With NASA predicting that we’re likely to discover aliens in the next 20 years, it’s probably a good idea to mentally and morally brace ourselves for contact. If the instinctual tribalism of the human race has resulted in morally hazardous reactions to the migration crisis — and it certainly has — one can only imagine the potential incoherence of a debate about real illegal aliens. Compared to the difficult and immediate questions posed by the Syrian exodus this might seem like a querulous inquiry, but it’s illustrative: What would we do if aliens, fleeing a galactic civil war, came to Earth seeking sanctuary? It’s a moral quandary that underlines the flimsiness of public morality.

According to astrobiologist Christopher Impey, Ph.D., the question is ultimately about sympathy. In 2013, Impey edited a compilation of scientific and philosophical ideas on future first encounters called Encountering Life in the Universe, an exercise that allowed him to distill the alien ethics debate into two broad questions: “How do we define life?” and “What is intelligence?”

The first question is easy to complicate but fundamentally simple. The second question can’t be so easily dismissed because we lack the perspective on intelligence that experiencing both amoebas and puppies has given us on life. Human intelligence is our basic model for higher lifeform-ness, which leads to what Impey calls a definition problem.

“This issue is clearly not resolved on the Earth,” he says, referring to creatures like orcas, apes, and elephants that exhibit signs of self-awareness and awareness of their own mortality. “Whatever the gold standard is on sentience, there’s certainly a handful of species that come close to meeting it, and we haven’t resolved their status ethically or legally.”

That doesn’t mean we’re not considering it.

As director of the Nonhuman Rights Project, Steve Wise spends a lot of time attempting to resolve the questions Impey poses. Wise is an activist and his cause is “autonomy.” If a being — human, animal, alien, or AI — is conscious, self-conscious, and can choose how to live its life, he told Inverse, we have a duty to allow for its self-determination.

Wise says his conviction has to do with a belief about where rights come from. While being a human is a sufficient condition for having rights, Wise doesn’t think it’s a necessary one. Autonomy, however, is. The fact that we may share this fundamental characteristic with aliens is grounds to argue that they should have at least some rights.

The very least we would owe autonomous aliens — assuming we weren’t locked in some sort of cosmic battle with them — is the right to habeas corpus or the right not to be imprisoned against one’s will, says Wise. “If they have a will, like us, they won’t want to be imprisoned,” he says, illustrating this argument with the disturbing reality of lab apes. “The fact that a chimpanzee is autonomous would far outweigh any differences in species or what its hair looks like. As a matter of equality, they’re not relevant — that shouldn’t even go into the equation.”

An alien refugee in Cape Town

The natural conclusion to draw based on Impey’s and Wise’s work is that the biggest problem refugee aliens would face likely wouldn’t be hostility but egocentrism. There’s reason to believe we might hurt a few individuals for research purposes because we can make an objectivist argument for doing so, but we probably wouldn’t antagonize a larger population. We just might not do anything to help. Moral inertia affects how we deal with the foreign.

Humans are one form of intelligent life among many — even if how many remains unknown. Unfortunately, our form of intelligence makes empathy difficult. We’d likely save the aliens if they came to Earth, but they’d likely wish they went elsewhere.

Photos via District 9, http://www.deviantart.com/art/First-Contact-190045046