Astrobiology and the Necessity of Ethics
While science changes rapidly, human understanding develops slowly. Knowing ourselves requires reflection on the whole history of science, its interactions with society, and the ethical use and misuse of the knowledge it has provided. Astrobiology, with its interest in the origin, extent, and future of life in the universe is clearly directed toward this kind of comprehensive understanding, as well as toward new scientific discoveries. Indeed, a full investigation of the origin and extent of life is a project that will stretch at least as far into the future as the human search for knowledge can be traced back into the past. In each direction, the horizons recede as we approach them. Astrobiology is an intergenerational undertaking of unprecedented scope, in which we will shape the future of life as well as investigate its possibilities. Astrobiology thus includes politics and ethics as surely as it builds on biology and physics. We will never know about life beyond our solar system unless we commit resources to projects that will not be completed in our lifetimes. We will not be able to make those commitments unless we develop ideas of responsibility that hold us accountable to future generations and make those yet unborn stewards of our aspirations. The techniques of science change with dizzying speed. Public life seems to become more democratic only by becoming short-sighted and self-interested. One way to envision a different kind of science and society is to ask what sort of politics and ethics would make astrobiology possible.
Robin W. Lovin is William H. Scheide Senior Fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, and Cary Maguire University Professor of Ethics emeritus at Southern Methodist University. A resident scholar at CTI since 2012, he became a member of the SMU faculty in 1994, and served as Dean of SMU’s Perkins School of Theology from 1994-2002. Dr. Lovin’s most recent books are Christian Realism and the New Realities (2008) and An Introduction to Christian Ethics (2011). He has also written extensively on religion and law and comparative religious ethics. He is a former Guggenheim Fellow, former president of the Society of Christian Ethics, and a member of the advisory board for the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life at Oxford University.