Throughout the first two decades of the twenty-first century, we have witnessed an increasing return of interest in space colonisation and exploration programs. Both governmental and private sectors like SpaceX are focused on at least three promising scenarios that take into consideration the human space expanse: a) various plans clearly demonstrate the feasibility of asteroid mining as being more cost-effective and ethical than Earth mining (Sonter 1997; Busch 2004; Alotaibi et al. 2010); b) the possibility of transforming Mars into an appropriate environment for human species through a gradual process of planetary engineering known as “terraforming” (Fogg 1999; Clarke, Wagner, and Zubrin 2011); c) the increasing research for life on Jovian and Saturnine moons, given recent evidence that such sites may be prebiotic or even biotic (Turtle 2017; Hörst 2017).
It comes as no surprise that in the face of the dilemmas evoked by such scenarios ethics stands out as a core theme. Among the various ethical questions arising from the possibility of human action in extraterrestrial contexts, I intend to address and answer the following: a) taking into account all the problems we have to face on our own planet, would it be ethically right to invest time and money in space endeavours? Do we have this right?; b) would it be ethical to terraform other planets?; c) is there any kind of conflict among different models of environmental ethics regarding space exploration?
In order to achieve my goal, I will try and demonstrate how important and prolific the union of philosophy and fiction is by approaching aspects of some of Arthur Clarke’s works, giving special attention to 2001: A Space Odyssey; 2010: Odyssey Two; Rendezvous with Rama; and Childhood’s End. I will also establish a comparison between ethical questions shown in Clarke’s fictional works, and the ethical model advocated by the transhumanist movement. My purpose is understand what ethical model – if we are to say there is only one – prevails in Clarke’s works, and whether it can be prescriptive in an eventual non-fictional space exploration scenario. Lastly but not least, this article intends to discuss the concepts of intrinsic value and instrumental value under the light of environmental ethics in order to project them toward alien scenarios.
Transhumanism is a political and cultural movement that sustains, among various things, the importance of broadening our ethical perspective in order to encompass non-human beings. In a wide range of aspects, transhumanist’s ethical proposals are quite synchronised with the set of moral lessons contained in Clarke’s fictional works.
The Transhumanist Declaration (Vita-More et al. 2012) advocates in its first topic the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth. Whilst the first three purposes are generally welcomed with no further objections, it is the latter that tends to be rejected by the common sense. Furthermore, transhumanists clearly take the human being away from the centre stage of universal privilege, by saying that they (…) advocate the well being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise.
Despite scientists’ justified allegations in favour of the end of our restriction to planet Earth, some common arguments allege that such a theme is a false priority. Common sense tends to take into account that our own planet has serious problems to be solved, therefore money spent on space exploration is supposed to pose a threat to mankind’s real needs. The money budgeted for space, according to those critics, should be spent here on Earth on more pressing matters such as health-care research. This argument may be summarised by saying it would be immoral to spend money on space endeavours, for there are priorities to be respected. However, as shown in research on American perception of space exploration (King, O’Boyle, Rigby, and Randolph 2004), those criticisms are a false dilemma, given that a) space research offers strong benefits to our daily basis applied technology; b) human long-term survival should be taken as a priority; c) governments spend an immense amount of money in war programmes not to mention the fact that the amount of money people spend on cigarettes in a year surpasses that of the annual budget of NASA.
A more sophisticated and philosophically well-based (although controversial) argument alleges it would be intrinsically immoral to interfere, manipulate, and change other worlds not only if they are prebiotic or biotic (Wilks 2016) but even, if they are barren (Marshall 1993). This kind of argument is known as “cosmic preservationism”, or “cosmocentrism”, and is strongly based on aesthetics (McMahon 2016).
Thus, throughout the last decades, going beyond common sense, philosophers have also taken the problem of human presence in alien contexts seriously. Despite coming from different starting premises, both arrive at the same conclusion: we should keep ourselves to our current planet, and take care of it.
Additionally, we may also question whether it is up to the philosophers to speculate about what is not yet a reality. In the early nineteenth century, Hegel made his famous comparison between philosophy and owls (Hegel 2003). According to him, the owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering. He also says, regarding our desire to say how the world ought to be, that (…) philosophy at least always comes too late. Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready.
I maintain, however, that within the ethical context of practical philosophy, anticipatory thought exercises may be quite useful. And here is why:
Throughout the twentieth century, we have witnessed a growing and justified concern regarding ecological issues, so that green policies have gradually become a priority (Fogg 1999; Dodsworth-Magnavita 2012). It is widely known that the human impact on the environment has taken place in an unsustainable way, which has led us to dangerous situations that call for urgent solutions if we are to leave a viable world for future generations. It is important to note that despite some emotional outcry, it is highly unlikely that we will be able to extinguish all life in the world we live on. Actually, we tend to make planetary conditions unfeasible for ourselves, as well as for some other native species, but not for all life forms. Extremophiles, for example, may prosper in a polluted, radioactive world. That is: environmental ethics is not just an altruistic concern regarding nature, which will keep existing should we destroy even ourselves. Environmental ethics is above all a matter of human survival. As a result of this new understanding, ethical philosophy has broadened its target, and today it is no longer restricted to the interaction among humans. Nowadays, ethics also focuses on the moral relationship between humans and the entities that encompass all living things – that which we call “nature”. This group of “all living things”, it is worth mentioning, includes us.
Ethics currently deals with emerging problems in a world whose time is still not, as Hegel says, too late.
Although I am not a Hegelian by any stretch, I agree that philosophy is an insufficient tool when it comes to thinking of the future. In order to achieve such end, one has to build a bridge connecting philosophy and fiction. Moreover, if we take into account that philosophy is the exercise of judicious thinking, we can speak not merely in terms of a “philosophy of fiction”, but in terms of a welcome “fiction of philosophy”. That is: an imaginative exercise of a given likely scenario; a probable world built on “what if…?” grounds. Then, bearing said scenario in mind, we may undertake the philosophical thinking in order to anticipate dangers and act before they come true (Dodsworth-Magnavita 2016).
OUR ILLUSION OF A TRANSPARENT AND SHIELDED BOX
According to Clarke, fiction is more than non-fiction in some ways. (…) You can stretch people’s minds, alerting them to the possibilities of the future, which is very important in an age where things are changing rapidly. In fact, several of Clarke’s fictional works are clearly dedicated to instigating debate on ethical issues in order to prepare people to possible realities. His ethical-prescriptive voice repeats over and over: “I am warning you that our world is not separate from the rest of the universe whatsoever”. To refuse this simple truth is a dangerous mistake.
The human presence on Earth is quite recent, and we tend to delude ourselves by thinking of our world as existing in a “state of stability”. We take it for granted, which is quite imprudent. Therefore, when it comes to environmental ethics, it is possible and desirable to act in anticipation, through the exercise of imagination.
Although environmental ethics is being taken more and more seriously, it is still quite unusual for philosophers to address themes that go beyond the terrestrial context. The act of visualising the Earth as if it were within a shielded box with no interactions with cosmic space is a common misconception. However, people do tend to visualise themselves as living inside a box whose transparency merely allows the entrance and escape of light and heat. Until now, the major cosmic environmental concern regards the problem of space debris orbiting our planet (Fogg 1999).
But the planet Earth is not a closed system nor does it exists within a transparent box. Common sense tends to be easily misled by the false idea of planetary stability. Our planet has suffered events that cause global extinction before, which were triggered by extraterrestrial factors, as example of the extinction of the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg event). In the K-Pg event, an asteroid’s collision with the Earth’s surface caused the extinction of more than 75% of the species. And so, the cycle of life restarted. There is no guarantee – and we should not even act as if there were one – that cosmic extinction events will not recur. Throughout its formation, planet Earth received a lot of outer space matter, such as comets and meteors that brought much of the existing water (Chyba, Thomas et al. 1990). Our planet remains open to cosmic interaction of both matter and energy (Cockell, Rettberg et al. 2003), and we are vulnerable to highly energetic astrophysical events in our neighbourhood such as supernovae and gamma ray bursts (Galante and Hovarth 2007 and 2009). The Earth is part of a larger dynamic system, which is the cosmos itself.
Moreover, the very idea of “cosmos”, taking the meaning of the Greek term that refers to “order” and “beauty”, is somewhat illusory. In so many ways, common sense still lives under the idea of an Aristotelian macrocosmic harmony – the belief in an everlasting world. Regardless of our fascination with cosmic phenomena such as stellar birth and death, would it be appropriate to call such events “beautiful”? It would be more proper, perhaps, nominate them as “dynamically sublime” (Kant 1965) given that, (…) in this case, a “might” or power is observed in nature that is irresistible with respect to our sensible selves. Such an object is “fearful” to be sure, but is not an object of fear because it does not affect us (…). It does not affect us in a first instance indeed. It does not affect our world on a daily basis, of course. The problem is: an asteroid/comet collision or a gamma-ray burst is not a question of “if”, but a question of “when” and “where”.
Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama seriously warns us regarding all this. The story begins with a great moral criticism on our tendency to act only when it is too late. Clarke starts by describing some real cosmic events that happened in our recent past. By remembering the Tunguska event on June 30, 1908, he emphasises how vulnerable we are, given that Moscow escaped destruction by three hours and four thousand kilometres – a margin invisibly small by the standards of the universe. He also remembers the Sikhote-Alin meteorite falling close to Vladivostok in 1947 with an explosion rivalling that of the newly invented uranium bomb.
It is quite clear that we are at the mercy of random cosmic events. We do not take serious measures regarding a “Spaceguard Program” because we have not yet been hit in a way that really hurts us. So in order to demonstrate how random and indifferent the universe is, Clarke offers us a drastic fictional scene in which northern Italy is totally destroyed by thousands of tons of rock and metal falling from the sky. He writes: The cities of Padua and Verona were wiped from the face of the Earth; and the last glories of Venice sank forever beneath the sea as the waters of the Adriatic came thundering landward after the hammer blow from space. Six hundred thousand people died, and the total damage was more than a trillion dollars. But the loss to art, to history, to science – to the whole human race, for the rest of time – was beyond all computation. Thanks to that trauma, mankind reacts by saying there will be no next time, and so the “Project Spaceguard” arises. Clarke’s warning is quite clear from the very beginning of the book: Sooner or later, it was bound to happen.
Why should ethics spread its wings when it is too late? It is not ethical to keep ignoring our responsibilities as the intelligent species we are. Asteroid mining is not only economically feasible but it is also environmentally ethical given that we can stop the exploitation of our world. Planet Earth is so rare in so many ways that it should be entirely converted into a sanctuary, and all – or almost all – mining should be made by space settlements. Additionally, by mining these barren bodies, we will monitor and divert potential planetary threats.
THE AGE OF EXTRATERRESTRIAL ETHICAL DILEMMAS
Among several great philosophical themes, the difference between “contingency” and “necessity” (or “accident” and “essence”) stands out as one of the most recurrent. In astrobiology, for example, we have a wide range of unanswered questions about what is contingent and what is necessary when we address the subject of life. Here I present an actual instance in order to support the importance of fictional imagination as an ethical-prescriptive tool: changing the concept of “habitable zone”, and hence the moment in which, for the first time in world’s history, we had to face a dilemma due to the possibility of existence of alien life.
When 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: Odyssey II were written, the concept of “circumstellar habitable zone” (CHZ) was quite restricted. In that time, CHZ was defined as a specific distance from a star around which a planet orbits. It is the distance in which the existence of liquid water is possible. However “geocentric” this perspective may seem, it makes sense to look for life signatures outside planet Earth by taking into account parameters that are similar to ours. One can imagine some kind of plasma entity that lives within the stars, and this may be an interesting thought to entertain for merely fictional purposes, but when it comes to scientific procedures it is more sensible to limit the search to what we do know. By taking into account this criterion, the search for environments that sustain liquid solvents is the most rational thing to do. So, the first astrobiological rule is: we must follow the water.
Clarke describes Europa as well as other Jovian moons, as possessing massive liquid oceans. By the time Clarke wrote his books, the paradigm established was that such moons should harbour, at best, only frozen water. The CHZ is also known as “goldilocks”, as a reference to a fairy-tale character who enters a house of three bears and tries a “very hot” soup, then another “very cold” and rejects both, until she finds the third soup, which is “just right”. In our particular solar system, the traditional goldilocks zone is limited to the region occupied by the Earth that is (“just right”: neither too hot nor too cold), almost reaching Mars. As for Jupiter, Saturn and their moons, those are very far from this border.
In principle, it does not seem reasonable to demand that science fiction ought to always be “scientifically correct”. Like any fiction, it has obligations of coherence in relation to the universe in which it is inserted, which is not necessarily ours. Nevertheless, the curious thing is that in this specific case, by imagining vast oceans on moons where no liquid should exist, Clarke was right. As a scientist, he was aware of other factors that could be present and prevent water from freezing, such as the existence of salts in the oceans and the movement of tides. By taking into account the strong gravitational influence that Jupiter and Saturn exert on their moons, it was wise to bet on the existence of liquid water outside the then-convened habitable zone. It is striking to note that such hypotheses have been so little considered by other scientists in precedent times. Fictional thinking exercises allow our minds to get out of the box.
Reality sometimes mimics fiction. In September of 2003, whilst the probe Galileo analysed Europa, scientists realised that that moon had been harbouring a liquid ocean three times deeper than the terrestrial one. That was the first time in which mankind faced an alien life ethical dilemma (though only a potentially existing life): should NASA keep exploring, and in doing so risk a possible lunar contamination with terrestrial bacteria, or would it be wiser to destroy the probe, colliding it with Jupiter? The second alternative was chosen as not only the most ethical thing to do, but also the one that would provide interesting scientific data. In fact, in its last breath, Galileo provided precious information on Jupiter’s atmosphere. Nowadays we know that Europa, and many other Jovian/Saturnine moons, keep vast liquid oceans. Therefore, the precedent concept of CHZ has become obsolete, and it was replaced by a broader one.
In fact, as research advances, we are led to understand that our universe is especially biophilic, which may raise controversial and instigating philosophical questions, such as: might our universe have a final cause? Is life a mere accident, or is it an inevitable result of a cosmic natural course? These are issues to be addressed in a future article. For now, I will restrict myself to address ethical models that matter in a space exploration context.
ENVIRONMENTAL ETHICS: INTRINSIC VALUE VERSUS INSTRUMENTAL VALUE
Environmental ethical models are based on a fundamental question: among all existing things, which one possesses intrinsic value and which one possesses instrumental value?
“Instrumental value” is the easiest one to define out of the two: it is the set of things or beings that are more or less instrumentally useful for other entities. The degree of utility is, of course, a contingent attribute, and therefore it depends on the context.
Conversely, the concept of “intrinsic value” is philosophically controversial, since the adjective “intrinsic” evokes the idea of a being that possesses value on its own and for its own sake, even if there is no external observer who recognises such value. Such beings may eventually be useful to each other (that is, they also have instrumental value), but due to the fact that they are intrinsically valuable, they deserve rights and a special consideration, regardless of whether they are useful or useless in contingent contexts. However, without an external observer, who is necessarily a sentient being, all things in the universe are nothing but matter. So how could we affirm something is intrinsically valuable for its own sake? According to some thinkers, it would be more appropriate to nominate this category as “truncated intrinsic value” (Callicott 1986). That is, the intrinsic value exists, but it is in no way antecedent to reason, since the concept of value is rationally created, and thus consequently emanated from other beings. For others, in contrast, there is an aprioristic intrinsic value whose creation does not depend on any external observer, but it is simply recognised by rational beings (Rolston 1988).
In spite of these disagreements, it is quite clear that it does not matter whether an intrinsic value is a human creation or not. In every scenario, an external observer able to recognise this value is demanded (Cockell 2016). Thus, the pragmatic problem is different: by admitting the concept of intrinsic value is real (regardless of whether it is our own creation or reason precedent), what criterion establishes the boundary that separates what is merely instrumental from what is intrinsically precious? There is no simple answer to such questions, and many models have been proposed over the last century as fairer than others. Therefore, an intrinsically valuable entity may be considered part of a very restricted set (anthropocentrism) or of a broader one (cosmocentrism).
Having said that, it is possible to demonstrate four different models that are based on different conceptions of intrinsic value and instrumental value. After exposing these four models, we can ask which of them better suits the previously mentioned Clarke’s works. The following table shows these four models, in addition to their central moral principles and consequently their basal justification (Fogg 1999):
|Ethical Theory||Central Moral Principle||Basis of Intrinsic Value|
|Zoocentrism||Principle of Utility||Sencience|
|Biocentrism||Respect for Life||Life|
|Cosmocentrism||Sanctity of Existence||Uniqueness|
Any kind of conflict among such models is commonplace in several science fiction books, and Clarke’s fictional work constantly highlights the trauma caused for the transition from an anthropocentric consciousness (intrinsic value limited to mankind) to a biocentric consciousness (intrinsic value of all life).
In turn, cosmocentric ethics is incompatible with projects of planetary engineering (terraforming) or asteroid exploration, because it is based on the principle of “sanctity of existence”. That is, alien worlds have intrinsic value even if they are barren, and must remain untouched (Marshall 1993). The stronger cosmocentric argument claims that our limited consciousness has no right to interfere in alien contexts, for they are valuable in their uniqueness. The value of life, cosmocentrists say, derives from our own interests since we are living beings. We are “life-centrists”, they argue, and offer aesthetics arguments against terraforming or mining programmes (McMahon 2016). Cosmocentrists even allege that inanimate beings – like rocks – may well exist in a blissful state only afforded to non-living beings, and therefore we have no right to change such contexts (Marshall 1993).
At least two arguments can be offered to cosmocentrists (Fogg 1999): a) worlds do not exist in isolated contexts, but they exchange material among them. By taking into account that an asteroid full of bacteria is naturally free to infect a barren world with life, some can say this is a random event, some will argue it is part of a divine plan. In both possibilities, why should mankind be considered as existing outside of nature? Our existence may well be considered a random event or divinely planned. Whatever the answer, mankind is not a separate category of nature, and should have no less right to act than a rock full of microbes; b) to say that inorganic beings “are happy the way they are” is just a kind of sophistical juggling among others equally meaningless. Just as inorganic beings might exist in a blissful state, we could reply arguing that they exist in a “despair state” in which they are silently crying for an external agent that grants them life (Fogg 1999).
FROM ANTHROPOCENTRISM TO ZOOCENTRISM: THE CHILDHOOD’S END
Anthropocentric perspective asserts that the only intrinsically valuable beings are the rational ones, given that they are able to make moral decisions. Anthropocentrism’s basis may be religious or secular.
Under the perspective of great monotheistic religions, mankind has a special ontological status because we are the favourite ones within the whole of the divine creation, the very image and likeness of God, therefore endowed with an antecedent intrinsic value.
The secular perspective demands no gods, but also defends a special ontological status for our species by the allegation that since intrinsic value is our own creation therefore it applies only to us. For humanists, an intrinsic value does not exist per se. There is no such thing as an “aprioristic state”. However, in both religious and secular perspectives, all non-human beings (other animals, plants, the whole world and the universe) have mere instrumental value, that is, they are valuable as long as they are more or less useful to us.
It may be tempting to define anthropocentrism as environmentally destructive, since everything that is not a human being is taken as merely instrumental. There is some reason in this criticism against anthropocentrism if we take into account how predatory our behaviour in this planet is. Ignorance, however, is rather a contingent element of anthropocentrism, not its essence at all. Even if nature is seen as a mere instrument, this instrument can be well taken care of. There is the possibility of an environmental anthropocentrism characterised for an enlightened self-interest by establishing a non-predatory relationship with the ecosystem (Fogg 1999; Dodsworth-Magnavita 2012). Given that mankind depends on a huge set of instrumentally valuable beings (plants, animals, inanimate objects), it is perfectly possible to conceive anthropocentrism as a non-egoistic approach, which takes future generations into account. There is a proverb whose origin is unknown, sometimes attributed to Native Americans, sometimes to Asians, which says: we have not inherited the land from our ancestors, but borrowed it from our grandchildren. Therefore, anthropocentrism is not incompatible with our survival neither with our expansion toward other worlds. On the contrary, since mankind is allegedly so special, anthropocentric ethicists would act in order to convince people that all instrumentally valuable things must be well cared for, since we depend on them. Furthermore, they will argue cosmic exploration would stretch our chances of survival.
However, according to zoocentrists, when a secular anthropocentrist argues that only rational entities can be intrinsically valuable, a complicated moral trap is built. If a secular anthropocentrist were to take his grounds seriously, we might say that people in coma or mentally incapacitated are only instrumentally valuable. If reason is the real core of intrinsic value, why are some mentally ill human individuals whose intelligence is inferior to that of a dog not be considered only instruments? Should we lose our intrinsic value in case of severe senescence? Besides, if reason ought to be the ontological basis for ethics, we should take into account a wide range of non-human animals like dolphins and many apes, which are able to differ between right and wrong in many ways. Therefore, the main argument of the secular anthropocentrist undermines itself as it is destroyed by becoming moderately zoocentrist.
It is worth noting that religious anthropocentrists do not argue that a person only has rights if he/she is able to understand the concept of moral. Religious anthropocentrists often build their arguments with the bricks of an alleged divine right – a matter of faith, a theological foundation. A religious anthropocentrist does not contradict itself, because his arguments are based on the dogma that, from the moment someone is born from a human, he/she is human whatever his/her level of intelligence may be. Therefore, for a religious anthropocentrist the intrinsic value is a natural inheritance applicable even to people born without a brain.
In turn, the zoocentric ethical model enlarges the intrinsic value range, by attributing it to any sentient creature, that is, a self-conscious entity who is capable of feeling pleasure and suffering. For zoocentrists, every sentient creature is intrinsically valuable and should not, under any circumstances, be seen as merely instrumental. In their understanding, the moral basis is the ability of maximising happiness and minimising suffering. That is, if I know what makes me happy and what makes me suffer, and I am able to perform voluntary movements in order to increase pleasure and decrease pain, then I am an intrinsically valuable sentient entity. Zoocentrism has, as does anthropocentrism, subsets: there is a strong version of it that attributes equal value to all sentient beings; and there is also a moderate zoocentrism that assigns less or great value depending on the entity’s consciousness level. In counterpart, strong zoocentrists criticise their moderate fellows by saying they are “speciesists”, since moderates argue that one single dog possesses greater intrinsic value than one hundred fleas.
Contradictions aside, we are witnessing an increasing transition from a strong religious anthropocentrism to a moderate zoocentrism in contemporary times. Not surprisingly, some lawsuits have already been filed in several countries, in order to recognise the intrinsic value and rights of developed apes under the main argument that they are “humans under tutelage” (Taylor 2001).
By taking into account the zoocentrism revealed in the transhumanist declaration, one realises that there are several points in common with the ethical models Clarke introduces in several of his fictional works. Neither Clarke nor the transhumanists are anthropocentrically oriented.
Zoocentrism for example, can be found in Childhood’s End in a moderate version, in the form of a specific rule imposed by the aliens known as “Overlords”. Despite clarifying that human beings are free to keep living their usual way of life, the new Earth tutors establish an ultimatum: no animal should be exposed to unnecessary suffering or to degrading entertainment. Determined to keep their tradition untouched, Spanish people perform a bullfight. At first, there seems to be no reaction from the Overlords. However, in the very moment the bullfighter’s sword strikes the bull, all humans who attend the event feel the exact same pain as the animal. Thanks to this exercise of forced empathy, the Overlords persuade humans never to submit a sentient creature to degrading situations or unnecessary suffering.
It is important to note that despite the Overlords’ ultimatum, mankind is still allowed to kill animals otherwise for food purposes. Clean slaughter must be respected. Notwithstanding, our actual technology is likely going to empower a strong zoocentrism thanks to the cloning of various types of food straight from the cells of living animals. Scientists have already been able to make lab grown burgers (Post 2013). If we take into account the fact that 25% of Brazilian territory is nothing more than pasture for cows (Dias-Filho 2014), and that it could be turned into green-planned and ecologically clean cities, these technologies will not only set animals free from their instrumental condition, but also enhance our quality of life.
Although zoocentrism as shown in Childhood’s End is quite moderate, the book makes it very clear that anthropocentrism is a stage to be overcome. There is a post-human reality rising on our horizon, which in Childhood’s End is exemplified as the children known as “the last generation”. The Overlords say: It’s a bitter thought, but you must face it. The planets you may one day possess. But the stars are not for man.
In fact, we will never inhabit other worlds as “men”. At most, we will inhabit extraterrestrial simulations of planet Earth in which we can preserve our human condition due to the fact that both the earthly environment and our bodies are inseparable. The act of terraforming an alien world implies in transforming our own existence not only genetically (subtle modifications made in order to allow us to live in alien contexts), but also morally (as a native of a new world with new rules and moral codes). The possibility of enhancing ourselves through ethical biotechnological interventions is a typical transhuman proposal. This possible transformation from human into “something else” is established in the eighth topic of the transhumanist declaration: we favour morphological freedom – the right to modify and enhance one’s body, cognition, and emotions.
The transition from human to post-human is even clearer in the books 2001: A Space Odyssey and 2010: Odyssey II, in which we witness the rising of the entity known as “Starchild”. In both books we are introduced to an ethical leap that takes us beyond zoocentrism. The Starchild’s ethical model is, as we shall see, biocentric.
“ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS EXCEPT EUROPA”
In a zoocentric perspective, when it comes to space exploration and terraforming, the dilemma occurs if, and only if, the world we intend to colonise is already inhabited by sentient creatures. But for biocentrists a sentience-centred ethics is absolutely unsatisfying. They see intrinsic value in every living being, no exceptions allowed. It is important to emphasise that only instrumental things possess grades of value, because their value depends on the context. It is contingent. But if I say something is intrinsically valuable, I cannot establish differences among entities within this same set. Does a man have the same value as an amoeba? Biocentrically speaking, the answer is yes, which sounds weird to others ethicists.
The moon Europa is, in Clarke’s fictional work, a biotic world under the tutelage of the Starchild. In both anthropocentric and zoocentric perspective, bacteria have mere instrumental value, but for biocentrists bacteria do have intrinsic rights. Given that life is part of an ecosystem, we can also say this model is “ecocentric”. So, from a biocentric (or ecocentric) perspective, the act of terraforming would be permissible only if there is no life in that world whatsoever.
Should we take NASA’s precedent decision of destroying the probe Galileo in order to protect a potential alien ecosystem as an example of its biocentric perspective? Not necessarily. As previously explained, even under anthropocentric codes we can protect things we consider merely instrumental. It is quite evident alien microbes would be scientifically valuable given their rarity, but it does not make them intrinsically valuable. In analogy, we could speculate whether the human race, from the Starchild’s point of view, would be considered valuable for its own sake or just instrumentally interesting.
There are serious problems regarding space exploration ethics from a biocentric perspective. First, to reach such a certainty on “absence of life” is a rather difficult task. A planet like Mars, for example, may be almost entirely barren, but it may harbour life in some still not explored niche. Second, we can say that biocentrists fall in contradiction when they prioritise their own health to the detriment of millions of bacteria killed by antibiotics to cure a disease. If I really follow this biocentric moral compass, why should my single life be more valuable than millions of bacteria? Why should I kill hundreds of fleas that infest a dog? Hence, we can pose the question: is it really possible to advocate biocentrism in any way given that we are human beings?
If I protect an eventual alien ecosystem just because of its rarity, I am not necessarily following a biocentric ethical model. I am just taking care of a precious instrument, and it is not immoral. Actually, the ethical core question does not seem to be based on the importance of conceptions such as “intrinsic” or “instrumental”. Maybe the point is: as the rational beings we are, we have the moral obligation of minimising suffering and taking care of beings we consider “our valuable instruments”. And by taking into account that “valuable” is a contingent adjective we should never underestimate something that does not seem currently useful because circumstances, and situations change. Anthropocentrism can perfectly assume a higher version in which zeal regarding the environment is a main virtue.
In 2001, whilst the astronaut’s consciousness stretches skyward and he realises the monolith is full of stars, not only his body, but also his mind suffers a tremendous transformation. It is something like the nirvana of the Buddhists. And so this Starchild becomes a kind of boddhisatva, the protector of his new worlds. An ethical evolution follows the cosmic enhancement from human to Starchild and so, even the primitive biota inhabiting Europa becomes valuable to the point that an ultimatum is communicated to our race: All these worlds are yours except Europa. Attempt no landing here. Is this biota intrinsically valuable or just instrumentally precious? We do not know, given that we are not the Starchild. However, Clarke’s message is crystal clear: mankind is only a stage of a long process through which consciousness flows, but it is not a final form in itself. Insofar as we stretch our minds by contemplating the starry sky and even moving toward new worlds, our sense of wondering and compassion becomes greater.
Discussions about what intrinsically valuable is, tend in general to focus on the issue of rights. At one end of the spectrum, we have forms of egoistic anthropocentrism, which behave in a predatory way, and destroy our own favourable environmental conditions. At the other end, cosmocentrism offers its somewhat nihilistic considerations: if all things in the universe possess equal value, then nothing is special. However, cosmocentrists who try to preserve their own life are falling in contradiction. The action of trying to survive is an affirmation that life is better than non-life. Even if we find cosmocentrists who act in complete coherence with their thoughts, it will be noted that their rules work only for the human ability to interfere with the environment. A curious inversion is thus established: the chaotic movements of chance would be freer to act than the conscious will. Should chance be considered more valuable than human voluntary action? Should an asteroid full of bacteria be freer to act than a human being?
It is perfectly possible to think that all things in the universe possess intrinsic value, as cosmocentrists claim, but our practical actions are constantly demanding decisions about what is most valuable. It is also possible to think that all life is equally valuable, as biocentrists advocate, but our own choices contradict such theory. It is indeed very hard to devise an ethic beyond the one that currently guides us: something between a moderate anthropocentrism and a still increasing zoocentrism. Perhaps an entity endowed with cosmic consciousness as the Starchild is able to endorse a strong biocentrism, given that it would be like an angel or a god.
However, the controversy ends when we admit that only a rational entity is capable of acting with responsibility. A responsible action demands we make choices when facing dilemmas and even if all things in the universe are seen as only instrumentally valuable, that does not mean that they should be treated with no consideration. Our rational skills make us able to understand ourselves not as holders of special rights but as endowed with responsibility.
This rational mind, by contemplating the universe, attributes meaning to existence. Or, if we believe in aprioristic values, we can say that the contemplation recognises the cosmic meaning. Even in the case of the existence of a divine intelligence, this god demands the existence of a rational entity able to recognise the beauty of its creation. Although rational awareness is not intrinsically valuable, one should act as if it were: value as a fiction, but a value nevertheless. Because inanimate entities are a universal standard, and no effort is needed to guarantee their existence. Life, though limited to the way we know it, is a rare and fragile element subject to the vagaries of chance. Only rational beings are able to defend such rarity from the possibility of extinction. Only rational beings are able to act responsibly and to commit to preserve emerging life in other worlds. This is the Starchild’s lesson: it does not matter if microbes or irrational entities do not possess rights. As rational beings, we are able to recognise the uniqueness, the rarity of alien life and to act as ecocentrists in cosmic scale, establishing protective measures to be applied to these eventual worlds that we perhaps will discover.
Therefore, which answer can we offer to the ethical problems surrounding the terraforming of Mars or any other planet? Actually, it depends on the presence of life in there. Under the light of an anthropocentric/zoocentric ethics, the answer would be “yes, we should do it”, and an eventual native life will be protected as scientifically interesting (instrumentally valuable). Under the light of a cosmocentric ethics, we should be restricted to our own planet. Under the light of a biocentric/ecocentric point of view, a planet in which we find life deserves to be preserved the way it is, and also to be protected. However, if the planet is barren, a biocentrist will argue we have the moral obligation of spreading life in there, given that life is better than non-life.
We are potential Starchildren, able to establish ethical plans that enable life to keep its existence or to flourish in other worlds. And we, as “masters of this world”, are endowed with remarkable powers and incredible technology. We can destroy everything, we can keep pretending our world is everlasting or we can assume the protection of our world and existence as a moral duty. We can even ensure that other worlds flourish with life. As the fifth topic of transhumanist declaration says, reduction of risks of human extinction and development of means for the preservation of life and health, the alleviation of grave suffering and the improvement of human foresight and wisdom, must be pursued as urgent priorities and generously funded.
Our potential is still mostly unrealised. Instead of discussing what possesses intrinsic rights, and what does not, we should think of what our duties as rational beings are. As the Starchild, we are looking at our own planet with fascination, and the power of life and death, creation and destruction, eros and thanatos, lays on our hands. Future generations depend on our urgent space expanse.
Then he waited, marshalling his thoughts and brooding over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next.
But he would think of something.
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