Discussing the ethical implications of Mars colonisation
Introduction: the pre-launch countdown
Colonisation of Mars has been an ambition of humanity for generations, however, its ethical implications are extensive: on the one hand, humans are living on an Earth with ever-decreasing resources, on the other, the planet has no life, no oxygen, no air pressure and plenty of poisonous soil. Throw in the likelihood of no-return contrasted with our natural desire for exploration, and the waters (if you find any) become even murkier. This report investigates the ethical arguments for and against human colonisation of Mars, before reaching an initial conclusion based on its discussions.
Mass extinction: the banana implication
As a duty of ethics to future generations (intergenerational justice), self-sustaining habitation of Mars may be a viable solution to mitigating the extinction of human life on Earth. Neglecting this risk for most of human history has been justifiable, but with prevalence of nuclear weaponry and climate change, Bostrom argues “setting the probability [of disaster] lower than 25% [this century] would be misguided”. However, technological advancements also provide increased accessibility to space such that the development of an isolated colony could safeguard a proportion of the population in the event of disaster. Extinction mitigating strategies limited to Earth may offer drastically reduced quality of life compared to Mars, even accounting for the planet’s extreme environmental conditions.
Living the high life
Humanity currently uses resources at a rate 50% faster than their natural regeneration, driven in majority by unchecked population growth, which is expected to continue to a projected global headcount of 11 billion by the end of the century. Mars habitation may offer a viable utilitarian solution to the projected trends in globally declining quality of life as a result. The pursuit of other-worldly settling may permit a proportion of the population to achieve a higher quality of life as resources on Earth reduce.
Space for cooperation
In the modern, politically fragile environment, countries cooperating and building international relations around a common cause is considered beneficial regardless of application. Key nations involved with space travel, namely the USA, Russia and China also possess a strong military presence and thus political tension is undesirable. Consequently, it is of global interest for relations between these countries to be as strong as possible. The International Space Station, which involves the cooperation of 15 countries and their respective space programmes, is an excellent example of how countries working together in a space technology environment has strengthened relations. Putin said of the ISS “This is a sphere of activity that unites people. I hope it will continue to be this way.”
Whoops! – a water purification system!
The scope for technological advancement through the
colonisation of Mars is vast and with every new discovery comes potential
benefit to the population of Earth. Technologies credited to space exploration
ranging from water purification to smoke detectors have
already had great terrestrial success. We can hope to benefit from similar
discoveries in future if we dedicate the resources to find them. Dyson stated ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are
dreamed of in our present-day science. And we shall only find out what they are
if we go out and look for them’.
Life on Mars
Mars is inhospitable; even short missions are known to damage human health.With no mission yet exceeding 438 days, long-term habitation would expose astronauts to unknown risks. Colonisation is a life sentence, with no infrastructure to support a return. Applying care ethics, failure to provide sufficient protection or risk certainty would render the venture unethical.
No civilised society would consider sending children to Mars. However, children born on Mars would have a lower quality of life compared to those on Earth. This puts a question mark over Martian eugenics from a Kantian and care ethics point of view. This issue could arguably be avoided by preventing adults from reproducing on Mars which is ethically contentious, as controlling births leads to serious societal issues.
Not in their backyard
There is a clear argument for the preservation of the Martian environment, intrinsically related to the ‘backup’ planet concept: the reason that backup is required is because of the destruction we have inflicted on Earth. There is damning evidence of humans’ abuse of Earth, from global warming to mass extinction. After the discoveries of water on Mars, it is not impossible to imagine that the planet will eventually foster new life. The principle of scientific conservation to preserve the Martian environment and its creative potential clearly prohibits further interference.
Tourism, but not as we know it
The argument for a ‘fresh start’ on Mars is highly alluring: that humanity can learn from its mistakes and create a utopian society. However, with the advent of space tourism, whereby the super-rich can pay for the experience of space flight, it becomes conceivable that once Mars is within human reach, it will simply become a billionaires’ playground – undermining the morality for colonising Mars based on the utilitarianist principle.
Home is where the inhabitable land is
Typically ‘inhospitable’ areas of Earth (14,000,000km2 of Antarctica) are far less dangerous to settle than Mars. Even with winter temperatures of -60°C, the availability of standard gravitational and atmospheric conditions severely reduce the challenges of habitation. Although Mars could provide habitable land for humanity, the utilitarian theory would argue that initial investment should be on Earth, providing more space per resource cost, before looking to Mars.
Although space exploration generates technological improvements on Earth, if NASA was to redirect its annual spend of £14.6bn to terrestrial issues, greater benefit could be provided to more people sooner. This would be a morally superior choice when applying utilitarian principles, while abiding to virtue ethics, whereby programme directors could achieve progressive research without the distraction of national pride.
The justifiable reasons for Martian habitation centre around improvement of life for humanity. These are considered outweighed by the pragmatic plan to focus technological investment on more pressing terrestrial issues.