Expanding The Abortion Debate To Aliens And Robots

alien-1Choose life. For the stalkers out there, that is what my license plate says. The DMV had a number of options in my state that allowed drivers who are registering their vehicle to advertise a cause that they are passionate about and donate the proceeds to that cause by purchasing a distinct license plate. The proceeds for my license plate went to a pro-life pregnancy center. Life transcends every other social issue in the sense that slavery would transcend social issues. It should not be discussed in passing amongst trade, gun control, and the myriad of other issues. Yet with the advent of modern science, the debate about life could take a turn that has only previously been explored in philosophical thought experiments (such as this one) and science fiction. Expanding the abortion debate to aliens and robots may be something more than an interesting idea. It could be a reality.

alien-2Since my base of readers is composed primarily of Christians, I expect that many people will deny that aliens exist. Aliens would raise too many difficult theological problems. But the fact that the existence of aliens would raise difficult theological problems should not cause us to recoil. Church doctrine is full of the solutions to difficult theological problems. The reason that we do not notice these challenges is that the problems have already been solved, debated for two thousand years and the answers popularized. Perhaps the discovery of aliens would be of spiritual benefit to Christians because it would cause them to seriously reflect upon their faith, to ask and seek the answers to difficult questions. The reason that I framed this question as expanding the abortion debate to aliens and robots is pretty simple. We would have to ask whether these creatures had any intrinsic rights or value, whether we could harvest their planet, and ultimately whether we could end their lives.

The Biblical And Secular Worldviews And Their Implications

Some may think that so many Christians oppose the Theory of Evolution because it upends biblical authority. The Bible says one thing and evolution is saying another. When one chooses evolution, they are exhibiting a lack of trust in God’s word. I think there may be a deeper reason that so many oppose the Theory of Evolution, beyond resisting the long-standing metaphorical interpretations of Genesis. Evolution is not just an abstract scientific theory. It speaks to who we are and where we come from. If human beings are just the result of a long, natural process, emerging from the earth, the sum of matter, time and chance, that would imply that human beings do not truly have intrinsic worth. After all, they emerged from the same conditions as animals. How can one say that the man is of any more value than the dog? The Christian worldview states that the man is made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). Traditionally, we have interpreted this to mean that we have a sort of divine spark; we know right from wrong, are intelligent and can love. The doctrine of the image dei serves as the foundation for our moral duties. It is wrong to bring harm to an image-bearer.

This will inevitably raise the question of who the image-bearer actually is. Embryology and philosophy tell us that the unborn is an image-bearer. Humans bear the image of God, and if the unborn are humans, then they, too, bear the image of God. Slaying them would be an immorality. But suppose tomorrow, a non-combatant alien craft were to emerge above a major city. We would be left considering our ethical obligations toward them. Perhaps we might consider them a threat and preemptively destroy their ship. Is there any ethical reason that we should not take a preemptive strike against aliens? The biblical ethical system will apply to image-bearers. But just as animals do not have any rights, we might posit that aliens do not have any rights either. Yet suppose they had a similar mindset, believing that human beings did not have any rights. It would seem that hospitality and a resistance toward violence would be the ideal standard. But even that is not a reason for believing that they have rights. It is a measure of self-protection. If we cooperate, they will cooperate.

Yet this is where the debate about life would take a sharp turn. On the secularist worldview, humans are not necessarily made in the image of God. They evolved over a long period of time in a metaphysically unguided process, emerging from the earth in the same manner as animals. On this perspective, animals really do have rights and we really can violate them (Think of the primate Harambe who was gunned down). If animals have rights on a secular worldview, then it would seem that this would easily extend to alien visitors. Especially if they are sentient and seem to exhibit traits only found in other humans. They would be something like a tribe of people in the Brazilian rainforest. In this case, it would seem that the secularist would be the one who was defending life while the Christian would probably be the one defending choice.

How Could We Distinguish Aliens From Animals?

Essential to the discussion among Christians would have to be what it means to be made in the image of God. How can we know that an individual is an image-bearer? Previously, we have used humanity as the standard. If you are human, then, you are made in the image of God. You are human, therefore you are made in the image of God. But that does not imply that if you are not human, then you are not made in the image of God. Being human would seem to be a sufficient condition for recognizing the imago dei, but not a necessary condition. In other words, we might posit that an individual could be made in the image of God even if they are not a human.

Then the question becomes one of qualification. The reason that we tend to settle on “being human” as the standard for the imago dei is that personhood is notoriously difficult to define. Many of our qualifications would exclude those who we recognize as persons. If we say that they must exhibit intelligence beyond that of an animal, we might exclude infants, toddlers, the unborn, the comatose and the decrepit. If we suggest that they need to exhibit some sort of moral behavior, then we would be excluding sociopaths. Are sociopaths not truly people? Sociopaths cannot be redeemed?

Further, the basis for our belief that mankind is made in the image of God and animals are not is that the Bible says that God made man in his image, seeming to exclude the animal kingdom. It does not say that he did not make animals in his image. But if the Bible’s silence about animals being made in the image of God is not grounds for raising questions about that, why should it be grounds for raising questions about aliens? It cannot rest in their intelligence or their moral awareness, because animals exhibit comparable traits as well. A possible resolution could be to develop a threshold. If they meet the threshold, then they are persons. But this seems bizarre and arbitrary. It would also succumb to the problem of the morally or intellectually deficient human (or alien). It would seem that the most practical and logical standard for personhood would be that an individual is a human.

How Could We Distinguish Robots From Humans?

Any species who was capable of traversing galaxies and discovering intelligent lifeforms across the universe would have to be very advanced in technology. But it is the advances of human technology that give rise to our next moral question. Those who find the concept of aliens to be implausible may be a bit more hospitable to the concept of the synthetic human – robots that behave and look like human beings. In a world in which technology is advancing faster than anybody can keep track of it, the concept does not seem out of this world. The fact that we can contain more information in a small chip than could have been contained on a massive console ten years ago seems revealing. In fact, there are currently robots available to perform certain functions. However, this is not so much an apologetic for the possibility of robots as much as it as a thought experiment about the ethical questions that emerge.

The problem of criteria for personhood would expand even further if it were applied to robots. As part of its’ programming, a synthetic human could plausibly, if asked, claim to be a human being, exhibit self-awareness, morality, and everything that it was programmed to do. This is what happened on an episode of Star Trek titled The Measure of A Man. In this episode, the right of the robot to life and the right of the creator to choose to shut it down were debated. If a robot were created with human DNA, what foundation would exist for saying that it did not possess the right to life? Philosophers might even argue for a form of emergentism, which is to say that a mind distinct from the body emerged from the brain despite that it was a created by a man.

Perhaps the most compelling biblical argument against the personhood of the robot would be to say that it was not a child of Adam. The opponent might rejoin, though, that Eve was also not a child of Adam and yet she was a person. Further, there are many Christians who would deny that all human beings are literally children of Adam, but are instead under what is known as the Federal Headship of Adam. The synthetic human would fit neatly into that category. If the abortion debate were extended to aliens and robots, it seems that the question of synthetic humans would be a little more challenging than the question of aliens.

For the secularist, though, it would seem that the life of the robot would likely prevail for the same reasons that the rights of the aliens would prevail. The ruling on Star Trek yielded something like what we might expect in a secularist court of law. Of the robot, it was said, “It sits there looking at me and I don’t know what it is. This case has dealt with metaphysics, with questions best left to saints and philosophers. I am neither competent nor qualified to answer those. But I’ve got to make a ruling to speak to the future. Is Data a machine? Yes. Is he the property of Starfleet? No. We have been dancing around the basic issue: Does Data have a soul? I don’t know that he has. I don’t know that I have. But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself. It is the ruling of this court that Lt. Commander Data has the right to choose.” In this case, the right to choose was the right to life.

Expanding The Abortion Debate To Aliens And Robots

If nothing else can be gleaned from this article, it is that ethics can be daunting. The answers are not always neatly wrapped up. Sometimes we have to think hard about difficult questions because we are not standing on the shoulders of giants. We know many things. We know that man is made in the image of God, that he is a sinner and that Jesus died for our sins. We know that even somebody who gets an abortion can be redeemed by the blood of the Son, that if they put their faith in the promises of God, they will rise from the dead, being given the free gift of eternal life, just as the Son of God rose from the dead. We know that Jesus is God. We know that abortion is wrong and life is sacred. But we do not always know the answers. If expanding the abortion debate to aliens and robots is frightening because you do not know the answers, then perhaps that is a reason to think about it. Challenge yourself with these difficult questions. The synthetic human, possessing human DNA, looking and acting like a human, claiming to be a man, claiming to love, does he have any rights? Why? Why not? Explain your answer in the comments.

Recommended Reading:
Is The Unborn Biologically Human?
What Should Christians Think About Aliens?

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