Interview with Erik Persson

Erik Persson holds the PhD in philosophy from Lund University. His primary research interests are applied ethics and value theory, in particular environmental ethics and space ethics. He has published several book chapters and journal articles on ethical aspects of astrobiology. He is presently principal investigator for the research project “A Plurality of Lives” at the Pufendorf Institute for Advanced Studies as Lund University. The project aims at investigating how the discovery of extraterrestrial life, and the creation of synthetic life, will affect our conception of and attitude to life.

Josh Mauldin: You have written several journal articles and book chapters focused on ethical questions in astrobiology. What are some of the key issues you have written about?

Erik Persson: The most important issue I have focused on has been how to relate morally to other life forms. That is something I have worked with on our own planet and that has also been my focus when it comes to extra-terrestrial life. Today, planetary protection is focused on the value of extra-terrestrial life for science. I am asking if there might also be other values or if extra-terrestrial life might have moral standing in its own right, and what that would mean for astrobiology.

Another issue I have focused on has to do with emerging commercial interests in space. I refer in particular to how commercial interests and scientific interests can co-exist, but also to how we can make sure that commercial exploration of space is done in a sustainable and democratic way. There is a lot happening in terms of commercial initiatives for space exploration and space exploitation right now. Most of it is in the form of very long term investments. As we know both philosophical thinking and policy making take time, so it is in fact high time to start working on these questions.

JM: As a philosopher, what led you to take an interest in the emerging field of astrobiology? 

EP: I have been working a lot with environmental ethics, and planetary protection is essentially environmental ethics on an inter-planetary scale, so it was a natural next step in my research. It was also a way of combining three of my major interests: Space, biology and philosophy.

JM: Tell me about the project you are working on during the year at CTI.

EP: My project here at CTI deals with ethical questions at the intersection of planetary protection, astrobiology and commercial space use. I am trying to identify potential conflicts between two or all of them and apply methods from environmental ethics to handle them in a constructive way. It is in particular important to identify which values are at stake and to describe and classify these values so they can be weighed against each other. It is, for example, important to discuss where to strike the balance between protecting extra-terrestrial life on the one hand, and finding and studying it on the other. It is also important to discuss where to strike the balance between these values and the potentially enormous economic values at stake in connection with mining and tourism in space.

JM: How has your time at CTI shaped your project? 

EP: The most important impact my time at CTI has had on my project is in the form of the time I have been able to put into the project, time that I don’t have at my own university, with teaching and administration. For emprirical sciences it is important to have access to lab fascilities, large telescopes, etc., but for philosophers the greatest asset is time. Deep thinking takes time. I have also met many people here (colleagues and others) with approaches very different from mine, which has created a need to explain what I am doing in very different words and from very different perspectives. Explaining what one is doing to people with different backgrounds is actually a great way of forcing oneself to look at one’s own project from other angles, which in turn creates new ideas that sometimes are very useful.