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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Ethics and Space

Our responsibility to the truly other other

Margaret R. McLean

While most of us imagine life on other planets through the lens of movies such as Avatar or ET, alien life forms are unlikely to look like humans, just with bigger eyes. When we try to think ethically about how we might approach life on other planets, we may be talking about bacteria or non-carbon based entities very far from what we understand to be life or sentient beings. What is our responsibility to the truly other other and the planets they call home?

This is a more pressing question than you might imagine. The cosmologist Stephen Hawking has said:

I don't think that the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I'm an optimist. We will reach out to the stars.

Michael Mautner, a physical chemist at Virginia Commonwealth University, takes it even further, arguing that "we have a moral obligation to plan for the propagation of life, and even the transfer of human life to other solar systems which can be transformed via microbial activity, thereby preparing these worlds to develop and sustain complex life."

What might this look like, if, for example, we were to transform our nearest neighbor, Mars, into a new Earth. According to Mautner, we could introduce Earthly microbes into the planet's ecosystem, which could digest gasses that are toxic to humans and release oxygen that would eventually make it possible for humans to exist there.

But what if, in the process of "terraforming" Mars, we were to "unMars" martian life? If we encounter microbes that are native to that planet, do we study them? Collect them? Capture and send them back to Earth?

To answer these questions ethically, we have to start with more questions:

  1. What benefits and what harms can be predicted? Is the benefit greater than the risk?
  2. Who are the ethically relevant stakeholders-do they include Martian microbes; what rights/responsibilities do stakeholders have?
  3. Will what we plan to do treat all-or just some-stakeholders fairly?
  4. Are we creating conditions to everyone's advantage?

One perspective we might take is to look right here at terrestrial life from a Christian perspective. We know that life on Earth is ethically and spiritually ambiguous and that good and bad are often mixed together. But, what is clear is that creation itself has intrinsic value-as the Bible says, "God saw all that had been made and it was very good." Humans, in the Christian view, are accountable to the Creator for their stewardship of that creation.

The Christian imperative teaches us that we must love God and our neighbor. When we think about space, we have to re-ask ourselves, "Just who is my neighbor?" Do I have responsibility to life forms on other planets only if they look like us or are cuddly like ET?

From this perspective, we approach the possibility of meeting our planetary neighbors with these ethical ideas in mind:

  • Dignity
  • Curiosity
  • Knowledge
  • Understanding
  • Wisdom
  • Sufficiency (which obligates human beings to care for the basic needs of others and all other life forms)
  • Sustainability (which makes us accountable to future generations and to life as we don't know it)
  • Solidarity (which insists that we value other worlds and other forms of life for their own sake whether or not they benefit us)
  • Intrinsic value of the cosmos
  • Respect (which invites a deep concern not only for charismatic extraterrestrial life but also for microbes and non-carbon based life)

These ideas have concrete applications. For example, when exploring the universe, we should guard against "forward contamination" (from earth to other planets) and "backward contamination" (to earth from other planets).

But more importantly, they suggest an attitude of humility toward our neighbors in the cosmos. There is much that we don't know, and so we explore. But we ought not go unreflectively where no one has gone before.

Margaret R. McLean is associate director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and director of its bioethics programs.

Jul 1, 2013