Astro-Ethics

January 2018 Pulse

In recent years, there has been a revival of enthusiasm for space and planetary exploration. This is undoubtedly sparked by hype generated by the activities of international space agencies and the discoveries of planets orbiting around other stars, some of which bearing Earth-like conditions.

In 2015, the Boeing Company was awarded its first commercial crew rotation mission by NASA’s Commercial Crew Programme (CCP). It aims to launch the first capsule to the International Space Station (ISS) by late 2017, thereby signalling the dawn of the era of commercial human spaceflight.

There is even serious interest in the possibility of terraforming a planetary body (Mars being the most suitable candidate) or planetary ecosynthesis. According to the iGEM Valencia Team, terraforming a planet has to do with the ‘hypothetical process of deliberately modifying its atmosphere composition, temperature, topography, or ecology to be similar to those of Earth to make it habitable for Terran organisms, including humans’.

Space colonization is attractive because we are becoming increasingly aware of the limitations of Earth, in terms of space and resources. Some have argued that space colonies could even prolong the survival of the human species.

‘Earth will remain habitable for a few billion more years’, explains Seth Baum. ‘Stars will continue shining for about 1014 more years. That gives us an additional 105 times more energy, for a total of 1023 times more energy that is available on Earth … And even if our current universe eventually becomes uninhabitable, it may be possible to move to other universes’.

The rapid expansion of space exploration raises so many moral issues that a new field of ethics – variously described as space ethics or astro-ethics – is emerging. While each of the endeavours mentioned above would raise its own set of ethical questions that demand serious consideration and robust debate, space ethics as a newly minted discipline also throw up a number of fundamental philosophical and methodological issues that must be adequately addressed.

For example, what should be the basis of a plausible ethics of space exploration? Can the earthbound moral concepts that we work with be extended and fruitfully – if analogously – applied to astro-ethics? Which concepts are applicable, and which ones are not? How should they be analogically applied, and what are the limits of such approaches?

In addition, space ethics should also be self-critical of those habits of mind that have unconsciously shaped our moral reasoning and influenced our ethical decisions. For example, an anthropocentric ethics would have no difficulties with space colonization as long as such enterprises promise to benefit human beings.

In similar vein, space ethics forces ethicists to be critical of a geocentricism that would cause us to abdicate our responsibility towards wider space ecosystem(s). For example, an Earth-centred or Earth-only ethics would have no qualms in supporting an asteroid mining industry even if pollutes outer space – as long as it improves conditions on Earth.

The space environment has already been seriously affected by our space projects. We have littered space with countless debris that may eventually be detrimental to the space ecosystem(s).  Mark Williamson provides these harrowing examples: debris from spacecraft and upper stage explosions in LEO; debris from launch vehicle separation devices in LEO and GTO; growing population of defunct satellites in GEO graveyard orbits.

What approach should space ethics take? Should space ethics be deontological, consequentialist or utilitarian? Should it be seen simply as an extension of environmental ethics?

A Christian space ethics must be undergirded by a robust doctrine of creation and an equally profound theological anthropology. That is to say, it must take into consideration the integrity of the universe that God has brought into being and our human role as God’s vice-regents.

The closest analogy to a Christian extra-terrestrial ethics would therefore be an environmental ethics that is informed by the Christian vision of reality.

This means that a Christian space ethics must critique the anthropocentrism and geocentrism alluded to above, and work instead on the basis of the purpose and goal (telos) of the Creator for human beings and the created order they are a part of, as revealed in Scripture. The familiar principle of responsible stewardship, so central to Christian environmental ethics, must also be the guiding principle in extra-terrestrial ethics.

These considerations have profound bearing on a number of issues related to space exploration. Space allows us to briefly consider one or two issues.

Take space colonization, for example. A Christian extra-terrestrial ethics informed by the theological considerations delineated above would not categorically prohibit space colonization. But it would insist that space colonization could only proceed if the colony does not harm or destroy the indigenous biota and ecosystem of the colonised planet.

What about research ethics? Researchers and explorers must exercise responsible stewardship by self-imposed constraints. As Dan MacArthur and Idil Boran put it in their discussion of agent-centred restrictions: ‘… priority should be given to the constraints humans ought to impose on themselves, even (and especially) if they do not know the nature of the given object of exploration (say, a primeval ecosystem) and the consequences their actions may have for this object’.

This kind of self-discipline and humility, however, is rare, if current proclivities evident in biomedical and biotechnological research are reliable indications.

Space exploration has raised many important issues that must be taken seriously and publicly debated. Christians should actively participate in this debate and bring to the discussion their profound vision of reality that is informed and shaped by Scripture.


 

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.