On the Morality of Terraforming Mars

Ron Bailey just posted an interesting article on the ethics of extraterrestrial terraforming at Reason.com.   It illustrates, once again, that before entering into deep philosophical debates about morality, it’s useful to know what you’re talking about.

Before taking up the article in question, let me lay my own cards on the table.  I consider human morality to be the expression of behavioral traits that exist because they evolved in a species with a large brain.  Thus, good and evil are subjective categories that depend for their existence on emotional responses in the minds of individuals.  As such, it is impossible for them to have any independent objective existence as things in themselves.  As subjective emotional responses elicited in individual minds, there is no way in which they can acquire objective legitimacy.  Elaborations on this theme may be found here and here.

Of course, one can dispute my take on morality, but, in that case, it will be necessary to somehow explain away the increasing flood of findings relative to what some call hardwired morality now appearing in academic and scientific journals and the popular media, not to mention the increasingly compelling evidence of analogs of the behavioral traits we associate with morality in other animals.

What does all this have to do with the ethics of terraforming?  Simply this – arguments about whether terraforming is morally good or evil are absurd, and efforts in futility.  They amount to attempts to apply behavioral predispositions that have evolved over millions of years in circumstances utterly unlike the present, and that exist for the sole reason that they promoted the genetic survival of the creatures who carried them, to a situation completely unrelated to the conditions and causes under which they evolved in the first place.  Such arguments are completely senseless failing the assumption, long cultivated by philosophers, but nevertheless delusional, that good and evil can somehow acquire an objective legitimacy and objective existence of their own.  In view of what we now know about the evolved roots of morality, belief in the existence of good and evil as things in themselves is no longer rationally supportable.

The article in question, entitled Does Mars have Rights, argues that terraforming is good, contradicting an earlier essay by Australian philosopher Robert Sparrow entitled The Ethics of Terraforming that claims that, at least for the present, it is evil.  Let’s take up Prof. Sparrow’s essay first.  He uses what he calls an agent-based virtue ethics to support his claim that advocacy of terraforming reveals “a shocking moral bankruptcy at the heart of our attitude toward the environment.”  An agent-based ethics is motivated by the observation that “It is much easier to point out those who are cruel or benevolent in a community than it is to provide a description of what counts as a cruel or benevolent act.”  It is based on the assertion that it is “the virtuous (or vicious) character of the actor which makes the act virtuous (or vicious).”  As such it is easier to apply in practice that an alternative system of virtue ethics, namely, agent-focused ethics, which Sparrow describes in his essay.  Basing his conclusions on such an agent-based ethics, Sparrow argues that “terraforming reveals two serious defects of character.  First, it demonstrates that we are suffering from an ethically significant aesthetic insensitivity,” and, “Second, it involves us in the sin of hubris.”

Sparrow goes into a great deal of detail in describing these two “sins,” but their legitimacy as “real” sins is based on their validation as “vicious” according to whether some subset of a population of animals with large brains “feels” that persons committing such acts are vicious.  I say subset because it has been demonstrated that even infants, presumably without the benefit of having read the ancient philosophers, judge “agents” according to their actions.  Prof. Sparrow does not go into a great deal of detail as to how that subset would be chosen.  Clearly, this “feeling” test does not actually call the sins in question into existence.  Rather, it is merely a means of detecting them once they have been committed.  In other words, in order to accept the validity of the system, it is necessary for us to assume, a priori, that the sins in question exist as things in themselves, independent of the actors and agents that allow us to detect them.  If, however, as I have maintained, morality is really the expression of a subset of evolved behavioral traits in a particular type of animal, this assumption is absurd, and the system collapses.  Regardless of my opinions about morality, it is irrational to simply assume the objective existence and legitimacy of good and evil as entities in themselves, as Sparrow has done, without making the slightest attempt to explain the rationale on which their existence and legitimacy are based.

And what of Bailey’s post at Reason taking issue with Prof. Sparrow?  He either doesn’t seem to have understood Sparrow’s definition of agent-based ethics, or has simply decided to ignore it.  Instead, he explains to us why terraforming would be “really good” in terms of his own system of morality, which comes with rather less philosophical ballast courtesy of Aristotle and company.  Addressing Sparrow’s two evidences of moral deficit, he writes,

Sparrow acknowledged that he did not offer an objective account of beauty, so the notion still resides in the eye of the beholder, as does desolate ugliness.  And as awesome as the view down Valles Marineris might be right now, it would arguably be even more so if it were teeming with life.  With regard to the hubris of terraforming, one initial response whould be a hearty “so what?”  Terraforming offers the promise of helping humanity toward practical moral improvement by increasing our understanding of just how precious terrestrial life is, aiding us in managing it toward greater integrity, stability, and beauty.

To this, Sparrow’s virtuous agent would presumably reply, “Yes, and your point is?”  In fact, there is no point, because Bailey missed it.  His reply simply ignores the role of the virtuous agent in Sparrow’s ethics, a role which the philosopher explained clearly enough.  He could simply observe that Bailey has self-identified as an “unvirtuous agent,” and his remarks about beauty and hubris are, therefore, neither here nor there.  Bailey’s implication that terraforming would be morally good because it, “offers the promise of helping humanity toward practical moral improvement,” is simply a statement of the circular argument that terraforming is moral because it is moral.

Again, while both author’s arguments depend on the existence of objective good, they simply assume it a priori, without troubling themselves to explain to us how they have deduced the existence of that holy grail.  Presumably it floats somewhere out there in the luminiferous ether, independent of any crude animal intelligence, and we are to take it on trust that, while it remains invisible to vulgar eyes, they have beheld it in all its glory.  If all life in the universe ceased to exist, it would still remain, one gathers, as some kind of potential energy, ready to hop into the brain of any sentient beings that happened to evolve, guiding them towards the light.

Our consciousness certainly leads us to perceive the Good as an objective thing.  In spite of that it was clear enough to Hume, Mill, and any number of other pre-Darwinian thinkers that no such object existed.  Still, the illusion is so strong that even now, after the recent “discovery” by our social scientists that such a thing as human nature exists, and morality is a manifestation of that nature, objective Good is still taken for granted in deep, philosophical debates by people who should know better.

And what does all this have to do with terraforming?  Simply this; morality is completely irrelevant to the question of whether we should do it or not.  My personal opinion is that we should, as soon as we are able, because it will enhance the chances that both terrestrial life in general and our species in particular will survive and continue to evolve.  Is our survival objectively good?  Certainly not!  Call it a mere whim of mine, if you will, but I submit that it’s at least a natural whim.  Virtually everything about me exists because it happened to promote the survival of the genes responsible for putting me together at some point or other in the past.  Furthermore, subjective though they may be, such whims make life not only endurable, but exciting and enjoyable.  I hope that others will share this whim, this preference for survival over oblivion.  If enough do, then terraforming will some day become a reality.

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