Do aliens have rights? Do they, these hypothetical space-traversing visitors to our blue rock, deserve the rights enjoyed by Americans?
*Brake screeeeeech.* *“The X-Files” intro music plays.* *Kang and Kodos laugh uproariously.*
Wait. Why am I bringing up space aliens and deontological ethics? Cosmonautics Day was last month. The Perseverance rover touched down on Mars back in February. So why broach the sticky subject of extraterrestrial rights now?
The government is making me, obviously. According to a lengthy report in The New Yorker, the American public may finally get to see real, unimpeachable evidence that we are not alone in the universe. And, in fact, we haven’t been alone for at least 50 years, when a pilot thought he descried “flying saucers” near Mt. Rainier, 60 miles south of Seattle. Since that kairos of otherworldly espying, rumors of alien visitation have flitted in and out and back into the mainstream American press. The US government even confirmed the existence of an evidentiary trove of unexplainable sightings of aerial phenomena that defy our understanding of physics and la technologie de vol.
Thanks to President Trump signing the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2021 last December, the government will have to gather all paranormal evidence mothballed in filing cabinets and hard drives throughout various executive agencies and release a report on the findings this June. Forget the post-pandemic party summer; this could be the summer of little green men. Fermi paradox, eat your eerily-glowing-blood-pumping heart out.
So on to the practical implications, namely, what in Uranus happens if we discover that non-native Earthians live among us? How do we address them? Treat them under the law? Should they be given the same deference we give to our fellow man? Perhaps more deference as a potential deterrent? If aliens have indeed been living and working and socializing amidst us measly humans, that must mean they’re masked like bodysnatchers. Must we grub for them in a crowd with a few good face pummels like Captain Marvel?
An attendee of my college philosophy club once raised the subject of alien rights, which was, by my estimate, one of the less obscure inquiries we tackled. In true Socratic fashion, no consensus was ever concretized. Even for thoughtful, if eccentric, philosomaths, the topic proved too carbon-hard to crack. Too many factors obscured a ready answer, and, in turn, raised even more questions. What was the aliens’ nature? Their disposition? Were they friendly, hostile, perspicacious, dull-headed? How did they think? Were they economical? Could they understand what a currency is and use it in commercial transactions? Could they mate and start a family? Could they create a Facebook account and argue online with strangers?
And why should they get any rights to begin with? Why is awarding extraterrestrials—invaders, really—legal protections worthy of consideration in the first place? Or, to paraphrase Pushkin, why should star dwellers have the gifts of freedom?
These questions, then exiguous in real world significance and done for fun arguendo, may have practical application soon. But they also reveal how the libertarian-minded (it was a philosophy club, after all) view the matter of rights and how those claims are entwined with freedom.
Outside the purely utilitarian view, there are generally two ways of considering rights. In the Thomistic tradition, rights belong to man because it’s in man’s nature to possess them. We reason, we acquire things, we conceive of our own individual autonomy. We also conflict with one another, necessitating an objective standard by which to judge competing claims. This standard is often called “natural law,” and it’s rooted in ontologically understood rights. The American Constitution was drafted in this intellectual vein.
Murray Rothbard addressed the so called “Martian problem” of rights with Thomistic deduction. He wrote: “If we should ever discover and make contact with beings from other planets, could they be said to have the rights of human beings?” It’s all about their nature, stupid! Rothbard concluded: “If our hypothetical ‘Martians’ were like human beings—conscious, rational, able to communicate with us and participate in the division of labor—then presumably they too would possess the rights now confined to ‘[E]arthbound’ humans.”
And if they don’t? Then our unreasoning starfield friends don’t amount to much more than chattel. And should the alien intellect supercede ours? Well, we had a good run of this sod.
The other cosmovision of rights is not based on reason but tradition. The rights we enjoy today are the result of centuries of convention and precedent. They are not metaphysical affirmations, but tangible products of our patrimony. “Rights are not secured by declaring them. They are secured by the procedures that protect them,” Roger Scruton wrote. From Runnymede to the Boston Harbor to Philadelphia to Appomattox to (in the most generous reading) every day Congress is in session, our rights as Americans are secured by acts of self-government. In this view, rights are contingent on continuity. But their appeal is in lived history and experience—not on abstract precepts.
So how would off-world beings fit into this ritualistic rights paradigm? They wouldn’t, at first. Our Constitution was written to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” It’s still a matter of hotly adjudicated debate on whether the Constitution’s strictures apply in toto to non-Americans, let alone non-Earth-dwellers.
So where does that leave potential out-of-planet company and their unidentified flying vehicles that, presumably, require parking spaces, one of mankind’s most valuable commodities?
For the left, who mostly believe rights are nonexistent and every breath you breathe is a government-afforded privilege, aliens would likely be welcomed with open arms, put on the dole, given a housing voucher for a cramped apartment, then told it’s an Earthly custom to vote Democratic in every election.
The right would be of two minds on alien rights—except for neoconservative who’d greet extraterrestrials with draft cards, buck-private fatigues, and one-way tickets to Aleppo, à la “Gangs of New York.” Thomistic libertarians would readily extend our rights regime to any anthropomorphous interstellar being who can quote “cogito, ergo sum” and doesn’t immediately vaporize us with a ray gun. The traditionalist conservative would be more circumspect in offering the same rights that have been fought for, died for, and democratically deliberated over for hundreds of years to anybody who just waltzed on through our atmosphere. Perhaps if an ET émigré renounces any previous allegiance to three-headed potentates on 55 Cancri e and recites the Pledge of Allegiance, then maybe, perhaps if we’re feeling extra munificent, the Fifth Amendment’s due process clauses can apply to him. Just as long as any back taxes are paid in full, even if the typical alien lifespan overshoots America’s 245 years.
Here’s where natural law libertarians and culture-minded conservatives can converge on alien rights: exhibiting caution over any outsider. The intention of any straniero astro-guests should always be inspected before dusting off the welcome mat. That doesn’t preclude due kindness to another living species. But none of us need commit the fatal error the blindly trusting yippies did atop the US Bank Tower.
“Man is the measure of all things,” said Protagoras. May he still be the yardstick by which we assign normative duties. And not let Pollyannaish ideas of man-alien technological collaboration leave us with our guard down.
And if it turns out aliens have been on our earthy terra-firma all along, living, toiling, settling, interacting, governing, and even procreating with humans? Plato may have to go back to the drawing board.