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Social Ethics

Social Ethics

Human activities in space present us with novel philosophical, cultural, and ethical challenges. Moreover, space acts as a different lens through which we can explore many of our oldest and deepest social and philosophical issues. Indeed, the broad issue of whether significant resources should be devoted to space activities at all can be considered a social ethics question. Many people suggest that resources devoted to space activities detract from solving problems on Earth that desperately need more attention. Others counter that space activities can help address those problems. This broad question can have direct relevance to the motivations for space activities because the answer could determine the extent to which space will be used primarily to address Earth-based problems directly as opposed to exploratory pursuits that may or may not have direct terrestrial relevance.

If we do think significant resources should be spent on space activities, we can ask: Should those activities be aimed primarily at implementing military and political agendas, commerce, resource utilization for some or many, pure exploration for the good of humankind, none of the above, all of the above, or something else? Arguably, all of these motivations have been pursued, but should they have been? And should people continue to pursue these aims and others? The answer would appear to be yes, but what if spending too much time and money on space detracts from the well-being of humans and life on Earth? What if resource utilization causes the extinction of a very different form of life? What is more important, and why?

Many of the motivations for space activities are addressed in the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty, in which Article I states that "the exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind." Article II specifically prohibits national appropriation by stating: "Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means." The 1979 United Nations Moon Treaty adds much more detail but has not been ratified by some countries, including the United States.

Arguably, two of the most challenging ethical issues presented by space exploration have to do with finding a different form of life and terraforming (changing a planet to make it suitable for Earth life), both of which relate to each other.

A Different Form of Life

In his book Cosmos (1980), scientist and visionary Carl Sagan stated: "If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if they are only microbes." Astrobiologist Christopher McKay has appealed to an intrinsic value of life principle, or biocentric view, and has suggested that Martian life-forms "have a right to continue their existence even if their extinction would benefit the biota of Earth." For some, only a noninterference policy would be acceptable, as suggested by philosopher Alan Marshall. Alternatively, McKay believes that the rights of Martian life "confer upon us the obligation to assist it in obtaining global diversity and stability."

Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society, acknowledges the unique value of extraterrestrial life, but also stresses that people do not hesitate to kill terrestrial microbes in many circumstances. This is a reasonable observation, and it is also reasonable to consider that extraterrestrial life, especially of an independent origin, could be unique and valuable in a way that terrestrial microbes are not.

Steve Gillett suggests a hybrid view that combines anthropocentrism as applied to terrestrial activity with biocentrism for worlds with indigenous life. This kind of pluralistic approach to ethics has commonsense appeal. J. Baird Callicott invokes weak anthropocentrism, first suggested by Bryan Norton, which suggests that things that transform and ennoble human nature have enough value to require their preservation. Callicott writes: "I can think of nothing so positively transforming of human consciousness as the discovery, study, and conservation of life somewhere off the Earth."


Martyn Fogg states that "the concept of terraforming is inspiring enough to perhaps generate a formal effort toward extending environmental ethics to the cosmic stage." Robert Haynes, Christopher McKay, and Don MacNiven are prompted by the prospect of terraforming to suggest the need for a cosmocentric ethic . They conclude that current ethical theories exclude the extraterrestrial environment because they are purely geocentric . These authors may be reflecting a deeper instinct, sensing deficiencies in existing ethical views in general. The new context, or "lens," of space exploration has rightly prompted the consideration of new and perhaps broader perspectives for ethics.

Holmes Rolston offers a view that appeals to the "formed integrity" of a "projective Universe" in which the universe creates objects of formed integrity (objects worthy of a proper name) that have intrinsic value and should be respected. However, Haynes points out that Rolston's view appears to conflict with modifying Earth even for the benefit of humans. Rolston's view would call for the preservation of extraterrestrial life and most likely oppose terraforming.

"Connectedness" may hold promise for a cosmocentric ethic. The interdependent connectedness of ecosystems is often cited as a foundation for justifying the value of parts of the larger whole, since the parts contribute to the maintenance of the whole. Mark Lupisella has suggested that connectedness itself may be a necessary property of the universe and that the realization of connectedness requires interaction. This view might favor realizing interaction in the form of complexity, creativity, uniqueness, diversity, and other characteristics that may further realize the dynamic interactive nature of the universe. In making choices consistent with this view, humanity might help encourage and propagate life and diversity on Earth and throughout the universe. Freeman Dyson writes: "Diversity is the great gift which life has brought to our planet and may one day bring to the rest of the Universe. The preservation and fostering of diversity is the great goal which I would like to see embodied in our ethical principles and in our political actions."

Ultimately, as we have been able to do in many areas of space activity, a thoughtful balance incorporating many different views is likely to be the best approach to realizing a healthy future in space for humankind.

see also Communities in Space (volume 4); Governance (volume 4);Law (volume 4); Living in Space (volume 3); Settlements (volume 4); Terraforming (volume 4).

Mark L. Lupisella


Callicott, J. Baird. "Moral Considerability and Extraterrestrial Life." In Beyond Spaceship Earth: Environmental Ethics and the Solar System, ed. E. C. Hargrove. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990.

Dyson, Freeman. Infinite in All Directions. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Fogg, Martyn. Terraforming: Engineering Planetary Environments. Warrendale, PA:SAE International, 1995.

Gillett, Steve. "The Ethics of Terraforming."Amazing (August 1992):72-74.

Haynes, Robert, and Chris McKay. "Should We Implant Life on Mars?"Scientific American, December 1990.

Lupisella, Mark. "Humans and Martians."Earth Space Review 9, no. 1 (2000):50-60.

MacNiven, Donald. "Environmental Ethics and Planetary Engineering."Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 48 (1995):442-443.

. Moral Expertise: Studies in Practical and Professional Ethics. London: Routledge,1990.

Marshall, Alan. "Ethics and the Extraterrestrial Environment."Journal of Applied Philosophy 10, no. 2 (1993):233.

Narveson, Jan. "Martians and Morals: How to Treat an Alien." In Extraterrestrials: Science and Intelligence, ed. Edward Regis, Jr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Norton, Bryan G. "Environmental Ethics and Weak Anthropocentrism."Environmental Ethics 6 (1984):131-148.

Rolston, Holmes, III. "The Preservation of Natural Value in the Solar System." In Beyond Spaceship Earth: Environmental Ethics and the Solar System, ed. E. C. Har-grove. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990.

Ruse, Michael. "Is Rape Wrong on Andromeda? An Introduction to Extraterrestrial Evolution, Science, and Morality." In Extraterrestrials: Science and Intelligence, ed. Edward Regis, Jr. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Sagan, Carl. Cosmos. New York: Random House, 1980.

Zubrin, Robert. "The Terraforming Debate."Mars Underground News 3 1993.

Zubrin, Robert, with Richard Wagner. The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must. New York: Free Press, 1996.

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