Jesse Couenhoven
Villanova University 


Ethical Implications of the Search for Diverse Forms of Life 

I am particularly interested in the potential implications of astrobiological research to inform less anthropocentric approaches to ethical theory. While current work on the development and capacities of non-human animals offers significant clues, the search for life in other galaxies requires us to broaden our moral imaginations even further. I am developing a framework for ethics that permits a “benign relativism” about the good and the right. This meta-ethical theory is premised on the idea that most significant ethical claims are relative to the varied ways in which differing kinds of life, in their varied environments, can flourish. If this is right, there are only a small number of universal ethical norms, which are quite abstract. Such a theory can, nevertheless, be a “realist” ethic that affirms truth-claims about what is right or good for beings of particular sorts in particular environments. Without abandoning the notion that ethical claims have an objective referent—the flourishing of living beings and their communities—such a theory opens up the possibility that beings unlike ourselves might quite properly be called to obligations and virtues different from our own, and be owed different kinds of relationships than we owe to forms of life with which we are more familiar.

Jesse Couenhoven earned his B.A. in psychology at Oberlin College, a Master’s degree in historical theology from Yale Divinity School, and his PhD from Yale’s Religion Department. He has published articles on Barthian, Augustinian, and feminist theologies of sin and grace, freedom, natural law, virtue ethics, forgiveness, and retributive justice. His first book (Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ, Oxford University Press, 2013) offered a novel reading of Augustine’s views about original sin and operative grace, then defended revised versions of those doctrines, in conversation with recent work in philosophy and psychology.