TJ: Hello. My name is TJ Buttgereit and I’m a student here at Binghamton University. It is September 17, 2015, and I am interviewing the lecturer Dr. Joe Leeson Schatz for the 2015 Astrobiology debates. Joe Leeson Schatz is a lecturer on the English evolutionary studies at Binghamton University, an executive board member for the institute for Critical Animal Studies. we are here today to discuss a topic that was prepared in partnership with NASA Astrobiology program. Resolved: An overriding ethical obligation to protect and preserve extraterrestrial microbial life and ecosystems should be incorporated into international law. Thank you for being here. The first question is what expertise and experience do you have with the topic at hand?
JLS: Through the Institute of Critical Animal Studies, one of the things that I look into is valuing life and figuring out which sort of lives we give value to and that sometimes microbial life, even though it’s foundational to the way life was formed, doesn’t necessarily have intrinsic forms of protection of sentient forms of life. At the same time, I also serve as the director of speech and debate at Binghamton University. For several years, I did research on space exploration policies and the way it would affect future exploration of space and what it would mean for us here on earth as well.
TJ: Could you describe your understanding of microbial life and how you think it plays into the resolution?
JLS: What’s interesting about the resolution is that it’s phrased in terms of an ethical obligation to microbial life. Microbial life would be lives that NASA is currently finding on Earth, the moon, as well as other places, such as Mars, in order to figure out how that would form the building blocks of other forms of life. Versus if there were other forms of life like silicon life, but I think this resolution excludes silicon life or alien species outside of the microbial sect. So I think the resolution is trying to debate what we think it means for when we discover microbial life on another planet--whether we should be harvesting them on another planet or whether we should be respecting of their own intrinsic worth.
TJ: So, I think, going back to what you just said about intrinsic worth, how do you see an ethical orientation to microbial life as being? What would an ethical obligation look like for you?
JLS: An ethical obligation towards microbial life for me would be when we encounter organisms in elements of water or as we explore with other forms of technology and discover it is that we should respect it in its own right and not look at it as a tool that we can then utilize for our own gain. And so when we try to figure out what science we want to develop from our discoveries in space, when we conduct science, we don’t have just human interests alone. We also focus on what we mean for those microbial organisms and what it means for other organisms that may or may not exist.
TJ: In the large scope of things, do you think it is important to have these ethical oriented laws regarding ethical obligations to microbial organisms and why do you think it is important?
JLs: The reason why I think there should be an ethical orientation is that when we encounter other forms of life, when we haven’t considered the value of that other form of life, we’ve been willing to destroy it without a second thought. So I think examining times of colonialism where western expansion would encounter other forms of life that they didn’t consider as being of value would allow for indiscriminate killing and enslavement. And we see the same thing in the way that animals are treated is that once we deem individuals as without value, we’re willing to exterminate them. So if we encounter microbial organisms on other planets and we think it’s for our own gain, we’ll end up destroying them without ever being able to figure out what they are intrinsically themselves. And the reason why I think that’s important--there’s kind of two--is that in the first instance, a lot of times, if we harvest them for our own gain, we harvest them to the point of extinction and those microbial organisms won’t be around for us to learn future forms of thinking and figuring out how it could serve as evolutionary building blocks to our forms of life or other forms of life. So we lose those future scientific discoveries if we harvest them to extinction. Second, science is constantly expanding what we understand as sentience and what we understand as value and pain that sentient organisms can feel. So I think we should err on the side of caution and not necessarily not do anything with microbial organisms, but making sure that when we do things to take into account the inherent value of microbial organisms in and of themselves.
TJ: And now in terms of the value of these organisms, how do you think that valuing them and having an ethical orientation towards them weighs against the practical inconveniences that can come up, in terms of how exploration is conducted, how do you think that those two weigh? Why would you think an ethical orientation would be more important than being able to explore in certain circumstances?
JLS: That’s a good question because the counterpoint to this resolution is that microbial life, we shouldn’t have an ethical orientation to it, and instead we should view it utilitarian and do what we want with it. And certainly if we wanted to terraform, it’s much easier to not care about the organisms that are already there and level it for our own needs and gains and be able to harvest it, so there’s a lot of reasons as to why if there wasn’t that ethical obligation, we’d be able to explore quicker and settle other planets quicker. I think the argument against that is that we lose the ability to have future discoveries because we indiscriminately kill as opposed to discovering how these organisms have survived in those climates. I think that one of the keys to actually being able to successfully jump to the rock and be able to set up space colonies means that we also have to understand how life could survive in planets that are not earth. And, so by preserving those organisms, even if we don’t understand how they live currently, by preserving them we’re able to continually make scientific discoveries that make space exploration better in the long run. So, I think that’s a utilitarian answer to the argument that we need to just not have that orientation.
TJ: And another thing I’m curious about, on Earth even, there are millions of organisms that we have yet to discover here, so in the context of exploring other planets and exploring beyond earth, what do you think is the threshold for exploration in finding out whether or not there is life on another planet and determining how we should treat that life that could possibly, but we don’t know if it exists.
JLS: That’s one of the questions why I believe we have to proceed with a cautionary principle and make sure that we do not know if life does or does not exist. We have found hints of life in planets just in our immediate solar system, so the fact is there are infinite possibilities out there. This means there is almost undoubtedly the fact that we will encounter other forms of life forms, whether they be fully sentient or microbial, bacterial organisms. These are organisms that do exist that we’ve found semblance of. So we have to figure out what to do when we engage them. So that in the event that we might encounter another sentient extraterrestrial organism, it becomes important to have ethical priors for how we deal with them prior to those forms of encounters. And I think that’s important even if extraterrestrials don’t exist because we still have to pay attention to those small microbial organisms that do instead of drawing a line over what we should ethically consider.
TJ: In context of the resolution of the exploration, you mentioned terraforming before. Obviously there are a lot of advantages to terraforming--you mentioned getting “off the rock”--and so do you believe that getting off the rock, if find that we need to do it the near future and can do it at the expense of microbial organisms, you would believe that we shouldn’t do that in preserving those microbial organisms?
JLS: Yes. I think that our desire to be able to leave our planet Earth and find another planet , I think that in some sense, there are some disasters that for the human species to exist to the end of time, it would be necessary to get off planet Earth at some point. I don’t think there’s an impending danger that we would need to start space exploration rapidly. So, I don’t think that the desire to colonize space should come at the expense of existing organisms. I think there’s a better symbiotic relationship we can have where we can explore space, settle other planets, but in that process of settling, not turn it into another process of colonialism, but have it be truly symbiotic. We have the ethical orientation that allows us to be able to take those organisms as valuable in their own right and again that doesn’t mean that we can’t do things with those organisms, but if we do things with those organisms, we’re also considering that organism’s own value in and of itself, just as we consider our own value in and of itself. Just as we consider our own worth, by doing that, it creates a more concrete solution to our ability to leave the rock sooner because it would mean we have an understanding of how life exists.
TJ: So you believe there’s a practical benefit to having an ethical orientation rather than just an ethical or moral one in that it can actually help us explore better because we have this understanding?
JLS: Certainly, I think that one of the things that prevents certain individuals from being able to colonize other planets is the belief that life only exists under the conditions that it does on earth and if we were able to look at other organisms and how they’re existing in other situations just as we’ve looked at organisms on earth underwater and other places, we can figure out how life can function differently. Through those scientific discoveries, we’re better suited to be able to explore space. And I think that’s an independent reason from the desire to always try and include an increased lense of ethical compassion instead of being more restricted in what we say we should consider. So, I think there are two distinct arguments, both are valuable in their own right.
TJ: And, in closing, I think you made it clear what side of the resolution you’re on. would you give a brief summary of what you think is the most important issue when you approach this question in terms of what you think the resolution should be on when you approach this question?
JLS: First, the debaters in this resolution should be focused on what it means to have an ethical orientation. What is ethical? Utilitarianism is a form of ethics, so I think affirmative teams should be able to say we should have a utilitarian relationship with microbial organisms and still affirm the resolution. I think other teams, or people like myself, come across the term ethical as having intrinsic deontological value and so that way, there’s a value in preserving the individual organisms for their own intrinsic worth as opposed to a utilitarian reason, even though I believe there are utilitarian reasons for why you should have an ethical orientation as well. I think the second major issue debaters should be focused on is what is microbial life? Does microbial life only mean individual microbes and bacteria or could it also mean larger forms of life that have yet to be discovered. That’s an area that has yet to be explored, but I also think that if microbial life only ends up being about things like bacteria and microbes, then it becomes harder for the affirmative to defend ethical orientation as deontological, because there’s yet to be sentience established in microbial organisms. But, certainly, there is a host of literature that would defend that position as well. Those are the two major questions of the debate. The debate does not question whether we should be exploring space or whether we should be doing these discoveries, but it seems to be more what orientation should we take as we do this space exploration and I think it’s trying to get at the heart of the relationship of what we see human’s role in the greater universe and post terrestrial organisms.
TJ: Thank you, Joe, I appreciate you doing this.