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Human Futures

Space Exploration: Humanity’s Single Most Important Moral Imperative

Dr E. R. Klein says we should reconsider the value of space exploration and start getting ready to leave the nest.

Everyone is familiar with the giant stone heads of Easter Island, a tiny and remote island in the South Eastern Pacific, about 1800 miles off the coast of Chile. Nearly a thousand of these huge statues, probably made for religious purposes, stand like sentries guarding a small patch of land that was not discovered by Europeans until 1722. Easter Island’s first inhabitants probably arrived around 400 AD, and linguistic and genetic evidence suggested they most likely came from East Polynesia. It is estimated that the original landing party contained only about 100 people.

What makes Easter Island important to us, however, has nothing to do with how or why people migrated to this isolated spot, nor how they lived. Instead, what I am interested in is how and why this culture, known as the Rapanui, came to grief. It seems that due to their religious zeal (ie, the creation and erection of the giant statues or Moai, which needed to be transported to their destinations via numerous logs), the Rapanui suffered a history of “deforestation, soil depletion, and erosion… an overall devastating ecological scenario resulting in overpopulation, food shortages, cannibalism, and war.” (Dr Jo Anne Van Tilburg, Nova, PBS On line, August 31, 2001.) Their complex culture imploded. With no trees left even to build fishing boats, the population shrank to a fifth of its previous level. That is, the Rapanui paid a huge price for “the way they chose to articulate their spiritual and political ideas.” (ibid).

If the lesson from Easter Island is obvious, please forgive my forthcoming overstatement. People from all over the globe need to take seriously the likelihood that due to our various political and ideological ideas we too may be headed for disaster. In the wake of contemporary rainforest destruction; polluted oceans, rivers and lakes; holes in the ozone layer; food shortages due to floods, pestilence or drought; toxic waste, acid rain and nuclear fall-out (to name just a few environmental issues), humanity needs to realize that no amount of environmental policy can change the inevitable ecological scenario of the future – more people, less natural environment. From the First to the Third World, the future will contain billions more people who will need more and more food and resources while producing more and more waste. The picture is, simply, apocalypse soon.

All of this is just the consequences of reproduction. Add to this the persistent human desire to spread one’s particular political agenda and/or religious ideals, and one quickly realizes that the planet Earth, even if it were kept ecologically tidy, is simply too small to give every group its own private, isolated, ‘holy’ property. Under the reality of this ‘one planet island’ scenario, September 11th 2001 was not just a day of mourning for the United States and her friends, but a day of warning to everyone on the globe.

The most pointed lesson from Easter Island is that if you live on an island where you continually deplete and pollute the resources, be sure to save something to escape on before it’s too late. I imagine the surviving Rapanui, standing on the shore of Easter Island, now just a barren wasteland, saying, “We should probably have migrated somewhere else, or at least built an ark.”

Space: The Only Real Frontier

Space, according to Star Trek, is the ‘final frontier’. Given the above accounts of both human and planetary nature, it really is the only real frontier left.

In 1998, at the 44th Annual Meeting of the Florida Philosophical Association, Dr Roy Weatherford gave his Presidential Address, on the moral imperative of space travel. Weatherford argued that human lives are intrinsically valuable. This view, while controversial, is very widely held among philosophers. But Weatherford derived from this view a rather less commonly-held conclusion. He said that if human beings are intrinsically valuable, then the more of them there are the better. Therefore, he reasoned, if we are to truly stand by our commitment to the value of human life, then not only is it immoral to argue for birth control, but, contrary to the belief of most philosophers, it is immoral to not argue in favor of maximum reproduction. That is, assuming that human life is of intrinsic value, then we all have a moral duty to create, recreate, and procreate human life as often, and in as many places, as we can. Given the obvious environmental constraints that are inherent to Earth, Weatherford then argued for an increase in funding for and education about, space and space exploration, with a special emphasis on terraforming our Moon and Mars.

Though I don’t share an immediate intuition that any and all human life is inherently or intrinsically valuable, the logic of his argument seems unassailable. If any and all human life is valuable for its own sake, then we have a duty to generate more of it, ie to reproduce, and we have this duty regardless of pollution, overcrowding and other environmental crises. Under such a moral imperative, humanity has no choice but to forge new frontiers for expansion. Space, with its nearly infinite possibilities for new places for human life to flourish, is the only real frontier left. This led Weatherford to conclude that it is humanity’s number one global moral imperative to provide the educational and technological resources, as well as develop the overall mindset, for the advancement of space exploration and colonization.

Arguments Against Abandonment

Environmentalists from Aldo Leopold to Holmes Rolston III have argued that humans have a duty to broaden the scope of their moral framework and acknowledge that not only people have intrinsic moral value, but also animals, entire ecosystems, and ultimately the Earth itself. On this view, to treat the Earth and its resources solely as means to human ends is simply wrong. Those who believe that the Earth is itself intrinsically valuable may argue that it is therefore simply morally wrong to fly off and abandon our beautiful blue-green home.

Although the details of the numerous arguments for such a position are outside the scope of this article, let me offer a few comments and criticisms.

First, there is this pesky philosophical notion of value itself. From where is value bootstrapped? Most importantly for this discussion, how can one justify valuing the Earth without first having developed a relevant notion of value? Value simpliciter probably has its beginnings in the basic intuition that the ‘I’ is valuable, and so anything relevantly similar to ‘I’ is also valuable (ie other persons who act, look, etc just like I do). The scope of value can be broadened from here, of course, via any number of analogous findings and connections, but not without the possible slippery pitfall into some kind of valuing everything on a par with everything else. My point here is not that a Buddhist-like ‘one equal with everything’ view is wrong, but that such a view cannot easily be turned into any action at all, let alone specific actions toward ‘saving the Earth’.

Even if one accepts that there are intrinsic values, and that people (for the most part) are the kinds of beings that have such value, the move toward valuing the Earth is not one small leap for mankind. After all, in most cases of value, at least the potential for reciprocity is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for value. That is, one of the reasons that we value people is because people, by definition, have the potential to value – value themselves, value others, and, of course, to value valuing. When, for example anti-abortionists argue their case, it is, at base because fetuses are at least potential, if not actual, people qua valuable and valuing beings. Or again, when animal rights activists argue their case, at bottom it is because animals (at whatever link on the evolutionary chain they draw the line) have demonstrated at least the potential, if not actual, ability to value – they attempt to avoid pain, they show affection for each other, show affection for humans, etc. But to extend the scope of value to the valuing of entire ecosystems, let alone the Earth as a whole, is a very problematic stretch indeed.

The Earth as Inherently Self Destructive

This stretch is made even trickier by the history of the Earth itself. Even if one anthropomorphizes ‘her’, the history of the Earth is one of a very inconsistent being, let alone in any way morally stable. If there are ‘laws of nature’ which she supposedly follows, they are nothing less than cruel and unusual. Individuals of all species die all kinds of traumatic and painful deaths, and species themselves frequently go out of existence.

In what sense then does the Earth itself value any particular kind of moral (or even aesthetic etc) goals? And even if it were meaningful to talk about the Earth having interest in its own existence, what existence would it be proper to say is best for it? One as in the beginning, in which it was a hunk of molten rock? Or a later incarnation, as it cooled and allowed the life we now know as Jurassic? Can we say that the Earth is better off with more primeval forests than with sprawling industrial cities? With teaming diverse species, or just one huge lump of humanity? Maybe the Earth should be more like the Moon, pockmarked, barren, and silent? Or ultimately, maybe the Earth would prefer its inevitable state, of returning to the cosmic dust from whence it came? Which of all of these possible incarnations – past, present or future – is the most consistent with the Earth’s proper function and destiny, or the one it ought to sustain? Such questions, even if meaningful, would certainly have no obvious answer which would be consistent with both the desires of the ecologist on the one hand and the human expansionist on the other. In fact, the values and valuing of any non-valuing being are nearly incomprehensible.

However, it is also a fact that humans use terms such as ‘value’ to describe our normative intuitions and weigh our concerns with respect to even the most inanimate of objects, such as works of art – a form of valuing which is, again, dependent on valuing humanity. Why is this any less problematic than valuing the Earth? Perhaps most essentially because the Earth is not an artifact; that is, it is not a artful creation of our genius.

One could argue that the Earth, although not a human creation, does derive a great deal of value from its uniqueness, or what we believe is its uniqueness. After all, when there are hundreds of thousands of acres of Brazilian Rainforest it is not at all appalling, even from the perspective of the most hard-core environmentalist, to imagine justly allowing a certain portion of it to be set aside for deforestation in the name of the agricultural desires of the indigenous peoples. However, the last patch of American wilderness conducive to the sustaining of the now infamous Spotted Owl will not be so easily sacrificed. Scarcity is the issue relating to value here.

What then if there were dozens, thousands, no millions of other worlds at least as biodiverse and habitable as this one? What if the universe, in its nearly infinite hugeness, was simply packed with Earth-like M Class planets? How can the value of one planet ever override the value of spreading our humanity?

More Arguments for Colonizing Space

Regardless of where one stands on these issues of value, one can give other reasons to support space colonization.

First is what I call the fresh canvas argument. In the same way that a blank computer screen, blank piece of paper or, literally a blank canvas allows one to begin developing ideas in a totally unfettered way, this is true about the possibilities offered by space colonization as well. When you buy a used home you are constrained by the original structure to make do with the situation. Even if one is permitted to add on a room, this must be done with an eye to fitting with the previous structure. But begin with an empty plot of land and the possibilities for personal creativity are greatly enhanced. There will always be some constraints, of course, given the terrain and location of the land, but certainly they are minimized by not having to deal with a previously established floor plan.

I believe the same is true about societies, civilizations and governments. Unfortunately, even if the population of the planet never gained even one more person, there really is nowhere on Earth where the political soil is pristine enough to allow for new, maybe better, social/economic/political systems to take root and thrive. Given the present state of the world – with ancient religious hatreds, mega-corporations having global reach, and the internet – there is little room for a single family of hard-core frontiersmen, let alone any kind of new republic.

To be honest, the problem of space may exist even in space, at least for the possibly-inhabitable spaces nearest Earth. Pluto, Uranus, Neptune, Saturn, Jupiter, Venus and Mercury are for various reasons unfeasible locations for human settlement. That leaves us with Mars, and of course the Moon, both of which are already tainted by politics and special interests. Even these off-world places, as well as their surrounding space, are already under the auspices of agencies such as the United Nations, with written documents of rules and regulations, such as the ‘Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space’ and the ‘Status of International Agreements Relating to Activities in Outer Space’. Maybe there really is no room for anything new ‘under the sun’.

But if one sees the Moon, Mars, and the now mostly constructed International Space Station as baby steps toward the exploration of space on a grander scale, then in the long run such UN etc intervention will have little impact on human colonization and social experimentation. Furthermore, outer space is one of the few places where the governments of the world may actually work together toward specific goals.

This brings me to another reason for space exploration: the opportunity for our species to further evolve. In the mid 19th century Darwin demonstrated that species evolve in accordance with adaptive traits conducive to reproductive selection in particular ecosystems. That is, those individuals best adapted to their environment were able to breed adaptive traits into the next generation, etc etc, until all the species evolved into the forms of life we see today. One of the main sources of empirical evidence used by Darwin in developing his theory of evolution were the finches of the small Galapagos Islands. For example, the finches imprisoned on one of the islands drink the nectar of flowers which cover the island. Another species, however, marooned on a different tiny island with no vegetation or bugs, has survived by adapting to drinking the blood of the Galapagos Lizards that bask daily in the sun in order to ‘stomach cook’ the underwater vegetation they themselves have adapted to feed on. These island-specific finch populations evolved from a single species. They show that harsh and odd circumstances force evolutionary change to take place.

The questions that come to the fore for us now are: Has human evolution reached its pinnacle? Are we stagnating as a species? Is it true that until the actual physiology of our brains changes again, similar to the degree and kind of change our evolutionary ancestors went through from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens, we will see only modest progress for humanity? Furthermore, is it the case that the Earth no longer holds any environment that we cannot alter to fit the state of development we’ve already achieved? And finally, aren’t the virtually infinite number of strange, unforeseeable, and unyielding environments in outer space and on other planets precisely what humanity needs to evolve into its next stage?


These arguments are not to say that I think it is irrational to work toward global peace, overall environmental health, and an end to famine and serious epidemics. Such goals are important, but maybe they should be put into a more ‘universal’ perspective, valued more instrumentally, for maintaining a relatively stable world which will finally allow humanity to work toward our mastery of outer space. If we are to truly achieve our potential, and not have human history end here on Earth, regardless of how healthily, peacefully, and contentedly – let alone slip away like the Rapanui of Easter Island – then we require a commitment of extra-global proportions. Only the limits of the universe itself should limit humanity’s dreams.

© Dr E. R. Klein 2007

Ellen Klein taught philosophy at Flagler College in Florida, and is now an independent scholar living in Washington DC.

Update: Hawking Backs Space Exploration

Dr Klein’s article was originally sent to Philosophy Now in 2003. Since June 2006, the renowned British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has also begun to make statements supporting large-scale colonization of space. In a lecture in Hong Kong, he said that “Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of... I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go into space.” Hawking believes that in 100 years, there could be self-sufficient settlements in space.

In a personal bid to show the feasibility of mass space travel, Hawking, who is paralysed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, successfully took a ‘zero gravity’ flight in April this year (see picture). He says this is a step towards later taking a sub-orbital space journey. Richard Branson has offered to provide such a flight for Hawking in the next few years.

Stephen Hawking in ‘zero-gravity’ flight
Zero Gravity Corporation

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