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Thursday, October 13, 2016

What Scientists and Philosophers Say About Our Right to Visit Inhabited Planets | Big Think (blog)

Photo: Scotty Hendricks
"Mars has captivated humanity since the time of ancient Babylonian astronomers." according to Scotty Hendricks, Iowa based writer and educator. Part time philosopher. 
Have we overstepped our bounds in sending probes to Mars?
Photo: Getty Images

In the modern era, the idea of life on Mars has been a focus of such great minds as H.G. Wells, Carl Sagan, and David Bowie. As Big Think has mentioned in the last week or two, plans are underway to take humanity to Mars within the next two decades. President Obama has even channeled John F. Kennedy in his recent endorsement of sending a person to Mars and “returning them safely to the Earth”.

There is no shortage of people who want us to get to Mars, but less noticed among them are the people who ask, “Should we go?”. While the reasons that would compel us to go to Mars are many and substantial there is a vital question that must be considered. 

What if there is already life on Mars? Should we still go if there is?
Suppose for a moment that we discovered tomorrow that there was life on Mars, most certainly it would be limited to microscopic life, but it would still be life. It would be the most significant discovery in the history of science. Would mankind be entitled to colonize Mars in this case? Could we claim it was still moral to do so?

One of the greatest advocates of space exploration in the 20th century, Carl Sagan, said no. In the chapter 'Blues for a Red Planet' in his book Cosmos, he discusses the idea fully: "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. When he wrote that in 1980, inconclusive evidence on such life being on Mars from the Viking landers made his statement incredibly relevant.

While we might consider the idea of life on Mars less likely than he did, the question he tries to answer remains important. Especially when mankind moves beyond Mars and towards other candidates for life harboring worlds such as Europa, Titan, or Enceladus.   

Sagan was opposed to anthropocentrism, the belief that humans are exceptional or otherwise extremely significant, both on Earth and in the universe. In defending the rights of Martian microbes to their planet, Sagan suggests that all life has great value and that our ability to get to Mars does not constitute a right to colonize it. His position was reflected here on Earth through his support of the Cornell Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, as their faculty advisor.

On the other hand, the argument could be made that the life we are most likely to find on Mars, if any, would be microbial and thus perhaps not entitled to any special rights. After all, who cares for the rights of microbes on Earth?

Consider a few methods of deciding who has certain rights in modern philosophy. They tend to run into the issue of anthropocentrism, and find it difficult to protect the rights, if any, of non-human life. Microbes get left out entirely.

Source: Big Think (blog) 

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