Work in Progress: The Vocation of the Explorer
Friday 18 November 2022
This past Saturday I gave my online presentation on space ethics during the Space Education Symposium (SES) and it was perhaps better than my presentation to Forming and Exploring Habitable Worlds in terms of the quality of my performance. For one thing, I didn’t have to be so concerned with time, so I probably spoke for about forty minutes, give or take, and my long-suffering audience listened without complaint. While intended only as an overview of ways in which we might come into contact with the idea of space ethics, I advanced a particular approach to understanding ethical development under the umbrella of developing social institutions — particularly the changing institutions that characterize an expanding wave of exploration, starting with small groups, eventually becoming a frontier society, and then a civilization in the strict sense. I hope to elaborate more on this in the future.
One of Emile Durkheim’s lesser known papers is “Ethics and the Sociology of Morals” (padded out with a preface and introduction by others it was published as a short book), and I think this sociological approach to ethics may be helpful in developing this idea of multiple distinct moral milieux. A further wrinkle is that the expansion of a society through exploration can all be considered the work of one civilization that reveals itself by unfolding into the unknown, rather than as distinct societies in distinct circumstances. Durkheim was influenced by William Wundt (I discussed Wundt’s work in newsletter 186), and in this essay he both relies upon and criticizes Wundt. Neither Durkheim nor Wundt are considered significant figures in contemporary philosophical ethics, but there is much here that is applicable to the approach I am developing.
Durkheim leads off his essay with this paragraph:
“In France we know only two kinds of ethics: that of the idealists and the Kantians on the one hand, and that of the Utilitarians on the other. But there has recently emerged in Germany a school of moral theorists that has undertaken to develop ethics as a special science with its own methods and principles. The different branches of philosophy tend more and more to detach themselves from one another and to disengage themselves from the great metaphysical hypotheses which have bound them together. Psychology today is neither idealist nor materialist. Why should it not be the same with ethics?”
Even in this brief introduction there is much with which I agree, and much with which I do not agree. In my space ethics talk I too noted that there are essentially two kinds of ethical theory pursued by contemporary philosophers, the Kantians engaged in deontological ethics and the utilitarians engaged in teleological ethics. I noted that there is no intrinsic reason that we must discuss deontological ethics in a Kantian framework, or teleological ethics within a utilitarian framework, but if that anyone were to begin researching either of these lines of thought, they would eventually and inevitably come to a literature dominated by these two traditions. As for disagreement, the idea that ethics can be separated off as a “science” is unworkable — if one accepts the is/ought dichotomy the very idea of making ethics into a science is incoherent — and I would find it undesirable to attempt to disengage ethics from metaphysics; on the contrary, I would like to see a much more robust relationship between ethics and metaphysics.
Since I am neither a partisan of deontology or teleology I am always searching for alternative scholarly traditions, and there is much in evolutionary ethics and axiological ethics that interests me, though these traditions have not received anything like the attention or the elaboration of Kantianism or utilitarianism. This is both a limitation and an opportunity. When I was putting together my space ethics presentation I thought about neatly dividing it along these familiar lines, but instead I took a more intuitive and extemporaneous approach, in which I simply talked about a few ideas in space ethics that interest me, and only later in the talk discussed how these ethical ideas relate to familiar philosophical approaches to ethics.
I had mentioned previously after my participation a year ago in the Ethics, Regulation, Law and Treaty Working Group at the NSS-NIAC-TransAstra Space Settlement Workshop (04–05 November 2021) that, in preparing for this, I found myself engaged in several interesting questions about the ethics of exploration. My recent space ethics talk caused me to think more about this, and it is something I would like to pursue further. In my SESA remarks I made the point that exploration is a kind of experimentation, and experimentation is a kind of exploration; the two are complementary.
We notice that the Age of Discovery occurred about the same time as the scientific revolution was getting under way. Both the scientific revolution and the Age of Discovery are two aspects of the same desire to come to grips with the natural world — two sides of the same coin, if you will.
Exploration is, moreover, outwardly focused and expansive by its very nature. Once one has explored what is near to hand, and the near to hand is now known as a result of exploration, the ability to continue exploration means moving further outward into the unknown. This has ethical implications. I finished my SES presentation on space ethics with the idea that the most powerful ethical systems are not those of proscriptions, but rather those of prescriptions that enjoin us to action. Exploration is a form of action that is both conceptually and spatially expansive, so that an exploration imperative nicely fills the bill of a prescriptive norm.
Lately I have been reading Fichte, and there is much in Fichte that can be used as a framework for a proactive ethic that enjoins us to action. Fichte is notorious for his assertion that the kind of philosophy one has is a function of the kind of man one is:
“What sort of philosophy one chooses depends, therefore, on what sort of man one is; for a philosophical system is not a dead piece of furniture that we can reject or accept as we wish; it is rather a thing animated by the soul of the person who holds it. A person indolent by nature or dulled and distorted by mental servitude, learned luxury, and vanity will never raise himself to the level of idealism.” (Science of Knowledge, First Introduction, 5)
And then in the next paragraph:
“We can show the dogmatist the inadequacy and incoherence of his system, of which we shall speak in a moment: we can bewilder and harass him from all sides; but we cannot convince him, because he is incapable of calmly receiving and coolly assessing a theory which he absolutely cannot endure.”
This is one of those purple passages in philosophy that other philosophers love or hate. (I am among those who love the line.) Perhaps only Nietzsche is more divisive in the responses to his work. However, this is also an important point that is often elided: people frequently reject theories for reasons that have nothing to do with the validity of the theory — nothing to do with reason and evidence, and everything to do with emotion and bias. It is unquestionably true that most of us are incapable of calming receiving and coolly assessing a theory that we cannot endure. It would be inhuman and unrealistic to expect this; nevertheless, we must learn to live with it, both in ourselves and in others.
Admittedly, there is a lot in Fichte that is off-putting, but what I find off-putting is not the same as what others have recently found off-putting. But Fichte is off-putting for the same reason that he formulates a prescriptive ethic: he is open, forceful, and uncompromising in his advocacy — one could even say that Fichte badgers the reader. Ambrose Bierce wrote that “To be positive is to be mistaken at the top of one’s voice.” This was once used against the logical positivists, but it could also be used to describe Fichte. For my part, I find this gratifying, as there is no concealed agenda here, and not the slightest trace of the disingenuous in Fichte.
Ficthe wrote an early work titled Some Lectures Concerning the Scholar’s Vocation, which places the particular station of the scholar within the larger context of the destiny of humanity, which is given its exposition in The Vocation of Man. A discussion of the vocation of the explorer could place the ethic of the explorer in the context of a society that is actively engaged in exploration, including that exploration of nature that we know as scientific experimentation. That is to say, the explorer’s natural social context is, or would be, a scientific civilization in which exploration is understood as a moral contribution to the central project.
Regular readers will recall that I have reviewed many proposed characterizations of contemporary civilization as being a scientific civilization, and I find them all wanting. However, there are nascent forces within contemporary civilization that point to the possibility of a genuinely scientific civilization in the future. However, at the same time, there are many other nascent forces in our civilization, and among the divergent currents shaping our world there is no consensus and no single direction of development that is, as yet, apparent. Whether this is because our future is still indeterminate, or because we simply cannot see the future with which the present world is pregnant, is not at all clear.
I have one more presentation to deliver this month. Some months ago I agreed to give an online repeat of my “How many branches are there on the tree of life?” presentation, which I had previously done for the 5th NoRCEL online conference. This will be on 28 November, delivered to the University of the Third Age (U3A) in the UK. My initial version of this presentation was an adaptation of my “Peer Complexity during the Stelliferous Era,” but re-cast to focus on origins of life mechanisms, rather than the more general presentation of the ideas that I gave earlier. I have now further adapted it. I have been re-writing my previous presentation, and I can honestly say that I think it is better now.
I could incorporate even more in this framework as it naturally dovetails with my St. Andrews and Edinburgh talks, “Toward Universal Biology” and “Constraining Exobiology,” but that would make it too long and too complex. I was asked for my U3A presentation to explain my terms in more detail as the audience is not specialized. I actually prefer this, as being clear about one’s terms allows one to set the agenda. There are often subtle ways in which people differently understand the same concept, and this leads to a lot of misunderstandings.
If one starts from the ground up and builds afresh, there is less room for misunderstanding, though it is no guarantee of agreement. However, it does take a lot more time, which is why developing an understanding of a discipline usually requires not one talk, but a series of lectures. And what I am doing is more-or-less developing my own approach to emergent complexity as a discipline. In some contexts (my talks over the past three years) I can give a twenty minute summary to an audience that has some of the background, but it is ultimately better to give a longer exposition more specific to the task one has set oneself.