The vast resources of the Solar System provide opportunities for future human explorers to harvest raw materials and develop colonies that extend far beyond the limits of planet Earth. The lessons of colonization on Earth remind us that resources are limited and claims to territory can lead to conflict, which suggests that the future colonization of space should be guided by ethical principles that avoid some of the mistakes of the past. As we venture out into the Solar System, how should we decide to treat the space environment?
One option is to follow the view of utilitarianism, which suggests that the value of an action or decision can be judged on whether it increases or decreases utility--where utility can be happiness, wealth, goodness, energy, or other useful quantities. The purpose of considering a utilitarian view of space exploration is that the Solar System, as far as we know, is uninhabited. Even if a refuge of microbial life exists on the Mars or one of Jupiter's moons, most of the resources of the Solar System are unclaimed by any biological or intelligent entity, leaving them available for human use or settlement. A utilitarian ethical framework might suggest that humans would better make use of the resources of space than leaving them idle, and many utilitarians argue in favor of space colonization as a long-term human goal.
Another ethical position to consider is biocentrism, which suggests that we should consider life itself as intrinsically valuable. This does not necessarily mean that we should all become vegetarians (after all, plants are alive), but it does mean that organisms that have little direct utility to humans should still be considered as valuable. Part of the rationale for biocentrism is the realization that the Earth system maintains habitable and life-friendly conditions through stabilizing feedbacks provided by life itself--that is, the presence and activity of life on Earth keeps the planet warm enough to thrive. Humans affect the Earth system, too, but apart from our ecosystem of planet Earth, we might find it difficult to survive for long. Plans to terraform planets like Mars are motivated in part by the realization that humans may be more successful at colonizing space if an entire ecosystem (rather than just a handful of humans) is ported to a new planet. True ecosynthesis of a planet begins with the introduction of microbial organisms and ultimately allows plant and animal life to live on the planet in at least a somewhat similar environment to Earth. Whether or not such endeavors will succeed, the framework of biocentrism remind us that life itself is a community, and we should consider the value of all aspects of life as we venture into space.
An additional possibility to consider is that planets themselves, and other objects in space, might be considered intrinsically valuable in their own right. This idea of planetocentrism suggests that planets can be considered as “experiments of nature” and might be valuable even without human intervention. Similar ethical considerations have led to the establishment of state and national parks, off limits to industry but sometimes available for the public to enjoy, and colonization of the space environment will likely lead to at least some areas designated as nature reserves. A planetocentric ethical framework need not prohibit humans from exploring space or using some space resources, but it might suggest that humans leave some resources undisturbed, perhaps even entire planets, as valuable experiments of nature that we can continue to observe and learn from.
The long term survival of human civilization requires that we learn to manage our technology and adapt to our environment over many generations. As we venture into the space environment, we will need to think ahead about how we should (or shouldn’t) use the resources of space. Rather than a way of preventing ourselves from exploring, such measures will help to ensure that space exploration--and eventual colonization--is a peaceful endeavor on behalf of all Earthlings.
Last edited by jacobHM on Tue Jan 07, 2014 1:27 pm, edited 1 time in total.