Recently my 5-year-old daughter saw E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the first time. It was, when I too was 5, the first movie I ever saw in a theater. I remembered the trail of Reese’s Pieces, the convenient Halloween costumes, the epic bike chase, and the tear-jerking glowing-finger ending when (spoiler alert) E.T. boards the ship and leaves 10-year-old Elliott behind to go home.
But I also remembered something else—and now my daughter too will remember it for a very long time: the spectacle of E.T. lying, ghastly white, in a creek-bed on the verge of death. Brought to Elliott’s home, E.T. and Elliott alike are taken by government agents into a kind of makeshift hospital.
It was all too distressing for my daughter. She wasn’t frightened of E.T. She was frightened for him. She found it so disturbing, in fact, that she endured several weeks of restless nights, haunted by the images. Just as I had been over three decades ago.
The philosopher-provocateur Peter Singer, a Princeton bioethicist, uses E.T. to challenge the assumption that “human rights” are only “human” after all. If we were to discover extraterrestrial life, what would be our moral obligations in the face of that life?
Singer asks his students whether it would be morally permissible to torture and kill E.T. They unanimously reject the notion. If we agree there is any treatment of extraterrestrials that would be wrong, he argues, then we accept that they have certain rights. We accept, in Singer’s words, that “the existence of another mind—another center of consciousness—places moral demands on us.”
For Singer, the key factor appears to be “whether consciousness is present.” The ability to experience, the ability to suffer, the ability to desire, are significant. Does it matter, then, whether that consciousness looks a great deal like ours?
(Or does it matter whether that consciousness is organic instead of, say, metallic? Could it be that rights should extend as well to machines, if machines are indeed able to achieve consciousness? Viewers of Westworld want to know. Perhaps it’s telling that magazines like Christianity Today now openly wonder whether we might have moral obligations toward, or should even demonstrate sacrificial love toward, creatures we make in our own image.)
There are, of course, other angles on our moral obligations. What would it do to us to treat an alien species (so to speak) inhumanely? What virtues or vices would we express through different courses of action?
If we ever do encounter an alien species, we may be glad we gave the matter some forethought.