February 23, 2024

The bioethics of extraterrestrial contact

Bioethics is a broad church, but a NASA-affiliated scientist and colleagues at Pennsylvania State University recently made it even broader by extending it to extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). When we make contact with ETI, we will be intensely interested in their bioethics.

What might those be? In their report, “Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity? A Scenario Analysis”, the researchers attempt to imagine them by dividing ethical theories into selfish and universalist. If the aliens are the former, our goose is well and truly cooked. Ecologist Jared Diamand reminds us that humans have a tendency to be hostile to other civilisations. “The extraterrestrials might proceed to kill, infect, dissect, conquer, displace or enslave us, stuff us as specimens for their museums or pickle our skulls and use us for medical research.” Remember War of the Worlds

On the other hand, if the aliens have a universalist ethic, they may want to preserve all life. Even it they were a bit patronising, at least we’d be safe. Unless, of course, they were universalist utilitarians. In that case, they might decide that our extinction might be a small price to pay for some grand galaxy-wide greater good. The researchers refer to that brilliant scene in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“People of Earth, your attention, please… As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express route through your star system. And regrettably, your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less than two of your Earth minutes. Thank you.”

It’s a fascinating essay with 89 footnotes. Quite a few people have been pondering this question, it seems. As for me, I devoutly hope that they are pro-life.