Ethics and the Potential Conflicts between Astrobiology, Planetary Protection, and Commercial Use of Space
Planetary protection is very important for astrobiology. When sending unmanned as well as manned missions to other worlds it is vital to avoid contamination of that world, but we know that total sterilization of humans and machines is impossible. This means that we need to find a balance between our efforts to find life and our efforts to protect it. So far planetary protection is mainly about “protecting the science” rather than protecting the organisms for their own sake. This might not be enough, however. If extraterrestrial life has moral standing in its own right, there will be moral obligations for protecting this life that demand a higher degree of protection. It might also imply moral restrictions for what we can do to these life forms that will be in direct conflict with their use as study objects. This question is not only relevant in relation to scientific exploraration. It is in fact even more relevant in connection with commercial use of other worlds (since it can be easily imagined that commercial use will be of a more intrusive character than scientific exploration). The increased utilization and commercialization of space has obvious economical and judicial implications, but it has also deeply human and ethical implications.
Erik Persson has a PhD in philosophy from Lund University. His primary research interests are applied ethics and value theory, in particular environmental ethics and space ethics. He has published several book chapters and journal articles on ethical aspects of astrobiology. He is presently principal investigator for the research project “A Plurality of Lives” at the Pufendorf Institute for Advanced Studies as Lund University. The project aims at investigating how the discovery of extraterrestrial life, and the creation of synthetic life, will affect our conception of and attitude to life.