19 November 2020

The ethics of space exploration

 Topic by Cristina


The ethics of space exploration by Lawrence


A few ethical issues were mentioned during the previous meeting on space exploration which I won’t mention in this is essay.


There are two issues with this question of ethics in space exploration. The first is: what to do with ethical problems that arise from exploring space for example should we spend the money on something else, occupying other planets, and space junk in our orbit.


The other issue is more philosophical in nature. Does space exploration lead to a new set of ethical principles that are not yet considered here on Earth? Or, maybe principles that won’t be possible to experience here on Earth. This scenario mainly assumes space exploration by humans or types of explorations that involves human intervention, for example robot exporation.


At the most extreme cases, how should explorers deal with the situation if they come across biological forms of life on some planet or even rock structures? I specifically say biological for the purpose of common life form with, but of course I am not necessarily thinking of human forms or even animal forms  or any biological form. The chances are that we might encounter microscopic and insect size forms of life. In the past and still do, we answered this question by activating racism as an answer. We can kill them and harm them because they are not us. And would it matter if explorers come across larger beings?


A few possible dilemmas would be: should the explorers try to eliminate these creatures irrespective of their intentional frame of being? A sort of shoot first and ask questions later strategy. The chances, however, are that an exploration expedition might have the means to identify these creatures, the micro organisms, but not necessarily to deal with them or the harm they might cause.


We are all familiar with the landing on the moon and the subsequent quarantine of the astronauts when they returned back on Earth. The fact that nothing happened to the astronauts on their way back could have been an indication that there was nothing to be afraid of. Of course we know this after the fact, but what could we have done if they did bring back a nasty micro organism from the moon? In reality only a few people can answer this question and they are not telling us: as the aphorism tells us Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.


But moving onto planets might be a different matter especially with long range explorations. Mars is already an active file for long range exploration. One idea was to send out a crew of astronauts only one way to the planet. The volunteers will have to remain on Mars till they passed away. There is no question that even today on Earth this would be immoral. Such an irregular context would only be considered in real life emergencies (e.g. nuclear accidents) or war conditions (destroy the enemy in their ports). Clearly if we don’t have the technology to bring people back then we don’t have the means to do deep space exploration. Why should the ethical and moral rules for exploring Mars be different from exploring the Moon?


But consider the case when humans have to evacuate the Earth and groups of people can be put on life supporting spaceship systems, but they cannot come back to Earth. Would they or their descendents have to develop a new set of ethics to fit their experience and situation? I am neutral whether such an ethical system would allow practices that we now consider unethical or the other way round maybe for these people what we allow to happen would be taboo for them. My concern is how strong can ethical systems develop and evolve. Compare the difference between the expeditions by Christopher Columbus and deep sea diving today with safety being the top most concern.


A valid situation for deep space explorers would be to adopt an ethical system based on the scientific method rather than on conjectured dogman. Maybe established behaviours on the lines of having some sub principles that may even go against established ethics. An example might even be our meeting guidelines of not talking about Spanish politics and religion these fifteen years. Such sub principles go against the form and spirit of open philosophical analysis and debate. Of course we all understand the thinking behind such guidelines and the benefits outweigh the limitations. But freedom of speech is more than just an activity, it is a right. I use guidelines precisely because we did speak about Spanish politics this year in the context of the Pandemic.  


Thus ethical principles imply that they ought to be followed and the standards when we can chose not to follow them are much higher than say guidelines and protocols. Emergencies and extreme conditions might be a cause to relax some moral standards but consider the extreme case of cannibalism: even the legal standards are not clear here.  


The case of R v Dudley and Stephens (1884 14 QBD 273 DC) which centred on cannibalism at sea was decided that “necessity” was not a defence of murder but the death sentence was commuted to six months imprisonment (see for a quick review Wikipedia under “Custom of the sea”). Compare this case with the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 (The Miracle of the Andes) the public outcry against cannibalism turned to understanding once the facts were explained by the survivors. But this did not absolve a father who exhumed the remains of his son to bury them at home. He was arrested for grave robbing although he eventually obtained legal permission to bury his son (see Wikipedia Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571).


From these two examples it seems that we still don’t have the right to kill others even if we think we have a right to survive. And peer pressure can sometimes influence what rights we have.


These are extreme situation we can find on Earth killing people is an act of murder in law and is still a no go area in ethics. Species protection seems to be a high priority in our ethical system not to mention legal systems. Indeed our legal system seems to coincide with the ethical system; for example passing the death penalty (legal requirement) and yet commuting the sentence to six months (a moral decision given the circumstances).


In an evacuation of people from Earth or a deep space one-way expedition to Mars who decides what ethical system they are bound by? Surely one of those principles would be: Though shalt not covet thy neighbour’s water rations. But this is nothing peculiar to space exploration unless such expedition is on a one way mission. And that makes a huge difference: can we have an ethical system without accountability?


By accountability I don’t necessarily mean legal accountability, but maybe peer accountability: the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 is a good example of the ethical influence of peer pressure. Earlier I suggested that an ethical system might be based on the scientific method which can equally be a valid ethical arbiter. Thus this method excludes dogma and prejudice.


What would be the difference between Earth ethics and Space ethics? And is there a danger of turning this issue to one of my ethics is better than you ethics?


Best Lawrence


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