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Bioethics in deep space exploration

When we attach the words ethics and deep space exploration we might be forgiven for thinking of the ‘Prime Directive’ of the television and movie series Star Trek. A community of virtuous people take what is ostensibly the best of Western cultural values out to beautiful worlds that support life in a spaceship that is luxurious even by ocean-based cruise ship standards. The possibilities currently however are slightly grimmer. The best scenarios that are offered are of a one-way mission in conditions the human body is not evolved for which may if successful result in a subsequent generation reaching an inhospitable world that may be prepared in some way for human habitation.

The best scenarios that are offered are of a one-way mission in conditions the human body is not evolved for.

Last year the History and Philosophy Faculty Fellows of the Society of Apothecaries, prompted by the fact that people are nonetheless volunteering for such missions, considered the bioethics of the scenario. One of our group had been invited to discussed the issue on the radio and he reflected on the fact that such individuals would require psychological preparation for a lifelong mission. Potentially they would need a different set of ethics to those of us who enjoy the freedoms of terra firma. We did not dwell on the reasons for deep space exploration. Species survival was a key reason – the Earth has finite resources and a limited (thought one no given human might truly appreciate) lifespan. Therefore for humanity to expand and flourish, the stars beckon. Our discussion included a consideration of current societal taboos and was conducted under Chatham House Rule – none of what follows should be attributed as the opinion of any one of our group.

The first question is whether the normal rules of society should be suspended in a harsh environment. We can consider how a group of people might behave differently stranded in a desert, in a lifeboat with limited supplies and no immediate prospect of rescue or deep in a warzone. Long-term survival of the group and completion of the mission might become more important moral goals than the liberty, or even survival, of any one individual.

Long-term survival of the group and completion of the mission might become more important moral goals than the liberty, or even survival, of any one individual.

We reflected that a military chain of command might be realistic. The further question we then asked was at what point a militaristic morality would end. Should deep space pioneers carry two moralities within them – that of the mission and that of home. Could a guardian of morality, some sort of earth-priest be justified aboard the mission? It made sense that pioneers should in some way be prepared for those who would follow in less extreme circumstances.

The second question we considered was how to tackle issues around sex and reproduction on-board a lifelong mission. Should either sex for relationships and/or sex for reproduction be abandoned or controlled in some way. One of the sillier examples in the media is the pairs of ‘beautiful people’ selected to repopulate the world in the movie adaptation of ‘James Bond: Moonraker.’ We reflected on how this phenomenon eventuates in arctic expeditions (again thinking about harsh environments). One approach offered was that pioneers might be matched or (selected for attitudes to polygamy). Another was that an IVF process should take place before leaving earth or orbit so that there would be a bank of fertilised ova compatible with women on the mission. IVF is an arduous process for women in terms of ovarian stimulation and egg-harvesting, and might not be considered practical once a deep-space mission left orbit (arguably the same could be said for pregnancy). Conceptually, reproduction and relationships are treated differently in this instance. A lifetime spent in close proximity with little if any privacy would inevitably alter many of the conditions taken for granted in sexual relationships.

We naturally considered rationing and medical treatment. When even the air is finite, rationing becomes a starker necessity. Justice – or treating equals equally and unequals unequally according to the relevant inequality- might take a more Marxist turn: From each according to their ability and too each according to their needs. Luxury and pleasure might been to be redefined and themselves rationed in the interests of morale. Anyone whose sickness or function fell below an acceptable threshold might need to be ejected into space or possibly recycled along with other ‘human waste.’ Owe discussed the difference between the drive to survive set against the horror of taboos being broken – the case of the shipwrecked sailors who ate the cabin boy was mentioned. Palliative care and medicines might only be appropriate for someone who could still contribute to the mission and the group. We reflected on whether this reflected utilitarianism or other schools of ethical thinking. The greater good might be a guiding principle, or ‘the commandments of space’.

Finally we considered the morality of preparing people for such an endeavour. Should resilient and/or virtuous people be selected? Are survivors preferable to martyrs? We considered whether existing citizens of Earth should undergo preparation or whether children should be educated into the role – The novel and movie, ‘Ender’s Game’ offers a thought provoking example of preparation for a role in space warfare. Two key issues arose here – the first was whether we might be prepared to effectively brutalise our children in order to give them the best chances of saving themselves and the human species. The second issue returned us to the very beginning of our discussion. As a society and as a society would we want to meet the survivors of our deep-space pioneer programme? Would they still be, ethically-speaking, human?

This article represents insights from two discussion groups hosted by the Faculty of History and Philosophy fellowship scheme. All Faculty members are entitled to subscribe. The philosophy fellows meet 3-4 times a year to present work, discuss current issues and hear visiting speakers. For more information contact [email protected]

Dr Andrew Papanikitas
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