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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Remarks by Margaret R. McLean

Margaret R. McLean

Margaret R. McLean

Acting ethically on the red planet

Margaret R. McLean

The following is a response to Brian Green's remarks on Martian Morals.

A bit of background . . .

Most of the time I do clinical medical ethics—worrying about treatment decisions, allocation of scarce resources, and end of life interventions.  I used to quip that I did “space ethics” as a break from dealing with dying and death—well, now I’m not so sure as we pick up hints of Martian life.

Although I’ve always been fascinated by stars and planets, I didn’t begin to think about the ethics of space exploration until about a dozen years ago when a reporter from National Geographic News asked me about TransOrbital’s plans to send the first commercial venture to the moon.  The goal was to capture video and photographs of the lunar surface and to crash-land a capsule chock-full of personal mementos.  That project literally never got off the ground but has been supplanted by the Kickstarter infused Lunar Mission One with its plans to bury a 21st century time capsule loaded with “digital memory boxes,” strands of hair, and photos of your footprints in a lunar bore hole.

Now perhaps my revulsion on hearing of these projects was a bit overblown; after all, the moon is nothing more—but nothing less—than dry dead rock.  But, we do seem to care about rocks, at least sometimes—Half Dome and the Grand Canyon come to mind.  As the only earthly creatures who can impact the moon—and Mars—isn’t the duty to leave things no worse than we found them perhaps more binding in space than in the Grand Canyon or atop Half Dome?

So, if we agree that humans “should go forth into space,” as Green proposes, and perhaps agree that we should leave things no worse than we found them, then the next question is how ought humans to go forth into space?  Full speed ahead at warp 9?  And, perhaps more important, is the question of why are humans going forth into space—seeking adventure on the final frontier, gaining knowledge, fostering international cooperation, acquiring access to critical scarce resources, creating a “back-up Earth”?  Thankfully, nowhere on Green’s list is leaving memory boxes and footprint photos at the bottom of a bore hole!

The Academy Award nominated film, The Martian, and the recent discovery of liquid water on Mars has rekindled our conversation about flying further than round-trips to the International Space Station—to fly to the Red Planet.  Why?  Curiosity for one; creating a “backup Earth” for another.

A “back up Earth”—really?  Let’s think for a minute why we might need such a “spare habitat”?  Worrying that a serious global scale catastrophe would cause “all of human history to be for nothing” hints at hubris, perhaps an over-valuing of our value to the cosmos.  Surely, “human history” is valued by us, but does it retain that value if we are no longer here?

And, although “natural disasters” such as asteroid impacts, pandemics, and volcanic winters are far from jokes, the reason given for creating a “back-up Earth” is most often in terms of a “rescue planet” saving us from human-made hazards that have led to environmental degradation and a need to get out of here while we can.  Over a decade ago, Stephen Hawking issued the following warning:  “I don’t think that the human race will survive the next thousand years unless we spread into space.  There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet.  But I’m an optimist.  We will reach out to the stars.”  Or, in this case, to Mars.

Now before we hop on board the next fight to Mars, we would do well to recognize our own culpability in unchecked pollution and climate change here on our native planet.  Can we be trusted to “terraform” Mars when we hardly understand how to “terraform” Earth so that it remains capable of sustaining life?  I would argue that we need to put our best thinking, our best science into a whole Earth clean-up project.

It seems to me that acting ethically on the Red Planet demands a robust ethic with a good, strong dose of humility.  As we contemplate going where no human has gone before, we need to remember two things:  (1) we don’t know what we don’t know and (2) the decisions we make and actions we take will likely have a larger impact on future human generations and potential extraterrestrial life forms than they have on us.

Paying attention to “Martian Morals” requires not only considerations of human wants and needs but of our duty to care for the Earth and the cosmos, leaving things no worse than we found them.  Let me reiterate the ethical principles that I suggested to the reporter from National Geographic years ago:

  1. Preservation, which demands that we value Mars in and of itself, not as a “rescue planet” or cosmic strip mine;
  2. Conservation, which requires that we protect Martian resources in light of our duty not to leave the universe worse off than we found it;
  3. Stewardship, which holds us accountable for the impact our actions have on terrestrial and extraterrestrial others and environments near and far;
  4. Last resort, which requires that Martian resources be appropriated only if they are the sole refuge from human extinction.

In conclusion, I would argue that we are far from justifiably using Mars as a “last resort”—let’s not run from our responsibility to care for our home planet.  With will, science, money, and, yes, sacrifice, we can “terraform” Earth while acting ethically towards the Red Planet.


Feb 19, 2016
All About Ethics