Work in Progress: A Conversation on Space Ethics
Friday 03 June 2022
A week ago I was interviewed by Jeff Greenblatt and Eric Ward about space ethics on Our Future in Space, produced by Orbital Assembly Corporation. Frank White had referred them to me, for which I am grateful. It is always an interesting experience to be interviewed, and there is always something to be learned from the experience. My performance was okay, though there were a few things that I couldn’t remember and a few things I should have mentioned but didn’t.
I took a lot of notes before the show to remind myself of some of the topics I wanted to hit, since even though ethics is a subdivision of philosophy (traditionally one of the five “branches” of philosophy, along with metaphysics, epistemology, logic, and aesthetics), “space ethics” is still very broad and could be taken in any number of directions. Moreover, ethics is one of the few areas of philosophy on which non-philosophical individuals often have strong views, so that complicates the problem of an exposition of ethics from a disinterested philosophical point of view.
For the man-in-the-street, ethics is a system of principles by which to live, and this conception of ethics is reflected in efforts to produce a declaration of ethical principles. I know of at least one attempt to produce a declaration of ethical principles to guide space exploration, and that is Rick Tumlinson’s Space Declaration (on his Earthlight Foundation webpage), which is an aspirational statement of principles that ought to be adhered to in the exploration of space. This was brought to my attention by a discussion of the Space Declaration on the Overview Round Table some months ago.
For philosophers, ethics is essentially a distinct domain of problems that is to be analyzed for its own intrinsic interest. Whether or not the analysis of moral problems issues into any grand statement of principles is irrelevant; what is relevant is the clarity and the rigor of the analysis, and how well the analysis is consistently integrated with the analysis of other philosophical problems. Aspirationally (again), an analysis of moral principles, especially a critique of the moral principles that we take for granted, can have a bracing effect on the individual, and perhaps even make him a better person, but that isn’t the point of philosophical ethics.
However, I think it is just as likely that a philosophical exposition of ethics may be more like an unwelcome bucket of cold water that has something of a demoralizing effect. Richard Cartwright described the experience of increasing rigor coupled with decreasing edification: “I got the real thing a couple of terms later, in Lucius Garvin’s course in ethics. No edification, but enough ethical theory to get me through a Ph.D. prelim five years later.” (Philosophical Essays, p. xvi) On the one hand, seeing ethical problems approached from an analytical perspective for the first time somewhat deprives them of their presumptive edifying effect; on the other hand, being daily exposed to moral ideals can make the individual feel impossibly inadequate. Both effects are demoralizing.
As it happens, ethics was my introduction to philosophy, insofar as the first serious philosophical book that I read cover to cover was F. H. Bradley’s Ethical Studies. While I understood little of it, the book stayed with me, and I still occasionally cite it. One of the comments that stayed with me was this: “A philosopher may be a good philosopher, and yet, taking him as a whole, may be immoral, and the same thing is true of an artist, or even of a theologian. They may all be good, and yet not good men; but no one who knew what true religion was would call a man who on the whole was immoral a religious man.” While I don’t agree with this, I do see the force of it. And it isn’t all wrong. A corollary of Bradley’s point here is that a moral philosopher may be a good moral philosopher and yet not be a good man. Certainly this is true. I don’t know anything about the character of philosophers who write books and papers on ethics, but I know enough about human nature to know that some of them are probably perfectly decent, and some of them would probably make your stomach churn if you met them.
Bradley allows that there is true religion and false religion, and indeed immediately prior to the above quote he wrote, “A man who is ‘religious’ and does not act morally, is an impostor, or his religion is a false one.” This allows Bradley to dismiss a whole range of religious experience and religiously-inspired behavior as false religion, which is, as Bertrand Russell would have said, a very convenient doctrine. But, beyond the mere convenience and the implied self-serving strategy of identifying one’s own tradition as true and everyone else’s religious tradition as false, there is a bigger problem. I would assert that true religion, contrary to Bradley, is precisely when an individual is willing to ignore or contravene commonsense morality in the name of some higher morality that is specific to the religion in question. It is only when we reach the level of commitment that a religion overrides common decency that we have religion, and not, rather, some social code dressed up with mythology. Bradley also gave a clear expression to a commonly held idea of the relationship between religion and ethics:
“Reflection on morality leads us beyond it. It leads us, in short, to see the necessity of a religious point of view. It certainly does not tell us that morality comes first in the world and then religion: what it tells us is that morality is imperfect, and imperfect in such a way as implies a higher, which is religion.”
Almost everyone believes that there is a deep connection between religion and morality — not least the advocates of religious conformism in the name of keeping up social appearances — but few express it as concisely as did Bradley. Whether one accepts this or rejects this, it is a point of departure that is worth thinking about. What I said above about religion overriding conventional moral assumptions is consistent with what Bradley says here: if we sense the imperfection of morality and we are able to bring morality to perfection, transforming it into religion, then the imperfections that we were forced to leave behind would be those aspects of conventional morality that the religious individual is prepared to contravene in the name of religion, which is, for him (according to Bradley), a perfected morality; the individual who holds on to conventional morality (what Nietzsche called the morality of mores, and Sartre called the spirit of seriousness) is clinging to those moral imperfections that religion has transcended.
Almost everyone also believes that there is, or should be (making this a normative statement), some relationship between ethics and the law. This came up in my conversation with Jeff Greenblatt and Eric Ward. I don’t remember exactly what I said in the interview, but I like to point out that the dominant view in philosophy of law today is legal positivism, which denies any intrinsic relationship between the law and ethics. The natural law tradition, which is marginal in scholarly philosophy of law, but still has its advocates, is much closer to the intuitive idea that law should reflect moral ideals. Perhaps this should be counted in the favor of natural law, though natural law and legal positivism are both subject to a variety of interpretations.
Greenblatt and Ward are interested in the idea of a space bill of rights, so we touched on that, but I consider this to be a matter of law, or philosophy of law, or a matter of political philosophy, and not intrinsically ethical. I guess, on reflection, this insistence on the distinction on my part is an expression of an intuitive legal positivism, since Greenblatt and Ward are clearly interested in a space bill of rights for moral reasons. They cited a number of instances of what seemed to them to be clear shortcomings of life on Earth, and implied that these might be addressed in space by a bill of rights for space. Since we had briefly communicated about this by email before the show, I made up a Venn diagram of three overlapping circles representing ethics, philosophy of law, and political philosophy. Here, each portion of the Venn diagram represents a possible relationship between these disciplines, with the center of the three circles representing the ideal in which ethics informs both law and politics.
But if ethics is to ideally inform law and politics, we would have to have some idea of what ethics is, and, as I noted above, it can be approached in a variety of ways. The idea of ethics as a declaration of principles fits perfectly with the idea of ethics being the ultimate foundation of law or politics — presumably, a political society is formulated on the basis of ethical principles, and laws are formulated in order to implement this political society — but this is certainly the least interesting (and most dogmatic) way of approaching ethics. If we think of ethics as a philosophical analysis of particular problems, it is much more difficult to get to the point at which ethics could be the foundation for some political society and its laws. Indeed, as the philosophical exposition of ethical ideas developed, we would find ourselves forces to continually reorganize our political societies and to reformulate our laws to reflect our latest conclusions about ethics.
In several newsletters and blog posts I have discussed other forms that civilization might take, if based on alternative assumptions than those operative today, and one of these ideas that I consistently discuss is that of a truly scientific civilization, in which science is the central project, and all the other institutions are at the service of science, rather than science serving the ends of some non-scientific ideology. The above discussion points to the possibility of another alternative, and that is the possibility of a truly philosophical civilization. In a civilization that takes philosophy as its central project, with all other institutions serving the philosophical imperative, then you would have exactly the situation I described above: the continual reorganization of other subsidiary institutions as philosophical research programs developed new conceptions of law and politics. While I can’t imagine any one actually implementing such a civilization (even an ersatz civilization imposed top-down by military or political fiat), there is a sense in which the strange world I have described of a philosophical civilization has played out across human history. Because we have, in fact, as a species, had a large number of different philosophical research programs at different times and at different places, and these philosophies have produced principles that have been acted upon with the setting up of particular political societies and the passing of particular laws.
Thus by another route I come to the famous quote attributed to Thucydides that history is philosophy teaching by example. I have thought about this quote many times, but I haven’t previously come to it in the way that I came to it above. To take the idea further: in several newsletters I have discussed my conception of orders of civilization — both the opportunities presented by the idea and the shortcomings of the formulations I have given the idea. In an earlier formulation of this, I wanted to get at the idea of civilization in the way that some SETI researchers implicitly use the idea, in which “civilization” is attributed to a planet on the whole.
We have at present no planetary scale civilization (in one sense that I discussed in newsletter 170), but in the SETI sense, civilization on Earth has been a braided strand that has always been in existence in some form or another since civilization appeared on Earth. In this sense of civilization, as one long development taking place episodically in different parts of the planet, I could argue on the basis I proposed above that terrestrial civilization is a philosophical civilization. No one particular civilization (no basal civilization) is a philosophical civilization, but at the level of abstraction of the planetary scale, far removed from the getting and spending of individuals, the case could be made that Earth is a philosophical planet.
One topic that came up in the interview that gave me some insight was, in discussing some of the varieties of utilitarianism, I mentioned a thought experiment that I have been working on, which I call “Utilitarianism Live,” in which you insert a monitoring device into every conscious being in the biosphere to continuously monitor utilitarian value (whether that be pleasure and pain, or happiness, or some intrinsic values of ideal utilitarianism), which could then be displayed in real time. In this way, any interventions in political institutions (or, I might add, in law) would give immediate feedback in terms of increased or decreased happiness, and we could then adjust our interventions accordingly.
I had this idea a couple of years ago and have been meaning to write it up ever since, but haven’t ever finished with it. Recently I have returned to the manuscript a few times to rethink parts of the argument. When I mentioned this thought experiment in the interview, Jeff Greenblatt said that it would be obvious where the misery in the world is to be found. I don’t agree with this. But reflecting on his comment, I see how interesting it is, and how it is related to other things that I hadn’t even thought about in this context.
In 2020 I wrote Happiness: A Tale of Two Surveys, in which I compared the World Happiness Report (WHR) and the WIN/Gallup International surveys of happiness, which give radically different accounts of which countries in the world have the happiest populations. The WHR run their data through a number of economic filters that give them the results they want to see, which correspond to things like the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) while WIN/Gallup simply asked people if they were happy. I hadn’t previously thought of these happiness surveys in utilitarian terms, but they are obviously interpretable in a utilitarian context, and certainly the folks at WHR see themselves (implicitly) as engaged in what David Pearce calls “paradise engineering.” But whereas Pearce wants to approach the engineering of paradise through drugs and transhumanism, WHR wants to engineer paradise through UN SDGs and economic restructuring. According to the WHR, substantial misery is to be found in parts of the world with high self-reported happiness, and they would like to see these regions of the world transformed into WHR/UN approved happiness. This strikes me as absurd, and I expect that significant misery is to be found in the wealthiest industrialized nation-states that usually top the WHR list. Thus where misery is to be found in the world is a function of how we define it.
While I do not deny that the folks involved in the paradise engineering favored by the WHR are well intentioned, given what I learned by going through their survey methodology, I have come to believe that it is deluded and counter-productive. The degree of dishonesty necessary in order to demote those countries where people say they are happy (scoring high on the Cantril ladder), and to push up the happiness ratings of countries in which suicides are far higher than in self-reportedly happy countries, is nothing short of spectacular. Unfortunately, it isn’t isolated. The institutions that declare themselves to be about happiness and ethics are so dysfunctional that they are at present doing more harm than good. For a perfect example of this as regards ethics rather than happiness, I happened upon an article on The Conversation, “‘Morality pills’ may be the US’s best shot at ending the coronavirus pandemic, according to one ethicist,” in which the author (perhaps one of those moral philosophers who would make my stomach churn if I met them) argues that populations should be engineered with “moral enhancement,” and, of course, when we have been morally enhanced we will want to take the COVID vaccine. This is so patently dystopian that I would have to question the sanity of someone who would propose the subversion of the Nuremberg Code. But I guess it is no crazier than many of the ideas of transhumanism and related ideas discussed above.
My point here is that self-appointed guardians of happiness and morality, especially when they are attached to powerful and influential institutions, are to be regarded with suspicion. In my interview I ended with the thought that people defy the law as often to do good as to do ill, and I stated that this was my optimistic takeaway on human nature. I think there is insufficient appreciation of the fact that laws and customs often entail avoidable forms of harm, and I know that I personally have seen people bend the rules on many occasions in order to be a decent human being to their fellow man. But there are also many true believers in institutions that will inflict whatever harm is necessary in order to be on the “good” side of the law.
In a few places I have discussed what Carroll Quigley called the “institutionalization of the instrument.” For Quigley, societies set up institutions for purely instrumental reasons, but, once the institutions are in existence, they come to serve their own ends as institutions and so become a less effective instrument. This is true with ethical and legal institutions no less than with the political institutions that concerned Quigley. The institutionalization of ethics and law can transform these instruments of the good life into institutions that can cease to promote the good life, and, in some cases, actively pervert the pursuit of the good life. This can be taken as a mechanism to explain a reasonable suspicion of moral and legal institutions, and anyone who presents themselves as a representative of these institutions.