Hello, my name is Bailey Fischer-Columbo and I am a student at The George Washington University. Today is August 26, 2020 and I am interviewing Professor Henning from Gonzaga University. for the 2015 NASA Astrobiology debates. The topic we will be discussing resolved, an overriding ethical obligation to protect and preserve extraterrestrial microbial life and ecosystems should be incorporated into international law. Thank you Professor Henning for participating in this debate series and taking the time to do this interview today. How are you?
Could you introduce your personal and professional background as it relates to this topic?
I am a professor of philosophy and environmental studies at Gonzaga where I teach environmental ethics and ethics in climate change. the former would address if all living things would have moral standings.
Given your ethical background what arguments and questions do you foresee in this debate series?
Some of the key terms in the resolution have to do with moral standing, what does something have to be to be given moral consideration for its own sake. And then overriding will also be a key term whether or not if it has standing and if it has overriding concern. I would hope students will also discuss what we hope to accomplish by going out into te universe more broadly, the overall justification for our exploration.
In your opinion, what constitutes a moral standing?
In my own personal work as a philosopher I would argue everything deserves some moral consideration for its own sake, so I probably have the most expansive definition of intrinsic value. so i would even say that non living things deserve consideration. Then the question becomes the weighing and deciding whether one is justified in doing what he wants becomes the question. But for me, I would say the moral standing question is fairly easy. I would say all living things have moral standing bc they have intrinsic value, even non living things has intrinsic value
Is that practical?
When i think about this issue I put it into three different sets of things in how we interact on our own planet, and often times not successfully. First has to do with human experimentation and animal experimentation. For years it has been pretty horrendous things to humans and to animals in our experimentations bc we wanted to learn things and we decided over time we have to have ethical limitations and it isn’t just good to be curious you cannot torture and abuse humans or non human animals just for the sake of wanting to know. So we have developed a process for research w humans and we have developed protocol for testing wit animals. ANd we have only done this after having done some horrendous things so I imagine something similar could happen if we went out in the universe. Then decades from now we’ll realize oh shoot, we shouldn’t have spread those organisms why didn’t we learn that lesson earlier. That is the first context, learning from our own past to do a better thing this time.
The second is to do with our unfortunate past wit colonialism & you could imagine the explorers in europe who explored the unknown parts of our planet went out and wanted to know what was out but caused a lot of death and destruction breeding pathogens and establishing colonies that were really for appropriating resources. They destroyed not only indigenous cultures but also all sorts of other plants. And so I think we are very likely to repeat that unfortunately, and colonial history in this context will colonize the rest of our solar system & other parts of our of our galaxy if we are not careful so we should avoid having the approach of the conquering colonizer
And finally, we have an unfortunate history with domination of nature in our own planet and so we have used and abused it for whatever sort of economic needs we think we have so I guess I am concerned that we not repeat that history as we move into the rest of the universe not really have learned the lesson we need to and respect non human parts of the world. So is it practical? I think so. I think it is practical to have critical connotations on how we do research and how we go about setting up colonies and how we interact with non human no animal parts of nature.
What I am hearing is there should be a moral obligation in space
Yeah I do.
Who do you think should determine and write these laws? Should it be a by-country basis or should an organization do it?
I am not an expert on int’l law and so I am less able to speak more particularly about that but it would probably make sense if the world would come together and recognize that tre should be ethical limitations, or realize that we want to engage with the rest of our solar system and galaxy on an ethical basis and we want to be ethical explorers not a virus invading. Then we should want to develop whatever legal means would be necessary and i would expect it would be codified in intl but even those laws are toothless so we would really want to develop measures that we would come to an understanding, most of the international community decided cloning of humans is not something we want to do. There are laws but it also sort of we agreed we do not want to do it so it would be that sort of thing I imagine.
Seeing that it would be difficult to assign moral obligation to all objects and still explore the planets how do you propose that exploration is still an option but keeping morality in it?
I hope that it is a matter of exploration and not looking for resources. So I am really not clear whether or not we are talking about looking for resources on other planets or whether we are looking at sound scientific investigation and tos two are muddled together frequently. Lots of good models on this planet on how to do research that is not destructive of your obj of inquiry. One difference for example let’s say you are interested in chimpanzees. Many people still think it is appropriate to move chimps out of the wild or to breed them in captivity and old them to small cages and to perform certain experiments on them. I would have the opinion the better way to learn about chimps is to be out in the wild in their actual enviro and actually end up preserving those environments and preserving them in order to study. So the difference between behavioristic psychology vs. ethnographic approach when you are actually in the wild. SOrt of the Jane Goodall v. Skynard approach. I think we can do the same thing. so it is not an explore or don’t it is saying that we want to be joining the wider solar community as partners and not as conquerors and not as arrogant scientists but wanting to learn without leaving destruction.
Earlier you mentioned that you hoe debaters also focus on a bigger picture and what we want to accomplish with exploration. Do you have any ideas to what, as NASA and other orgs are exploring what they should keep in mind? What should be sccmplinsed
We have a history unfortunately not separating the difference between what we could and should do. Techn if we can do it with usually will do it and i would like us to evaluate yes we can but should we. SHould questions are answered by bigger values so if they are actually trying to satisfy intellectual curiosity i think that is a worthy goal but i think frequently we talk about our needs and reminds me of my daughters they will say, I want this i don’t actually need this. So frequently we want things it is not clear to me that we can justify putting out wants other thing’s actual needs. so those other things that exist they may not continue to exist to satisfy our needs. So i hop we would focus on actually trying to satisfy intellectual curiosity rather than setting about goals to mining other est of the solar system for some wealthy individuals trying to figure out how to lasso things going through the solar system and other things to mine them. It sounds crazy the idea, we are already applying our human mentality to the solar system. Like hey, why not. We can use this as a place to dump our trash and mine it for other things. it makes sense because is hot we have treated the rest of the planet. I hope we can go out and approach our research in a non invasive non constructive but still learning about planets and solar systems.
Should a human need ever intersect something found extraterrestrial life, would the human need ever take precedence. As a cliche example, should a cure to a disease do we have a right to use it at our disposal?
it depends on the disease and how people are affected. Frequently we end up with dichotomies that are created as 0-sum game when in fact we are lacking the mora ledge and we should invest in the solution to satisfy our interests and the other interests involved. So the debate tends to encourage that sort of 0-sum thinking so i guess i would say i’m avoiding trying to be pushed into that box. i think that is it unlikely there will be scenarios there will be serious overriding need to justify the destruction of other microbial life. one way of putting it is philosopher Hilrost(sp) from Colorado states we need to have a justification for killing other organisms then we need to have a super justification for the super killing of a species. A species is not just an individual species but a kind of life, what we are talking about potentially. Killing those would justify more than just a justification than killing individuals, killing of a kind of species would require an even higher justification. If such a justification existed maybe, maybe so I suspect what we would do is create artificial conflicts to justify what we would really want to do anyways. SAy, well we are humans we are smarter, and therefore these are just microbial things so we are justified in doing it bc we are more complex and that logic is problematic because we do not use that logic even within the human community. we do not say smart individuals deserve more respect and less smart individuals or stronger individuals. We use that logic to justify our actions we do some morally horrendous things.
is there a moral obligation to future generations to protect microbial life?
Obligations to future generations is a fascinating set of literature and you get into the arguments and debates. There are arguments on curing the generational problems. He notes a number of flaws our notions of obligations kind of fall apart talking about future individuals. Future individuals do not exist today. not only that interestingly whatever we decide today will determine who comes into existence in the future. so it is kind of a weird point: if i choose to do things that destroy the environment and we end up with a future that is awful there is a set of people in that future that are living in an unfortunate future. let's say that is future A, environmental destruction. Let's say there is another possibility, in the present we do senseful enviro things and so we have a much healthier environment and so future individuals, B, would actually have a clean environment. Notice that there would not be any overlap between individuals A and B they are two different futures. the decisions we make today determine the individuals that will be born in the future. So while we can affect what the enviro will be like we cannot claim to help/hurt future individuals because what we do today will determine who comes into existence. Another way, those individuals in a bad future, A, cannot complain because if we had done something different they would exist. B,a separate group of people, would xist. They would not claim we harmed them by bringing them into existence. I think what i t points to is we have a narrow notion of individuality and responsibility. Some talk about about oblig not to future indivi but an obli to leave the best set of possible potential options for whatever future indiv exist,and that I would be more comfortable with. More directly, we have an obligation to leave future individuals both human and nonhuman with the best st of possible futures that we can so we limit and avoid limiting the futures as much as possible. Leaving the richest set of options for future humans and nonhumans
Do you think that if moral obligations should be included into space law, that would affect how earth operates?
I do wish that we could figure out how to develop an appropriate ethic for dealing with humans and nonhumans/plants, etc And if we could have that widely ingrained within humans going out into the universe that would certainly be nice. If we really had an adequate ethical [reception of ourselves and our place in the world then when we went out in the universe we would end up doing less harm. We need to move from being the conquerer of biotic comm to being playing member/citizens. that is the mental shift: to see ourselves as part of nature but not above or outside of it. Having that about all of our interactions would make us naturally do things. It would not necessarily need to be a separate thing, but an extension of hopefully tee ethic we already have/had for interacting on Earth. Unfortunately, that is no where we are and that is why we have climate problems and the beginning stages of mass extinction and w have climate change and all sorts of problems we have created. So there is every reason extending the logic we use: we would re create those problems in the solar system.
Do you think one side of this debate has a stronger side?
I find it a balanced resolution in general adding the would overriding. I think that is where a lot of discussion will take place. I hope it does not mean absolute. Adding overriding balances the resolution . i am convinced with the affirmative myself but it is balanced. On the other side you have arguments with economics and dominant
You mentioned the term ‘overriding’ how would you go about defining this?
I begin to repeat an earlier thought. I think the first obligation would be to recognize what sorts of things deserve moral considerations to recognize in this case microbial life and the ecosystems they are a part and deserve moral consideration. Then overriding question would include weighing of competing claims and interests. I think that it is important to not have artificial dilemmas created where you say ‘obviously it is iter i get to experiment or we leave them alone’ and it creates this false dichotomy. Either Sagan have a quarantine or we do what we want, that is a pretty awful false dilemma. So there is a huge diversity of positions. I would saw the overriding part we should only do so if we can't really say there is no other way of achieving an important, even critical, needs before destroying microbial life. I think we should be creative in figuring out ways to study and engage these things. Overriding there would mean destroying those microbial forms of life requingin high justification. Studying does not require destruction. You should definitely study. I would not be for quarantine. For ex, but I do think when we interact with non human things on this planet should be if at all possible we should create ways of doing so that are not destructive.
Just that in closing, one of the exciting part of astrobiology and astro ethics is that it helps us to really complete the process that began with darwin when we realized we are a part of a and a product of processes on this planet and in the universe. it helps us see we are part of a bigger world and hopefully gives us the opportunity to then help move away from anthropocentrism and human centered universe and transition us to seeing ourselves as a part of this rather solar galactic community in a way that does not, remember agent smith from matrix, we are hopeful we are not a virus spreading into the rest of the solar system. hopefully we can find a way to be in harmony with our galactic world.