JB: Hello, my name is Jessi Barnett and I am a senior Sociology student here at St. John’s. I’m joined here today by Dr. Marie George, who is a professor of Philosophy here at St. John’s. Thank you for joining us here today.
MG: Thank you Jessi, I appreciate the invitation.
JB: In your opinion, what is the purpose of ethics?
MG: I think the purpose of ethics is so that we can be happy. There are a lot of different views about the nature of ethics, but I think as rational begins we have certain ends that we naturally pursue. For example, we want to be alive and healthy and we want to have good relationships with other human beings, and we pursue knowledge as we can see from the conversation we’re having. So I think that what ethics does, is it helps us, as humans, clarify the goals we should be aiming at and then helps us determine the means by which we can achieve these different goals.
JB: So, how then, do we accomplish that goal or that journey when encountering alien life? Do you think that it would require a standard of ethics that is situational depending upon the type of alien life that is encountered, or should it be more of a constant standard of ethics?
MG: Yeah, I think that it does depend on the level of life that we encounter. If we encounter other rational beings, they’re persons like we are. Therefore, the same kinds of human rights we would attribute to ourselves we would have to attribute to these other rational beings who have their own life projects, and we shouldn’t be interfering with them. When it comes to non-rational beings, I think that the case is different. I think that the situation is very complex; there are a lot of different ethical views on it. I personally take the view that non-rational beings don’t have a right to life. Also though, I don’t think it’s right for us to needlessly destroy them. Which I know sounds kind of paradoxical, right? They don’t have a right to life but we don’t have the right to harm them? But think about it. I’m very wealthy and you’re a poor person. Do you have a right to my excess money? I don’t think so. But wouldn’t you say it would be wrong of me to hoard that money and not give it to people in need. Ok? So I think that there are some ethical choices we make that aren’t based on rights but are based on doing the right thing. And I think that the case of non-rational living things, it isn’t right to needlessly destroy them. And, the rationale that I give goes back to two thinkers. Aristotle being one, so Aristotle in The Parts of Animals, he’s trying to get people to study biology. So people are basically thinking eww worms are icky, mosquitoes are icky right? So Aristotle is trying to convince these people that no, these things are actually beautiful. And what he points to is the fact that if you actually look to the structures they have, the different adaptations they have, how amazingly they achieve their end of surviving and reproducing, that even though to our senses they might not appear to be beautiful, nonetheless, to our minds, if we understand these beings, they are works of art. So just as I think it would be wrong for a human to needlessly destroy a work of human art, so too I think it would be wrong for a human to destroy these beings, which are a work of art. The other thinker, too, who I draw on to justify this position of I don’t think it’s right to needlessly destroy non-rational beings is Thomas Aquinas. Now this argument is kind of abstract, a lot of people don’t really like it, but basically Aquinas says that every being is good. Every being is good, and his rationale is that if every being doesn’t have a certain level of perfection, it can’t stay in existence. It just disintegrates, or it dies if it’s a living thing. So, perhaps not every being has the same level of goodness, in fact that’s what I was saying earlier, I think there is a difference in the goodness that belongs to a human being, a rational being, and the goodness that belongs to a non rational being. But they certainly have goodness, they certainly have being. And to destroy something that has goodness is not fitting for a rational animal. We can see the beauty of these things, we can see the goodness in these things and I think we need to respect it.
So I think that they have rights, but I don’t think that it’s right to needlessly destroy them.
So why is it that situational ethics with regards to alien life is the preferred route? And how might that set the tone, or set the stage for what some would coin as “interglobal politics”?
MG: Well, this is a hotly debated issue. Some of us, myself included, think that there is a difference between a rational being and a non rational being. So, as rational beings, we have life projects. So you’re a Sociology major and I went into Philosophy. Some beings get married and other human beings decide not to. Where as in the case of non-rational beings, they basically have life cycle. They, depending on whether they are a sterile worker in an ant colony or whether they’re the alpha male, their pursuit of a mate is going to be very, very different. But that is determined by nature, it is not determined by free choice and so it seems to me it’s different to be interfere with a non-rational being simply reproducing itself and surviving than it would be with a rational being who has a life project.
JB: How important is it to establish an ethical obligation toward alien life before it is discovered?
MG: I think it is very important because you are less biased. The minute there is something to be gained from a selfish point of view, then this tends to lead to laws that are in some way biased and not entirely just.
JB: So then, in setting those ethical standards, what organizations do you think would be good actors for gathering international, or on a lesser scope, national, consensus on how to deal with alien life and interacting with it?
MG: Truthfully, I’m not that familiar with how international law works. Obviously you’d have to consult scientists. One obvious issue is the issue of contamination. That is treated both in what is called, for short, the Outer Space Treaty, it has a like 15 word long title, which was ratified by I believe over 100 nations. And this was just before Armstrong put his foot on the moon. About three years before, roughly. But then there was a later treaty that is usually referred, familiarly, as the Moon Treaty, and hardly anyone signed on to it. The problem with international law is that countries can sign on to it and then they can sign off of it if they decide they don’t like it. Ultimately even if you had a nation that was a party to the treaty who decided to break that treaty and do something to alien microbes that were contrary to the terms of the treaty, would the other nations that were parties to the treaty really do anything? So I think that’s a big problem with international law, that it really doesn’t have any teeth. But certainly the details of the law would have to be worked out by scientists. If you think about how the Center for Disease Control has certain standards for dealing with infectious diseases, that sort of thing. So, there have to be laws as far as both not contaminating the other planet or the other moon, laws about not contaminating the earth, laws that concern a possible threat to human health from alien microbes, that sort of thing. So I think that obviously the general lines of law certainly any politician can put together but the specifics of those laws pertains to the realm of science, you know, what would really protect an ecosystem from contamination?
JB: How important is philosophy in a field such as space exploration or a scientific study such as dealing with alien microbes?
MG: Obviously ethics is part of philosophy, and there’s a lot of ethical dimensions to space exploration. One interesting dimension that comes up, and I think is kind of an issue as to why a lot nations didn’t want to sign on to the Moon Treaty, although this was already in the Outer Space Treaty, is who does a planet or a moon belong to? Because if you look at both of these treaties, they say that this can’t be the property of anyone and yet usually we think that occupation and use on Earth gives a person a right to property even though that is debated among philosophers. It’s kind of the common thought, like squatters rights, right? You’re on a property no one’s using it, you’re there and you’re using it, it becomes yours after awhile. Then the whole question is, well how are you going to develop outer space if it doesn’t belong to anyone? We know how capitalism works, you know, you want to own something, you want to make a profit. So I think that this is certainly an issue that needs to be revisited and a lot people think that it that it needs to be revised if we ever do come up with a new international treaty. Some people also talk about putting up scientific reservations, and that’s actually, apparently more or less the case in Antarctica, which doesn’t belong to anyone even although a number of nations have claimed it but no one really seems to respect that it belongs to them. But it’s managed by scientists. So I noticed in the Moon Treaty and the Outer Space treaty that there’s a lot of talk about that if you set up a base you should allow other scientists access to that base and so forth. So at any rate, I think the whole question of property rights is really important. Think about this aspect, what if they find rare metals on these planets, or if they find microbes that have amazing health properties, who do they belong to? Again, if you look at these treaties as far as like the samples, if a certain country goes and takes a sample, the treaty specifies that if a certain country goes and they take a sample then the treaty specifies that they should give access to other scientists as far as being able to look at these samples, but they do belong, according to at least one of the treaties, to the nation state that found that particular sample. So I think there are a lot of details that have to be worked out about the whole aspect of property ownership on other moons and other planets.
JB: In your opinion, how do religious institutions such as the Catholic Church, become affected by discoveries of alien life such as microbes?
MG: I think that the main way that the Catholic Church would be affected would be if we discovered rational life forms. That would be very startling, very startling. But again, God is all powerful and certainly, Catholics believe that we are created in the image of God because we have free will and we have intelligence, certainly He can create other beings in the universe that have free will and have intelligence. As far as non-rational life forms, just recently Pope Francis came out with the Encyclical letter, Laudato Si’ which basically talks about what is ethical treatment, I don’t even think it’s just for Christians, I think he addresses it to everyone, what is ethical treatment of non rational life forms on our planet. And one of the things he emphasizes very much in that encyclical, in fact I think there are at least 20 references, is the same thing that Aristotle mentions – the beauty of these beings, that these beings have intrinsic goodness. These beings are not simply instruments for our satisfaction so that we can have a faster or newer iPhone, that sort of thing, but that these things have goodness in and of themselves and therefore needlessly to destroy them is certainly against Catholic thought.
JB: Do you think then that religious figures and authorities, such as Pope Francis, should be heavily regarded or heavily listened to whenever people have to come together to decide what ethics they are going to apply to what alien life?
MG: Well I think that always when you have religious figures, the reason that they are religious figures is because they are coming from a faith tradition that not necessarily everyone accepts. Having said that though, I do think that sometimes certain faith traditions emphasize certain things that you can figure out even if you’re Aristotle, even if you don’t have any religion, and they can call our attention to things that maybe we wouldn’t have thought of but that any human being can recognize. So again, I think that this aspect of beauty that you find in Augustine, you find in Aristotle, you find in a number of thinkers, I think that this is a very important theme which is going to be developed not just from a religious perspective but I think that all human beings can reflect on this and that this really does give us a motivation to protect these kinds of beings. Each religion has certain beliefs about the nature of human beings are placed in the universe and so forth, but I think at the same time that there are a lot of commonalities that are based in our observation of the natural world, how amazing it is, how the natural world is seen as something that for most religious believers that points to God. I don’t think that there’s a single religious tradition that doesn’t see living things as something that are awesome and something that points beyond.
JB: Are contemporary theories or practices of ethics appropriate in the status quo when dealing with alien life?
MG: There are so many! That’s basically what the environmental ethics course that I teach is about, just looking at all the different views. So we’re all arguing with each other which view is the correct view. I can give you a quick rundown of a few of of these views, but to hash them all out, we can’t do that in such a short period of time. Recently, the Swiss have a new law that you have to, when you’re doing research; you have to respect the dignity of a living thing. So, plant physiologists are all kind of in an uproar because you can’t just decide “oh I want to insert this gene into this plant”, you have to show that is isn’t going to violate the dignity of the plant. And then Ecuador recently in its constitution has said that all living things have rights. All living things have rights. So as I was mentioning earlier, there are some philosophers who completely reject the notion of rights. They say that rights is just a type of fiction or they’ll say that rights only belong to certain types of living things, so for example, many of the people who hold an animal welfare position, people like Tom Reagan, will say that a being which is sentient, a being that experience pain and sense the outside world has rights, but a being that isn’t sentient does not have rights. But there are people who will admit there are rights and will attribute them to humans but we prefer to speak in terms of justice. Then there are yet other views, you have Kantian philosophers who speak not in terms of so much justice but more in terms of duty. That’s one of the key concepts Kant had, that certain beings are ends in themselves and others are means. So for Kant, rational beings are ends in themselves and other beings are not. So you have direct duties to rational beings, however, you may have an indirect duty to a non rational being. For example, if you would be upset that I destroyed a patch of flowers, I would have an indirect duty to those flowers not to destroy them. But I have a direct duty to you. So that’s the Kantian view. And then you have views that are called bio-centric views. Actually, when I was preparing for this conversation, there was a dissertation written in 1996 which attempts to apply international environmental law to the question of space exploration. And, the person in question adopts a bio-centric view; a bio-centric view is basically every species is equally valuable to every other species. And the idea that human beings are superior to other species, that is completely false. So you can see that there is a wide diversity from what this person would think and what I think and then you have many other views as well.
JB: So then do you think that international law is an appropriate way to establish an ethical obligation and is even effective?
MG: Again, when you talk about law there are two aspects. Is there some legitimate authority who is going to enforce it, and I think as I mentioned earlier, that is kind of problematic; I don’t think anyone really wants to enforce it. And again, if you have international law because people sign on to treaties, because nations sign on to treaties, they can also sign off. Still, I don’t think that it is useless to have international laws because what I think what people oftentimes forget is that the law is instructive. I see this a lot with my students. It takes me a while sometimes to convince them that sometimes just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it is moral. An obvious example would be slavery. It was legal in the United States, it’s not moral. Ideally though, law would state things which were moral. Law is supposed to be just. In fact, you might say that a law that is not just isn’t really a law. I think that because ideally law should state what is moral, and people look at it that way, that it has instructive value. So I think to an extent some of the things that we’ve been talking about, like the importance of precautions concerning contamination, not only of Earth but also of the ecosystem because of respect for the life forms on that other moon or planet. But these are things that should be put in people’s heads because I think that they do provide broad guidance for their way of thinking, not only about alien life forms but about life forms on Earth.
JB: Well I thank you for joining us today. And thank you for watching this video, which has been a part of the NASA Astrobiology Debate Series.