Space and existential risk: an ethical perspective on the one-way ticket scenario

Introduction

The aim of this essay is to explore if it is ethically justified to sacrifice the good of the few for the good of the most. In order to do so, the first section presents a hypothetical scenario, in which a group of space explorers is sent to the stars to find a new home for humanity but with low possibilities of success. Sections two and three consists of the philosophical analysis of the case. Two theories were chosen for this aim, consequentialism, and Confucianism. In part four conclusions are given.

Space exploration: overview and hypothetical scenario

Global contemporary society is afflicted by several social issues. Global warming, population density, shortage of fresh water, cost of energy, increment of environmental disruptor for the exploitation of raw materials, possibilities of pandemics, war, are all facts that have been proved by data and scientists. According to Metzger (2016), all these symptoms are the reflection of a bigger problem: we are getting closer to the limits of a planetary civilization. Adding to this scenario, the UN Report on the World Population Prospects  (2019) shows that the world population has increasingly grown through the last century, and it will continue to grow for the whole current one, arriving at 12.7 billion by 2100. 

On the other side, space investment in the last decades has increased each year (OECD, 2019). Space has opened its gates not only for research and national activities but also private companies saw business opportunities, arriving to create an industry of one trillion dollars in value (Morgan&Stanley, 2019). According to the forecast, this will enable in the next two decades the development of space technology and space infrastructure, making it easier and cheaper to access space. 

Given the above, this essay will construct a hypothetical scenario in which a group of space explorers is asked to go out in space searching for a new home for humanity. 

Humanity is in the year 2100, and all the previsions that scientists have forecasted come to be true. The arctic has melted and the ocean has raised 2 meters, forcing the 600 million living on the coastlines to emigrate deeper into the continent. The world population has grown, but not enough resources are available. Climate change and the disruption of the environment make the situation even more critical. Big social crisis emerged, blocking the economy, leading to social protest and tensions all over the world. 

Under this circumstances a group of scientists, part of the Future Human Project, a research dedicated to the future of humanity, launched a simulation in a super-computer. The aim of the simulation was to track all possible scenarios for the next century, 2200, in order to try to bring back peace and order in society. The results of the simulation were not positive, most had apocalyptic outcomes, with the worst case scenario of  0,1% of realization of total human extinction in the next 50 years if humanity would not find a new planet. Under this circumstance, a mission of the 500 people more qualified was organized and sent to the stars in search of a new home, but because of the limited amount of fuel, according to the calculations, there is 95.4% of possibilities that those men and women will not succeed. 

Given this future scenario, would it be ethical to send those people in search of a new planet, even if there is large possibility that they would die, with the possibility of the extinction of humanity substantial but low?

Maximization and existential risk: a consequentialism perspective

The biggest risk that humanity can face is the risk of extinction. With this statement it is possible to summarize Bostrom’s (2013) consequentialist ideas. Starting from a utilitarian perspective, in which it is promoted that the highest value is the maximization of well-being in society (Sinnott-Armstrong, 2019), consequentialism focuses the moral conduct on the outcome of actions. This is quite a tricky definition, and it is open to interpretation. Bostrom (2013) gives a quantifying understanding of outcomes, translating them into techno-material values. 

Following this view, the value of humanity is seen in relation to the whole species and not to the single individual. It is the good of the most and not of the few that counts. There is a correlation between loss in value and potentiality. The author, in fact, develops this idea of materiality potential and efficiency, in which he understands the universe as a resource to use for expanding society’s well-being. In the development of his arguments, Bostrom (2013) promotes two important ideas that are applicable to the case of this essay. At first, the author develops a framework of loss case scenario. The framework is composed of three axioms (human life is valuable, value is aggregative, value does not depend on time of occurrence), and three variables (the size of the population, how badly the population would be affected, and the probability that this events can happen). The idea is to create an objective quantifiable in order to measure the outcome of a given consequence related to impact on society. The second one is the concept of existential risk, defined as a risk that threatens the premature extinction of human intelligent life or the permanent and drastic destruction of its potential for desirable future development (Bostrom, 2013 p.15). Given this consideration, it is possible to see that under Bostrom’s (2013) consequentialism perspective, the biggest loss would be the extinction of humanity itself. 

Technology in this given framework plays an important role. It is seen as a means to an end for humanity, in which the possibilities for human well-being achievements are increased. How would it be possible to go and use all the resources of the universe expanding humans material development without technology? Under this perspective, the concept of technological maturity is developed, one of the end goals of humanity. This concept stands for the attainment of capabilities affording a level of economic productivity and control over nature close to the maximum that could be achieved (Bostrom, 2013 p.19). 

The ideas and arguments of Bostrom’s consequentialism perspective are applicable to the ethical scenario of this essay. At first, it is described a situation in which there is the present of an existential risk with low possibilities of realizations. From this point, the proposed loss framework is applied. The case is analyzed starting from the three axioms. The space mission, as described, is composed by 500 individual, which has a value of 500 (taking into account that one person = value one), and the time of this value has a duration of an average lifetime period. On the other part, the Earth population is of 12.7 billion minus 500, which has value of 12.7 billion minus 500, and the time of this value has a duration of an average lifetime plus the average lifetimes of future generations. Applying the three variables, it is obtained that the size of the population at risk is 12.7 billion against 500, the effect would be the death of both the human populations, and the probability is  in the first case 0,1%, while on the other part there is 95.4%. Given this description, according to Bostrom consequentialism perspective, it is worth to take the trade even if this would probably mean to sacrifice 500 humans, this is because the risk to lose all humanity represents a too big of a  harm on all levels. 

Several critiques may be raised following the consequentialism perspective. One example could be why a certain individual should want to join a mission of that type with low possibilities of positive outcomes. To answer this, the ethical theory of confucianism is examined. 

Dao and the “right” way: confucianism in space exploration 

Confucianism is an ancient philosophical thought that covers all the main philosophical categories, but if today the epistemological and metaphysical aspects are taken less in consideration because of modern science, still important aspect can be associated with it regarding the ethical dimension. Furthermore, the ethical understanding of the role of humans can be applied to the hypothetical case scenario proposed. 

The main idea in the ethics perspective of confucianism is that human beings have to learn to become humans. There is a social concept of the person. Starting from a biological dimension, in which there is the understanding of human beings as an organism, it is possible to become a person only by entering into relationship with one another (Wong, 2011). This process is called Dao, one of the main concepts in Confucian philosophy. The concept of Dao has several translations, but the most common is “the way” (Wong, 2011 p.64), meaning that trough the way of Dao you can learn to become a human. Human is an ideal figure to reach, and for this reason unreachable. But it is exactly thanks to this impossibility, that it is possible to see that Confucianism understands human existence as a dynamic process of self-improvement that applies to all the lifetime of the individual.

Life for Confucianism is a complex phenomenon, and for this reason it adopts a holistic perspective of human life. Compared to western thinking, in which there is a view of reducing entities and things in axioms, and this applies to the concept of human and society as well, confucianism has a more related way of seeing things. Following this view, also the concept of personhood changes. According to Wong (2011), Confucians think that human beings are inescapably born into a web of social relations, and they can only mature with the web of it. Therefore, the person is not an independent concept but one that is communal. This is related to the  way that virtue is understood. In fact, a person is defined in terms of the social role a person occupies (Wong, 2011), and so also the virtues are related to the social role. 

It can be, therefore, understood that a person’s social role is morally significant. Wong (2011) states that there is a specification of his/her/them responsibilities in the web of social relations present in society, and every relation has a certain correspondence in conduct and virtue. By this it is meant that a human life is dynamic, and humans occupy several roles during their life and during a normal day. You start as a parent that takes your child to school, after you become an employee with certain responsibilities and duty, then again a parent or a partner, and so on, every day. To each social role there is a right conduct and virtue to apply. 

It is, then, possible to say the same about the space explorer. According to confucianism, if an individual holds a certain social role in which virtue and right thing to do are to go out there in space to find a new home for mankind, it is by following that path and applying the virtue of that social role that the individual becomes human. Under a confucianism perspective, human life is not a matter of time, but of quality, and this is strictly related to duty and responsibilities. And there is not any bigger value that being responsible for all humanity. 

Conclusion 

Applying the theories to the hypothetical scenario, important conclusions can be drawn. 

Under a consequentialism perspective it was proved that the action of sending space explorers to find a new home for humanity with low possibilities of success is ethically justified. According to this view it is not the single individual that counts, but humanity as a whole, and without that sacrifice the human species could face extinction. Using confucianism it was argued that also under an individual perspective the action is morally justified. According to confucian ethics, the aim of life is to become human following the path of Dao. Furthermore, human existence is a matter of social relations, and it is thanks to the values and responsibilities of this social relations that an individual can become human. 

These ethical questions will have to be answered once we see the first people going into deep space. 

Bibliography: 

  • Bostrom, N. (2013). Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority. Global Policy4(1), 15-31. doi: 10.1111/1758-5899.12002.
  • Metzger, P. T. (2016). Space development and space science together, an historic opportunity. Space Policy37, 77–91. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.spacepol.2016.08.004. 
  • Morgan Stanley. (2019). Space: Investing in the Final Frontier. https://www.morganstanley.com/ideas/investing-in-space. 
  • OECD (2019), The Space Economy in Figures: How Space Contributes to the Global Economy, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/c5996201-en.
  • Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2019). Consequentialism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Retrieved 21 January 2022, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/.
  • United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2019). World Population Prospects 2019: Highlights (ST/ESA/SER.A/423). 
  • Wong, P. (2011). Dao, Harmony and Personhood: Towards a Confucian Ethics of Technology. Philosophy & Technology25(1), 67-86. doi: 10.1007/s13347-011-0021-z.

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