Ethics of Space Colonization

Julia Sullivan shares her ethics & society case study, which she completed as part of our Young Scientist Program.

For many, the idea of space colonization may seem to be an inevitable fact, with Mars seeming to be within reaching distance, with our only obstacle being time, as our technological advances and scientific understanding no longer feel like limiting factors. This may be so, but one question that isn’t commonly considered is, should we? Yes, humans have explored and expanded across the globe since our very evolutionary beginnings as a species and this is deeply ingrained in our modern history. It appears to be a universally accepted part of our story that we are explorers, as we revel in the memory of those such as Columbus and Zheng Hu. But just because we’ve done it before, does that mean we should do it again? Is the argument “because we feel like we should” a valid justification for leaving our planet and coming into contact with another?

Starting from a purely pragmatic stand point, the justification required for space colonization is for the benefit to outweigh the cost. This sounds like a simple enough requirement, but it is incredibly difficult to quantify. If we want this requirement to be fulfilled economically then a space colony would need to export valuables back to earth, or the industry must create jobs on earth. Alternatively we could justify the potential of preserving the human race indefinitely as a great enough benefit. Already, the ambiguity of what aspect we are seeking to fulfill is muddying the waters.

Say we do come to the conclusion that colonizing Mars is beneficial to the human race, how is it going to be orchestrated in a social platform? How will it be decided who gets to be part of this colony? We could rank applications by suitability, prioritize diversity, leave it as a lottery draw, or simply allow the highest bidders to be the only participants. Each of these options raises its own issues, but they all are related to who is being left behind, who has to carry the cost of the expedition and who has to deal with the consequences.

After choosing the participants, can we ethically send them without fully knowing what the consequences may be? As of today, some fears for interplanetary or interstellar expeditions are radiation, the long term effects of zero gravity and the development of children, which will be inevitable if we plan for this group to take up permanent settlement where they are going. We may come up with solutions, but we will never know their capability until they are truly used and tested, which will take years, and humanity does not pride itself on it’s patience. Without knowing that these issues, and the plethora of others, are resolved, when we send a colony we can’t truly know if we’re sending them to Eden or sentencing them to death.

Then there’s a question of our ethical obligation toward alien planets. If we find a planet inhabited by life, it is not difficult to believe that our biologies will not be compatible, resulting in either our death or the death of the alien life, be it bacterial, vegetation or even animal. Is this powerful enough to dissuade us? The more likely scenario would be that we find a barren planet within a habitable zone, for instance, Mars. Now imagine that, even though there is currently no life, there is the potential for life to develop. All the chemicals and conditions are ideal, life just hasn’t come to fruition yet. Do we have an obligation to restrain ourselves and leave this planet to it’s own devices and allow life to have the chance to be.
There’s even the argument for leaving a completely lifeless, barren planet with absolutely no potential for life to be left alone. On earth we normally reserve our ethical tendencies for living things, but should we leave barren lands as they are and preserve the universe. Essentially, why do we feel entitled to change anything other than our own immediate environment, Earth.

We may have answers for all of these problems, led by our own moral compass. This is good, and not uncommon, but leads us to the final issue: Whose ethics are we going to use? Our sense of morality is heavily influenced by culture and upbringing, meaning your ethical impulses may be vastly different to those of another on the other side of the globe. There is a strong argument to be made for traversing space as a species as opposed to as nations, but this will require us to have a universally accepted ethical code.

Problems would arise if a private company or nation were to colonize Mars on their own. There would be almost no incentive for them to not stake their claim. The fame and wealth to come along with this achievement would be difficult to ignore, or share. We may need to create an obvious incentive for us all to accept the accomplishment so as not to allow us to separate and disperse as a species. If we end up colonizing Mars as singular entities it is hard not to imagine a future not fraught with conflict. It would therefore be imperative, before any serious space colonization, to have global agreements in place, through the United Nations for example, that would determine the rules and codes of behavior. Such international agreements currently exist on earth for occupation of the Antarctic, which might provide a model to follow.

Creating a universal ethical code may not be at the top of the agenda right now, with steps such as the recently tested EM drive coming to fruition, but it cannot be ignored indefinitely.