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Benjamin C. Kinney @BenCKinney
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It's the moment you've been waiting for! Tonight's #SoCIA18 keynote speaker is the science fiction author Elizabeth Bear (@matociquala) on "What Do We Owe The Galaxy? Ethical Considerations of Practical Astrobiological Research."
For the purpose of this talk, the definition of life will be based off Damon Knight's definition of science fiction: "Whatever I'm pointing at when I say 'life'."
What do we know about astrobiology? Baaasically nothing. All we have are theories and extrapolations, but that's enough to let us start building an ethical framework. In the absence of data, science fiction is fully qualified to explore this!
It seems unlikely so far that life is weird and unlikely. Not that past performance predicts future results, but odds are we'll encounter other lifeforms, if we go far enough out into the galaxy.
So if we find other life forms and biomes, what do we owe them? What are their rights? Can we even be trusted to interact with them? And what about nonsentient life, plants, microbiota?
What are the ethical ramifications of scientific experimentation on these things, that may be unable to give consent? There are no answers to these, of course - but as always, "finding the right questions" is where it's at.
On Earth, we often care about (and legislate) treatment of pets, and even food animals.
Zoonotic contamination is unlikely, but not impossible. And boy do we have a bad legacy of protecting environments & indigenous peoples.
We want to learn things. And we should! Scientific knowledge is good! But the informed consent of sapient research participants is necessary.
Humans have a long (and recent) history of calling the marginalized other as non-sapient, or at least irrational, and using that as an excuse to allow us to use them for our convenience.
It's kindof amazing how we manage to have relationships with pets and other animals (compared to the troubles we have with family members!). Productive relationships with aliens may be possible.
We're in a perpetual adolescence as a species. We've made terrible mistakes, some beyond forgiveness. But some of us are trying to learn from all the dodos and passenger pigeons and displaced persons. But that requires painful self-criticism.
Do we accept that we have a duty of care to other entities? It's certainly short-term easiest to skip that self-criticism and keep extracting what we want. But that is childish. Adults consider implications of their actions, even on others, even in conflict with own convenience.
If we must carry out science on alien life (which we probably should, and certainly shall), with what ethical systems? Bioethicists have a usable approach.
Principles of modern medical ethics: non-maleficence (do no harm), beneficence (do good), justice (burdens & benefits must be distributed equally), autonomy (people make their own decisions - informed consent).
Medicine has in the past failed to uphold this human dignity & autonomy. In response to these, the medical community has developed these principles, and practices to support them.
We should avoid acts that cause harm and undermine autonomy, but some level of influence/change is inevitable in contact.
Modern archaeologists leave portions of dig sites intentionally intact, so future archaeologists (with better tools & methods & ideas) will have stuff to work with. A relatively new idea, this husbanding of resources!
We have only recently been able to start affecting ourselves on global scale - and boy are some of us slow to understand that fact & its implications.
"Rationality" is a dangerous standard. We are not so rational as we like to think we are, and we have a long history of declaring "irrational" those who are inconvenient, different, or otherwise in our way.
Q&A begins: What is the role of story writers in this call to action? Narrative is one of the ways we learn, even when a scientist is telling a story about their work...
.... Fiction writers should create space to tell stories in new ways, discuss ethical complexities, and provide stories that are more than the old myth of valorized human exceptionalism.
How alien should aliens be, in a story? As alien as she can write, she says. Alien views let you interrogate common cultural assumptions, identify them as assumptions/shibboleths.
Her favorite ethical dilemma she's written? From the New England tradition of "comedy of ethics." Her choice is from the ending of Carnival. (No spoilers though.)
Questions about LeGuin's "Left Hand of Darkness." Bear notes that (in her view of SF) the author doesn't have to be *right* about the future. The audience is ~modern-day humans; the author should force them to interrogate their beliefs.
Question about the "what have we done to this planet???" angle. It depends a bit on point of view. For the joking answer, we are a PROFOUNDLY successful adaptive tool for the Norwegian rat! ....
...We've fixed some of our worst problems (DDT, ozone hole), but our fixes can create new problems (bedbugs, global warming chemicals). Well, sometimes you gotta step back and give nature time to correct itself...
...Hard for us to destroy the *planet*. We could ruin it for ourselves, we could mess up the current environment, but there will be something new to take the niches. A big die-off is bad for *us*.
Thanks for listening in, internetfrenz! Continued tomorrow! Though I can't livetweet the first talk tomorrow, 'cause I'm giving that one. I'll find some other way to tell you all about "A Selfish Case for a Non-Interference Principle."
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