Ethics of Terraforming a New Planet/Moon with our Engineered Organisms

As our projects are involved with space exploration, we have received comments about and have wrestled with the ethics of terraforming other worlds with engineered organisms. This is an ongoing debate and there are no right answers, but we wish to shed some light on the different sides of this issue, while hopefully suggesting that applying our work to other planets directly is an ethically sound endeavor.

First, it is fair to assume that if there were no life at all on another planet, the vast majority of people would see no problem with colonizing or terraforming another world from an ethical standpoint. Working from this, the debate is centered on the premise of there being native life on the world in question.

In general those who support terraforming would argue:

  • We have a moral obligation to humanity to make other worlds suitable for Terran life considering that an unhealthy or extinct Earth may be inhabitable in the future. If it came down to humankind vs. a foreign bacteria, a lot wouldn’t hesitate to make that call.
  • There is evidence/theory to suggest that life on another planet or moon (Mars for example) could originate from a common ancestor with Earth or even from Earth itself. Microbes on this world would not be so different from life on our planet where we accept organismal competition already.
  • For those who argue that we have a need to preserve nature instead of placing more value on human utility, one could argue that humans ourselves (with our profoundly unique attributes) are a product of nature that has evolved to potentially be able to settle in other parts of space. The idea of preserving nature here can be turned around to argue that preserving our outerspace wandering selves is like preserving native biota.

In contrast those who disagree could criticize with the following points:

  • There is an intrinsic value to all life, and thus there is a need to preserve the existence of any native life forms.
  • We shouldn’t favor human interests while causing harm to ecological systems or the environment.
  • Extraterrestial life would be mankind’s greatest discovery and it should be preserved. Furthermore, it could perhaps be desirable to terraform if it led to an environment that would nurture the extraterrestrial life allowing it to evolve further. In general though, keeping the life undisturbed would be a safer route.
  • Being on another planet, humans would still pollute and destroy as we have done with Earth. This is a bit more of a pragmatic maybe even cynical thought.