TT: Hello, my name is Taylor Tate and today we are going to be talking David Kaspar, he is an Assistant
Professor at St. John’s University and he specializes in ethics. His recent book is called Intuitionism. It’s very nice to have you here today.
DK: I’m happy to be here
TT: How would the discovery of finding life beyond Earth affect the study of ethics?
DK: Well, there’s one way in which it wouldn’t affect the study of ethics in that as ethicists we’re trying to find out what is right and wrong regardless of the situation. So we don’t want to find out just what is right, what is moral in America but also in the whole of the Earth and anywhere in the Universe. So if we believe, and we do believe and we have good reason for believing that murder is wrong, for example, that would be something that wouldn’t just apply to encountering humans on Earth but any rational being. But there’s another respect in which it would change and definitely could change ethics and how we view moral issues but that would depend upon what kind of beings we encounter. So, if we encounter beings that are microbial and benign it probably wouldn’t have a big affect in terms of us rethinking our moral views, but if we found a kind of microbe that could make us live 100 years more, that would definitely change the way we see ourselves as human beings and change our moral responsibilities to other people in very interesting ways that we right now couldn’t predict. A lot would depend on what kind of beings they are and if the beings we encounter were dangerous to us. The larger concern would be how to protect ourselves from them. The big sense, morality is really responsive to what situations we encounter. We would have to find that what the situation we’re encountering before we could really say anything definitive.
TT: Is international law an appropriate way to establish an ethical obligation?
DK: Well, it is generally believed that we have a duty to obey the law, especially when there is legitimate government that is establishing the law. With the issue with international law is that it’s a little trickier because for centuries there has been a number of questions about if international law really a law. So, a 19th century philosopher named John Austin raised some issues regarding international law because in a legal system there is a group that is habitually obeyed. In America we would say that is the government, state, federal. But on Earth there is no group of people that is habitually obeyed. So there is a big question about whether there’s international law. So we do sign agreements with other countries, there are international courts; the UN does sanction countries that do things that are wrong. But I think recent history has shown that international law isn’t as effective as many people would like it to be. So the question, do we have to obey international law, for there to be a law, there does seem to be a requirement that there is some kind of enforcement of the law. And we really don’t have that in an established way in international law. So on the issue of microbes, which was the discussion earlier, it would all depend upon who is doing the exploration. If the United States is the furthest out in space in 20, 50, 100 years, to make sure that we treat whatever life forms we encounter morally, all you would have to do is pass American law. It would be of course different if other countries are also doing exploration. At that time I think it would make more sense to talk about it and have agreements about that. But one thing we should note is that, if you look at current events, countries that are, that even the international community is against, continue to do things that are against international law without being punished or changing their behavior. So the question would be if somebody did something wrong to life on another planet, millions of miles away, if we can’t enforce international law here, how effective would it be to have international law on that planet?
TT: Before you said that we should, philosophers should, come together and sort of discuss how we should conduct ourselves in the event that we do find life beyond Earth.
TT: What is the point of the philosophers coming to agreement about morality if we can’t enforce it?
DK: Well, morality is in some sense prior to law. I would say it is prior to law in terms of our knowledge and, well, I it’s questionable whether it is prior to law historically, but we can look at our country’s history where people made a moral case against particular laws we had, and we then adjusted our law according to the morality. So the biggest example in our history would be the issue of slavery. People thought it was morally wrong, but the laws supported the institution, but eventually law caught up with morality so to speak. So I think the more we would know about what kind of beings we encounter, then ethicists would have more to go on to decide how we should treat them. One issue that is quite pertinent to this here on Earth is moral status concerning animals, concerning other beings on the earth. And there are environmental questions about how we should treat forests. The issue of moral status the way it is normally discussed is human beings. So we say humans have full moral status. With dolphins, for example, very intelligent animals, we say, well, they are enough like us in terms of their cognitive functioning, they have very high cognitive functioning, we say well they have some kind of moral standing close to humans. Well, not that close, but close enough to say it would be different to kill a dolphin than to step on a bug. So the same kind of issue of moral status could be extended to whatever we encounter on another planet.
TT: How important are ethical concerns when considering life beyond Earth?
DK: Well, the way I see ethics, ethical concerns are with us in whatever we do. And issues of how to treat other people, how to treat them in the right way, treating people with respect, is a big issue in ethics. But also, there is another issue that has been with us since Aristotle first wrote the Nicomachean Ethics, since Plato too, and that is how to do what is in our own best interest, how to live the best life possible. So, those kinds of questions would certainly be with us if we went and found life on another planet. And there would be nothing particularly special about life on another planet that would change that, so I would say it would be very important.
TT: So basically would we be focusing on how we would have a good life over how we should treat the life beyond Earth?
DK: Well that I think is one of the toughest questions in ethics because we can talk about a number of moral issues and even be quite confident that we would know what would be “right” in a situation. The biggest challenge for ethics is how do you deal with situations where something that may not be morally right comes across what you think is in your best interest. This is the problem that people face. There could be a temptation to, for example, if we find some life form and it is an intelligent life form but they were less powerful than us, there might be some temptation to use them in such a way that would be, say, exploitative. The temptation would come because if it was in our own best interest to use them in a way that wasn’t particularly in their best interest. This challenge I think is a big challenge in the discussion of ethics, but I think it is perhaps the biggest challenge that everyone faces in terms of morality. Most people would say “I am against taking bribes from a public official”, but when someone believes it looks like I will not be caught doing this and I could make a lot of money by doing it, that’s when it becomes a big issue. Likewise, this would go for our encounters with other beings, other animals on Earth, and life forms on other planets.
TT: Thank you Dr. Kaspar for your time here today.
DK: Thank you for having me.
TT: And thank you for watching this video as a part of the NASA Astrobiology Debates.