Space exploration is important to me. I think it is an important activity for humans, with important associated moral questions. I’ve written before about why I think Christians should support space exploration, and I think many other worldviews can support it as well.
But there is a balance in most worldviews that could tip the judgment either more towards exploration or more against exploration, and that is what I want to look at here. I want to briefly look at three moral reasons why exploration is good, and three moral reasons why exploration may not be good. There are no doubt more than three, but these are some of the biggies – if you have more, please leave a comment below.
1) KNOWLEDGE. Scientific knowledge is the primary knowledge we should seek in space, but experiential knowledge is important as well. We have rocks from the Moon which astronauts collected there and are great for scientific study, but what looms even larger in my mind when I think of the Moon landings is that a person actually stood there. Human beings have walked on the Moon. Only a few men actually know what that felt like, but the rest of us on Earth can feel a vicarious experience through them.
2) PURPOSE. As I argued in my post about why Christians should support space exploration, humans need a purpose. Currently it seems like Western society has little purpose for us other than to run the rat race. There is more to life than that, and there better be more than that, because as the great philosopher and theologian Alfred North Whitehead noted “without adventure civilization is in full decay.” Exploration is a noble purpose, one which literally broadens our horizons. Humans need purpose in an existential sense, and exploration can help give that.
3) EXISTENTIAL SAFETY. Serial entrepreneurs Peter Diamandis and Elon Musk have both noted that there is a physically existentially important aspect to space exploration in addition to the more spiritual existential aspect which is “purpose.” The physical aspect is, of course, that we “have all our eggs in one basket.” If the Earth gets messed up, whether by natural or human-made disaster (personally, my bets are on human-made), then that’s it. We have no “back-up biosphere,” if human civilization collapses or if we go extinct, then everything any human has ever lived for may be gone, worthless, all for nothing. But… there is a big difference between 100% of humanity dying and 99.99999% of humanity dying, especially if those few survivors can survive sustainably and maintain much of the knowledge of human history and Earth’s biosphere. In the 100% scenario, all of history is for nothing. In the second, it isn’t. Exploring other worlds and setting up growing outposts of civilization there (Mars being the prime candidate) might be the ultimate safety net against cultural collapse or human extinction.
There is another side, of course.
1) COST. Space exploration, especially with people and not robots, is extremely expensive, although the cost has fallen so much that now private corporations are getting into the business, not just governments. But still, this is money that could be used elsewhere, to help people, save lives. How can we justify satisfying our cravings for exploration if on the other hand we allow people to die? The simple, sad answer, is that the budgets for education, health, international aid, and so on, don’t really compete with space exploration anyway. A dollar cut from one does not appear in the budget for the other. Maybe they should – but they don’t.
Additionally, space exploration brings unexpected benefits, like GPS navigation, which might seem useless to starving people, but to those delivering them aid, it is not – it’s how they get where they are going. Space is a small investment in the future. It might seem frivolous now, but there may be important benefits that we cannot predict.
2) DANGER. This goes almost without saying: space exploration is dangerous. People die when they go into this business, as the Challenger and Columbia disasters (and others) have shown.
My only response here is that people will want to go despite the risk, and it will become safer as the technologies are refined. Football is dangerous too, and yet there is no shortage of players – and it has become a safer sport in the century since Teddy Roosevelt briefly called it all off because too many people were dying. If the mission is worthy, then the risk can be worth it – and in the case of space exploration, much more worth it than a ball game (and no disrespect to football).
3) JUSTICE and ACCESS. Inequality is a huge problem. Space exploration will only be accessible to a minute few people, who will almost certainly exclusively be from developed nations. How fair is it that only a certain segment of humanity will have access to space exploration? It is not fair.
But the solution to unfair access to a good is to make access more fair, not to get rid of the good in question. Easy to say, hard to do. As with the cost question, I have to hope for spin-off technologies here, as well as slowly improving conditions here on Earth. As developing nations gain parity, they will gain access, but until then, we should think of ways to actively remedy this shortcoming in justice.
And that’s it. Three for and three against. I conclude in favor, despite being painfully aware of the value of the opposing perspective. For me, the risk of human extinction is a risk that needs to be mitigated as quickly as possible, because if it occurs it is, to humanity, an infinite loss. Infinite losses are unacceptable. At the same time I know that for every human that dies, from that person’s perspective, their own death is an infinite loss as well because they lose everything. And so as people die waiting for food or medical treatment we have much reason to feel diminished. But we can pursue both life-saving goals here on Earth and exploration of space. One need not stop the other. What the balance is, we decide. But it is not a zero-sum game, and indeed spin-off technologies (here are a few just from NASA) can greatly help those in need.