Saturday, March 29, 2008

Space ethics

Tied to the previous post is the much broader question of "space ethics". It will happen...mankind will explore the universe; we will visit other solar systems and planets and hopefully encounter other beings. What sort of criterion should be established in exploring the universe as regards to extraction of resources and, assuming that we are not unique in the universe, alien life forms? Does mankind march in with dollar signs in our eyes [greed and the desire to make a "quick buck"] or with our Model 101445 Atomic Blaster Ray Gun blasting those different from us out of their chairs--either scenario radically modifying/destroying environments and other life forms? Essentially, what sort of rules of conduct should be employed on mankind's odyssey and who should contribute to those rules of conduct: Scientists, philosophers, teachers, you and me?

It's quite possible that we are descendents of a "cosmic" sneeze. Scientists are still fussing over the Mars rocks. But as an extrapolation, consider this: It is truly one species feeding off another. We just happen to be at the top right now unless we are confronted with faster, stronger, and smarter species [or in the wrong place at the wrong time]. But those are anomalies such as the human being eaten by a tiger, stepped on by an elephant, or succumbing to a bacterial infection, etc. This situation is reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode called "To Serve Man" : A cookbook for aliens feasting on mankind. We could be just a link in an enormous food chain--not yet realized.

Mankind will probably carry the history of plunder into space. If there is a buck to be made, someone will be there with exploitation high on their agenda. Tucked away in the back of the space ship's cargo bay will be crates of chewing gum and pretty beads.

Here's a sticky situation. Suppose that man met with an alien life form equally intelligent and yet, despite all attempts, communication could not be established. Would it be the wise thing to step backwards, throw the ship in high gear, and place an "X" on the celestial map warning all others to avoid the planet at all costs or...? The issue of galactic language [communication] truly muddles the issue even more. It would be lucky indeed if there were a common universal means of communication. Some have offered mathematics, but those are very precise descriptive forms of communication of common events and by no means tender emotions. Some have offered pictographs. We now have the metaphorical "Tower of Babble" in outer space. Thus, one must start all over again. Perhaps it would be better to stay home and read a book. You know, when one thinks about it, regardless of a working set of galactic ethics, all of it is totally worthless when confronting an alien species if communication is impossible. Certainly universal tragedies would happen. Perhaps "distance" and "communication" will define the history of mankind's movement and contacts in space more profoundly that a set of good ethics and technology. Homo sapiens may really be reduced to an existence of isolation and loneliness.

Who would initially be involved in establishing a workable sense of ethics. Granted, as eons passed and other beings became involved, a set of ethics must be established. By whom? Do we take advise from philosophy, theology, science? And what a confusion would occur when other cultures incorporate, as quite normal, something that mankind would find repulsive. Who or what body would be the ultimate arbiter in the formation of intergalactic ethics?

Similar to the idea of establishing intergalactic buoys warning species who share our perspectives to avoid this planet would we disdain similar cultures that have a sense of ethics extremely repulsive such as a ritual sacrifice involving their own species. Suppose these individuals could provide something that would be very important to enhance mankind and the travel in space...maybe a fantastic cure for a debilitating disease or a serum to eliminate or reduce toxic chemicals ingested by humans. Would practicality over shadow a set of ethics. Could we condone a savage situation to take home a box of trinkets--regardless of the benefits?

How ironic it would be to discover at least one or all galactic cultures exactly like ours. A stagnant universe? A universe of the same species would certain alter one's perspective in the formation and acceptance of the universality of ethical concepts. Perhaps the basic traits of benevolence and bellicose postures and everything in between are universal characteristics of all species. So, essentially, we need not be too concerned about establishing a sophisticated ethic. We will just meander the universe plundering and reconstructing the damage done. My Model 101445 Atomic Blaster Ray Gun would be ethical after all.

"Prime Directive"? A directive fraught with potentially disastrous results. The issue of "interference" regarding another species could run the risk of self-annihilation or another species being eliminated. And the issue could well be compounded by the factors of "pain and suffering" which most humans find intolerable. And yes, western influence run the same risk here on this planet. Whatever the motivation in the name of greed, power, conquest, or religious conversion the western influence can certainly cause major changes. I well remember a story regarding an anthropological study of one of the indigenous peoples of South America--the feared head hunter tribe called the Jhivaro. The deal was that the anthropologists were to strictly observe and yet a rather unpleasant episode happened that would cause one to stop taking notes and do something to alleviate the botched decapitation of a woman from a rival tribe. Where does one draw the line, for the anthropologist could have finished the demise of the woman with a single gun shot but opted to let the events play out as agreed. The same could be applied to ethics in space. As far as NASA is concerned, I seriously doubt that the astronauts are provided much ethical material since the space travel issue hasn't even begun. I suppose that each astronaut carries a bundle of personal ethics.

Maybe we have this all wrong. Perhaps the most practical posture to adopt is nothing more than the perpetuation and protection of Homo sapiens. To the trash can for any ethical stands of universal fairness or "prime directives". The universe may well be a cauldron of vicious and violent species where only the strongest and aggressive survive. Species will come and go in an infinite universe. So the "prime directive" may now state: "Shoot now and ask questions later". Perhaps the "conflict resolution" posture would work well on a large scale of species vs species. But suppose you were at the O. K. Corral on a Venutian desert facing a very hostile and armed alien bent on beating you to the draw and terminating your existence. I seriously doubt that talking your way out of that potentially mortal situation is going to keep you alive. The "conflict resolution" notion evaporated and was replaced by a "quick draw". The "prime directive" has become very personal--your life is on the line and there are not very many individuals that would succumb to the ultimate sacrifice.

I am not convinced that altruism, good will, fairness, etc. permeate the universe. Such a notion is unfounded and simply may be a minority point of view doomed to universal evolution of all species. But, from our perspective, they are fine ideas to carry into space and subject to rejection and modification despite being somewhat Pollyanna. A set of rules and regulations from NASA would be inadequate for not taking into account all contingencies and possibly biased depending on the constituents of the NASA committee that agrees on a code of "space ethics". Who are these people And, the "exception to the rule" idea is an open ended interpretation that may precipitate disastrous consequences depending on circumstance and various individuals.

The history of mankind has not been too stellar [pardon the pun] with greed and violence among many more characteristics being all too normal. There is no current evidence or belief that mankind will change anytime soon. Thus, those traits will be carried into space and practiced on alien environments and species. Mankind is just not mature enough to develop a set of universal ethics and travel in space. It is possible that those characteristics are temporary [evolution will dictate a better species] and that the whole of the universe is peopled with similar species. Good news for the former for it shows change and hope. Bad news for the latter for it shows a violent and aggressive universe. Perhaps by the time mankind achieves a higher set of universal ethics, the chances of contacting other life forms may have faded away if one subscribes to the popular hypothesis of the "big bang" and the ever expanding universe--it would be impossible to contact anyone for the factor of "distance".

Don't misunderstand me...ethical goals are a "good thing" regardless of the inherent nature of the universe.

If mankind is to remain in solitude by design [the uniqueness of a species/a theological view] or a result of the physics of the universe, a heuristic set of ethics will surly ensure an extended duration of the species Homo sapiens. Life without ethical values is not a life worth living.

Outright declared hostility by an aggressive species would dictate self-preservation without a doubt--"prime directive" or not. It may well be that the definition or interpretation of "self-defense" may be wrong. The apparent aggressive species may be just posturing to protect themselves much like a growling/barking dog, the rattle of a rattle snake, the discharge of n-butylpercaptan by a skunk, etc.

And another factor to consider, and this compounds the issue too, is the issue of language. There just may be no way for communication and, as exemplified on earth, many words/phrases have different meanings: A "hello" may be misunderstood as "get off our planet" and who knows what would result from that situation.

Assuming that the incident of the demise of an alien happened in the early stages of mankind in space and there was no universal judicial system then the individual that caused the demise of the alien would be responsible and perform a certain retribution. That could be a problem for it may extend beyond something personal. If communication with the rock were possible, it might well be that to satisfy the demands of the aliens that the individual must forfeit a life--maybe the lives of the entire crew. Now that would cause problems. Problems would be compounded if it were discovered that these rocks held some important information or harbored certain necessary resources. If the event, way distant in the future, where there was a consortium of aliens in conjunction with humans whose purpose was to adjudicate such species infraction, then the issue would be different. I suppose that when the time arrives and we become friends and trade with many species, that such a body of lawgivers would exist. Oh my, lawyers in space!

Remember the book by H. G. Wells called The Time Machine where in the very distant future on earth the subterranean subspecies called the Morlocks bred and fed upon the weak surface subspecies called the Eloi? Perhaps "ethics in space" is a non relevant issue or so we may discover--just a big "free for all", the old West mentality, only the strong and dominate survive. Frankly, I would invest my money in stock that promoted a set of "universal ethics". That might even the odds against the bad guys of the universe and level the playing field a bit. Universal justice may prevail.

Mankind will begin a journey into space with the best set of ethics possible based on our limited knowledge and experience and as the universe unfolds modifications will be made. Endless global debate without mankind taking the first step would be counter productive. And there may well never be a unified set of ethics--mankind's course of existence as the species Homo sapiens may just disappear.

It is somewhat ironic that there is the notion that man wants to perpetuate his species through, for example, efforts to curb world hunger and financially assist third world countries; but, on the other hand, man is forever redefining and refining methods to self-destruction. Perhaps this existential dichotomy will work out.

Being the recipient of extra terrestrial assistance is also an issue of philosophical significance for the paranoid features may be demonstrated in not really knowing the authenticity of a benevolent alien race. I guess when faced with ultimate peril, mankind, if such an offer were presented, would cash in on the offer and sort things out later.

It is interesting to note that some of the linguistics that we use to discuss these issues may have no universal antecedent. The term “pride”, for example, may exist nowhere but on earth. Thus, such philosophical statements are meaningless and further the complications with other beings.

Our questioning about our species in relation to the universe is not unique. Grant that there are conditions in the universe for the evolution of sentient beings and that sentient beings evolve and also contemplate their own existence and juxtaposition to the universe. We and they ponder the possibility of extraterrestrial life and contact with same. Would this conclude a posture of cascading universal interrogatory questions of co-alien existence: That there is a possibility of a universal body of ethics too? Interesting to discover, as we are now finding out, that there are many fundamental laws governing the function of the universe and just perhaps there is a body of ethical precepts that await unfolding by all sentient species. Sentient species uniqueness would not be necessarily measured only by what we ethically carry into space, but simply by our physical constitution and whatever matrix of dominant species characteristics is promoted--a propensity for conquest, subjugation, and dissemination of evil, the antithesis, or a mixture.

There is room for freedom of species diversity. The point being that similar questions of the universe may well be shared by all inhabitants of the universe. Not all aliens have to be thinking of mankind as a food source.

In conclusion, there is something more fundamental here and that is the major types of ethical values employed. Two salient types are: 1.) “universal” ethics and 2.) “situational” ethics. In the former it is assumed that the principles of ethics are true throughout the universe and that all sentient beings will adopt such values and strive to abide by them. This is sort of another “argument ad ignorantiam” whereby the postulate is considered true by virtue of the fact it cannot be proven untrue. That is somewhat on shaky ground even though the values are considered good and worthy. There is no guarantee that sentient beings would adopt the same philosophy let alone the fact that there may or may not be other sentient beings that we would even contact. The “situation” ethics simply states that ethical values are contingent upon such factors as cultural dispositions, geography, and time [historical]. In other words ethical values are constantly changing. Historical evidence is abundant, for we today would look at Spartus and its ethics as barbaric and crude--but it worked for them. Even today there are situations that are common and accepted in Asia that are not approved of in Western Europe. So to extrapolate this concept to space travel, it would be apparent that man’s early sojourns and possible alien contacts be based on one set of ethics and always subject to modification. To have a positive relationship with aliens that consume their pets as fine cuisine, mankind might just have to adapt rather than storm the kitchen with lasers blazing in an attempt to save the "Trebles”. No doubt, such modifications don't come easily and will certainly affect all humans as our species is dispersed throughout the universe. It would be arrogant for mankind to assume that the “universal” or “situation” ethics would be the “correct” ethical principles. Somehow, we must learn to get along with our neighbors be they next door or on the other side of the galaxy.

Further reading...

"A Grim Reckoning"

"Astroenvironmentalism: The Case For Space Exploration As An Environmental Issue"

"Law, Ethics and Extra-terrestrial Life"

"Life, Longevity, And A $6,000 Bet"

And finally, a spaceperson's personal hygiene may be everyday issues on deep space ventures and may become a serious issue of "space ethics". Bad enough for the travelers to endure each others personal issues but all may well fall short when the ambassadors of Earth finally contact the inhabitants of planet Mongol and Emperor Ming gets "wind of" the emissaries. All that cool advanced technology denied and potential galactic wars ensue because Captain Pharto and crew neglected to address those issues. I'm sure NASA is somewhat concerned about the problems of personal hygiene, containment of bacteria, and the general placation of the crew's overall general well-being and comfort.

"No Bath Time/ In space, it's not easy being clean"

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