By Joseph Orosco (November 4, 2015)
Adam Frank, thinking about the success of Matt Damon’s new film The Martian, asks whether it would be moral to explore and colonize Mars. One of his concerns has to do with how we will treat any possible life forms that we encounter there, even at the microbial level.
This question made me remember the infamous debate in 1550 between Juan Gines de Sepulveda and Bartolome de las Casas in Vallodolid, Spain. The issue was the morality of the Spanish conquest of the Americas.
Sepulveda argued that the Spanish had just cause to colonize the Americas because they brought with them civilization and Christianity. Moreover, he maintained that a violent approach to the indigenous peoples was justified since they were obviously inferior and had a primitive and savage culture that bordered on demon worship. He felt that the Spanish would be doing the indigenous people a favor by destroying their way of life and releasing them from their brutal customs.
De las Casas, who came to be known in Latin America as the “defender of the Indians”, countered by saying that the indigenous people did not deserve to be treated so violently. They were human beings, too. However, de las Casas was no multiculturalist. He, too, believed that the indigenous way of life ought to be abandoned in favor of European culture and Christianity. The difference between him and Sepulveda was that he did not think that change could be accomplished through warfare. De las Casas felt that the Europeans should approach the indigenous people as fellow human beings and convert them through rational dialogue.
The Valladolid debate happened over 400 years ago, but it illustrates a central issue in the way human beings go about thinking about ethical matters. For the Europeans, the main questions were: Are these beings we have encountered in the Americas human beings? Are they like us? Because if they are like us, then we have to treat them ethically. In other words, we have to include them into our circle of moral consideration.
The late philosopher Richard Rorty wrote (in a discussion about the state of human rights violations in the 20th century) that these days we don’t need any more carefully argued philosophical theories about ethics. We need moving and imaginative literature that helps us to grasp, through our imagination, that other people are human beings who suffer, feel joy and pain, and live much like we do. In other words, the central moral problem for humanity is still the question of whether or not a living being is similar enough to us to be treated well (see, for instance, the legal debates about whether or not chimpanzees are “persons” and deserving of human rights).
For Rorty, we continue to have a hard enough time trying to include other people into our circle of human beings, worthy of dignified treatment. Our moral imagination is still very tribal and xenophobic. This does not bode well for any living beings we might encounter in space exploration, especially if they are unlike anything with which we are familiar. Perhaps that speculative fiction and moral philosophy that encourages us to ponder the contours of an encounter with the strange and other is really what we need, not only to answer questions about Martian colonization, but to help us solve human rights questions in the here and now.