The Prime Directive & Microbes


In the world of Star Trek, a rule called the “prime directive” prohibits our heroes from interfering in the development of alien cultures. I don’t think they had in mind the kind of “cultures” that could be grown in a Petri dish, but, as it turns out, NASA has predicted that we will find extraterrestrial life within the next 20 years, and that the life in question will almost certainly be microbial in nature.

Little philosophy has been done on extraterrestrials or microbes, and less still, I would bet, on the intersection of the two. But philosopher Kelly Smith (Clemson) is interested in the subject and what philosophers might think about our moral duties towards alien microbes. He writes:

There is, of course, no doubt about the enormous instrumental value such microbes would have, but some in the space science community want to go much further – claiming, for example, that microbes have intrinsic value: “Microbes have intrinsic worth equal to, if not greater than, that of any other species.”

Others have gone so far as to claim that we should take no action deleterious to native microbial interests on alien worlds: “If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes.”2

Smith is interested in learning more about the moral intuitions of professional philosophers on these issues, and has put together a quick 3-question survey to help him do so. Please take a moment to complete it, and also, of course, please live long and prosper.

1 Cockell, Charles S., “The Rights of Microbes.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews. Jun 2004, Vol. 29 Issue 2, p149.
2 Sagan, Carl (1985) [Originally published 1980]. Cosmos. New York: Ballantine Books, p. 108

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