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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anon grad
anon grad
6 years ago

It seems Star Trek might have something to say about the petri dish. Check out Next Generation Season 3, Episode 1: Evolution.Report

Erik
Erik
6 years ago

You might want to read my paper on the moral status of extraterrestrial life in Astrobiology 10 (2012).
Good luck with your investigation!Report

Richard Hanley
Richard Hanley
6 years ago

The Cockell article is called “The Rights of Microbes” and the abstract reads:
“Over the last forty years, the circle of organisms thought worthy of inclusion within an ethical framework has expanded markedly, in large part in response to Aldo Leopold’s ‘land ethic’. However, there are still clear limits to the forms of life we are willing to include in such a framework. In this paper I suggest that a strong case can be made for microorganisms to be accorded special ethical status, as they represent the base of all food chains and of the major biogeochemical cycles. Without lions there is life, but without microorganisms there can be no higher life forms. The notion of protecting individual microorganisms may be absurd, but microbial communities and ecosystems nevertheless deserve protection, and offer an example of the merit of a population based approach to environmental ethics. I argue that humankind should assume the position of a moral agent to the microbial world, by formally recognising the intrinsic worth of microorganisms, as well as their utilitarian value to humans and to the rest of life on earth. The practical implications of such an ethic are discussed.”

I did the survey, but this is one of those cases where “professional philosophers” come off like a-holes. By Cockell’s argument, carbon and oxygen have intrinsic worth, not to mention a gazillion other things. Perhaps Cockell doesn’t understand what “intrinsic” means? (Or “rights” or “deserve”…) Sheesh.Report

Richard Hanley
Richard Hanley
6 years ago

@anongrad: since I (literally) wrote the book on Star Trek, I suppose I should respond… The difference between the cases is that the nanites in “Evolution” demonstrate features that we commonly take to be sufficient for moral considerability: intelligence and the ability to communicate linguistically. This seems to be no part of either Cockell’s or Sagan’s claims about alien microbes… (Compare also TOS’s “The Devil in the Dark”)Report

JRS
JRS
6 years ago

Some feedback for Smith, in case she’s reading:

In question 1, the quotation doesn’t “exemplify” the claim that microbes have intrinsic moral value; it exemplifies something much stronger, viz. that they have a very high level of intrinsic moral value. That they have intrinsic moral value seems less absurd to me than what the quotation says.

I haven’t read the author’s paper, but I wonder if she’s tackled the literature on moral status: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/grounds-moral-status/ It seems like her view conflicts with every general account of moral status on the table.

Another thing to consider: if the alien microbes have intrinsic value, must it be *moral* value? Why couldn’t it be aesthetic?Report