Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: The Hazards of Other Planets

February 8, 2015 by Joshua
in Choosing/Decision-Making, Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicist, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is a take on today’s post, “The Hazards of Other Planets.”


The company Mars One is trying to establish colonies on Mars by offering one-way trips there within the next 10 years. I’ve gotten into heated debates about the ethical implications of sending people on these trips. Even though the people selected signed up knowing they would never return to Earth, I believe the entire endeavor is unethical because they will not really have a full grasp of what they’ve signed up for until they get to Mars, at which point, return to Earth is impossible. Do you agree? ANNIE LUBIN, BROOKLYN, N.Y.

My Answer: No, I don’t agree that because someone doesn’t understand all of what they sign up for they shouldn’t get to choose. By your logic nobody should have children, get married, or have grounds to decide if they should go back to school for a degree or not. Many of our greatest actors would never have left home for Broadway or Hollywood. No one would run for office. Nobody would risk their jobs for an entrepreneurial venture.

For that matter, the people choosing to go wouldn’t have a full grasp of what they missed if they didn’t sign up.

Nobody can know all the consequences of their choices but we still have to choose. As a leadership teacher and coach, I find your view paralyzes people from choosing optimally, thinking that they need to find more information before choosing. If there were a magic rewind button for life that let you try things and undo them if you didn’t like the outcome then, sure, you could find the exact outcome to every choice and then choose only the optimal outcome. But there isn’t. There’s more information than anyone can possibly process and at the same time never all the information we could use.

A question for you: why did you have multiple heated debates on the subject? If people have different values than you, how does it benefit you to get into arguments? You don’t sound like you’re talking to decision-makers on the topic, so you’re talking to people distant from the people who choose to try to go or decide who can go—and you’re alienating them?!? You sound like Walter in The Big Lebowski, as I posted in these three posts:

Is this what you want for yourself—to feel self-righteous in a matter where you can’t settle right-and-wrong absolutely and have other people think you’re an asshole? You sound like you’re destroying your ability to influence, which, if you feel so right, sounds like the opposite of your goal. Maybe you are right. I predict your strategy will lead to more people disagreeing with you.

Why not accept that people have different values, therefore disagree on right and wrong, and try to learn from them? You’ll be able to influence them more if they feel understood. If there were an absolute measure of ethics, you would have consulted it and shown it to them. There isn’t, so you couldn’t. Absent an absolute measure here of right or wrong, ethical or unethical, why not find ways to improve your life through your relationships instead of getting into fights you can’t win?

The New York Times Answer: When I first received this letter, the answer seemed so obvious that I wasn’t going to waste space on it. My superficial reaction was “Of course it’s O.K. to allow explorers to explore the unexplored.” I immediately moved on to other problems. Yet I find myself unable to stop thinking about this, and I wonder if the all-encompassing simplicity of my initial response is proof that I need to think about it harder.

Part of what makes this seem easy is the fact that we already know quite a bit about what Mars is like. Our present understanding of Mars is arguably greater than what the first European explorers traversing the Atlantic Ocean knew about the New World. It seems as if anybody who’s serious about traveling to a different planet would have a reasonable expectation of what that experience would be like.

But let’s say we knew less: Let’s say that instead of boarding a one-way spaceship to Mars, these same volunteers were boarding a one-way time machine targeting the year 3015. Is there a moral problem with allowing someone to try an act in which the outcome is not only dangerous but also impossible to anticipate?

Less fantastical variations of this dilemma arise in myriad modern situations — the future of collision sports, the notion of drug legalization and even the latent irresponsibility of allowing movie theaters to sell 50-ounce sodas. If we can’t irrefutably quantify the risk associated with a specific activity, there’s a line of reasoning that suggests people aren’t in a viable position to consciously choose whether or not they want to participate. Within the framework of this argument, a person doesn’t have true agency unless he or she fully understands the potential consequences. That contention is what prompted me to briefly reassess my original reaction. But I still ultimately disagree with the concept of saving people from themselves. Individuals have the right to pursue dangerous activities, as long as those activities don’t affect the lives of people who do not wish to be involved — and that extends into the realm of activities for which the downside cannot be predicted.

It’s possible that a trip to Mars might result in a unique tragedy no one on Earth has considered. But a lack of clarity about that theoretical eventuality does not make it strikingly different from all the other risks we understand completely. A participant in a hazardous activity does not need to know the precise degree of hazard involved with that endeavor; the participant merely needs to understand that an unspecified degree of peril is part of the deal. For your hypothetical spaceman, a lack of knowledge about his future is not an ethical deal breaker. It’s simply another component of the assumed risk.

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