Work in Progress: Making the Good Life in Outer Space Possible

In my previous newsletter I mentioned shifting my focus to space ethics, and I continue to fill a notebook, started specifically for this purpose, with disconnected jottings. My notes on space ethics remain “disconnected” at this time as I haven’t yet found the central theme, or cluster of related themes, that I will want to emphasize in relation to space ethics. There are several obvious areas of concentration: the impact of space exploration and development upon human society on the whole, the possible impact of space exploration and development on life elsewhere (especially if we find life elsewhere in the solar system), the novel opportunities that will be opened for human experience by space travel, and so on. An obvious but unimaginative approach would be to take some extant body of moral theory (say, Kantianism or utilitarianism) and apply it in a straight-forward way to some equally straight-forward area of concentration. One could easily devote an entire career to an approach like this, drawing out all the novel consequences from extrapolating a known theory to a new area of practice. But it’s not my style to take the obvious approach.

One book that has exercised an influence over me for a long time (I don’t know when I happened upon a copy in a used book store, but it was probably twenty or thirty years ago) is D. M. Mackinnon’s A Study in Ethical Theory. This is a sophisticated and high level summary of the major trends in moral thought, with chapters on utilitarianism, Kant, Butler, and a few other topics. It is a difficult book because of the amount of background knowledge it presupposes, but well worth the effort. So I have been reading this again this past week.

I’ve also been reading Adorno’s Problems of Moral Philosophy (I brought this book with me to Scotland), which is a very different read. On the opening page of Adorno’s lectures, he says that his audience has come to hear him talk about the good life, and notes that he has written a book on “the bad life.” The reference is to Minima Moralia. I have a copy of this, but I need to find it; it may be relevant to what I am doing now. The theme of the good life is a classical moral idea (if not a moral ideal), and this is something that really attracts me, but I can’t yet find a way in that does justice to the idea. (I’ve also been reading Seneca’s letters and some Cicero in my attempt to find a way to the idea of the good life.)

I have a lot of notes on “the good life in outer space,” but a substantive engagement with the idea still eludes me. Indeed, the good life in outer space eludes us all, because human exploration in space so far has been tightly confined to well-defined missions, and anything as unbounded as the good life has not had an opportunity to appear. Perhaps the closest we have gotten was the Skylab 4 “strike in space” (maybe there were similar episodes in the Soviet space program of which I am unaware), though I can imagine a labor historian (or even Adorno) making something very different from this. I don’t think that the good life becomes a possibility until life in space is lived as life on Earth has been lived, and perhaps one needs to hammer away at the theme that life in space has to date only been missions and not really life in an existential sense. All this, all of human life in space, remains to come, and that means that we can but speculate on life in space not bound to a space agency’s timetable.

I have mentioned Martin Dominik of NoRCEL in some previous newsletters, and at the NoRCEL conference he made the interesting observation that he had been expressing his skepticism to a colleague about speculation, and his colleague had noted that the difference between exploration and speculation is the amount of information that you have. This is a nice way to put the problem, since science often has a hard time with speculation, which it views as non-scientific philosophy, but we can see from this idea that it is degrees of knowledge, and not difference in kind, that separates science and philosophy. Coming from the philosophical side myself, my approaches to science have come about as I have immersed myself more in settled knowledge, but still a significant component of speculation remains. Someone coming from the science side might have the complementary experience of departing from settled knowledge more than is common for science and finding oneself at the edges of exploration, so that probing a bit more beyond means flirting with speculation.

We should take this same attitude with us when it comes to space ethics. We can rely on accounts of space exploration to date for our evidence and knowledge, and we can explore this knowledge from a philosophical and moral standpoint, but we will also want to probe a bit beyond our knowledge to date and allow ourselves some speculative license in regard to space exploration.

One issue, however, that we can take on its own terms, without much speculation but in the light of ethical principles, is the question of whether and how we ought to explore space, and whether or how space should be developed, and possibly also settled by human communities. Since this puts us on more firm ground, this potential area of concentration is ground that has been worked over. There are essays in the popular press that cover this angle all the time, and the themes are familiar: we should or we shouldn’t go into space, we should focus on Earth, we are natural explorers and should go into space, and so on. Precisely because the arguments are so familiar, they are less interesting than the more speculative parts of space ethics, and really interesting developments on this front will have to wait until some really interesting argument appears and gets some traction, beyond the rhetorical state of the argument as we see it today.

In several of my longer essays on Centauri Dreams, and another that I am working on now and have mentioned in previous newsletters, I have emphasized that human space exploration (not including non-crewed space science missions) has been stagnant since the end of the Apollo program (this is discussed in Bound in Shallows). Simply recognizing the Stagnant Era is, I think, important, since the people who are space enthusiasts tend to wax eloquent over any human space mission (we have seen this especially since the advent of SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic flights) and to gloss over the stagnancy, it can get obscured that we haven’t done anything new in space in fifty years. It makes me sound like a doomer to point this out, and that is why I said above that simply recognizing the Stagnant Era for what it is is important. Also, recognition of the Stagnant Era ties in with my above observation that human experience in space to date has only been the experience of space missions, so that, in a sense, life in space has yet to begin. Since life in space has yet to begin, the good life in space is yet further off, since we can’t have the possibility of the good life without life itself coming first.

Back to Mackinnon, whom I mentioned above, near the end of his book is a great passage that is especially relevant to space ethics: “Moral discovery, growth, advance, however one describes it, is a fact; and if one concedes its possibility, one’s general view has to make room for its occurrence.” (p 278) Space exploration, we can hope, will go hand-in-hand with moral discovery, growth, and advance. Once could argue that space exploration to date, even if it is not authentic human life in space, has already contributed to moral discovery. Here Exhibit A would be the Overview Effect, which has profoundly influenced the lives of some astronauts, and has influenced the rest of us through photographs like the “Blue Marble” and “Earthrise,” both of which are commonly cited in relationship to the environmental movement.

It is entirely possible that one might concede the possibility of moral discovery and growth on Earth, but deny the possibility in relation to space. This sounds odd, I will admit, but if you read between the lines of those are make their tiresome arguments against any large-scale human space exploration effort, one starts to get the feeling that these authors believe something like this. If one read these arguments with this idea in mind, it might make for an unsympathetic interpretation of these arguments, but in this case an unsympathetic interpretation might actually be helpful, as it could serve to extract a hidden presupposition that prevails among the space exploration skeptics. Implicitly, they argue as though there were a very real moral distinction between life on Earth and life in space (which latter, as noted above, has not yet been experienced in any robust form), such that life on Earth can continue to teach us moral lessons, and these are lessons that we must learn, even if learning them now comes at the opportunity cost of space exploration in the present, while there are, apparently, no moral lessons to be learned in space, at least not in the immediate term, and not of sufficient moral scope or moral scale to justify the effort of space exploration.

The “Blue Marble” photograph.

I should point out that I don’t think that this “Should we go into space?” debate will be settled by any argument over ethics, one way or the other. However, it is a moral issue on a civilizational scale whether or not a significant space exploration effort occurs. And by “a significant space exploration effort” I mean an effort at a scale that would clearly end the Stagnant Era and demonstrate that the Stagnant Era was a mere pause, a kind of interregnum of space development. An effort at this scale would be a civilizational scale effort, and a civilizational scale effort can only be mounted and only be sustained by grassroots support for the effort.

We could see further episodic space exploration that gave an appearance of ending the Stagnant Era, but which is only another conjuncture of space exploration (following Braudel’s distinction among history of the event, conjunctures, and the longue durée, a conjuncture is a coherent period of about a generation or less). For example, we might see a new Cold War space race, with Russia leaving the ISS program and establishing its own space station, at the same time that the Chinese build a space station. This would give the impression of significant activity in space, but under this paradigm space would still be dominated by missions, with no possibility of the good life in space.

Another scenario would be a mission to Mars, whether by one national space agency or several space agencies working together. This would extend for several years, and if there were multiple missions to Mars this effort could occupy the better part of the present century. Again, this would give the appearance of significant activity in space, and, again, this would be more human missions in space without the possibility of the good life for human beings being lived in space. Also, this kind of space exploration, while welcome, would not constitute what I have called a spacefaring breakout. With further space missions, even exciting “flags and footprints” missions to new worlds untouched by human beings, no new frontiers are being opened up for civilization, unless what follows the mission is something that did not follow the Apollo missions. A mission to Mars (or several missions to Mars) could be followed by another Stagnant Era, perhaps stretching for a century or more. Or perhaps a mission to Mars would be the last great hurrah for our spacefaring efforts before we fall into permanent stagnation.

Two interesting themes emerge from the above discussion. Firstly, one way to approach the classic idea of the good life in outer space is to emphasize that we haven’t yet really experienced life in space because human time in space has been managed in a way that has eliminated the possibility of the ordinary business of life unfolding in space. One goal of space exploration and development could be making the good life in space possible someday, as it is not possible now. Secondly, an appearance and reality distinction can be made among space exploration and development efforts, and a reality and appearance distinction is at the same time a metaphysical distinction. What appears to be a resumption of space activity and an end to the Stagnant Era may not in reality be a change from the status quo of the role of space in human history. Here space ethics bleeds over into philosophy of history. A spacefaring breakout that ended the Stagnant Era and established human civilization beyond Earth would change the direction of the development of human history, and would change the future of civilization and of humanity. That involves civilization, history, and ethics, and is a question on the grandest scale of human questions.

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