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Hostile? Peaceful? Salvific?

Watch out! Look to the heavens for a possible invasion! This is the message to Earth delivered in the spring of 2010 by physicist Stephen Hawking in a Discovery Channel documentary. Some extraterrestrials are likely to be intelligent and perhaps even more evolutionarily advanced than Earth’s homo sapiens, said the UK scientist. Hawking warned that contact with such a species could be devastating for humanity. If alien intelligences are like us, we can expect them to raid, exploit, or even conquer our planet. “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.” He concluded that trying to make contact with alien races is “a little too risky...If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans” (Hasking). Given the human precedent, spacelings like us might bring to Earth war and genocide.

Hawking’s speculations give us pause. Perhaps some alien intelligences will be hostile. Before proceeding to ethical analysis of our third slice--superior ETI--we might wish to cut our three slices into smaller pieces. Perhaps we can leave the first slice, inferior ETI, without division; because we’ll assume that Earth’s technological and military power will suffice to render such ETI pacific. What about the other two slices? I suggest we divide peer ETIs into two subcategories: hostile and peaceful. And I suggest we divide the superior ETIs into three subcategories: hostile, peaceful, and salvific. Once we have discerned that ETI are our equals or our superiors in technology and perhaps in intelligence, we will need to ask whether or not they pose a threat to earth’s security and wellbeing. How we answer this question may map and partially guide the moral direction we take.

If Hawking is right--that we homo sapiens are capable of war and genocide among ourselves--then what can we expect when we meet aliens who are like us in this respect? What have we learned from our own experience with ourselves? We have learned that anxiety associated with insecurity leads us homo sapiens to strike out with violence (Peters, 1994). We can safely forecast that we on earth will find ourselves uneasy, on the verge of violence, until we can be assured that the ETI we contact mean us no harm. Whether the high minded among us find it moral or not, the reality is that no rational discourse about ethics can take place when our anxiety is high and security is low. To determine whether ETI are a threat or not will inescapably become our first priority.

In the event that the ETI in question are in fact hostile, then we will find ourselves working within an ethical framework that includes both the imputation of dignity mentioned above and our pressing need to protect our planet from alien exploitation or damage. We know from experience that whenever we are confronted with a hostile enemy from without, we find ourselves within our society compromising human dignity. Our political leaders try to persuade our society that our targeted enemies should be reduced to “inhuman” if not demonic status. This justifies going to war. What this indicates is that the social psychology of self-defense pits human dignity against the mustering of military support. Security trumps dignity. If threatened by alien hostility, we can forecast that military rhetoric will attempt an equivalent of dehumanizing and, hence, de-dignifying the ETI enemy. A nation’s leaders simply cannot embrace Jesus’ peace ethic of loving our enemies combined with turning the other cheek (Matthew 5-7). So, as difficult as it may sound, we will need an ethic that affirms the dignity of ETI while rallying our earth allies in planetary defense. We might need to adapt for peer ETI the Race and Randolph principle, “cause no harm to Earth, its life, or its diverse ecosystems,” within a tense relationship to the wider ethical principle of imputing dignity to our extraterrestrial peers.

In the event that peer ETI prove to be neutrally peaceful or even benevolent, then the principles giving expression to Enlightenment values should prevail without challenge: equality, liberty, dignity, and mutuality. We on Earth will establish just institutions through which we can express care for the other, for the alien.

 Printer-friendly | Contributed by: Ted Peters

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