One of the leading NASA scientists recently announced that there will be strong indications about the existence of life outside Earth within the next decade, and proof of it within 20-30 years.
A discovery of this magnitude would be considered among the most important in human history and has immediately sparked a series of complex social and moral questions. One of the deepest fears surrounds the moral status of extraterrestrial life forms.
Since humanities scholars are just now beginning to think critically and profoundly about the types of issues that would come up after we make contact, naive ideas are often seen.
Let's take Martian life for example. Scientists say that they don't know whether there's life on Mars but if it exists it'll most certainly be in microbial form and clinging uncertainly to underground water sources.
This type of life may or may not have an independent origin. It could arise or have already arisen on Mars and be brought to Earth. Whatever its status, the prospect for life on Mars is tempting some scientists to walk along the edge of morality.
Of particular interest is the idea called Mars Mania. It can be traced back to Carl Sagan, who was adamant that if there is life on Mars, we humans shouldn't do anything with it. Mars belongs to the Martians, even if they are just microorganisms.
Chris McKay, one of the preeminent Mars experts at NASA goes even a step further, stating that it is our duty to actively help Martian life along, not just so it survives but so that it thrives. Martian life has rights. It has a right to continue its existence even if its extinction would benefit the flora and fauna on Earth. We are also obligated to help advance global diversity and stability.
For many, this stance seems noble because it calls upon human sacrifice in the name of a moral standard. But in reality the Mars Mania stance is too vast in scope to allow for practical or moral considerations.
The solution is to work hard on formulating the right principles with the necessary level of generality before the circumstances make the moral debate meaningless. This requires working with complex compromises and difficult choices in an intellectually honest way and to avoid the temptation of comforting but impractical moral platitudes.