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The Inferior ETI Slice

If the alien intelligence we Earthlings find ourselves engaging with is substantially inferior to ours, then we must ask: how should we morally respond? One obvious analogy leads us to ask: how do we on Earth treat our intelligent neighbors whom we similarly designate as lower on the intelligence scale? I’m talking about our animals.

On the one hand, animals are edible and dispensable. Animals can be sacrificed in medical research to develop therapies that will benefit only human persons. Animals are less than human, we assume. On the other hand, we human beings have a sense of responsibility toward the welfare of animals. We respect them as intelligent being. And we are concerned about preventing suffering to animals. In some instances, we exert considerable energy and effort to preserve their species from extinction and to insure the health of individual animals. In the case of pets, we love them to a degree that rivals loving our own family. In sum, we have inherited a double relationship to our inferiors already here on earth. By analogy, what might we expect when we engage ETI who remind us of our animals?

Important for our application to the upcoming ETI question is what we have assumed to be our ethical criterion for rendering moral policy. Is the animal rational in the same sense that we homo sapiens are rational? No, says the tradition beginning with Aristotle. The human is the distinctively rational animal. The separation of humanity from the animal world due to a separation on the scale of rational intelligence justifies an ethic whereby the superior human exploits the inferior animal. “Irrational animals are natural slaves, and no positive human moral or political categories can govern humankind’s relations with them” (Fellenz, 1:75). Yet, we might ask: is rational intelligence the only ethical criterion? No, say some moralists. Feeling counts too. We rational humans have a moral responsibility to care for less intelligent sentient beings. By extension, our moral commitment to protect humans from suffering should be applied to animals. How an animal feels is morally significant. “Animal welfare is most crucially a matter of the animal’s subjective experience - how the animal feels, whether it is in pain or suffering in any way” (Rollin, 1:82).

With this double sided experience of relating to animals on Earth in mind, our first ethical question in the case of engagement with inferior ETI would be: by which criterion do we orient our ethics? Should we justify the exploitation of ETI on the grounds of its lower intelligence? Or should our responsibility for the welfare of ETI take precedence? Now, we could ask the question another way. Which of these two habits should we set as our moral standard: exploitation of ETI for our own use? Or protection of ETI from suffering? More than likely, all of these alternatives would inform the policies we develop.

Even if we earthlings commit ourselves to caring for the alien as other, we would not impute dignity to ETI whose level of rational advance falls significantly short or ours. We very well might show them respect along with care, to be sure. If motivated by faith, we might view ETI as creatures precious in the eyes of God. If we look at inferior ETI through economic glasses, more than likely we would exploit lesser intelligent ETI for increased terrestrial prosperity. We might work out terms of exchange, or, more likely, simply set up an infrastructure for ongoing exploitation. Would we exploit with moral abandon? Or, would we exploit only to the limit set at the point of detriment to the welfare of the ETI themselves?

All this presses on the matter of our moral responsibility. In terms of our responsibility, I believe we should take the initiative to extend concern for the welfare of such ETI on the model of our current concern for the subjective quality of animal experience. We should do what we are able to protect ETI from suffering and enhance their experience of wellbeing. This trumps exploitation, though it would not entirely exclude it.

 Printer-friendly | Contributed by: Ted Peters

Go to Genetics Topic Index

The Inferior ETI Slice

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