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Science Fiction

Ethics & Interplanetary Exploration

Dan McArthur wonders how we should treat the locals…

Recent discoveries of planets in orbit around other stars, and recent publicity surrounding the activities of the international space agencies have revived enthusiasm for planetary exploration. There is even talk of the manned exploration of Mars, something that not long ago seemed quite impossible to many, given our financial and political inability to even carry the Apollo programme to its completion. Human beings will be visiting other objects in the solar system again, and this activity raises a host of ethical questions for those still earthbound. These questions range from labour relations to business ethics to equitable resource distribution to architectural aesthetics and quality of life issues, and finally to questions of ethical interaction with any life that may be discovered in some extraterrestrial environment. However, the literature that examines these questions is still extremely small. An index search of philosophical periodicals reveals only about a dozen papers published in major journals over the last twenty-five years. The surface has not even been scratched, and I will attempt little more than that in this short article.

This lack of interest among contemporary philosophers is interesting, as Lewis White Beck has noted, given that it greatly preoccupied the thought of many philosophers from antiquity into the 19th century (Beck, 1998, p.102). The idea of life on other planets, as Beck observes, has traditionally been associated with Christian teleology i.e. idea that the universe has a goal and that it is the result of intelligent design. Life on other planets can be inferred from design, argued Plutarch; just as the Earth was designed to produce us, so too were the heavenly bodies designed to produce their own inhabitants (Beck, 1998, p.103). Similar arguments are to be found from Nicholas of Cusa, Copernicus and even from Victorians like Bishop Thomas Chalmers. This scholastic heritage is perhaps the reason why the topic has not interested 20th century philosophers, particularly the analytic philosophers who are rightly hostile to the ramified metaphysical constructions of the theologians. However, as philosophers have lost interest in Christian teleological theology, scientists have discovered that serious investigations into the possibility of life elsewhere are now a genuine empirical possibility. The probes sent to Mars in the 70’s, for example, had the search for life there as one of their explicit goals. 20th century science has made the search for life a serious prospect and the time has come for a serious investigation of the philosophical implications of this search.

I will restrict myself to commenting on the ethical questions that our interactions with extra-planetary life might raise. Any such discussion must be highly speculative, of course, since there is at present no evidence at all that any such life exists, and there are no persuasive arguments that it must exist or even probably exists. None of the new solar systems found so far can have rocky planets like Earth and Mars close enough to their suns to make life a realistic possibility, but a real chance exists that a small percentage of other solar systems might have such planets. It is even remotely possible that some might be close enough for probes to reach in a reasonable time (in less than a century or two, given some technological advance).

It is now clear that no other planet in our own solar system cradles advanced life. Mars, whose potential to contain life has been a matter of perennial speculation, is now known to be barren, at least on its surface. However, the dried-up beds of primeval lakes and rivers suggest that this may not always have been so. The discoveries in the past few years of a (possibly) liquid water ocean under the ice on Europa and the news that Mars might have (or only recently have lost) liquid water below its surface raises the possibility that there might just be some life-forms closer to home after all. If this is so, humanity might just be interacting with its first extraterrestrial ecosystem within the life span of some that are alive today. Humans have had a deplorable record in their dealings with each other and with their fellow species here on Earth, and some have argued that speculation about our moral obligations to extraterrestrials should serve as a call to improve our ethical record on Earth (e.g. Ginsberg, 1972, p.7). Nevertheless, it is clear that we should seek some ethical guidelines in advance lest we repeat our sorry history elsewhere.

In this article I will simply try to identify some wrong directions for us to take when seeking ethical guidelines in order to point to more fruitful directions. I will turn first to some unconvincing arguments that express doubts about our ability to find a satisfactory basis for moral interaction with extra-planetary life.

Laurance Thomas has argued for such a position. He bases his pessimism on his adherence to a theory of morality that he derives from David Hume and Adam Smith. Thomas takes morality to be based on social consensus that is derived from sentiment and not from reason. Species that have a profoundly different physiology or emotional make-up, he argues, simply would not have any common moral ground with us because these sources of their moral sentiments are so radically different (Thomas, 1988, pp.59-72). If he is right, then the extraterrestrial universe can only be a place of conflict and unbridgeable relativism.

However, this view of morality is as unsatisfactory when applied to the inhabitants of other worlds as it is when it is applied to humans here on Earth. Animals on Earth do not have the same moral sentiments as us, yet we are slowly coming to recognise that we have at least some moral obligations to them. The very young and the mentally infirm do not share moral sentiments with us but all would agree that we still have obligations to them. The lesson here seems to be that morality is not something that can only apply between those who share arbitrary sentiments. In other words, morality is normative; it applies to us even if those we deal with cannot possibly apply it to humans.

One can agree with Thomas or Hume that the origin of morality is human, but this doesn’t necessarily imply that morality must be wholly relative or that it can’t be applied to dealings with non-humans. This is one way of looking at Immanuel Kant’s equally humanistic moral theory. Morality, for Kant, is human in origin but is not just a matter of sentiments. A good way of responding to an argument like Thomas’ would be to try to formulate a Kantian categorical imperative for application to extraterrestrial environments and to show that it can satisfactorily meet our requirements for ethical guidance on our interplanetary wanderings. A first shot at this might be the following general maxim: “Deal with extraterrestrial ecosystems in the way we would want a visiting extraterrestrial to treat ours.” When dealing with newly discovered extra-planetary life, it hardly matters what that life would probably do if it arrived here; we ought to act towards that life in the way we would like it act toward us if the situation was reversed.

If we adopt it, what exactly will this imperative require us to do? Obviously, and for a long time to come, it severely limits the permissible degree of human intervention on an inhabited alien world, and will perhaps permanently prohibit it in some cases (Carl Sagan sometimes suggested this when considering the possibility of life on Mars). If life is eventually discovered somewhere, a debate will ensue on the degree of intervention that our imperative will allow. The results of such a debate will depend on the degree of our knowledge of the effects of our actions on the indigenous environment in question, but our record here on Earth would caution against an overestimation of the harmlessness of our technology.

The details of this sort of an approach will have to be fleshed out, and the implications will vary with the situation in question. For example, colonies of micro-organisms that live deep underground might be unaffected by limited human activities on the surface of their planet, whereas the discovery of an inhabited ocean under ice, on Europa for example, would very likely preclude any physical intervention there with anything resembling current technology. Complex chemical systems whose status as life is in question probably ought to be treated as if they are alive, for our rough and ready categorical imperative would suggest that we should err on the side of caution and leave them alone. Perhaps restricting our studies to spectrographs taken from orbit might be acceptable. Little more can be said yet about the detailed implications of the maxim for the simple reason that to do so would require case studies, and at present there simply are none.

This approach to extra-planetary ethics has the advantage of taking due account of our likely degree of ignorance when we first encounter extraterrestrial life. For example, it takes account of situations where the status of the environment is in doubt and also of our potential inability to distinguish sentient life from more simple forms. Privileging the moral status of one over the other would not be acceptable given the strong likelihood that we will have no uncontroversial way of identifying sentiency in the new environment. Our inability to decide the cases of animals like whales and the great apes here on Earth is ample proof of this. Aliens (sentient or not) might well differ from humans in ways far more radical than any terrestrial life. In this way our planetary categorical imperative implies that we should treat other worlds with much more caution than we do our own. We do not, of course, have the option of leaving Earth completely alone, given the simple fact that we live here, but we do have this option with other worlds. However, some thinkers like Donald Scherer have found maxims like the one I’ve suggested to be an insufficient basis for the ethical norms of our extraterrestrial interactions. I will consider these objections next.

Scherer contends that categorical imperatives, like the one I favour, are too simplistic to be readily applied (Scherer, 1988, p.3). The reason for this is the wide array of things that could possibly give rise to and sustain life. For example, a planet with no life at all might still someday develop it. What is the correct course, he asks, in such a situation? Can our maxim be sensibly applied to situations where we have to assess the effect, on terrestrial life, of something that might be done to our planet at a time when there was no terrestrial life? Moreover, in a situation where life does currently exist, a course of action that might affect it in one way today might cease to have that effect tomorrow. A terrestrial case of this that is noted by Scherer is the example of formerly deadly rat poison that some rats can now use as food (1988, p.5).

Scherer certainly has a point; epistemological problems clearly exist with any inductive inferences we might make about the long-term features of an unfamiliar biology or about the effects that human actions will have on it. As the rat poison case shows, this can be true even on Earth. However, these difficulties are not insurmountable. Even if we can’t be certain that the effects that our actions have on alien life today will be the same tomorrow, this doesn’t imply that no decisions at all can be made about such matters. It simply demands greater care from us in our inductive inferences. For example, suppose that drilling a well far from a subterranean ecosystem was deemed to have no impact on it; this state of affairs might one day change because of unforeseen geological features. But this doesn’t refute the applicability of the maxim at all; it simply clarifies its application.

Scherer’s examples simply imply that if we can conceive of a situation where our inductive inferences might fail in ways that would cause us to violate our maxim, then we should not take any action on the basis of those inferences that could lead to such a violation. The fact that a maxim’s application in practice will not be straightforward or uncontroversial simply underscores the messiness of applied ethics compared to the theoretical considerations of the philosophy classroom. However, Scherer argues that no imperative demanding that we do no harm to significant life can work unless we can agree about what counts as life (1988, p.10).

He tries to ground his notion of an extraterrestrial ethic (and his view of what counts as life) on the teleological view of Aristotle. While rejecting Aristotle’s specific metaphysical assumptions, he argues that the general approach is still sound and can serve as the basis for an ethics. Life, on Earth or elsewhere, claims Scherer, shares a goal that he calls ‘disentropic’ (1988, p.14). He claims that any life, if it is life, seeks to continue its structure in opposition to thermodynamic forces that would dissolve it. Life is disentropic, for Scherer, because it opposes entropy (or disorder). Any life, regardless of its origin, would have to have this as its goal in order to remain alive. This goal can therefore serve as the basis of an ethics because it represents common ground that can be mutually respected by all. The notion, he claims, has other advantages in that it can help define life, or at least the domain in which it occurs. All disentropic structures count as life and should be respected on that basis.

There are several serious and related problems with Scherer’s notion of a disentropic ethic. For one thing his notion of disentropy, in so far as it is a teleological notion, is a poor way of philosophically depicting life as it is conceived by science. Darwinian biology teaches us, of course, that evolution is a process of change; it does not teach us that it is a process of conscious change towards a specified goal. Just as there is selection without a selector, so there is change without it being change towards a goal. Rats, for example, will survive a serious planetary disruption, like the impact of a large meteorite, but ‘more advanced’ humans might not. On every continent the ‘lower’ primates are doing better than ‘higher’ ones (except humans).

Moreover, Scherer’s views of the relation of living systems to thermodynamic processes are reminiscent of obsolete 19th century writings that depict life as a gloomy struggle against the inevitable tide of universal thermodynamic equilibrium that eventually results in the ‘heat death’ of the universe. Bertrand Russell, for example, occasionally talked this way in his gloomier moments. But this is a poor way of conceptualising the thermodynamic properties of living systems. To say that life’s goal is to ‘oppose’ entropy is very strange since the product of all of life’s processes is entropy; the price of order is precisely an increase in entropy. The atmosphere of the Earth is in fact a giant heat sink and this is exactly what the greenhouse effect is. Moreover, the ‘non-equilibrium thermodynamics’ for which Ilya Prigogine won the Nobel Prize in 1977 tells us that in systems (living or not) that exist far from equilibrium (i.e. that receive an input of energy), increasing complexity is observed along with a corresponding increase in entropy. Complex systems that exist far from equilibrium are not a goal in this view but simply the result of the repeated application of functions whose result is systems that appear to be self-ordering. The familiar shapes of coastlines or seashells are examples of these processes in action; weather systems and wind patterns can be described in this way as well. The increase in complexity seen in living systems, then, is hardly ‘anti-entropic’ in a teleological way, but simply the (probabilistically) predictable results of repeated applications of mathematical functions to systems whose initial conditions are chaotic. Living systems are not ‘opposed’ to thermodynamic processes at all; they are the result of them. Increasing complexity is not a ‘goal’ either; these processes are, mathematically speaking, just repeating functions. They don’t have a goal any more than evolution does.

Just as teleology makes for a poor account of life, so too does it make a poor account of ethics. For one thing, an ethics can hardly be based on a metaphysical view that is incorrect, as is Scherer’s. However, it is not at all clear that we need to base our ethics on any metaphysics, teleological or not. One of the lessons from Kant is that ethics requires no metaphysical grounding. I argued earlier that ethics need not be based on shared sentiments to be normative for us; neither does it need to be based on a shared teleology or metaphysics of any sort. Humans can decide what they would take to be unacceptable behaviour towards themselves and then apply the resulting maxims to themselves when dealing with others. Seen this way, morality is normative for us regardless of who we are dealing with. We will take our human moral environment with us to other worlds along with our pith helmets.

It matters little whether or not humans will encounter autonomous rational agents when they begin to explore the first extraterrestrial ecosystems (for one thing our ability to recognise life as sentient and rational, or even as alive at all, will for a long time be extremely limited). Humans, however, are rational and autonomous agents and this is all ethics requires in order for it to be normative. I am not arguing here for the wholesale adoption of a Kantian model for all our ethics. Its application, for example, among diverse human populations, each of which can articulate individual and group preferences, sometimes requires an adulterated application balanced with other approaches (like utilitarianism). What I am arguing here is that, given our extreme ignorance about the nature of the life we will first encounter on other worlds, a strongly cautious set of maxims will be required if we are to be sure to do right by that life. Moreover, not only is the application of strong normative maxims required, it is all that is required. Morality can be normative for us in new worlds without needing a basis in dubious metaphysical theories. To make a play on a well-known expression, extraterrestrial ethics ought to be normative and not metaphysical.

© Dan Mcarthur 2001

Dan McArthur is a visiting assistant professor in philosophy at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada.

Finding out more

• Beck, L.W. (1998) ‘Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life’, in Cicovacki, P. (ed.) Essays by Lewis White Beck, University of Rochester Press. pp.101- 121. Originally published in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, XLV (1971-2) pp.5-21.

• Ginsberg, Robert, (1971) ‘The Future of Interplanetary Ethics’, Journal of Social Philosophy 2, pp.5-7.

• Scherer, D. (1988) ‘A Disentropic Ethic’, in The Monist 71, pp.3-33.

• Thomas, L. (1988) ‘Moral Behaviour and Rational Creatures of the Universe’, in The Monist 71, pp.59-72.

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