The case for space ethics
by Magdalena T. Bogacz
|The question of whether space expansionism is beneficial (for financial growth, innovation, and cultural diversification) or necessary (for survival and to manifest destiny) is ultimately ethical in nature.|
The view of space as the final destination of humankind, a combination of religious and ethical elements with natural philosophy, can be traced back to the 19th century Russian Cosmism and, in particular, Nikolai Fyodorov. He was a life extensionist who believed that space travel and, eventually, space expansionism were a necessary means to an end, that end being conquering death and reaching immortality using science and technology. Fyodorov further argued that we had an ethical obligation to settle the space since discovery, innovation, and progress were all part of our nature. In that sense, humans were responsible for living up to their nature, and failure to do so would significantly affect all members of the community of life itself.
More recently, Carl Sagan and Robert Zubrin have advocated similar reasoning, although they focused more on science and less on mysticism. The basic frame of their respective arguments is based on the idea that humans have evolved an urge to explore and wander, both psychologically and genetically. The expression of our fundamental human nature, the desire to wander, correlates with Earth’s human migration. Simply put, the next and inevitable step is space.
The question of whether space expansionism is beneficial (for financial growth, innovation, and cultural diversification) or necessary (for survival and to manifest destiny) is ultimately ethical in nature. This question is not only about if we can go to space and build, settle, and live there, but rather, if we should. Naturally, since the 1960s Space Race between the USSR and United States, the answer to the first question is affirmative. But “can” alone does not imply “ought.”
Furthermore, even if the answer to the second question is also affirmative—we ought to go and settle space for the benefit of humankind and it would be wrong not to do so—we are left with yet another conundrum. Assuming our future lies in the stars, and we have a moral obligation to ensure the continued survival of the human species, how will we share and how can we protect the space environment? In other words, what are the norms of ethical behavior in space? Who gets to go? How will we live with each other? And perhaps most importantly, how can we live well to ensure human flourishing and reaching Aristotelian eudaimonia?
For quite some time now, public, commercial, and military sectors alike steered away from explicit and direct conversations about space ethics. Paradoxically, there are countless writings about ethical issues in space, a phenomenon I call ethics in space. In this realm, practical and theoretical debates are lively as they are built upon traditional, classical theories of ethics applied to the space domain. Questions such as “who owns space” and “who is in charge” ignite our imaginations and inspire reflection and philosophical investigations. But another realm of intellectual discourse, what I consider space ethics proper, is astoundingly underdeveloped.
A moderate breakthrough came in July 2021 when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin released a memo that outlined five "tenets of responsible behavior in space."  The word responsibility implies the state of being accountable or to blame for something, both essentially ethical concepts, yet the memo does not explicitly use the word ethics or make use of ethical principles in any substantial way.
The tenets can be summarized as the following:
In March 2023, based on the initial memo, the US Defense Department released updated guidelines for safe and responsible space operations. However, the guidelines are for military space operations, not commercial or civil space activities. The motivation behind releasing the guidelines was to provide “transparency about U.S. military space activities to reduce risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation.” US Space Command concluded, “We are not asking other nations to adopt internal DoD guidance.”
|Despite the enormous behavioral guidance that the Outer Space Treaty from 1967 provides, including its content spillage into the five tenets of responsible behavior in space, we need more ethics-focused conversations and a pure theory of space ethics.|
This is insufficient regarding the language used and the lack of motivation to encourage other nations to implement these standards. Moreover, the five tenets apply only to military operations. Our current approach to ethics needs to be stronger. The United States has always been a frontrunner in establishing global trends. We are the symbol of freedom, change, and innovation. It is time for the stars and stripes to fully permeate the space domain. It is time to lead in space the same way we lead on Earth today.
Hence, I am making a case for developing a universal ethics framework to ensure ethical conduct in space. This framework should, ideally, built upon the US core values: liberty, equality, self-governance, individualism, and unity. International space law is not enough because laws and ethics are not equivalent. Despite the enormous behavioral guidance that the Outer Space Treaty from 1967 provides, including its content spillage into the five tenets of responsible behavior in space, we need more ethics-focused conversations and a pure theory of space ethics.
By the pure theory of space ethics, I mean a theory which development is guided by pure reason. Pure reason, as it appears in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason and Groundworks of the Metaphysics of Morals, gives a priori principles. It is the reason that drives actions without any sense-dependent incentives, and it strives independently of all experiences. Hence, the pure theory of space ethics should be based on a priori principles and provide a unifying ground for the perception of the phenomenal world. Only then can our practical reason, concerned with the performance of actions, play a role in space ethics decision-making processes. And only then can we truly and wholly adopt a necessity view of space expansionism, not only a benefit view.
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