View by:







Cutting the Ethical Pie for Engaging ETI: An Adventure in Astro-Ethics

by Ted Peters

Through the eyes of the Kepler Space Telescope, planet hunters have just spotted two Saturn-like transits orbiting a single star. Might they have an Earth-sized companion? In addition, a possible litter of seven planets has been detected orbiting a sun-like star, HD 10180, only 127 light-years away (Grossman). The day of contact with extraterrestrial intelligent life (ETI) may be tomorrow.

What shall we do when we meet them? How shall we respond to contact with intelligent beings inhabiting exoplanets? What shall we say when extraterrestrials ask us questions? How shall we treat intelligent beings from another world? Despite all the Sci-Fi movies we’ve seen, and despite what UFO aficionados tell us, we Earthlings just may not be ready to engage ETI.

Thinking ahead about our response to contact with ETI I call Astro-Ethics (or Astro-Bioethics). An ethicist theorizes about moral behavior. Ethics is defined by the late Paul Ricoeur as thinking about “living well with and for others in just institutions” (Ricoeur, 330).” I put “astro” in front of “ethics” so we can speculate about how to live well with alien neighbors in just institutions.

ETI might be really other to us. They may be so different that at first contact we might have to work hard just to discern whether they’re living and whether they’re intelligent.In order to prepare for life forms that might be very "other," scientists at a new interdisciplinary research institute in Austria are working to uncover how life might evolve with "exotic"... Or, maybe not. Maybe the laws of physics and laws of evolutionary biology are such that alien intelligent beings--though the result of a 2nd genesis somewhere else in space--resemble us enough that we can bridge the gap of otherness. Let us work temporarily with this assumption: ETI, though other, still take a form that reasonably resembles homo sapiens on Earth.

With this first assumption in mind, let’s consider the alien community as a moral community - that is, as a community with whom our relations can be understood in ethical terms. What are the possibilities? I see three. One or more of the three following are possible: we might engage (1) inferior aliens: extraterrestrial biotic individuals who are inferior to us (less evolved); (2) peer aliens: residents of an exoplanet who may have followed a similar path in evolutionary development and whose level of intelligence is comparable to our own; or (3) superior aliens: perhaps having evolved over a longer period of time, higher in intelligence, more advanced in science and technology, and better than we are in many identifiable respects. Here is how we cut the ethical pie for engaging ETI.

Our second assumption will be this: when it comes to the criterion by which we measure inferior, peer, and superior, it will be rational intelligence. Why? Because most commentators on human enhancement who weigh in on the future of humanity believe intelligence to rank among the highest of human values (Harris, 2). Further, astrobiologists hypothesize that evolutionary history has a built in entelechy that leads toward increased intelligence over time (NASA). Cyber dynamo Ray Kurzweil provides an example of the prevalent evaluation of evolved intelligence: “The purpose of the universe reflects the same purpose as our lives: to move toward greater intelligence and knowledge” (Kurzweil, 372). Has this assumption been proven? No. Cornell exobiologist Carl Sagan recognizes that this belief structure is based on speculation rather than sufficient empirical evidence to deem it scientific. “I would guess that the Universe is filled with beings far more intelligent, far more advanced than we are. But, of course, I might be wrong. Such a conclusion is at best based on a plausibility argument, derived from the numbers of planets, the ubiquity of organic matter, the immense timescales available for evolution, and so on. It is not a scientific demonstration” (Sagan, 1994, 33). Still, despite its lack of scientific status, space scientists largely assume that biological evolution over time leads to increased intelligence. This belief that the evolution of life is aimed toward enhancing rational intelligence is rife among astrobiologists; and intelligence provides the criterion for measuring evolutionary advance. Of course, one could imagine a different criterion. For example, one could imagine a criterion such as altruistic love. We would then rank terrestrial as well as extraterrestrial civilizations according to their lovingness. But, alas, no one I can find in this discussion appeals to anything other than intelligence. So, intelligence is what we’ll speculate on here.

Now, cutting the pie into thirds - inferior, peer, and superior--is not quite enough. Our ethical deliberations need in addition to distinguish between an alien civilization that might be (a) hostile to us; (b) neutrally peaceful; or even (c) salvific - that is, helpful to the extent of saving us from our own self-destructive habits. Our initial moral posture should respond appropriately to the initial posture of our alien neighbors.

  Hostile Peaceful Salvific
Inferior   X  
Peer X X  
Superior X X X

Response on the part of us Earthlings to contact with ETI is what we’re now asking about. So, the ethical orientation here will build upon a sense of moral responsibility. As the etymology of the Latin, respondere meaning to answer, suggests, responsibility ethics answers questions raised by our changing situation (Jonsen). Establishing a new relationship with extraterrestrials would prompt many questions. And an ethic of responsibility would seek to spell out just how best for earthlings to respond. Further, the idea of responsibility includes care, care both for the health and welfare of planetary life on earth but also the health and welfare of our new space neighbors. The conditions and imperatives arising from the new situation will suggest forms or frameworks within which to formulate our moral responsibilities.

What about non-intelligent life? What about our response to the discovery of microbial life on Mars or the moons of Saturn? Margaret Race and Richard Randolph have proposed four underlying principles for developing an ethic appropriate to the discovery of non-intelligent life in our universe: (1) cause no harm to Earth, its life, or its diverse ecosystems; (2) respect the extraterrestrial ecosystem and do not substantively or irreparably alter it (or its evolutionary trajectory); (3) follow proper scientific procedures with honesty and integrity during all phases of exploration; and (4) ensure international participation by all interested parties (Race and Randolph, 2002; Race, 2007, p. 495). For the discussion that follows, microbial life will be thought of as non-intelligent life. We will focus here on various forms of life we deem to be intelligent.

Has anybody already thought about responding to alien intelligence? Yes. SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute has already offered a statement: The Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The thrust of SETI’s nine principles is to follow scientific best practices, seek independent confirmation to establish credibility, and announce the discovery only after consultation with international leadership (SETI, 1990; Randolph and Race, 2002). In what follows we will refine what SETI has already done by cutting ETI’s ethical pie into differing moral communities.

Do we have empirical knowledge that ETI exist? No. “No unambiguous signals from extraterrestrial intelligence have been detected” (Dick, 1:317). Yet, the search goes on. As the search goes on, we will assume that someday, sooner or later, contact with alien intelligence will occur. Can we get ethically ready?

 Printer-friendly | Contributed by: Ted Peters

Topic Sets Available

AAAS Report on Stem-Cells

AstroTheology: Religious Reflections on Extraterrestrial Life Forms

Agency: Human, Robotic and Divine
Becoming Human: Brain, Mind, Emergence
Big Bang Cosmology and Theology (GHC)
Cosmic Questions CD-ROM Preview...
Cosmic Questions Interviews

Cosmos and Creator
Creativity, Spirituality and Computing Technologies
CTNS Content Home
Darwin: A Friend to Religion?
Demystifying Information Technology
Divine Action (GHC)
Dreams and Dreaming: Neuroscientific and Religious Visions'
E. Coli at the No Free Lunchroom
Engaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence: An Adventure in Astro-Ethics
Evangelical Atheism: a response to Richard Dawkins
Ecology and Christian Theology
Evolution: What Should We Teach Our Children in Our Schools?
Evolution and Providence
Evolution and Creation Survey
Evolution and Theology (GHC)
Evolution, Creation, and Semiotics

The Expelled Controversy
Faith and Reason: An Introduction
Faith in the Future: Religion, Aging, and Healthcare in the 21st Century

Francisco Ayala on Evolution

From Christian Passions to Scientific Emotions
Genetic Engineering and Food

Genetics and Ethics
Genetic Technologies - the Radical Revision of Human Existence and the Natural World

Genomics, Nanotechnology and Robotics
Getting Mind out of Meat
God and Creation: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on Big Bang Cosmology
God, Humanity and the Cosmos: A Textbook in Science and Religion
God the Spirit - and Natural Science
Historical Examples of the Science and Religion Debate (GHC)
History of Creationism
Intelligent Design Coming Clean

Issues for the Millennium: Cloning and Genetic Technologies
Jean Vanier of L'Arche
Nano-Technology and Nano-ethics
Natural Science and Christian Theology - A Select Bibliography
Neuroscience and the Soul
Outlines of the Science and Religion Debate (GHC)

Perspectives on Evolution

Physics and Theology
Quantum Mechanics and Theology (GHC)
Questions that Shape Our Future
Reductionism (GHC)
Reintroducing Teleology Into Science
Science and Suffering

Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (CTNS/Vatican Series)

Space Exploration and Positive Stewardship

Stem-Cell Debate: Ethical Questions
Stem-Cell Ethics: A Theological Brief

Stem-Cell Questions
Theistic Evolution: A Christian Alternative to Atheism, Creationism, and Intelligent Design...
Theology and Science: Current Issues and Future Directions
Unscientific America: How science illiteracy threatens our future
Will ET End Religion?

Current Stats: topics: >2600, links: >300,000, video: 200 hours.