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Cutting the Ethical Pie for Engaging ETI: An Adventure in Astro-Ethics

by Ted Peters

Through the eyes of the Kepler Space Telescope, planet hunters have just spotted two Saturn-like transits orbiting a single star. Might they have an Earth-sized companion? In addition, a possible litter of seven planets has been detected orbiting a sun-like star, HD 10180, only 127 light-years away (Grossman). The day of contact with extraterrestrial intelligent life (ETI) may be tomorrow.

What shall we do when we meet them? How shall we respond to contact with intelligent beings inhabiting exoplanets? What shall we say when extraterrestrials ask us questions? How shall we treat intelligent beings from another world? Despite all the Sci-Fi movies we’ve seen, and despite what UFO aficionados tell us, we Earthlings just may not be ready to engage ETI.

Thinking ahead about our response to contact with ETI I call Astro-Ethics (or Astro-Bioethics). An ethicist theorizes about moral behavior. Ethics is defined by the late Paul Ricoeur as thinking about “living well with and for others in just institutions” (Ricoeur, 330).” I put “astro” in front of “ethics” so we can speculate about how to live well with alien neighbors in just institutions.

ETI might be really other to us. They may be so different that at first contact we might have to work hard just to discern whether they’re living and whether they’re intelligent.In order to prepare for life forms that might be very "other," scientists at a new interdisciplinary research institute in Austria are working to uncover how life might evolve with "exotic"... Or, maybe not. Maybe the laws of physics and laws of evolutionary biology are such that alien intelligent beings--though the result of a 2nd genesis somewhere else in space--resemble us enough that we can bridge the gap of otherness. Let us work temporarily with this assumption: ETI, though other, still take a form that reasonably resembles homo sapiens on Earth.

With this first assumption in mind, let’s consider the alien community as a moral community - that is, as a community with whom our relations can be understood in ethical terms. What are the possibilities? I see three. One or more of the three following are possible: we might engage (1) inferior aliens: extraterrestrial biotic individuals who are inferior to us (less evolved); (2) peer aliens: residents of an exoplanet who may have followed a similar path in evolutionary development and whose level of intelligence is comparable to our own; or (3) superior aliens: perhaps having evolved over a longer period of time, higher in intelligence, more advanced in science and technology, and better than we are in many identifiable respects. Here is how we cut the ethical pie for engaging ETI.

Our second assumption will be this: when it comes to the criterion by which we measure inferior, peer, and superior, it will be rational intelligence. Why? Because most commentators on human enhancement who weigh in on the future of humanity believe intelligence to rank among the highest of human values (Harris, 2). Further, astrobiologists hypothesize that evolutionary history has a built in entelechy that leads toward increased intelligence over time (NASA). Cyber dynamo Ray Kurzweil provides an example of the prevalent evaluation of evolved intelligence: “The purpose of the universe reflects the same purpose as our lives: to move toward greater intelligence and knowledge” (Kurzweil, 372). Has this assumption been proven? No. Cornell exobiologist Carl Sagan recognizes that this belief structure is based on speculation rather than sufficient empirical evidence to deem it scientific. “I would guess that the Universe is filled with beings far more intelligent, far more advanced than we are. But, of course, I might be wrong. Such a conclusion is at best based on a plausibility argument, derived from the numbers of planets, the ubiquity of organic matter, the immense timescales available for evolution, and so on. It is not a scientific demonstration” (Sagan, 1994, 33). Still, despite its lack of scientific status, space scientists largely assume that biological evolution over time leads to increased intelligence. This belief that the evolution of life is aimed toward enhancing rational intelligence is rife among astrobiologists; and intelligence provides the criterion for measuring evolutionary advance. Of course, one could imagine a different criterion. For example, one could imagine a criterion such as altruistic love. We would then rank terrestrial as well as extraterrestrial civilizations according to their lovingness. But, alas, no one I can find in this discussion appeals to anything other than intelligence. So, intelligence is what we’ll speculate on here.

Now, cutting the pie into thirds - inferior, peer, and superior--is not quite enough. Our ethical deliberations need in addition to distinguish between an alien civilization that might be (a) hostile to us; (b) neutrally peaceful; or even (c) salvific - that is, helpful to the extent of saving us from our own self-destructive habits. Our initial moral posture should respond appropriately to the initial posture of our alien neighbors.

  Hostile Peaceful Salvific
Inferior   X  
Peer X X  
Superior X X X

Response on the part of us Earthlings to contact with ETI is what we’re now asking about. So, the ethical orientation here will build upon a sense of moral responsibility. As the etymology of the Latin, respondere meaning to answer, suggests, responsibility ethics answers questions raised by our changing situation (Jonsen). Establishing a new relationship with extraterrestrials would prompt many questions. And an ethic of responsibility would seek to spell out just how best for earthlings to respond. Further, the idea of responsibility includes care, care both for the health and welfare of planetary life on earth but also the health and welfare of our new space neighbors. The conditions and imperatives arising from the new situation will suggest forms or frameworks within which to formulate our moral responsibilities.

What about non-intelligent life? What about our response to the discovery of microbial life on Mars or the moons of Saturn? Margaret Race and Richard Randolph have proposed four underlying principles for developing an ethic appropriate to the discovery of non-intelligent life in our universe: (1) cause no harm to Earth, its life, or its diverse ecosystems; (2) respect the extraterrestrial ecosystem and do not substantively or irreparably alter it (or its evolutionary trajectory); (3) follow proper scientific procedures with honesty and integrity during all phases of exploration; and (4) ensure international participation by all interested parties (Race and Randolph, 2002; Race, 2007, p. 495). For the discussion that follows, microbial life will be thought of as non-intelligent life. We will focus here on various forms of life we deem to be intelligent.

Has anybody already thought about responding to alien intelligence? Yes. SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute has already offered a statement: The Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The thrust of SETI’s nine principles is to follow scientific best practices, seek independent confirmation to establish credibility, and announce the discovery only after consultation with international leadership (SETI, 1990; Randolph and Race, 2002). In what follows we will refine what SETI has already done by cutting ETI’s ethical pie into differing moral communities.

Do we have empirical knowledge that ETI exist? No. “No unambiguous signals from extraterrestrial intelligence have been detected” (Dick, 1:317). Yet, the search goes on. As the search goes on, we will assume that someday, sooner or later, contact with alien intelligence will occur. Can we get ethically ready?

 Printer-friendly | Contributed by: Ted Peters

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Cutting the Ethical Pie for Engaging ETI: An Adventure in Astro-Ethics

The Inferior ETI Slice
The Peer ETI Slice
Hostile? Peaceful? Salvific?
The Superior ETI Slice


Ted Peters
Dr. Ted Peters

See also:

AstroTheology: Religious Reflections on Extraterrestrial Life Forms
Will ET End Religion?
Are We Alone?
The Relation of Science & Religion