personal properties) and it was basically impossible to become comparatively rich (or poor). The ship-building society would probably also avoid sending people aboard who had a long or strong criminal record, especially in organized crime.

Imprisonment – in the sense of just locking away offenders – is a waste of resources and often neither improves individuals nor society. Hopefully, effective correctional methods will have been developed in the meantime, but that’s probably only for notorious misbehavior.

You cannot effectively “rectify” people who committed a one-time felony in affect and you cannot punish them either because that serves no goal since it won’t scare others from doing the same in an extreme situation. The only thing that may work is when convicts voluntarily ask for forgiveness, receive it, and repay their debts (of whatever kind). Afterwards, they need to be accepted as respectable members of society again. For the punishment / repayment of minor misdemeanors, exploit the constraints of the society:

  • There are dangerous, exhausting, unpleasant, low-prestige maintenance jobs to be done? – Thanks for volunteering by committing a crime.
  • Human reproduction is strictly controlled? – The chance of your (and your already existing descendants’) sperm or eggs winning the fertilization lottery will plummet if you’re convicted, although if you (and your children etc.) work hard the probability may raise again.
  • There’s no free market but automatically determined rations (and housing etc.)? – Guess who’ll not eat delicious Bief™ for a while.

IMHO it may be counter productive to assume that cultural (and phenotypical/genetic) norms will still apply completely after we have had, say, 1000 years of space habitation - that's about 45 generations.

I am presuming one primary thing - we will not start sending ships until we've had many decades or centuries of people spending their entire lives in mostly or entirely self-sufficient 'floating' habitats - orbiting either a planetary body or in solar orbit.

Now imagine being born into such a habitat. For starters, the fact that you're alive is probably due to selective breeding, or at least approval of the fetus coming to term, with the full complement of genetic and epigenetic information available. Just as with many isolated island and mountain cultures, self-sufficient space habitats will almost certainly be forced to limit their population by some form of neonatal fitness test - usually this was in the form of a stress test, so if the infant did not survive the stress it would probably not have survived to adulthood anyway. An advanced culture could use more advanced methods than drowning for two minutes in an icy stream, and could optimize (even without full genetic engineering) for people who would fit into their small society and prosper and be productive in their domain.

As with some ranchers, it's quite possible that family strains that continued to produce unfit progeny would be allowed to die out without the right to bear children.

So you are an infant. With the cold vacuum of space only inches or feet away at all times, the opportunities for a child to cause not only their own death but the death of everyone aboard would abound - opening the wrong door, pushing the wrong button, an infinity of hazards would force the infant to become very aware, very early, of what not to do. Just as an infant learns very early not to touch the stove, you would learn probably before you could walk not to do anything that you don't know for a certainty is not dangerous - do not touch would have a life and death meaning.

At the same time you would be exposed and encourage to embrace a spirit of adventure and possibility, as the Universe is, indeed, "unlimited". So you would grow up being both bold and careful, and very used to living in close proximity with many others, sharing almost everything and depending on each other. If you didn't fit in, you'd probably have few choices, such as exchange with someone from another habitat (a good thing to do, to maintain genetic diversity).

So, after 40+ generations of this selective environment, folks that didn't fit into a space habitat would have been largely selected out of the gene pool. The biggest problem might well be too much similarity, rather than too much diversity. In other words, the problems you are worrying about will almost certainly have been dealt with centuries earlier, while these habitats were living in the Solar System.

My predicted scenario is this: A self-sufficient space habitat also requires some form of propulsion to assist it in station keeping and hazard avoidance, so it's already a form of space ship, albeit not much of one. Space habitats by that time might even be migrating around the Solar System. At some point, the inhabitants of one or more of these habitats will decide to 'head out'. Since they are already nearly or entirely self-sufficient except for things like nuclear fuel, it would not be a great leap for them to pack up and leave. And this would not be a significantly different lifestyle than they are already living.

The remaining piece is the ability to accelerate to a significant fraction of light speed (say 0.001c to 0.01c) - the difference between these is dramatic of course. If a habitat can accelerate to 0.01c by the time they are halfway to Alpha Centauri and similarly decelerate to arrival, their trip would be on the order of 1000 years. Conveniently, if the new star system has the essentials for nuclear power and a few other resources, they won't even necessarily need a habitable planet.

In conclusion, it seems to me that the need for extreme measures will have been bred out of the society for 500 years by the time the first ship leaves.

Of course, if there is some massive emergency that forces humanity into ships to get the hell out of Dodge before the Sun blows up, that's a different scenario.


I don't think that cutting off people's hands is a good idea.

Choosing The Original Crew

When you choose the original crew, do it with care. Make sure you get people who will obey the law, and whose skills will be essential for the mission. Have people undergo a psychological analysis. Also, certain religions would be better for your ship. No offense meant to anyone, of course.


Minor Crimes

When people do something wrong, such as steal, or some other minor crime, I would do one of two things. The first would be torture, but not physical torture. Have some kind of chemical they inject you with, which causes extreme pain, but doesn't really harm you. The second would be supervised labor. After all, you need people to keep the ship going.

Minor crimes are pretty much anything that doesn't put the ship in serious danger, or seriously harm another person on the ship. (At least, on purpose.)

Major Crimes

Includes serious hints like sabotaging the ship, or murder. Only the unforgivable things. (Just look at the flowers, look at the flowers.) Put the person in the airlock, then open it.

Enforcing The Law

It's a given that you will have police or authorities who will go around making sure the laws are being followed, but this won't stop all crime.

Have all areas under surveillance at all times. However, you must obtain a warrant to search people's rooms, effects, etc. You should also have to obtain a warrant for looking at tapes of people in the bathroom or look at the footage of them in their rooms. (We don't want creepers working with security.)

I also recommend everyone having ID cards. These cards would be scanned every time you opened a door, that way it is always known where you are. The doors would also scan people as they walked through, to make sure only one person was entering. So when you leave your room without using your ID card, then your door would give a sharp buzz and not open. It would be a serious crime to do things without your card. You would be detained until your intentions could be deciphered.

You would probably also need some kind of trial system, with a jury and a judge and all that. Like in the United States.

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    $\begingroup$ You don't eject people from airlocks, because you can't afford to waste the materials. Every dead body has to be recycled. $\endgroup$ Jan 26, 2016 at 16:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Monty Harder Yeah, that's a good idea. Don't eat tomorrow's sloppy joes! $\endgroup$ Jan 26, 2016 at 16:39
  • $\begingroup$ Note to self: make sure @XandarTheZenon never becomes president. $\endgroup$
    – King-Ink
    Jan 26, 2016 at 20:42
  • $\begingroup$ Generally you don't want to enforce crimes. It's usually much better for everyone concerned to enforce the law. I mean, you could enforce crimes if you want, but the victims will be upset and the criminals will resent you for making them do it. $\endgroup$
    – user867
    Jan 26, 2016 at 23:57
  • $\begingroup$ @user867 There will probably be police officers, but I may have forgotten to include it in my answer. Is that what you're saying? $\endgroup$ Jan 27, 2016 at 0:55

What cultural norms would be the best for crime fighting?

You have to build upon what will be considered a crime and what will be considered misdemeanor.

The second category could be somewhat overlooked, with the most obvious cases punished lightly, most often with reparation penalty (the equivalent of repainting the wall you tagged). The first category would be enforced harshly, with a culture that see those as an offence to all and that promote delation of such crimes. For example, in some country, not reporting child abuse is condemned as helping the abuser. Of course misdemeanor that get out of hand will be seen as crimes.

The goal is to provide a feeling of liberty around non-consequential things, even allowing a little thrill once in a while, while having a clear limit that one should not toe.

The punishment itself can range from social to psychological to physical. Removing someone from the crew has to be though of as removing a threat to everyone life.


I think religion may be the answer here ironically. It has been used for at least 6000 years (more likely 500,000 years but let's be inclusive) as a means of controlling human behavior. Religion can be thought of as a set of rules, norms, and beliefs that are held as axiomatic. We don't argue axioms we select them.

In the same way, on a generation ship we don't argue about the mission or whether it is okay to steal, open airlock, or fart in close confinement. The crew needs to have an internalized sense of this a conviction of the rightness of what they are doing.

So the answer is a religious cult designed by thoughtful practical psychologists to be benign, stable and effective. You could call it a culture but is has to go very deep and the children have to be indoctrinated in it.

The rules should follow the Ostrom prescription they should be clear with graduated punishment and the possibility of forgiveness. You steal once you confess or are caught we instantly forgive you. It happens again we punish you and you have to work harder to get back into the good graces of the group. happens again we eat you.

So a religious cult is my prescription.

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    $\begingroup$ Have you read The Book of the Long Sun? $\endgroup$
    – user487
    Jan 26, 2016 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ no, but apparently this Gene Wolfe guy is a genius. $\endgroup$
    – King-Ink
    Jan 26, 2016 at 20:23
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    $\begingroup$ A lesser known author - Beneath the Sky - the idea of a religious order maintaining order on a generation ship is one that is occasionally explored (I only read the sample for that book). $\endgroup$
    – user487
    Jan 26, 2016 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ I think the "mission" itself would become a religion of sorts. For the generations in between: The beginning would be steeped in cultural myths, heroic figures that rescued the "mission", then the destination would be a matter of faith as it's unlikely they could significantly alter the trajectory at that point. $\endgroup$ Dec 17, 2017 at 6:01

With regards to long service and things getting broken beyond repair.

If you have the technology to build a ship big enough to travel through space for 600 years with 20,000 people onboard then you need to be a good ship designer.

If you are a good ship designer then you would design the ship so that all systems were serviceable on-board without the need of a space dock or "landing" and you would also provide all of the machines, technology, materials and machinery spaces to recreate any component on-board.

Extensive parts testing and parts commonality would help provide a mean time path to failure and simplify the need to produce 100,000's of individual components down to a few thousand. With this data in mind you can now stock the required materials plus contingency to accurately re-manufacture anything that gets broken or worn out.

Outside of a colossal disaster, recycling and good Preventative Maintenance practises would enable the ship to stay functional and fully maintained.

  • $\begingroup$ nano tech or 3d printing could help with the maintenance. $\endgroup$ Dec 17, 2017 at 6:04

user2757511 answer partly gets the point.

You have asked about crime fighting, but that does not only happen after the crime. In fact, it usually starts before the crime could happen. We are said by our parents and teachers what can be done and what can not.

So, the most important point of a Generation Ship is dealing with Growing and Educating newborns. You can see that in TV examples like Battlestar Galactica they had classrooms.

If your educate people such that crime does not reward, never, you'll have very very little number of big crimes (passional crimes will always be there), and for those you must be sure it does not reward. Use the airlock, after a fair trial, or forced labour, or whatever. Be sure to have a fair justice system. About minor offenses, just have an appropiate civil law system, but have them not to reward, never. If you steal one ration, you get condemned to half rations over a month.

Over all that, have a semi-military society where everybody has a job and a superior (except for the Commandant, who has the Mission Orders as a guide). Everybody knows what is expected from them, right from school. Everybody has a duty she can perform (because your job place is assigned from your qualifications on school, together with your desires) and which can be prod of, because your duty is fundamental for the survival of the whole ship. And get that idea instilled into people from the first years on nursery.


Perhaps crime could be prevented by reducing the conditions that create it, and and minimizing their effects.

For example, financial crime could be eliminated by abolishing the concept of financial derivatives on the ship, with the exception of singular fees. Counterfeiting could be prevented by having no concept of physical currency, and using bio-metrically verified credit cards.

Sex crimes could be reduced by keeping prostitution legal and well paid, kind of like "the best little whorehouse in texas". A reasonable age of consent would help as well. Rape could be minimized by banning the ideologies that create it. Pornography would not only be legal, but government-subsidized, like non-pornographic media is in Canada.

Murder could be minimized by issuing industrial tranquilizer guns as the standard weapons aboard the ship, instead of modern firearms. Theft could be minimized by ensuring universal employment. With that, all theft would be for luxuries, rather than necessities.

Overall, it would be wise to restrict the laws to only ban things that are harmful to the population "and actually harmful, as opposed to religiously harmful"; and only require things that have actual uses, like electrical safety laws.

However, it's likely that crime will still happen. When this happens, I think the best model would be a hybrid of the Japanese prison system and the Norwegian prison system. "mostly Norwegian". In Norway's prisons, sentences are minimized, and the prisons are calibrated more for mental health and reform than punishment; with the caveat that the sentencing length is more of a matter of "you will be in prison until we determine you are no longer a threat to society". In Japan's prisons, it's routine to use prison labor for consumer electronics. This concept could be adapted for the ship, by giving the criminals the crap labor that nobody else wants. This handles how the guilty are handled.

Regarding law enforcement and criminal investigation, obviously a criminal/civil court will be needed on-board. Jury duty, as it is now, would be an annoying civic duty. The same goes for being a judge. Police and investigators would be under strict scrutiny, and corruption from these would have to be the most heavily sentenced crime, simply to avoid the problems plaguing police in the US, especially in small towns.

Basically, I think the best cultural norm regarding law and order is to go with what works: Don't ban what shouldn't be illegal, have laws when they're needed, have trials, have reasonable prison, don't use torture, and treat the problems that create crime.


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