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ASTROBIOLOGY Volume 12, Number 10, 2012 Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. DOI: 10.1089/ast.2011.


The Moral Status of Extraterrestrial Life

Erik Persson


If we eventually discover extraterrestrial life, do we have any moral obligations for how to treat the life-forms we nd; does it matter whether they are intelligent, sentient, or just microbialand does it matter that they are extraterrestrial? In this paper, I examine these questions by looking at two of the basic questions in moral philosophy: What does it take to be a moral object? and What has value of what kind? I will start with the rst of these questions by looking at the most important attempts to answer this question on our own planet and by asking whether and how they could be applied to extraterrestrial life. The results range from a very strong protection of all extraterrestrial life and all extraterrestrial environments, whether inhabited or not, to total exclusion of extraterrestrial life. Subsequently, I also examine whether extraterrestrial life that lacks moral status can have value to human or alien life with moral status, and if that could generate any obligations for how to treat extraterrestrial life. Based on this analysis, I conclude that extraterrestrial life-forms can have both instrumental value and end value to moral objects, which has strong implications for how to treat them. Key Words: Extraterrestrial ethicsMoral statusAnthropocentrismSentientismBiocentrismEcocentrismInstrumental valueEnd value. Astrobiology 12, 976984.


f we eventually manage to nd extraterrestrial life-forms, do we have any moral obligations for how to treat them; does it matter whether they are intelligent, sentient, or just lifeand does it matter that they are extraterrestrial? The rst question we should approach here is, maybe, why ethics? One might claim that we should stick to science and leave values out of the exploration of space. Inevitably, however, the value questions are there whether we want them or not. Every time we make a decision, we in fact make a value judgment. When we decide to pursue the search for extraterrestrial life, we make a value judgment. When we decide to demand a signicance level of 0.001 instead of 0.05 (or for that matter 0.99) to be convinced that our results are sufciently different from chance, we have made a value judgment. When we decide to build a railway bridge from steel and cement instead of plywood, we have made a value statement. Science tells us that steel and cement will make the bridge more stable, but whether this matters or not is a value judgment. We could save a lot of money by building it from plywood. Why is it more important that it does not fall down as soon as the rst train gets on the bridge? The answer is always in terms of a value judgment. Someone has decided that it has a value that people can get safely to the other side of the river.

Similarly, how to treat any life-forms we might nd when we search for extraterrestrial life is ultimately also a value question. We can decide not to give them any other treatment than dead matter, but that will also be a value judgment. Science will hopefully one day tell us that these life-forms exist and what they are like, but how to treat them is a value question. It is, to be precise, a question of ethics. Ethics is different from other value questions in that it is normative, which means it makes demands. When I say that I prefer tea to coffee, the only practical implication is that when I get to choose between tea and coffee, I tend to choose the former. When I say, on the other hand, that it is wrong to hit people you meet in the street and steal their money, then I make a normative claim. I am not just saying that I do not like to do it. I am saying that no one should do it. To make a claim about what everyone should do in a certain situation is not to be taken lightly. It needs justication. To make moral statements without proper justication is in itself immoral. We can choose to ignore the question of justication and the ethical questions in general, but that will not make them go away. We can choose to shoot from the hip and make moral decisions without any philosophical deliberation, but that too would in itself be immoral. To do as Williamson (2003) does and argue that we should not base space ethics on philosophical theories is to be compared with building spaceships without considering physics. In fact, it is worse. If

The Pufendorf Institute for Advanced Studies, Lund University, Lund, Sweden.


THE MORAL STATUS OF EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE Box 1: Brief Denitions of Some Important Terms Moral status = Being the object of concern according to a moral theory Moral object = Someone or something that has moral status Instrumental value = Value as a means to gain something else that has value End value = Value as an end in itself


we try to build spaceships without considering physics, they will not work. If we try to approach extraterrestrial life without considering moral philosophy, we might do immense amounts of harm. Above all, we owe it to both those on which we make demands (the agents) and not least to those affected by the acts (the objects) to make use of any means available to make our ethical judgments in a deliberate and justiable way. Ethics as an academic discipline has existed for more than 2500 years, during which a great selection of ethical questions have been discussed and scrutinized from uncountable perspectives. Not to take advantage of this ample work is not just imprudent. It is in itself unjustiable. Ethical Basics The very question of what ethics is about has changed throughout history. Ethics has historically had as its aim to answer questions such as how to live a good life, how to live a virtuous life, how to abide by certain religious rules, and how to abide with norms or taboos in society. A more modern understanding of ethics revolves around how we should deal with situations where our actions (including decisions not to act and decisions by us carried out by others) inuence other beings in ways that matter to them. This is the meaning of ethics that I will assume in this text. I believe this is the sense of ethics that is not just the most important to answer but that also makes most sense from a justication aspect. It essentially says that ethics makes binding claims on your behavior in cases where your behavior affects others in a way that is important to themand in the same way, it makes binding demands on others behavior when their behavior will affect you in a sense that matters to you. The question of how we should conduct ourselves ethically in relation to extraterrestrial life is something that has so far mainly been discussed within the science ction genre. Within academia, it has not been on the agenda until quite recently. The earliest example I have found is Ginsberg (1972), which is very recent compared to most other ethical questions and also means that philosophy is centuries behind the science ction literature when it comes to approaching this question. The philosophical study of ethics in a terrestrial setting, on the other hand, has been pursued in academia for at least 2500 years and can be very useful in considering issues in an interplanetary setting. I will therefore start by rst examining approaches to questions about different types of life that have already been produced in an earthly setting and ask if they can be applied also to extraterrestrial life. In addition to examining the question of moral status for extraterrestrial life, the paper takes a brief look at the question of value for extraterrestrial life. The distinction between moral status and value and the distinction between end

value and instrumental value are both relevant and helpful in questions of moral consideration. These same distinctions and concepts are useful in deciding how to treat extraterrestrial life (see Box 1). Ethics is just like any other academic discipline that is made up of a host of different questions. A single paper will never be able to answer all these questions. Thus, this paper cannot give the ultimate answer to how to deal ethically with extraterrestrial life. The intent of this paper is to throw some light on one of the basic ethical questions that must be considered as an initial step. The basic question is What is the moral status of extraterrestrial life? This paper does not deal with the question of how we shall treat a moral object. This has been discussed extensively elsewhere, and through the ages there have been many suggestions as to how to answer it. This question is, however, outside the scope of this paper for two reasons. First, we need to know whether extraterrestrial life can at all be considered morally relevant before we know whether we need to take on the question of what we might owe it morally. Second, if it turns out that extraterrestrial life has moral status on the same terms as earthly life, much has already been determined because it means that no special theories have to be developed to treat extraterrestrial life. We will instead be able to use the same theories as on our own planettheories that have already been under development for more than 2500 years and are worked on constantly and extensively. To answer the question about moral status of extraterrestrial life, I have approached the topic using three subquestions: (1) What does it take to have moral status? (2) Does it matter if the life we are talking about is extraterrestrial? (3) If a life-form does not have moral status in itself, can it still have value that makes it worthy of protection? In the sections below, I approach these questions by using theories developed for dealing with different kinds of life on our own planet, and I attempt to determine whether they are likewise applicable to different kinds of extraterrestrial life. These considerations are important both for determining how to treat putative extraterrestrial forms of life and for deliberations about appropriate future policies for human activities beyond Earth. Different Ways of Answering the Question of Moral Status Throughout history there have been many different answers to the question of who or what requires moral consideration and why. When mankind rst started to develop an ethic, it probably applied only to those who belonged to the same family group. As humans began to interact more extensively with other groups, the realm of moral objects expanded. To be able to trade with other groups, for example, requires certain written or unwritten rules. The same

978 applies to our ability to live together in large groups in villages and eventually in cities and countries. Increasingly complex and comprehensive projects demand more in terms of cooperation among a growing number of people. Only quite late in history did humans start to accept a global ethic, that is, an ethic that dictates that distance should not play any role in how we treat each other, whether the distance is social, cultural, or geographical. Similarly, late in our history we have accepted that differential treatment of men and women is unacceptable. Today, there is little disagreement among various ethical theories about any of these views, even though our actual behavior may often be different. In general, modern ethical theories seem to be in agreement that biological differences between human beings should not play a role in determining their moral status. The question remains: How do we judge the moral status if we go beyond the human species? In discussing the moral status of extraterrestrial life, we have to go beyond our own species, but that is not entirely new. We do that already when we discuss ethics on our own planet, and some theories have already been developed for that purpose. The following sections present four different ethical approaches regarding moral status for different kinds of life on our own planet and evaluate what they would imply for our future relations with extraterrestrial life. Even though they have been developed as part of an intraplanetary ethical discussion, we can ask whether one or more of these theories could provide ethically plausible and reliable answers for handling possible encounters with extraterrestrial life. The four categories discussed below are anthropocentrism, sentientism, biocentrism, and ecocentrism. (A short summary of the theories is provided in Box 2.) Anthropocentrism According to anthropocentrism, only human beings are moral objects. Historically not even all humans have counted as moral objects. Today, however, it is hard to nd ethicists who would claim that certain groups of human beings should be excluded from consideration as moral objects. Instead, today we have an intensive debate about whether it is ethically correct to exclude all nonhumans from the realm of moral objects.

PERSSON Historically, the most popular arguments for the claim that ethical concern should be reserved exclusively for humans fall into three main categories: religious arguments, arguments that claim that a particular property is both exclusively human and a proper basis for moral status, and nally arguments based on reciprocity, as discussed below. Arguments from the rst (religious) category are not as common today as they once were but can still be encountered. The arguments from this category can be in the form of direct references to a holy scripture (such as the Bible or the Koran) or can take other forms, such as Descartes (1960) argument that animals do not have immortal souls. This latter assertion is also an example of the second category, viz, basing moral status on an allegedly unique human property. Other claims of such human properties include rationality and language skills (see, e.g., Carruthers, 1994; Kant, 1998; Smith, 2009; Hart, 2010). An example of the third category (reciprocity) is the claim that ethics is a social construct that can only exist within human societies (see, e.g., Carruthers, 1994; Rawls, 1973; Smith, 2009). All three categories of arguments mentioned above have been heavily criticized, and anthropocentrism is losing ground. Anthropocentrism and extraterrestrial life The principal claim that only human beings can be moral objects seems to denitely exclude all extraterrestrial life. As indicated above, however, anthropocentrism is usually not just about being human per se but about fullling certain criteria that can allegedly only be fullled by humans, at least on Earth. Depending on which arguments the anthropocentrists use to support their claim, it may nevertheless turn out that some alien life-forms fulll the criteria for moral standing. This means that the anthropocentrists are faced with a choice between two alternatives: altering their criteria or altering their conclusions. If the criteria are chosen in order to exclude all nonhumans, then the anthropocentrists will need to learn more about the extraterrestrials and determine how they differ from us. They could then nd a new criterion, or alter the limits if humans and extraterrestrials fulll the criterion to different degrees. As discussed earlier, this task is very

Box 2 Theory Explanation Status for extraterrestrial life

Anthropocentrism Only human beings have moral status

Sentientism Biocentrism


ET life-forms might have moral status although they are not human if the arguments for anthropocentrism (e.g., rationality or language skills) turn out to be applicable to them. If not, they should still be protected if they have value for human beings. All and only sentient beings have Sentient ET life will have moral status. Other ET life should moral status still be protected if it has value to sentient beings. All and only living beings have All ET life will have moral status if it fullls the same criteria moral status for life as the biocentrist relies on. It is unclear what will happen in a priority situation. All living beings as well as species, Depends on the version of ecocentrism. Ranges from all life + nonliving nature to no moral status at all for ET life. ecosystems, and according to some interpretations even nonliving nature have moral status.

THE MORAL STATUS OF EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE difcult for anthropocentrists, even on Earth. Some possible alternatives, such as setting an upper limit for intelligence for extraterrestrials, seem quite absurd. A general problem with this approach is also that it is obviously ad hoc. To start by deciding whom to exclude and then nding the arguments to support exclusion seems like the wrong way of approaching the question, not to mention it is unphilosophical and dishonest. If the anthropocentrists choose the opposite approach and stick to their criteria, they will have to include extraterrestrials who live up to these criteria, though this could lead to a need to change the label anthropocentrism (already suggested by Smith, 2009, who uses the label ratio-centrism). A complicating factor is that aliens may fulll the chosen criteria to a higher degree than we humans do. For example, if we use language skills or rationality as criteria for moral status, what does it mean if aliens possess these abilities to a much higher degree than humans? In this case, our abilities would be closer to those of earthly animals that anthropocentrism wants to exclude, which would make it difcult for anthropocentrists to maintain that humans should still count as moral objects. Alternatively, if we rely on reciprocal arguments, the result may well be that the alien cultures and societies are so different from ours (whether more advanced or not) that we cannot belong to the same moral society or enter into any reciprocal relations with each other. This in turn could lead to undesirable consequences such as war or slavery similar to that which has occurred throughout human history among those who have not accepted that all humans belong to the same moral sphere. If the anthropocentrists resort to religious arguments and the aliens belief systems are very different from the earthly belief systems, the result may, in the worst case, be religious wars such as those that have taken place on our own planet. A special case might occur in the event that we encounter extraterrestrial life that fullls our criteria for moral status to the same degree as we do but is not as technologically or culturally sophisticated. Such extraterrestrial life might, for example, have the same level of intelligence (if we decide that this is what counts) but not our level of technological sophistication. This situation would be similar to encounters in recent centuries with indigenous societies, usually in remote regions, that have experienced minimal technological advancement. We have no reason to believe that these individuals are less intelligent than we are, but because they have lived in isolation and have had access to all they need where they live, they have not developed an advanced technology. When such a society has been encountered in recent history, it has been argued that they be left alone and protected to some degree from inuences from the industrialized world so as not to interrupt their way of life or their natural development. There is ample evidence throughout the history of the world of disastrous consequences as the result of the sudden introduction of indigenous peoples to an industrial society. On the other hand, it could be argued that an industrial way of life offers some advantages in the form of comfort, medicine, and so on above and beyond what is available in a particular indigenous society, and it would be unfair to deny individuals such rewards. A question arises, then, as to whether we should follow the example of the ctitious Star Trek television and lm series and adhere to the prime directive, which means to leave an indigenous

979 society intact and unaltered. Or would it be the case that to do so would be equivalent to robbing moral objects of their right to take part in a more technologically advanced societys accomplishments? Sentientism Sentience is often mentioned as both a necessary and sufcient condition for having moral status (e.g., Clark, 1977; Regan, 1983, 2001; Singer, 1993, 1995; de Grazia, 1996; Levine, 1997; ONeil, 1997; Bernstein, 1998; Helm, 2002, Persson, 2008). The corresponding ethical approach is sometimes referred to as sentientism. An early advocate of this principle was Jeremy Bentham (17481832), who advocated moral standing for nonhuman sentient animals with the words: The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? (Bentham, 2005). What it means to be sentient is hard to pin down, but for our purpose we can describe it as having a subjective perspective from which things can be good or bad. Sentience does not require an ability to reect over ones experiences or express them in words. It is sufcient to have experiences and to have the ability to feel them as good or bad. This is often expressed, in simpler terms, as the ability to feel pleasure and pain. Many animals share this property. According to what we know today, all mammals, birds, and amphibians are sentient, and probably also sh, while plants and microbes are probably not. The main advantage of sentientism is that it connects directly to the purpose of ethics as it is often interpreted today, that is, to discern how to handle situations where someones acts affect others in ways that matter to them. If a being has a perspective from which things can be experienced as good or bad, thenby denitionthings matter to this being. If the very point of ethics is to handle precisely these kinds of situations, then everyone who fullls this criterion must count, and those who do not, cannot count. Sentientism and extraterrestrial life For our future relations with extraterrestrial life, sentientism would mean that the moral status or lack thereof for extraterrestrial life does not depend on the fact that they are extraterrestrial as such, nor whether they are unrelated to, or very different from, life on Earth. Neither does it depend on what kind of life we nd, whether it is of chemical origin, or even whether it is biological or not. Strictly speaking, it does not even depend on extraterrestrial life being alive in a biological sense. If we encounter, for instance, a sentient robot, computer program, or cloud, each could be considered a moral object according to sentientism even if it does not pass our criteria for being alive. Granting moral status to extraterrestrial sentient life does not necessarily restrict us from all activities on a world that is inhabited by sentient beings. How prohibitive an ethical theory is depends on how we answer all ethical questions, not just how we answer the question of what it takes to have moral status. If we, for instance, answer the question of what makes an act right by saying that it is right if and only if it leads to a higher total sum of good compared to any other available act (i.e., utilitarianism), then the interests of all moral objects have to be considered and weighed into the

980 equation. This means that sometimes some interests will have to be frustrated for the larger good. This is sometimes misunderstood as implying that not all sentient beings are on the same level after all (e.g., Cockell, 2011a), which is a faulty conclusion. To make decisions and priorities, sentientists do not assume that different moral objects have different status. Instead they use the fact that different moral objects have interests with different strengths for those who have them. The relative strength of the interests does not depend on which moral object has the interest (all moral objects have the same status) but on how important the interest is to the individual who has the interest. We should therefore in case of a conict compare strengths of interests without looking at whose interests they are. During a bullght, for example, the bulls interest not to be confronted in a conned space and brutally slaughtered is probably of utmost importance to the bull, while the human audiences interest in watching or taking part in a bullght is of less importance to the humans. (The latter interests are also substitutable, i.e., humans can be entertained in other ways that are not harmful to, e.g., a bull. This further weakens the value of this particular kind of entertainment to us.) It is sometimes pointed out that to treat members of different species in the same way would be absurd (Cockell, 2011a) and, in many cases, would cause serious harm to the individuals whose interests we want to consider. This is correct, but it is not a problem for sentientism since this theory does not tell us to treat everyone in the same way but to consider everyones interests. We all have different interests; and in order to respect, for example, a human being and a badger to the same degree, we have to acknowledge that we in many cases have different interests that call for different treatments. To make a badger leave her hole in the ground and move to an apartment in the city would be immoral, not because the badger is lower on some scale but because it is simply not in the interest of the badger to do so. This means that, if we encounter sentient extraterrestrials on a planet we want to explore or exploit, we have to nd a way to account for their interests in our decisions. Depending on the moral theory to which we adhere, we may not have to totally abandon our plans. Maybe our needs are bigger than theirs, or maybe it is possible to compensate them in a way that would make them at least as well off as before, according to their interests. What is important is that their interests are considered to the extent that they matter to the extraterrestrials and are not assigned a lower value because they are extraterrestrial. The two alleged problems discussed above are thus not problems for the sentientistic approach. Instead there are two other problems that sentientism will have to face when it comes to dealing with extraterrestrial life. They are (1) how to discern whether the extraterrestrial life encountered is sentient and (2) how to discern what is good and bad, respectively, from their subjective point of view (i.e., what is in their interest). Both these questions will likely be more difcult to answer the more different these life-forms are from us. Because of these problems and the importance of this issue, a precautionary attitude can be recommended when we actually encounter extraterrestrial life (or nonliving extraterrestrial entities that show signs of being sentient). We

PERSSON should, for example, not assume that extraterrestrial sentient life-forms look like the sentient life-forms we are familiar with on our own planet (Cockell, 2011a). It can also be recommended that we, if possible, study extraterrestrial forms for a time and from a distance in an effort to understand their psychology and needs before we interact with them. Biocentrism According to the theory called biocentrism, all living beings are moral objects. The most common argument for why all beings, even those that are not sentient, should be granted moral concern is that all life-forms possess goal-directedness (Schweitzer, 1976; Goodpaster, 1978; Cockell, 2005, 2011a,b). According to this argument, goal-directedness can play the same role as sentience as the basis for moral standing. It seems difcult, however, to maintain that the goal-directedness found in plants and microbes makes things matter for the beings in question. It is one thing that someone or something moves or develops in a certain direction. It is another thing to claim that the result of this movement or development matters to the being in question. It is even debatable whether the movement and development we see in non-sentient organisms can even be seen as goal-directedness even when it seems to us that it is going in a certain direction. A practical problem with biocentrism is that if we accept it, all our sources of food will suddenly have moral status. The same is true with microbes that make us sick. We would end up in a dilemma with regard to such things as treating infections and even washing our hands (Cockell, 2005, 2011a,b). Cockell tries to handle this problem by saying that his ethics can therefore just be a principle that cannot be implemented (Cockell, 2005). Usually, however, ethics is supposed to be prescriptive, and a basic criterion for an ethical principle must be that ought implies can. I therefore claim that if it cannot be implemented, it cannot be an ethical principle at all. A possible solution that some biocentrists have proposed is that all living things count but not equally much. If we have to choose between causing the death of a human being (which will be the result if we do not eat) and killing a plant, then we should give priority to the human being. How this is justied is unclear though. It does not seem obvious that a human is more alive than a plant. An alternative is to use a hybrid theory according to which all things count but when we have a life-or-death conict between a sentient and a nonsentient being we use sentientism as the tiebreaker. This would make the outcomes of the conict more intuitively acceptable. It is unclear though how this can be acceptable to biocentrism which normally does not accept the arguments for sentientism. It would also undermine some of the main purpose of biocentrism by returning us to a situation where non-sentient life is subordinate to sentient life, even though it would not bring us all the way back to a situation where non-sentient life has no standing at all. Biocentrism and extraterrestrial life If we still accept biocentrism and apply it to extraterrestrial life, it seems clear that as long as we can identify it as life it will count, and the fact that it is extraterrestrial as such will

THE MORAL STATUS OF EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE not make any differenceat least in theory. It is still uncertain how different degrees of moral status will be used for resolving the prioritization problem in dealing with extraterrestrial life-forms. If extraterrestrial life is very different from earth life, how will it count in a situation where we prioritize based on to what extent something is alive? Even if they fulll the criteria we have established for being alive, it could be difcult for a very different life-form to fulll these criteria to the same degree as earthly life-forms that have been the model organisms for the choice of criteria. Finally, biocentrism is a theory constructed for the benet of biological life. If the extraterrestrials turn out to be, for instance, postbiological, they might not t with the intentions of biocentrism even if they qualify as being alive in a formal sense. Ecocentrism A different way of looking at moral status is the theory known as ecocentrism. According to ecocentrism, not only individual organisms but also species and ecosystems have moral status (see, e.g., Leopold, 1970; Callicott, 1980, 1985, 1987, 1992, 1999; Rolston, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1994, 1999; Johnson, 1991, 1992; Plumwood, 1991). The idea is that even systems such as species and ecosystems can behave like living beings and, among other things, be goal-oriented, self-dening, and self-maintaining (Rolston, 1987, 1988; Johnson, 1991, 1992; Plumwood, 1991). By being goal-oriented, self-dening, and self-maintaining, species and ecosystems might fulll some criteria for being alive. Whether that is enough is controversial, however, and it is also debatable whether they can at all be said to possess these properties (Thompson, 1990; Cahen, 1998; Helm, 2002). Still more controversial is the claim that these properties would be enough to grant anyone moral status (Singer, 1979; Sober, 1986; Regan, 1983; Norton, 1986; Thompson, 1990; ONeil, 1997; Jamieson, 1998; Persson, 2008). We would essentially have the same problems as with biocentrism, with one exception. That we cannot avoid killing plants or microbes when we eat, clean, and so on is not a problem for ecocentrism since, according to this theory, it is in some situations acceptable to kill individuals as long as we do not threaten the whole species and ecosystems (Callicott, 1980; Rolston, 1999; Cockell, 2011a). This can, on the other hand, also be seen as a problem since it means that in some cases it will be considered acceptable to sacrice even sentient individuals for the good of a species (Callicott, 1980, 1985, 1987, 1999; Rolston, 1988). This conclusion seems rather counterintuitive for many people. Tom Regan has even dubbed it environmental fascism (Regan, 1983). Individual organisms do count according to ecocentrism, but their status is a bit unclear and to some extent it depends on their instrumental value for the species and ecosystems of which they are a part. A member of a rare species can, for example, be more important than a member of a more common species even if the latter is sentient while the former is not (Callicott, 1980, 1999; Hargrove, 1987; Rolston, 1988, 1999). The most important problem for ecocentrism is that it is difcult to see how anything can matter to a species or an ecosystem (Persson, 2008). Another problem is that the species concept is not entirely clear (Persson, 2008). This problem will probably not be any easier if we discover life on

981 another planet. On the contrary, I suspect the discovery of extraterrestrial life will complicate the search for a useful species concept considerably. Ecocentrism and extraterrestrial life Ecocentrism has interesting implications for how we should deal with extraterrestrial life. It means that we not only have to consider the individuals but also that we should not alter competitive relationships between species or signicantly change their environments. We should, for instance, not drastically change the environment on an inhabited planet or a moon to make it more appealing to us. According to some versions of ecocentrism, we are not even allowed to change uninhabited worlds (Rolston, 1986; Lupisella, 1999). On the other hand, killing some individual extraterrestrial life might be acceptable for the ecocentrist as long we do not threaten their species or the environment. According to one version of ecocentrism called land ethics, extraterrestrial life is explicitly excluded from the realm of moral objects. Land ethics is based on the idea of ecological kinship and ecological community (Callicott, 1992). All life on Earth is related, and all life on Earth in some way belongs together and is interdependent. This means, according to land ethics, that it is natural that the circle of moral objects gradually expands from the individual to communities and entire species and eventually ecosystems (Leopold, 1970). If we nd life on another planet, it will mean that we for the rst time have to deal with life that we are not related to, even distantly (provided, of course, that it has not been transmitted to Earth from another planet or vice versa). This means, in turn, that according to land ethics extraterrestrial life cannot be included in our moral circle. It is, as can be seen, difcult to give a clear answer as to what ecocentrism implies for extraterrestrial life. It ranges from total protection of species, ecosystems, and even lifeless environments, to total exclusion. In the latter case, where extraterrestrial life is excluded, the fact that they are extraterrestrial is decisive. In the former case, the fact that we talk about extraterrestrial life and extraterrestrial environments does not matter as such. In practice, however, it can inuence their standing. On the positive side, they will be instances of something very rare (at least as long as we do not nd too many of them) and also represent a radical extension of the biological community. As such they might be endowed with higher status than their counterparts on Earth. On the other hand, much depends on whether it will be possible to order the life-forms we nd in species and ecosystems according to the same criteria we use on Earth, and if these species and ecosystems will t into the ecocentric view of species and ecosystems as goal-directed, self-dening, and self-maintaining systems. It probably also depends on them being truly biological. Ecocentrists usually do not show much concern for nonbiological systems. It is also unclear what happens to the moral status of an extraterrestrial organism that is taken from its natural habitat and moved to Earth. When that happens, the organism will no longer fulll its role in the species and ecosystem to which it originally belonged. Advocates of ecocentrism tend to consider domesticated animals and animals in zoos more as artifacts than as real animals (Rolston, 1988, 1994; Johnson, 1991). It is

982 possible that extraterrestrial life brought back to Earth will be considered in the same way. To summarize, only the last two theories give direct moral standing to non-sentient life (individuals and species, respectively). We also saw that both biocentrism and ecocentrism are rather controversial theories and that the moral status of extraterrestrial life is not always guaranteed according to ecocentrism. Instead, sentientism seems to be by far the most defendable of the theories both on our own planet (see Persson, 2008) and in relation to extraterrestrial life. Taken together, this might look like we need not worry too much about non-sentient extraterrestrial life. This conclusion is premature, however. As we noted in the section about sentientism, we need the whole picture in order to give an answer to how to treat someone or something. Even if something does not have moral status, it might still have a high value that calls for a high degree of protection. The Value of Extraterrestrial Life We need to be careful in distinguishing between an entitys moral status and its value. These things are sometimes conated (see e.g., Cockell, 2005, 2011a,b; Rolston, 1987, 1988, 1994), but it is important to keep them separate (Hargrove, 1987; Regan, 1992; ONeil, 1997; Jamieson, 1998; Persson, 2008). If a person has value to us, we want to protect her, and maybe we are also eager to be around that person. If she has moral status, we have to respect her interests. These things do not always coincide. Sometimes she might want to do things that threaten her existence or at least detract from her value in our eyes, or she might simply not want to be around us as much as we want to have her around. In this situation it is quite clear that there is a very relevant difference between someones value for us and her moral status. There is, to put it simply, a difference between her interests on the one hand, and our interest in her on the other hand. Our interest in her means that she is valuable to us, but the fact that she has her own interests makes her a moral object. Now, when we are aware of this distinction, we can keep the question of value and the question of moral status apart. We can therefore also acknowledge that something can have value even if it does not have moral status. That something does not have moral status thus does not prevent that it has a high value and deserves protection for that reason. As we saw before, ethics in its modern form is about dealing with situations where ones acts or decisions affect others in ways that matter to them. An important part of showing moral consideration for someone is to respect what has value to her. That is something entirely different from protecting something because it has value to you. Nevertheless, that something has value to you is of course a reason for you to protect it whether it has moral standing on its own or not. It is not a moral reason, but it can be a very strong reason nonetheless. From here we can take one more step. If I value something, I have a reason to protect it. If you value something but I do not, I still have a reason to protect it because you have moral status and I have a moral responsibility to consider your interests. Both your and my interests can, of course, be overridden by other interests, but that also goes for moral status. The conclusion from this is that even if we nd extraterrestrial life that is not sentient and even if we do not adhere to biocentrism and ecocentrism, we might have good reasons

PERSSON for protecting it if it has some kind of value to us or other sentient beings on or off Earth. Things can have value to sentient beings in different ways and for different reasons. There are many distinctions we can make when it comes to value, but I will sufce with distinguishing between value as a means to something else (instrumental value), and value as an end in itself (end value) (Persson, 2008). Some people are worried that if the moral restriction for how to treat an organism or species depends on its value to us, then it will only count to the extent it has have instrumental value to us. This worry is unfounded, however. If moral status were the only alternative to instrumental value, we would end up in many very strange situations. Assume, for example, that you have an antique vase that has been inherited through many generations until it recently was placed in your care. Because of this, the vase is special to you. If there were no alternative to instrumental value other than moral status, you would have to either admit that the vase only possesses instrumental value or claim that it has moral status. Both alternatives are clearly insufcient for expressing your relation to the vase. By accepting end value as a form of value and not as equivalent to moral status, we can easily solve the problem by assigning end value to the vase. This way we get a highly relevant and intuitively plausible category of value suitable for inherited vases as well as for many other things, including non-sentient life, be it earthly or extraterrestrial. Extraterrestrial life, like life on our own planet, can have instrumental value as well as end value to sentient beings for many different reasons. It is quite possible that some extraterrestrial non-sentient life-forms as well as extraterrestrial environments will be useful to us as resources of some kind (Williamson, 2003; Cockell, 2005, 2011a,b). In these cases, they have instrumental value in accordance with that. On the other hand, it is also possible that they will turn out to be harmful to us. Since we cannot know that until we meet them, we have to sufce with noting that they, in principle, can have positive as well as negative instrumental value for us and that they can have different positive or negative instrumental value for different sentient individuals. The same can be said about end value. In these respects they will not be any different from earthly life-forms or Earth environments. We cannot know now which value-endowing properties (positive or negative) we will nd in extraterrestrial life. For the sake of getting our principles right, we just have to remember that there are many reasons to value something other than its usefulness as a resource. We have no problem nding reasons to value thingsliving and nonlivingas ends here on Earth, and we have no reason to believe that it will be any different with extraterrestrial life. The Value of Being Extraterrestrial We saw above that there are differences in how the various moral theories apply to extraterrestrial life-forms. Similarly, there are differences in value as well, many of which are positive. Extraterrestrial life-forms would have instrumental value by virtue of being a totally new form of life that can be used for learning about life. The fact that they are extraterrestrial can also endow them with positive end value for many people. They will probably also be very different from all life we have seen on our own planet, which I expect

THE MORAL STATUS OF EXTRATERRESTRIAL LIFE will also give them a high end value for many humans. Originality is for many people an important endower of end value. The same can probably be said if they represent a totally new biology. Mark Lupisella (1999) suggested that if it turns out that they are related to us it will detract from their value. In one way, it surely will since they will then not represent a totally new biology. On the other hand, nding life that is related to us but has developed in a totally different environment can also add value (Cockell, 2011a), though maybe not as much as is lost because of the common origin. This notion of value can help explain why it is reasonable to kill Earth bacteria as part of planetary protection controls prior to launch of spacecraft to Mars. The aim is to protect possible martian life-forms from contamination by Earth microbesthereby ensuring that their high value to us will not be compromised. It is not necessary to rationalize sterilization of outbound spacecraft by suggesting that martian life has higher moral status compared to Earth life. That would be unnecessary, implausible, and dangerous. Instead, we can refer to the higher valuation of extraterrestrial life-forms, thereby achieving the same goal without moral complexity. Conclusions Different ethical theories have, as we would expect, different answers to the question of the moral status of extraterrestrial life. Biocentrism that includes all life on Earth as moral objects also includes all extraterrestrial life as long as it fullls the same criteria for life. It is not clear, however, what will happen in a priority situation. According to sentientism, one has to be sentient to have moral status whether terrestrial or extraterrestrial and whether biological or nonbiological. Anthropocentrism excludes all nonhuman life as moral objects on Earth, but it might be possible for nonhumanoid extraterrestrial life-forms to convince anthropocentrists about their standing if they live up to the criteria behind anthropocentrism, such as possession of rationality or language. Ecocentrism includes not just living organisms but also species and ecosystems on Earth. Different versions of ecocentrism have different attitudes toward extraterrestrial life and span from total inclusion to total exclusion. Two of the theories link moral status to the criteria of belonging to the same society (a version of anthropocentrism) and to the same biological community (land ethicsa version of ecocentrism). They thus rule out moral status for extraterrestrial life because it is extraterrestrial. The other theories do not distinguish between terrestrial and extraterrestrial life as such, although in some cases it may be easier for Earth life than for extraterrestrial life to live up to the criteria. This might be the case with anthropocentrism that is modeled on humans and biocentrism that is modeled on biological life on Earth. The most plausible theory for moral standing seems to be sentientism that connects directly to the basic idea behind modern ethics: that ethics is about dealing with situations where ones own actions affect others in a way that matters to them. According to this theory all, and only, sentient life has moral standing. Whether it is earthly or extraterrestrial is of no relevance according to this theory. Because this means that extraterrestrial life will have, or not have, moral status on exactly the same terms as Earth life,

983 we will be able to use the same rules and theories for moral conduct toward extraterrestrial life as we do toward Earth life. Rules and theories for moral conduct on our own planet have been under constant discussion and development for thousands of years. Being able to access and use this work instead of having to start anew is a tremendous advantage. If we accept sentientism, microbial life and plants do not have moral status, but there are reasons for protecting someone or something other than its being a moral object. If something is highly valued (instrumental value or end value) by a moral object, it is also a reason to protect it. Microbial extraterrestrial life can have higher value than Earth microbes by being extraterrestrial and therefore more special to the moral objects who value them. The mission of philosophy and science is to create knowledge and understanding. This can hopefully be useful for decision- and policy-making. Though neither science nor philosophy directly tells us what to do, they will throw light on different aspects that are necessary to understand in order to make good informed decisions. To make decisions without having thoroughly examined the philosophical basis about extraterrestrial life would be at least as detrimental as going about searching for life without having considered all the possible science scenarios. In the worst case, it could lead to the same kind of irresponsible development as we have already seen on our own planet only on a much grander scale. Acknowledgments I wish to thank the participants at the conference The History and Philosophy of Astrobiology and two anonymous referees for their comments to earlier versions of this paper. I also wish to thank Briana Van Epps for reading and correcting my English. Author Disclosure Statement No competing nancial interests exist. References
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Address correspondence to: Erik Persson The Pufendorf Institute for Advanced Studies Lund University PO Box 117 Lund 226 43 Sweden E-mail: Submitted 27 November 2011 Accepted 2 September 2012

This article has been cited by: 1. David Dunr . 2012. Introduction: The History and Philosophy of Astrobiology. Astrobiology 12:10, 901-905. [Citation] [Full Text HTML] [Full Text PDF] [Full Text PDF with Links]