Back to Prindle Institute

In Defense of Space Tourism for Billionaires

photograph of astronaut sitting on surface of foreign planet at dawn

It is a powerful reminder of wealth inequality. It serves no direct scientific purpose. Yet, the billionaire class’s space tourism venture is cause for celebration.

Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon and the richest man in the world, is heading to space today. Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson, also multi-billionaires, have reservations for future spaceflights. This news has largely been met with a mix of amusement and negative moral judgment. Admittedly, it seems immoral for billionaires to spend large sums on the frivolity of space tourism while, here on Earth, there is such great need for their financial resources. A “fun trip to space,” our own A.G. Holdier writes, could “fully pay two years of tuition for thirty-three students at community college.”

This kind of consequentialist argument seems fairly convincing. Between the two options, it seems like community college would surely produce the better outcome. So, it seems like the moral choice. But a closer examination of this argument yields a more complicated picture.

Within consequentialism (of which utilitarianism is the best-known version), there are both “maximizing” and “non-maximizing” consequentialists. Each view suggests a different moral verdict on space tourism for billionaires.

Let’s start with non-maximizing consequentialism. According to this view, for our actions to be morally permissible, they must simply be good enough. Imagine all the good consequences of an action, and all the bad. The world is incredibly causally complex, and our actions have consequences that ripple out for days, months, and even years. Presumably, then, every action will have some good consequences and some bad ones. Non-maximizing consequentialists say that an action is permissible if it produces more good consequences than bad ones. Or, more precisely, it claims that an action is permissible if it produces a good enough ratio of good consequences to bad ones. In other words, there’s a threshold level that divides moral actions from immoral ones, and that the goodness of the action’s consequences determines which side of the threshold the action lands. On this view, the moral question is: does billionaire space tourism fall above or below this threshold?

Most of us seem to think that, with a few exceptions, ordinary tourism is generally above the threshold of moral permissibility. After all, every dollar spent is also a dollar earned. Tourism, besides being an enjoyable and enriching experience for the tourist, also creates jobs and income, and thereby reduces poverty and raises education and healthcare outcomes. Those all seem like good consequences that often compensate for the (e.g., environmental) costs.

In similar fashion, space tourism also generates jobs and income in the growing space industry. Like traditional tourism, it has certain environmental costs (a rocket launch releases about as much CO2 as flying a Boeing 777 across the Atlantic Ocean). The consequences of space tourism are largely comparable, in other words, to other forms of tourism.

Unlike other forms of tourism, however, space tourism has a morally significant added benefit: strengthening humanity’s capacity for space exploration. Given the choice between a billionaire funding the design, manufacture, and development of spacecraft and buying another luxury beachside holiday house, the former is surely preferable. Since space tourism produces a similar (or perhaps even superior) cost/benefit ratio to traditional tourism, that suggests that space tourism has a similar moral status. And most people seem to think that moral status is permissible.

A maximizing consequentialist has a different theory about the moral permissibility of actions. According to this view, any action that fails to produce the best possible outcome is morally impermissible. A maximizing consequentialist may accept that space tourism has largely the same consequences, or perhaps even somewhat better consequences, as compared with traditional tourism. All this shows, according to the maximizing consequentialist, is that they are both immoral; there’s much better ways to spend those sums of money — sixty-six years of community college for example!

But if producing the best consequences is what morality demands, then why should we stop at community college? Sure, that seems like a better way of spending money than sending a rich guy to space (and back). But we could instead spend that $250,000 a seat in the rocket capsule costs on the most effective international aid charities and save 50-83 lives. What’s more important? Reducing the student debt burden for thirty-three (disproportionately well-educated) people in the world, or saving 50-83 people’s lives? The argument against billionaires funding space tourism, it seems, works equally well against billionaires funding community college tuition.

The maximizing consequentialist position is now beginning to look extremely morally demanding. Indeed, even donating to moderately effective charities looks morally impermissible if we have the option of donating to the most effective ones. On this view, billionaire space tourism is indeed immoral because it fails to produce the best possible consequences. But that is a fairly uninteresting conclusion, given that this view also entails that just about everything we do is immoral. And this suggests there’s nothing particularly immoral about billionaire space tourism.

Of course, consequentialist moral arguments are not the only game in town. For example, A.G. Holdier provides a non-consequentialist argument against billionaire space tourism here. According to Holdier’s Aristotelian argument, we ought to focus more closely on the moral characters of those who would spend such large sums (of their enormous wealth) on something like space tourism instead of, for example, philanthropic causes. The sort who would do this, his argument suggests, are “simply not good people.” Someone who exhibited the Aristotelian virtues of “liberality” and “magnificence” would know how to use their money in the right kinds of way and at the right kind of scale. They would not spend it on “a fleeting, personal experience” while keeping it from “others who might need it for more important matters.”

While Holdier makes a strong case that Aristotle would condemn the space billionaires’ characters, I am less confident that he would condemn their spaceflights. On Aristotle’s account, our upbringing and life experiences contribute greatly to our character development and our acquisition of the virtues. Not everyone gets the right circumstances and experiences to fully develop the virtues, but the lucky few do.

The “Overview Effect” is an oft-reported and now well-studied effect of viewing the Earth from space. It is best summarized as a profound and enduring cognitive shift. Edgar Mitchell, an Apollo 14 astronaut, described the effect of seeing Earth from space as follows:

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.”

Ronald Garan described a similar shift:

“I was really almost immediately struck with a sobering contradiction between the beauty of our planet on one hand and the unfortunate realities of life on our planet, for a significant portion of its inhabitants on the other hand.”

Yuri Gargarin, Scott Kelly and Chris Hadfield are among numerous astronauts who reported the same profound and lasting shift in their worldview upon looking back on Earth from space. Central to the effect is the sense that the world and humanity are a valuable whole that must be cared for and protected. If we really want these incredibly powerful individuals to do more for our planet and for humanity, indeed if we want their characters to improve, for them to become more virtuous, we should be cheering them all the way to their capsules — for their sake as well as for ours.

Space: The Immoral Frontier?

photograph of starry night in the woods

Space exploration has been all over the news this year, mostly because of billionaires racing to send their rockets and egos into orbit. This cold war between geek superpowers – Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson – is a bonfire of vanities. The obvious moral critiques have been made (here, here, here, et cetera, ad nauseam caelorum). Petitions have even been signed to deny them re-entry into our atmosphere.

Despite such criticisms, the public remains strongly supportive of our collective investment in space. According to a recent C-SPAN poll, 71% of Americans think that space exploration is “necessary.” A similar Pew poll found that 72% of Americans deemed it “essential” for the United States to continue to be a leader in space exploration. In our age of polarization, this is quite a consensus. But I suspect the view is wrong. I suspect that space is the immoral frontier.

I’m not suggesting that we should pull the plug on all extraterrestrial investment. Life as we presently know it would come to a standstill without satellites. I am, however, suggesting that it is no easy task to justify our spending another pretty penny in putting a human being on the moon or Mars or any other clump of space dirt. It seems to me that before we set out for other planets, we should first learn to live sustainably on the one we presently inhabit.

Most people would probably agree with me that humanity must learn to dwell on our present planet without destroying it. But they probably also think that we – or at least the Bezos crowd – should throw some money at space exploration. Four arguments have been frequently given in support of this view. Let’s consider each in turn:

The Capabilities Argument

When JFK pitched the Apollo program to the American people, he argued: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” This is surely not the full reason for the Apollo program, but it was part of it. The mission summoned all of our capabilities as human beings. It gave us the chance to see what we as a people and species could achieve.

This argument reflects a “capability approach” to ethical theory. According to that approach, our actions are morally right to the extent to which they help us realize our human capabilities, and especially our most valuable ones. Making friends is one such valuable capability, throwing frisbees less so. JFK’s argument reflects this capability approach insofar as it holds that space exploration is worth doing because it helps us realize our most valuable capabilities as human beings. It demands that we bring out “the best of our energies and skills.”

Realizing our capabilities may very well be an important part of the good human life. But must we realize our capabilities by sending a few astronauts to space? Are there not countless other ways for us to be our best selves?

The Eco Argument

Some will say that space exploration promotes precisely the kind of environmental awareness that we need to cultivate. Sending people to space and having them share their experiences in word and image reaffirms our reverence for the planet and our responsibility to protect it. When Richard Branson held his post-flight press conference, he made this very point: “The views are breathtaking…We are so lucky to have this planet that we all live on…We’ve got to all be doing everything we can do to help this incredible planet we live on.”

The Eco Argument has a bit of history on its side. The photograph “Earthrise” (below), taken in 1968 by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders, helped spark today’s environmental movement.

The photograph is undoubtedly beautiful, and its influence undoubtedly significant. But should we really keep shelling out billions for such pictures when a sunrise photo taken from Earth, at a fraction of the cost, might do comparably well? Moreover, a sense of reverence is not the only reaction that photographs like “Earthrise” provoke. As philosopher Hannah Arendt already observed in The Human Condition (1958), such photos can just as easily prompt a sense of relief that we have taken our first step “toward escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth.” And that invites laxity. If the scientists will save us, why worry? In this way space exploration produces marketing collateral that is double-edged: it can deepen our appreciation for the planet just as much as promise an escape hatch.

The Innovation Argument

A second argument is that we should invest in space exploration because it promotes technological innovation. Without NASA, we wouldn’t have LEDs, dust busters, computer mice, or baby formula. Even if a space mission fails, those invented byproducts are worth the investment.

This Innovation Argument is also nearly as old as space exploration itself. We heard it from Frank Sinatra and Willie Nelson, who got together to inform other “city dudes and country cousins” that space research has given us medical imaging technology and other life-saving devices. This is no doubt true, and we should be grateful that it is. But Frank and Willie do not give us any reason to think that space research is especially well-suited to producing technological innovation. Most of the great inventions of the past century have had absolutely zilch to do with outer space.

The argument becomes even weaker when we recognize that the technological innovations generated by space exploration are often quite difficult for poorer communities to access – and particularly so for communities of color. I can do no better than quote Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” (1970):

“I can’t pay no doctor bills.

But Whitey’s on the moon.

Ten years from now I’ll be paying still.

While Whitey’s on the moon.”

Medical imaging is life-saving, but not so much for those who can’t afford it. Might we be better off providing affordable (dare I say free?) healthcare before investing in more space gizmos?

The Insurance Argument

Back in October 2018, Elon Musk tweeted:

“About half my money is intended to help problems on Earth & half to help establish a self-sustaining city on Mars to ensure continuation of life (of all species) in case Earth gets hit by a meteor like the dinosaurs or WW3 happens & we destroy ourselves”

This, in a nutshell, is the Insurance Argument: let’s invest in space exploration so that we can be sure to have an escape hatch, just in case of a meteor strike or nuclear fallout.

This is an argument that seasoned philosophers have also offered. Brian Patrick Green, an expert in space ethics (with a forthcoming book so titled), has been making a version of this argument since at least 2015 (even on CNN). It is quite plausible. Every building has an emergency exit. Shouldn’t we have an emergency exit for the planet we live on? Just in case?

It’s a compelling line of thought – until we consider a few facts. Mars is hands-down the most hospitable planet that astronauts can reach within a lifetime of space travel. But Mars is freezing. At its balmy best, during the summer, at the equator, Mars can reach 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. But at night it drops to minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s little surprise that when Kara Swisher asked Diana Trujillo, a NASA flight director, if she wanted to live in outer space, Diana immediately answered “No!!!” We humans were made to live on planet Earth, and there’s no place like home.

If an asteroid slams against our planet, we will likely go the way of the majestic dinosaurs. But are we sad that velociraptors aren’t prowling the streets? I certainly am not. Should we really be sad at the prospect of our ceasing to exist? Maybe. But we probably should get used to it. The Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius was on to something:

“Life is given to no one for ownership, to all for temporary use. Look back at how the past ages of eternity before our birth are nothing to us. In this way nature holds up a mirror for us of the time that will come after our death. Does anything then seem frightening? Does it seem sad to anyone? Does it not appear more serene than all of sleep?”

We cannot escape death or extinction. So perhaps we should stop allocating resources on moonshots for the few, at the expense of the poor. And perhaps we should instead invest in those who are in greatest need. They deserve a life befitting a human being — a life of dignity in a safe community with access to education, medicine, and a chance to marvel at the starry skies above.

Life on Mars? Cognitive Biases and the Ethics of Belief

NASA satelite image of Mars surface

In 1877 philosopher and mathematician W.K. Clifford published his now famous essay “The Ethics of Belief” where he argued that it is ethically wrong to believe things without sufficient evidence. The paper is noteworthy for its focus on the ethics involved in epistemic questions. An example of the ethics involved in belief became prominent this week as William Romoser, an entomologist from Ohio claimed to have found photographic evidence of insect and reptile-like creatures on the surface of Mars. The response of others was to question whether Romoser had good evidence for his belief. However, the ethics of belief formation is more complicated than Clifford’s account might suggest.

Using photographs sent by the NASA Mars rover, Romoser has observed insect and reptile like forms on the Martian surface. This has led him to conclude, “There has been and still is life on Mars. There is apparent diversity among the Martial insect-life fauna which display many features similar to Terran insects.” Much of this conclusion is based on careful observation of the photographs which contain images of objects, some of which appear to have a head, a thorax, and legs. Romoser claims that he used several criteria in his study, noting the differences between the object and its surroundings, clarity of form, body symmetry, segmentation of body parts, skeletal remains, and comparison of forms in close proximity to each other.

It is difficult to imagine just how significant the discovery of life on other planets would be to our species. Despite all of this, several scientists have spoken out against Romoser’s findings. NASA denies that the photos constitute evidence of alien life, noting that the majority of the scientific community agree that Mars is not suitable for liquid water or complex life. Following the backlash against Romoser’s findings, the press release from Ohio University has been taken down. This result is hardly surprising; the evidence for Romoser’s claim simply is not definitive and does not fit with the other evidence we have about what the surface of Mars is like.

However, several scientists have offered an explanation for the photos. What Romoser saw can be explained by pareidolia, a tendency to perceive a specific meaningful image in ambiguous visual patterns. These include the tendency of many to see objects in clouds, a man in the moon, and even a face on Mars (as captured by the Viking 1 Orbiter in 1976). Because of this tendency, false positive findings can be more likely. If someone’s brain is trained to observe beetles and their characteristics, it can be the case that they would identify visual blobs as beetles and make the conclusion that there are beetles where there are none.

The fact that we are predisposed to cognitive biases means that it is not simply a matter of having evidence for a belief. Romoser believed he had evidence. But various cognitive biases can lead us to conclude that we have evidence when we don’t, or to dismiss evidence when it conflicts with our preferred conclusions. For instance, in her book Social Empiricism Miriam Solomon discusses several such biases that can affect our decision making. For example, one may be egocentrically biased toward using one’s own observation and data over others.

One may also be biased towards a conclusion that is similar to a conclusion from another domain. In an example provided by Solomon, Alfred Wegener once postulated that continents move through the ocean like icebergs drift through the water based on the fact that icebergs and continents are both large solid masses. Perhaps in just the same way Romoser was able to infer based on visual similarities between insect legs and a shape in a Martian image, not only that there were insects on Mars, but that the anatomical parts of these creatures were similar in function to similar creatures found on Earth despite the vastly different Martian environment.

There are several other forms of such cognitive biases. There is the traditional confirmation bias, where one focuses on evidence that confirms their existing beliefs and ignores evidence that does not. There is the anchoring bias, were one relies too heavily on the first information that they hear. There is also the self-serving bias, where one blames external forces when bad things happen to them, but they take credit when good things happen. All of these biases distort our ability to process information.

Not only can such biases affect whether we pay attention to certain evidence or ignore other evidence, but they can even affect what we take to be evidence. For instance, the self-serving bias may lead one to think that they are responsible for a success when in reality their role was a coincidence. In this case, their actions become evidence for a belief when it would not be taken as evidence otherwise. This complicates the notion that it is unethical to believe something without evidence, because our cognitive biases affect what we count as evidence in the first place.

The ethics of coming to a belief based on evidence can be even more complex. When we deliberate over using information as evidence for something else, or whether we have enough evidence to warrant a conclusion, we are also susceptible to what psychologist Henry Montgomery calls dominance structuring. This is a tendency to try to create a hierarchy of possible decisions with one dominating the others. This allows us to gain confidence and to become more resolute in our decision making. Through this process we are susceptible to trading off the importance of different pieces of information that we use to help make decisions. This can be done in such a way where once we have found a promising option, we emphasize its strengths and de-emphasize its weaknesses. If this is done without proper critical examination, we can become more and more confident in a decision without legitimate warrant.

In other words, it is possible that even as we become conscious of our biases, we can still decide to use information in improper ways. It is possible that, even in cases like Romoser, the decision to settle in a certain conclusion and to publish such findings are the result of such dominance structuring. Sure, we have no good reason to infer the fact that the Martian atmosphere could support such life, but those images are so striking; perhaps previous findings were flawed? How can one reject what one sees with their own eyes? The photographic evidence must take precedence.

Cognitive biases and dominance structuring are not merely restricted to science. They impact all forms of reasoning and decision making, and so if it is the case that we have an ethical duty to make sure that we have evidence for our beliefs, then we also have an ethical duty to guard against these tendencies. The importance of such ethical duties is only more apparent in the age of fake news and other efforts to deliberately deceive others on massive scales. Perhaps as a public we should more often ask ourselves questions like “Am I morally obliged to have evidence for my beliefs, and have I done enough to check my own biases ensure that the evidence is good evidence?”