If you have ever spent the night outside the city, camping, or visiting a more remote location, you would know how awe-inspiring the night sky can be. Free from light pollution, a universe of magnificent stars, planets, and galaxies shines down from above. The grandeur of outer space reminds us of our cosmic insignificance and fills us with wonder. It may seem strange, then, that ethics, which is almost always concerned with worldly affairs, may have something to say about the sublime and alien universe that looms around us. But, the truth of the matter is that ethics and philosophy have long been concerned with our place in the universe. For starters, all cultures and religions have sought to explain the universe and our relationship with it through various creation stories and myths that also strongly correspond with ethical frameworks. One also cannot help but think of Plato’s famous quote, "wonder is the feeling of the philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder,” when looking at some of the magnificent images of the cosmic landscape. As a unique discipline, however, astroethics did not come to be until humans began the quest to explore outer space.
wonder is the feeling of the philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder” -Plato
While the word may conjure up images of little green men visiting Earth in flying saucers or science fiction astronauts colonizing planets across the galaxy, astroethics, for the time being, is primarily concerned with the ethical decisions being made regarding the health and well-being of astronauts, the research studies being performed in space, and the near future of space travel confined to our solar system. It is no secret that crewed space flight comes with its risks. As the tragic disasters involving the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia remind us, there is no margin for error with space flight.
Yet, even if a mission is a “success,” astronauts may still face health consequences due to their work. Higher doses of radiation without Earth’s magnetic field, zero gravity, and reduced availability of medical resources all threaten the crew's safety, not to mention the psychological duress astronauts may endure. Several ethical questions must be answered concerning these threats, such as what levels of threat are acceptable for different endeavors, what supplies should be brought on board the spacecraft, and how health issues should be handled if they arise. Of course, the gravity of these threats only increases the further a mission ventures from Earth.
In addition to the moral questions over the astronauts' welfare, ethical considerations must be handled regarding research on human subjects in space. Most astronauts conduct or participate in scientific research while in space. This research ranges from studying reduced gravity on spider web formation to biomedical changes that occur in space. When the astronauts are participants in the study, ethical concerns arise over opting out of the research, sharing data that may contain personal medical information, and handling the extremely limited sample size that may bias the results.
The stakes become higher when considering long-term space travel, such as missions to Mars, where risks are amplified, and safety measures become less tenable. For example, would it be ethical to send a willing crew to Mars knowing they could not return for an extended period, if at all? How does the equation change when infrastructure is in place to secure their long-term survival on the red planet? And who should be selected for such a daunting task? All these questions are no longer confined to the realm of science fiction. Space travel is receiving renewed interest from multiple parties and, unlike the first space race, heavily involves private companies such as SpaceX. This, of course, drastically complicates ethical considerations because private companies do not have to answer to the American public in the same way that federal organizations such as NASA do.
Then, there is the issue of alien life. It seems almost taboo to talk about in academic circles, a farce that occupies the minds of puerile enthusiasts. At best, alien life and particularly intelligent alien life is considered beyond the scope of what humans can learn, at least in the near future. Yet, it is hard to think of subjects with more significant implications for ethics and philosophy than alien life. First, one of the most prominent ways we assign moral rights, duties, obligations, and worth is by evaluating who is human or, alternatively, a person and who is not. This may rely on the possession of human DNA, moral agency, or cognitive abilities.
Realistically, alien life is more likely to take the form of microscopic organisms that manage to survive in extreme conditions, perhaps in water beneath ice sheets. This finding would also send shockwaves through the world and bring to the spotlight ethical questions that are yet to be employed. For example, how much should humans interfere with life on other planets? Would it be moral to relocate a sample organism for research? Would it be ethical to research such organisms if the study came with a known risk of destruction to extraterrestrial life? And is it permissible for humans to relocate terrestrial organisms on another planet, as in establishing a shielded farm on another planet, as Matt Damon’s character did in The Martian?
While these questions may not require answers for decades or even centuries, astroethics still considers these inquiries not just to seek moral truth but to probe deeper into the human experience and our place in the cosmos. In the meantime, more practical questions also emerge that involve ethical considerations, such as ensuring equity within space travel and offsetting the costs of space travel both for the environment and the American public. There is also the question of how much funding should be allocated for space exploration when the world we live in is plagued by many problems that could use those funds, such as affordable housing, famine, and poverty. Ultimately, the primary purpose of this article was to demonstrate that questions of bioethics need not be confined to this pale blue dot we call home. Outer space presents a rich opportunity to learn not only about the incredible scientific processes that shape our universe but about ourselves as human beings and moral agents.
This article was written by first year Master's student Trevor McCarthy