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By Patrick McAuliffe

I’m enrolled in a class about science and the epistemological limits of it. I’ve had the professor before in a previous class on elementary logic, but this upper-level seminar is where he really gets to put his opinions on display. Day one opened with: “There is an entire political party in America that is anti-science. Everyone in this party hates science.” He must have meant the Democratic party, right? It’s anti-science to claim that sex and gender are completely different after all! That definitely couldn’t have been a not-so-veiled attack on a subsection of conservative creationist Republicans and climate skeptics.

Even for a guy that “wouldn’t go to family things for a while” after the 2016 election, my professor proposed an interesting philosophical question for plenty of sci-fi nerds to chew on. As we’re going through the history of the universe as we know it now, we’ve reached the development of extremely simple life on Earth, about 3.5 billion years ago. A quick mention of Interstellar got him off on a tangent. No planet capable of sustaining life is within reasonable distance for space travel from Earth, but he assumed for the moment that it was. He told us to imagine that Earth was dying, most likely from human-caused climate change, and we had to flee and find another planet capable of supporting life. It would most likely already have life on it, but nothing more complicated than algae. He lamented that no astronaut has ever really considered the moral consequences of moving to another planet, which would inevitably alter the new planet’s ecosystem and cause whatever life was there to die. In our search for self-preservation, we would snuff out primitive, alien life.

It’s true that this planet is, most likely, the only one we’ve got. The nearest planet with the possibility of supporting life is much farther than Alpha Centauri, which is 4.4 light years away (an incredible distance). However, I do want to work through this philosophical problem, assuming that we could actually find a planet capable of supporting life, and see if we can discover what principles caused my professor to denounce humanity being “Space Columbus,” as I’ll call it.

Everyone has already heard about how genocidal and evil Christopher Columbus was (even though we need to contextualize history when looking at his actions and remember that the Americas weren’t some sort of peaceful paradise before his arrival). Western society has grown and rationalized over time, and no modern country in the first world would meet a new civilization with guns and violence. I use the title of “Space Columbus” to over-exaggerate the clear differences that exist between alien genocide and disturbing the ecosystem of interstellar pond scum. One would imagine that, upon meeting new intelligent life, humanity would first seek to trade and learn everything they can to advance both civilizations. We sent out the Voyager spacecraft to reach out to alien life, not a nuclear warhead.

The ethical problem lies with disrupting the ecosystem and the future of the alien pond scum, the simple life, in particular. How would we like it if our one-celled ancestors were disturbed by alien visitors and nipped in the evolutionary bud? We’ve made countless technological advancements that have brought such utility and goodness to our world, and to crush that potential before it even gets started seems unjust somehow.

When my professor pitched this problem to my class, I was reminded of a Peter Singer-esque mindset when it comes to alien life less intelligent than ours. Would we be speciesist if we did choose to colonize the pond scum planet and take over as the reigning life on it? Granted, for Singer, it would matter whether or not the alien life could feel pain. As a utilitarian, he would want to minimize suffering of all living beings. If it can’t feel pain, we shouldn’t feel guilty, but the guilt persists for my prof. He is a man of science, and has mocked religion both in passing and explicitly since day one, so there is no after-death reward for him in his advocacy for self-sacrifice. What could it be?

For me personally, it is an extremely difficult question to answer. It matters whether one considers the potential for life to be as equally deserving of rights as an actual one. Maybe his logic is the fact that humanity keeps messing up its home planet, and does not deserve a second chance. Are present people responsible for the mistakes of their ancestors? They inherit the world without any choice, sometimes without choice to even reverse the bad choices of those before.Is it right that they should be condemned through no choice of their own?

In a future sister article I will draw a parallel to abortion as well, but for now, I want you, dear reader, to just consider extraterrestrial ethics. Do you, like my professor, believe that we ought to go extinct as a species to give another planet’s pond scum a chance at life? Or would you land on that alien planet and save the human race at the expense of a brand new potential world?

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