Is privatised separatism on the horizon for the space age?

Group 11

The age-old question has always been what happens if we can no longer live on earth when due global warming finally comes to collect its debt. If we were to live on mars or another celestial body, rules would have to be set or otherwise it could be exploited for selfish needs. The Outer Space Treaty was signed in 1967 to unify the goal and code of conduct of sovereign states regarding space exploration. As of now, federal governments are held accountable for their private space agencies, but are privately established settlements in space entitled to unique rights?

The Law of the Land…

Private spaceflight companies cannot be allowed to enforce their own jurisdiction on extraterrestrial territory since they would be directly contravening international law that governs activities carried out in space, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty in particular. The treaty was intended to prevent any single state from gaining dominance in the realm of outer space, ensuring exploration is free to all on an equal basis. This treaty holds significant weight – having been recognised by 110 countries, so to violate this treaty would present numerous ethical dilemmas.

The legal precedent makes for a strong utilitarian argument, as the unilateral actions of a private entity would lead to the destabilisation of political relations among nations who are party to the legislation. This would be especially true if private spaceflight companies shifted activities that would more closely integrate them into the military industrial complex – resulting in the potential militarisation of outer space.

Private organisations should be well aware of their own obligations to follow laws regarding space exploration activities, in line with the theory of care ethics. Especially since early human colonies will require extraordinary financial support and resources, which can only come from an earthbound presence. The first martian colony is expected to cost in the range of $100 billion to $10 trillion, with a million tons of cargo required to create a self-sustaining city. To use the resources of nations on earth and then break international law would be blatantly exploitative and arrogant behaviour, it would be far from their best interests of any private company to act in this way.

A Kantian argument would revolve around the idea of res communis, that outer space is considered as territory that is under the common ownership of mankind, this idea has influenced the Outer Space Treaty and acts as a categorical imperative. A private entity should not be able to claim jurisdiction over any celestial body for themselves, as they would be altering the open-to-all nature of territory in space. This would also normalise the concept of extraterrestrial real estate – where land on celestial bodies could be bought and sold among private entities. As engineering based organisations, spaceflight companies ought to establish presences on other celestial bodies in the name of humanity as a whole, rather than in their own interest. 

Finally, virtue ethics would imply that if a company has historically acted virtuously there should be less reason to be concerned over their intentions when establishing a human colony. However, changes in leadership can result in different agendas for organisations, they may feel emboldened to claim sovereignty over celestial bodies that they have established colonies on. This risks becoming a reality if space law continues on without proper enforcement methods that can uphold the legitimacy of these laws.

Live Free or Die…

Private spaceflight companies cannot be subject to regulation of any one nation without fundamentally violating the outer space treaty, as this would fall under claiming sovereignty in all but name, falling under by other means. This is effectively violating the Kantian theory of duty ethics, in which an action is morally right if following a certain moral rule or law, thus morally wrong if violating said law.

There is also a strong argument from a utilitarian perspective, in which actions are judged by their potential outcome. When this is coupled with the historic examples of colonisation which started in the 1500’s, there are numerous examples of the inherent disconnect resulting from different frames of reference. This directly resulted in multiple wars of independence, with heavy death tolls, and with so many historical examples of this happening how can we not learn from this? Although this is an example of a logical extreme, the potential severity of outcome demands it be considered.

Following this an argument can be made that with the current culture in organisations to promote values such as integrity, respect, personal dignity and compassion, that they should be trusted to continue to hold these values, acting to self-regulate in whatever manner is most appropriate with the unique frame of reference provided by life in space.

Another argument falls in the unlikely guise of care ethics, by imposing regulation from afar this may result in corporations falling into the mindset of this being the golden standard, rather than a minimum required level. In doing this, as opposed to acting as a result of the relationships formed with their fellow man, then standards will either stagnate or potentially fall. By removing the safety net and allowing each to be judged by their common man this enables the repercussions of falling behind their competition and subsequent loss of talent to drive standards forward as opposed to encouraging stagnation. Allowing the very competition that drives companies forward to push the standards ever upward.

Given the unique environment of operating in space it is important to avoid jumping to absolutism, any regulations, of which there must intrinsically be some, should be crafted by those that will live under them and must respect the normative relativism of the culture which will develop inside these spaceflight companies.

Initial Decision

We are for private space companies being regulated by earthbound governments.

1 thought on “Is privatised separatism on the horizon for the space age?

  1. This is a fascinating topic and I applaud you for choosing it. There is strong ethical argumentation throughout the article.

    In terms of the opening statement, can you polish the problem as it isn’t fully clear to me what the issue is? There’s a dilemma, but it isn’t clear.

    Is the issue. Should private companies be bound by the Outer Space Treaty? Maybe it’s me being a bit dense.

    In terms of the Arguments for, is this the section: The Law of the Land? There’s a very good use of ethical theories (so you’ve got the points, don’t worry). Similarly, there’s very good use of ethical argumentation for the Live Free or Die section.

    Advice for Assignment Two:
    Clarify your dilemma; it’s almost there – just a bit more polish, please. Set it up as a ‘Should…’ statement.
    In terms of stakeholders, these should be straightforward to identify, and the Options for Action are straightforward too.

    Try and drum up more comments. I’m perfectly OK with you striking deals – whereby you comment on other articles and they comment on yours.

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