The text below is a paper I wrote to correspond to my presentation at the first 100YSS Symposium in 2011.

moral imperative title

The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight

An axiological argument for human exploration and colonization of the cosmos

0. Preamble
1. The case against civilization
2. The evils of civilization
3. The future of civilization
4. The future of morality
5. The place of consciousness in axiology
6. Axiology after extraterrestrialization
7. Copernican civilization
8. The natural history of value

0. Preamble

It is not here our purpose to discuss the likelihood of a spacefaring civilization, or the practicability and economics of space travel, or even the goals of space travel. It is our purpose, rather, to say why a spacefaring civilization is a good thing, and here “good” is meant in a narrowly ethical sense. We will argue, quite plainly, that a spacefaring civilization is a moral good. For this we must start with some background on civilization itself.

1. The case against civilization

What is the moral value of civilization? This question was posed in a particularly explicit form in 1749 by the Academy of Dijon:

“Has the Restoration of the Arts and Sciences Had a Purifying Effect Upon Morals?” [1]

The Academy invited responses, and a young Jean-Jacques Rousseau responded with an essay now called the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (or simply the First Discourse), in which Rousseau answered the Academy’s question with a condemnation of the moral corruption of civilization. Rousseau continued the argument in his Second Discourse, the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, which was also a response to a later essay question from the Academy of Dijon, though in this case Rousseau did not win the prize.

In the First Discourse Rousseau made an explicitly moral argument against civilization:

“…the depravity [is] real, and our souls have become corrupted to the extent that our sciences and our arts have advanced towards perfection. Will someone say that this is a misfortune peculiar to our age? No, gentlemen. The evils brought about by our vain curiosity are as old as the world. The daily ebb and flow of the ocean’s waters have not been more regularly subjected to the orbit of the star which gives us light during the night than the fate of morals and respectability has been to progress in the sciences and arts. We have seen virtue fly away to the extent that their lights have risen over our horizon, and the same phenomenon can be observed at all times and in all places.” [2]

Rousseau’s moral indictment of civilization continues to resonate down to the present day, and contemporary critiques of the value of civilization are indebted to Rousseau’s thought — now part of our common intellectual currency — even when they do not realize the source of their ideas.

An additional dimension has been added to the devalorization of civilization since Rousseau formulated his critique. The civilization that Rousseau condemned had not yet experienced the Industrial Revolution, and with the emergence of industrial civilization new voices protested this new form of civilization. With the emergence of industrial civilization it has been argued by civilization is not merely detrimental to the moral well-being of humankind, but also to the physical well-being of the species. With industrialization, civilization seems to have turned against life itself, poisoning the air, water, and land that makes the very existence of humanity possible over the long term.

There has also been an aesthetic dimension to the critique of industrialization, that is to say, there has been a condemnation of the aesthetic values apparently fostered by industrial civilization. William Blake, one of the greatest visionaries of his time, envisioned a world without the nascent industrialization of his day. In a famous phrase in the Prelude to his Milton: A Poem (1804-1808), Blake wrote:

“And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?”

Though a visionary, Blake was no angry prophet, and his writings seem to radiate a luminous innocence, but it would be difficult to formulate a more damning characterization of industrial civilization than to call it “Satanic.” Blake, however, was not alone in finding industrialization to have created a Hell on earth.

The poet Robert Southey, one of the “Lake Poets” and a contemporary of Wordsworth, wrote a work in dialogue form entitled Sir Thomas More, or Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (1824), and better known simply as Colloquies on Society. In this work, Southey deplored the changes in the English landscape and the condition of the workers and their lives that accompanied industrialization:

“We remained a while in silence looking upon the assemblage of dwellings below. Here, and in the adjoining hamlet of Millbeck, the effects of manufactures and of agriculture may be seen and compared. The old cottages are such as the poet and the painter equally delight in beholding, substantially built of the native stone without mortar, dirtied with no white lime, and their long low roofs covered with slate, if they had been raised by the magic of some indigenous Amphion’s music, the materials could not have adjusted themselves more beautifully in accord with the surrounding scene; and time has still further harmonized them with weather stains, lichens, and moss, short grasses, and short fern, and stone-plants of various kinds. The ornamented chimneys, round or square, less adorned than those which, like little turrets, crest the houses of the Portuguese peasantry; and yet not less happily suited to their place, the hedge of clipt box beneath the windows, the rose-bushes beside the door, the little patch of flower-ground, with its tall hollyhocks in front; the garden beside, the bee-hives, and the orchard with its bank of daffodils and snow-drops, the earliest and the profusest in these parts, indicate in the owners some portion of ease and leisure, some regard to neatness and comfort, some sense of natural, and innocent, and healthful enjoyment. The new cottages of the manufacturers are upon the manufacturing pattern — naked, and in a row.” [3]

Thomas Babington Macaulay responded to this work of Southey’s as to a piece of unmitigated humbug, writing of it:

“Here is wisdom. Here are the principles on which nations are to be governed. Rose-bushes and poor-rates, rather than steam-engines and independence. Mortality and cottages with weather-stains, rather than health and long life with edifices which time cannot mellow. We are told, that our age has invented atrocities beyond the imagination of our fathers; that society has been brought into a state compared with which extermination would be a blessing; and all because the dwellings of cotton-spinners are naked and rectangular. Mr. Southey has found out a way, he tells us, in which the effects of manufactures and agriculture may be compared. And what is this way? To stand on a hill, to look at a cottage and a factory, and to see which is the prettier. Does Mr. Southey think that the body of the English peasantry live, or ever lived, in substantial or ornamented cottages, with box- hedges, flower-gardens, beehives, and orchards? If not, what is his parallel worth? We despise those mock philosophers, who think that they serve the cause of science by depreciating literature and the fine arts. But if anything could excuse their narrowness of mind, it would be such a book as this. It is not strange that, when one enthusiast makes the picturesque the test of political good, another should feel inclined to proscribe altogether the pleasures of taste and imagination.”

Macaulay’s ridicule of Southey — especially the passage, “…our age has invented atrocities beyond the imagination of our fathers… society has been brought into a state compared with which extermination would be a blessing” — involves particularly telling formulations to which we will return in the course of our exposition.

In the twentieth century, Alfred North Whitehead responded in turn to Macaulay, writing:

“Southey seems to have said many silly things in his book; but, so far as this extract is concerned, he could make a good case for himself if he returned to earth after the lapse of nearly a century. The evils of the early industrial system are now a commonplace of knowledge. The point which I am insisting on is the stone-blind eye with which even the best men of that time regarded the importance of aesthetics in a nation’s life.” [5]

Whitehead also gives a specific example of the “stone-blind eye”:

“In the most advanced industrial countries, art was treated as a frivolity. A striking example of this state of mind in the middle of the nineteenth century is to be seen in London where the marvelous beauty of the estuary of the Thames, as it curves through the city, is wantonly defaced by the Charing Cross railway bridge, constructed apart from any reference to aesthetic values.” [6]

The evils of industrial civilization, according to its many critics, does not end with the corruption of Rousseau, the Satanic Mills of Blake, or the ugliness of Southey. Even as some of the worst offenses of the early stages of the factory system were curtailed, such as child labor, a more general critique of the society created by industrial civilization began to emerge in the early twentieth century. Fritz Lang’s famous film Metropolis (1927) features workers engaged in the most pointless, soul-destroying labor, physically subordinating themselves to the arbitrary movements of an enormous machine that resembles a clock. The novels of Franz Kafka, which depict a grotesque and absurd world of modern urban life, date from the same period.

Also dating from this period is Bertrand Russell’s The Prospects of Industrial Civilization (1923), which rehearses many of the evils of industrialization noted by earlier writers. Russell attributes these evils to a “mechanistic outlook” which he contrasts with a “humanistic outlook,” arguing that the humanistic conception of excellence must be cultivated if humanity is to avoid a disaster of its own making by the powers it has unleashed through mechanization:

“…machinery, which is physically capable of conferring great benefits upon mankind, is instead inflicting untold evil, of which the worst may be still to come …if the evil effects of the mechanistic outlook were overcome, it would be possible to use machinery for the liberation of life, not for its enslavement to a dance of death.” [7]

While Russell traces the evils of industrialized civilization to a mechanistic outlook, he does not provide any detailed analysis or exposition of this mechanistic outlook. A more profound philosophical expression of this more general critique of the social institutions of industrialized civilization is to be found in Gabriel Marcel’s Man Against Mass Society. Marcel does not focus on any particular evil such as moral corruption or ugliness, but rather formulates his critique of industrial civilization in purely general and philosophical terms.

Marcel is among the first philosophers to consider nuclear weapons from an explicitly ethical point of view, and he writes:

“…the human race as a species must appear to us to-day as endowed with the power, if it wants to, of putting an end to its own earthly existence.” [8]

But Marcel’s critique does not stop here. Rather, Marcel only begins with the possibility of self-annihilation. He goes on to inquire into the nature of technical progress itself, which he characterizes as follows:

“…what is a technique? It is a group of procedures, methodically elaborated, and consequently capable of being taught and reproduced, and when these procedures are put into operation they assure the achievement of some definite concrete purpose.” [9]

Marcel then goes on to elucidate the moral condition of technological thinking:

“The truth is that a technique, for man whose task is to invent it, does not present itself simply as a means; for a time at least, it becomes an end in itself, since it has to be discovered, to be brought into being; and it is easy to understand how a mind absorbed in this task of discovery can be drawn away from any thought of the real purpose to which, in principle, this technique ought to be subordinate.” [10]

For Marcel, then, it is the nature of technological thought itself that is implicated in the moral corruption of technological civilization, and not any particular invention due to technological progress. Marcel goes on to give the specific example of automobiles, of which he says:

“The lack of curiosity of the passionate motorist is in fact a common experience. But this remark has a much more general application… What we are noticing here is the passage from the realm of the technical, properly so called, to that of a kind of idolatry of which technical products become the object or at least the occasion …we can see that even this kind of idolatry can degenerate into something worse; it can become autolatry, worship of oneself, and often does so in those circles where people can get excited only about records, especially speed records …we might say that the exaltation of speed records goes hand in hand with a weakening, an attenuation, of the sense of the sacred.” [11]

In this, Marcel had already been anticipated by Filippo Marinetti, whose Futurist manifesto celebrated rather than decried precisely this aspect of technological progress:

“We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath — a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” [12]

The enterprise upon which Marcel places an almost entirely negative evaluation, Marinetti celebrated as the renewal of civilization. Moreover, Marinetti recognized that the world, “has been enriched by a new beauty.” That is to say, the aesthetic values unique to industrialized civilization have added to the axiological wealth of the world. This suggests the possibility that the unique institutions of industrialized civilization might also enrich the world with new moral values. But more of this later.

Shortly after Marcel made his argument against technological thought, philosophers increasingly came to realize that the possibility of nuclear annihilation was something new in the history of civilization. This was to become an important element of the critique of civilization during the Cold War: after the middle of the twentieth century, the threat of nuclear war hangs over philosophical thought, which comes to be dominated by the omnipresent Cold War. Nuclear weapons seemed, if anything, even more diabolical than what Blake called the “Satanic Mills” of the industrial revolution, and nuclear weapons moreover were an unambiguous artifact of the increasingly rapid technological advances that had come to characterize industrial civilization. Moreover, the explosion of two nuclear weapons at the end of the Second World War was not the end of it: the Cold War that followed introduced the novel evil of an arms race that multiplied stockpiles of nuclear weapons to the point that it was no longer poetic or metaphorical to contemplate the end of the world.

Karl Jaspers devoted an entire book to the moral dilemma of the threat of nuclear war, The Future of Mankind (1958), in which he stated that, “The atom bomb is today the greatest of all menaces to the future of mankind.” However, he goes on to qualify this:

“The atom bomb, as the problem of mankind’s very existence, is equaled by only one other problem: the threat of totalitarian rule (not simply dictatorship, Marxism, or racial theory), with its terroristic structure that obliterates all liberty and human dignity. By one, we lose life; by the other, a life that is worth living. Both extreme possibilities bring us today to an awareness of what we want, how we would wish to live, what we must be prepared for.” [13]

In Jaspers’ formulation, the evils of nuclear war and totalitarianism give concrete form to the uniquely technological evils given a more abstract exposition by Marcel. Jaspers moreover formulates the evil of totalitarianism in terms of a “life that is worth living” — an idea that repeatedly recurs in the discussion of the evils of industrial-technological civilization, which we have already seen in Macaulay’s criticism of Southey.

Bertrand Russell in his Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (1959) and again in Has man a Future? (1961) took up the moral challenge of nuclear weapons and nuclear war and sought to arrive at a political order that could be compatible with the continued survival of civilization and human life. Although Russell was now focused on the possibility of nuclear war rather than taking a broad view of industrial civilization (as in his earlier work cited above), his prescriptions for society had not greatly changed in the meantime, though the urgency has escalated:

“The awful prospect of the extermination of the human race, if not in the next war, then in the next but one or the next but two, is so sobering to any imagination which has seriously contemplated it as to demand very fundamental fresh thought on the whole subject not only of international relations but of human life and its capabilities.” [14]

The threat of nuclear annihilation could materialize any day, any time, anywhere. Civilization had thus made possible the instruments of its own annihilation; it remained only to await the hour of our engineered apocalypse. At the same time, the most advanced industrialized nation-states were experiencing a profound social upheaval, and there was a widespread perception that industrial civilization had reached a dead end.

It is interesting to note in this context that the Port Huron Statement (1962), despite being a clear indictment of the political and economic conditions of its time (as well as being a cultural product of the Cold War), was not a condemnation of industrial civilization, but actually called for,

“…a fifty-year effort to prepare for all nations the conditions of industrialization. Even with far more capital and skill than we now import to emerging areas, serious prophets expect that two generations will pass before accelerating industrialism is a worldwide act. The needs are numerous: every nation must build an adequate infrastructure (transportation, communication, land resources, waterways) for future industrial growth; there must be industries suited to the rapid development of differing raw materials and other resources; education must begin on a continuing basis for everyone in the society, especially including engineering and technical training; technical assistance from outside sources must be adequate to meet present and long-term needs; atomic power plants must spring up to make electrical energy available.” [15]

Thus a thorough-going critique of contemporary civilization need not necessarily take the form of advocating the annihilation of industrial-technological society. The idealistic young people who formulated the Port Huron Statement were advocating the extension of industrialized civilization to all the world. This faith in industrialized civilization would not last.

Indeed, the Port Huron Statement now seems naïve in comparison to more recent manifestos, such as The Coming Insurrection, a pamphlet originally appearing in French (in 2007) and believed to be the work of Julien Coupat, but issued under the name of “The Invisible Committee.” The Coming insurrection goes so far as to claim not only the civilization is corrupt, but that it is already dead:

It’s useless to wait — for a breakthrough, for the revolution, the nuclear apocalypse or a social movement. To go on waiting is madness. The catastrophe is not coming, it is here. We are already situated within the collapse of a civilization. It is within this reality that we must choose sides. [16]

And again,

So we have a corpse on our backs, but we won’t be able to rid ourselves of it just like that. Nothing is to be expected from the end of civilization, from its clinical death. In and of itself, it can only be of interest to historians. It’s a fact, and it must be translated into a decision. Facts can be conjured away, but decision is political. To decide on the death of civilization, then to work out how it will happen: only decision will rid us of the corpse. [17]

The Cold War formulations of the devalorization of civilization primarily focused on the possibility of nuclear annihilation are less in evidence today, although the environmental devalorization of civilization has taken on a life of its own and environmentalism today is one of the few ideologies that shapes the fates of individuals and nations alike.

The moral horror at the possibility of the nuclear annihilation of human life and civilization is, at bottom, a question of the sustainability of human life and civilization. Seen in this perspective, it is a self-interested moral horror, specific to human needs, interests, and desires, and it can be immediately recognized that the concern of environmentalism for the sustainability of life itself is more fundamental, since everything else is predicated upon this.

The most notorious condemnation of industrialized civilization in this vein, which we might call the post-modern critique of civilization, is that of the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski. His manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future (1995), is an explicit and systematic argument against civilization as we know it today. Since most people who argue against the moral value of civilization do not turn to militancy as did Kaczynski, it should be stated up front that we do not seek to discredit arguments against civilization by associating all such arguments with Kaczynski.

Kaczynski opens his manifesto with the following statement:

“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in “advanced” countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in “advanced” countries.” [18]

He goes on to say:

“We therefore advocate a revolution against the industrial system… This is not to be a POLITICAL revolution. Its object will be to overthrow not governments but the economic and technological basis of the present society.” [19]

Among the most thorough and systematic recent arguments against industrial civilization is Derrick Jensen’s Endgame (2006), Volume 1 of which is subtitled, “The Problem of Civilization.” This is a particularly radical expression of the environmental critique of civilization. Jensen is as explicit as Kaczinsky that it is industrial civilization that is the problem. Premise One of Endgame is as follows:

“Civilization is not and can never be sustainable. This is especially true for industrial civilization.” [20]

Jensen adopts theological language in Premise Six when he says that civilization is not redeemable, and implies that the unsustainability of civilization must be brought to a halt before it perpetrates additional harm:

“Civilization is not redeemable. This culture will not undergo any sort of voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living. If we do not put a halt to it, civilization will continue to immiserate the vast majority of humans and to degrade the planet until it (civilization, and probably the planet) collapses. The effects of this degradation will continue to harm humans and nonhumans for a very long time.” [21]

In his eighth premise, Jensen formulates an explicit valuation of the natural world in comparison to the economic system created by human beings and supervening upon the natural world:

“The needs of the natural world are more important than the needs of the economic system.” [22]

And in a reformulation of his eighth premise he employs explicitly moral language:

“Any economic or social system that does not benefit the natural communities on which it is based is unsustainable, immoral, and stupid. Sustainability, morality, and intelligence (as well as justice) requires the dismantling of any such economic or social system, or at the very least disallowing it from damaging your landbase.” [23]

These claims regarding the unsustainability of civilization and the absolute needs of the natural world bear closer examination. More of this later.

2. The evils of civilization

Philosophers have struggled to come to grips with the novel evils that seem to be presented by industrial-technological civilization. [24] New categories of evil have been proposed, as with Marilyn McCord Adams’ exposition of what she calls “horrendous evils.” In her book Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God Adams wrote:

“Among the evils that infect this world, some are worse than others. I want to try to capture the most pernicious of them within the category of horrendous evils, which I define (for present purposes) as ‘evils the participation in which (that is, the doing or suffering of which) constitutes prima facie reason to doubt whether the participant’s life could (given their inclusion in it) be a great good to him/her on the whole.’ The class of paradigm horrors includes both individual and massive collective suffering…” [25]

She went on to add in the next section:

“I believe most people would agree that such evils as listed above constitute reason to doubt whether the participants’ life can be worth living, because it is so difficult humanly to conceive how such evils could be overcome.” [26]

In the list of horrendous evils offered as examples by Adams two items are obviously inspired by the experiences of technological civilization during the Second World War: “participation in the Nazi death camps” and “the explosion of nuclear bombs over populated areas.” It could be argued that another example, “psychophysical torture whose ultimate goal is the disintegration of personality,” is also an evil refined in the twentieth century.

In the last paragraph of her paper of the same title, Adams again suggests that horrendous evils call into question the possibility of having a life worth living:

“I would go one step further: assuming the pragmatic and/or moral (I would prefer to say, broadly speaking, religious) importance of believing that (one’s own) human life is worth living, the ability of Christianity to exhibit how this could be so despite human vulnerability to horrendous evil, constitutes a pragmatic/moral/religious consideration in its favour, relative to value schemes that do not.” [27]

We have already seen the concern for a “life worth living” in Jaspers (cf. section 1 above), and it could be argued that the totalitarianism that Jaspers believed to threaten the very possibility of a life worth living is another example, applicable to mass society, of “psychophysical torture whose ultimate goal is the disintegration of personality.” The idea of a “life worth living” is also parallel to Macaulay’s formulation of, “a state compared with which extermination would be a blessing.” If human life is not worth living, if it is, rather, a kind of psychophysical torture, then extermination would, in comparison, be a blessing.

But horrendous evils are not unique to civilization, much less to industrialized civilization, as we can also formulate a list of natural evils of which it would be said that, according to Adams, “most people would find in the… suffering of them prima facie reason to doubt the positive meaning of their lives.”

There is a familiar quote from Darwin that implies such natural evils:

“There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars or that a cat should play with mice…” [28]

While such considerations may not rise to the level of horrendous evil, in so far as few human beings would find in them prima facie reason to doubt the positive meaning of their lives, it would not be difficult to produce examples of natural horrendous evils, both past and potential, such as a plague resulting in the deaths of the greater part of humanity in excruciating and lingering agony, or a mass extinction event, or an impact event destroying civilization and reducing the survivors to minimal and miserable survival.

More specific to civilization and human agency is the conception of evil formulated by Claudia Card in her book The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil (2002):

“Why take atrocities as paradigms? Many evils lack the scale of an atrocity… Atrocities shock, at least when we first learn of them. They seem monstrous. We recoil from visual images and details… It is not for their sensationalism, however, that I choose atrocities as my paradigms. I choose them for three reasons: (1) because they are uncontroversially evil, (2) because they deserve priority of attention… and (3) because the core features of evils tend to be writ large in the case of atrocities, making them easier to identify and appreciate.” [29]

Card elaborates her definition of evil in terms that are familiar from our earlier discussion:

“…evils are foreseeable intolerable harms produced by culpable wrongdoing… Evils tend to ruin lives, or significant parts of lives…” [30]

The idea of ruining lives echoes Macaulay on, “…a state compared with which extermination would be a blessing” and Adams on whether, “human life is worth living.” If we take Macaulay’s formulation that, “our age has invented atrocities beyond the imagination of our fathers,” and refine this with Card’s properties of atrocities, we arrive at the formulation that industrialized civilization (if its critics are to be believed) is uncontroversially evil, deserves priority of attention, and exhibits the core features of evil writ large. This seems to accurately characterize a cluster of opinion that may be called the hostile critique of civilization.

While Adams and Card made no systematic connection between the evils they describe and industrial-technological civilization, Edith Wyschogrod does make this explicit connection. In her book Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death [31], Wyschogrod employs the language of phenomenology to formulate what she calls the emergence of the “Death-World” [32] and the “Death Event” in the twentieth century.

While Wyschogrod is careful to distinguish technological society from the death-world (especially in Chapter 1, “Technological Society and the Death-World”), noting that they “exist side by side” [33] and are not identical, she also notes that, “technological society is the precondition” [34] of the death-world, that, “The death-world is thus the child of technological society,” [35] and that, “The procedures and instrumentalities of death which depend upon the quantification of the qualitied world are innovations deriving from technological society and, to that extent, extend its point of view.” [36]

Moreover, Wyschogrod’s conception of a death-world that, “…makes its appearance upon this already demythologized ground as an effort to sacralize a world of impoverished symbolic meanings by creating a totalizing structure,” [37] provides a link between the two evils that Jaspers distinguished, namely nuclear annihilation, by which we lose life, and totalitarian rule, by which we lose a life worth living. [38] The scope of the death-event includes:

“…the creation of death-worlds, a new and unique form of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life simulating imagined conditions of death, conferring upon their inhabitants the status of the living dead.” [39]

Wyschogrod in a footnote implies that the intended reference of this was the Nazi death camps, but it could be equally applied to the Soviet gulags, and, under the widest possible interpretation, to the conditions of dehumanization and depersonalization widely attributed to life throughout industrial-technological society.

Although the First World War demonstrated the possibility of the mechanization and industrialization of war, this “proof of concept” of industrialized war fell short of realizing the full potential of this evil. The industrialization of mass killing was probably incomprehensible before the Second World War, and it could be argued that the evils revealed by man-made mass death are unique to industrial-technological civilization. Susan Neiman implies as much when she writes that, “It’s clear that technology shapes the bounds of contemporary evil.” And if technology shapes the bounds of contemporary evil, can it not also be said that industrial-technological civilization shapes the bounds of contemporary evil? Wither, then, this civilization that limns the bounds of evil?

3. The future of civilization

If industrial-technological civilization is not destroyed by the evils it has incubated — that is to say, if our civilization has not been made suicidal by the nature of its development — but continues to develop more or less according to its present trajectory, are we to expect the evils of this civilization to be ameliorated or exacerbated by the continued development? This will of course depend upon the nature of the ensuing development, but there are certain general features of a technological future that can be delineated.

How are we to extrapolate the future development of industrial-technological civilization? One way to do this is the Kardashev scale. Kardashev formulated a well known scale “to classify technologically developed civilizations” based upon a quantitative measure of energy use. Here is Kardashev’s original formulation of the three types of civilizations he recognized:

I — technological level close to the level presently attained on the earth, with energy consumption at ~4 x 1019 erg/sec.

II — a civilization capable of harnessing the energy radiated by its own star (for example, the stage of successful construction of a “Dyson sphere”); energy consumption at ~4 x 1033 erg/sec.

III — a civilization in possession of energy on the scale of its own galaxy, with energy consumption at ~4 x 1044 erg/sec. [41]

Kardashev’s typology of civilizations has been influential, with subsequent formulations refining his measures and adding civilization types of 0 and IV. However, there is an ambiguity of the Kardashev metric in terms of actual vs. comparable energy usage. A carefully constructivist account of Kardashev would insist that a Type II civilization is “a civilization capable of harnessing the energy radiated by its own star,” and that all of this energy must in fact come from that particular star. In other words, given a strict conception of a Type II civilization, a civilization utilizing energy quantitatively equivalent to but not identical to the actual energy produced by a single star would not constitute a Type II civilization. Actual and equivalent energy use are very different measures, and Kardashev himself uses both formulations (type II is “energy radiated by its own star” while type III is “energy on the scale of its own galaxy”).

Moreover, the measures Kardashev proposed presume the ability of an advanced civilization to engage in space travel sufficient for engineering vast projects on the scale of a Dyson sphere, so that a metric for civilization based upon space flight is more fundamental. [42] It is also less ambiguous a measure.

The historical process that involves the transition from a planet-bound civilization to a spacefaring civilization can be called extraterrestrialization. This process can be employed as a metric to measure the technological attainment of a civilization, much as the Kardashev scale has been used. In order to avoid confusion with Kardashev’s types, extraterrestrialization can be broken down into stages instead of types:

Stage O spacefaring civilizations, or a planet-bound civilizations, have no capacity for spaceflight. (Pre-Sputnik civilization)

Stage 0

Stage I spacefaring civilizations have the kind of minimal capacity that we now possess to loft satellites and human beings into orbit, and even to visit nearby heavenly bodies such as the moon. (Sputnik and after)

Stage 1

Stage II spacefaring civilizations might be defined as those that have established a permanent, self-sustaining presence off the surface of the world of a given civilization’s biological origin. This could also be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine inter-planetary travel. This is the minimal level of civilization to assure long-term survivability.

Stage 2

Stage III spacefaring civilizations would have achieved practical, durable, and routine interstellar travel.

Stage 3

Stage IV spacefaring civilizations would be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine inter-galactic travel.

Stage 4

Stage V spacefaring civilizations would be defined in terms of practical, durable, and routine travel in the multiverse, i.e., beyond the known universe defined by the consequences of the big bang.

Stage 5

This formulation avoids the ambiguity that follows from a failure to distinguish between constructive and non-constructive conceptions. However, what these two measures of civilization — Kardashev’s types and spacefaring stages — have in common is that they are technological measures, and that they are readily quantifiable. [43]

Since there are degrees of technological achievement between the discretely numbered stages of extraterrestrialization, it might be preferable to speak in terms of an extraterrestrialization quotient (EQ), which, by an appropriate quantification of relevant factors, could be expressed by the extraterrestrialization stage number followed by a decimal that indicates the degree of progress to the next stage. An EQ x.50 would represent the demographic turning point beyond which more than half of the species is affected by the technological development in question (here, x). Thus EQ 1.50 means that half of the human population resides off the surface of the earth, and EQ 2.50 means that half of the human population engages in routine interplanetary travel, and so forth.

Given the metric of spacefaring above, human civilization stands at stage I (perhaps 1.01 if the long term human presence at the international space station is counted). We are no longer strictly planet-bound, like a stage 0 civilization, but we remain planet-bound for all practical purposes. The transition from Stage I to Stage II involves establishing a human presence in space that is no longer strictly dependent upon the human presence on earth, as is presently the case. It is at stage II that a civilization is no longer planet-bound for all practical purposes.

What is the significance for a civilization of being planet-bound or not? The environmental critique of civilization focuses on the unsustainability of industrial-technological civilization. Jensen makes this critique explicit when he writes that, “Civilization is not and can never be sustainable. This is especially true for industrial civilization.” As far as this critique extends, it is justified. As long as civilization remains planet-bound, as it is today, it is essentially parasitical upon the biosphere. Because civilization as we know it is parasitical upon the biosphere, mechanisms of the biosphere have limited the growth of civilization as any living organism would react to defend itself against a malignant growth.

The environmental critique in its familiar formulations does not go far enough. What is ultimately unsustainable is not merely civilization contingent upon the biosphere; what is unsustainable is a biosphere confined to a single planet, a single solar system, a single galaxy, and so on. But the long term unsustainability of a planet-bound biosphere can be ultimately addressed by civilization. The self-limiting and at times self-destructive and deleterious values generated by civilization during its parasitical phase would be resolved by extraterrestrialization, and in some cases these limits are entirely reversed so that self-destructive values become self-facilitating values. In other words, the biosphere is utterly dependent upon industrial-technological civilization for its long term survival. [44]

With the removal of the constraints of planetary boundaries the vicious circle of life and civilization is transformed into a virtuous circle of life and civilization. Prior to extraterrestrialization, the biosphere is compromised by civilization; following extraterrestrialization, the biosphere is extended and enlarged by civilization. This relationship is reciprocal: prior to extraterrrestrialization, civilization is limited by, and therefore compromised by, the biosphere — though civilization is also initially made possible by the biosphere, so there is an asymmetry of life and civilization at the point of origin and extending as far as a planet-bound civilization can extend.

Furthermore, the constraints of a planet-bound civilization also reveal themselves in the social institutions of resource-bound civilizations, which tend toward stagnancy and possibly also collapse. The most dramatic demographic development of agricultural civilization in its purest exemplification — the European Middle Ages — was not population increase, but the Black Death cause by bubonic plague, which killed a quarter to a third of Europe’s population within about two years from 1348 to 1350. A similar demographic catastrophe could be visited upon our finite, essentially stagnant, static, planet-bound industrial-technological civilization.

Yet the scarcity and limitation of resources (not to mention the vulnerability) that plagues planet-bound civilizations, which is often codified in social institutions that reserve the greater proportion of resources for an elite political class, is not an intrinsic limitation on civilization itself. The universe is overflowing with matter and energy, which when harnessed by technology and engineering, could provide virtually unlimited opportunities for life in the universe. We could formulate these opportunities in terms of enlarging the biosphere, but the idea of a biosphere is a relic of planetary-bound life. Eventually the concept of the biosphere will need to cede its place to the concept of biospace.

In making the claim above that, “what is ultimately unsustainable is a biosphere,” we must come to a radical understanding of this unsustainability, which means separating the idea of life from the idea of the biosphere. The idea of a biosphere (as coined by geologist Eduard Suess in 1875), of an anthrosphere, of a noösphere (as formulated by Teilhard de Chardin in his Cosmogenesis of 1922, but perhaps due to Édouard Le Roy), of a socio-sphere, of a techno-sphere (as formulated by J. H. Milsum [45]), or any other “-sphere” constituted by an human alteration or augmentation of the surface of the earth, in so far as such a conception remains literally rooted in a concentric conception centered on the earth, is a pre-Copernican idea. [46] That is to say, the idea of the biosphere (et al.) is essentially geocentric and Ptolmaic in conception.

We retain this pre-Copernican conception of the biosphere for good reason: the biosphere is still today a literal biosphere that supervenes upon the surface of the earth. But at a time when we have transcended the Ptolmaic conception of the world to the extent that we have, our conception of humanity’s place in nature, and more especially our conception of the place of human civilization in nature, remains Ptolemaic — not yet informed by the Copernican Revolution. A post-Copernican conception of life, mind, or technology would not be centered on the earth, and would not be conceived in terms of a sphere concentric with the earth.

As soon as it is understood that the biosphere is a Ptolemaic conception, it can be immediately seen that planet-bound civilizations not only impose limitations on the material enlargement of civilization, but also upon the intellectual enlargement of civilization.

Aristotle argued in Book III of his Nicomachean Ethics that:

“What we deliberate about is practical measures that lie in our power… The effects about which we deliberate are those which are produced by our agency but not always in the same way…” [47]

In other words, those things that are within our power, but which have uncertain outcomes, are the proper objects of deliberation. And it follows that as the scope of civilization grows and brings more objects within human power, the scope of moral deliberation also grows.

4. The future of morality

It is one thing to condemn civilization for its obvious failings. It is quite another thing to formulate a metric by which the moral value of civilization can be measured, but we must pass beyond condemnation to mensuration if we are to attain any measure of objectivity for our moral judgments.

How shall the moral value of civilization be defined? How can the future moral value of industrial-technological civilization be estimated as it continues in its relentless development? In terms of axiological prosperity: a morally valuable civilization is a civilization richer in value than some other civilization, or richer in value than the same civilization at some other point in time or stage of development. What does this mean? It means, at least, a greater number of values each iterated to the greatest extent possible. How can we quantify the axiological prosperity and diversity of a civilization? Before we can take the axiological measure of the world, we must first enumerate some of the sources of value in the world, and set these sources in an ontological and cosmological context.

The enlargement of the scope of moral deliberation by the technological enlargement of the scope of moral agency encounters limitations as industrial-technological civilization encounters the limits of planet-bound civilization; as these limitations are surpassed as civilization transcends the limits of its planet-bound origin, the enlargement of the scope of moral deliberation can grow without limits as the technological enlargement of human agency grows without limits. Part of this enlargement of human agency may come in the form of extraterrestrialization. The limits of an extraterrestrialized civilization are cosmological rather than organic or biological, and this represents a dramatic departure from past limits imposed upon human agency.

The process of extraterrestrialization has several moral consequences, among which may be counted the following: 1) extraterrestrialization enables an unconstrained enlargement of the scope of moral deliberation already initiated by existing technological civilization, 2) extraterrestrialization provides for the indefinite continuity of the enlargement of existing trend of moral scope enlargement, 3) extraterrestrialization enables the enlargement of the scope of moral deliberation in unprecedented directions, and 4) extraterrestrialization provides for the indefinite continuity of unprecedented moral scope enlargement.

Expanding the scope of moral deliberation is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for acting upon the greater good. It is not a sufficient condition because an expanded scope of moral deliberation also facilitates the possibility of greater evil. [48] Although an enlarged scope of moral deliberation is strictly neutral in regard to good and evil, it nevertheless follows merely from this enlarged scope of moral deliberation that the moral life of human beings is enlarged (for good or ill).

To enlarge the scope of the moral life is to make the world quantitatively richer in moral experience. The more the world is permeated by moral experience, the more those agents who populate this world are forced to think in moral terms. The expanding scope of the moral world produces a selection effect, i.e., moral selection shapes the collective life of the community.

One consequence of moral selection is that one must think in moral terms in order to be able to act effectively in a moral world. To fail to think in moral terms is to be unable to engage with the world on its own terms. An inability to engage with the world on its own terms ultimately means an inability to realize one’s projects. Thus engagement with the moral world requires moral consciousness (which is not the same as moral conscience). What, then, is the place of consciousness in axiology? How does the existence of mind affect and alter the value of the world?

5. The place of consciousness in axiology

The universe has become conscious in and through human consciousness; in other words, human beings constitute a part of the universe that has become conscious. It may be that this emergence of consciousness in human beings is not unique in the universe, for consciousness may also have emerged elsewhere in the universe under different conditions. We do not know whether or not consciousness is unique to its human embodiment, but we must at least acknowledge the possibility of the uniqueness of the emergence of consciousness in human beings. [49]

It is of course true that human consciousness is unique in the universe, but consciousness is here understood to be a natural phenomenon, like life, which might arise on other worlds under other conditions. Since human beings are unique to a single planet in the universe, human consciousness is similarly unique, and furthermore it is to be expected that consciousness, wherever it emerges, will be tinged with a certain local color relative to its embodiment. Just as life on other worlds can be expected to have a different appearance than life on earth, so consciousness on other worlds also can be expected to differ from consciousness on earth. Whether these differences would be trivial and easily overlooked, or so profound as to question whether diverse embodiments of consciousness are embodiments of the same thing, i.e., consciousness, is a question that can at present only be a matter of speculation. Our purpose here is only to note the distinction between consciousness simpliciter, which may or may not be unique, and human consciousness, which we know to be unique.

The world prior to the emergence of consciousness, and the world as it is now apart from any consideration of consciousness, is valuable in and of itself. That is to say, it possesses intrinsic value, and indeed many forms of intrinsic value. We shall not here attempt to enumerate the intrinsic values of the world, but will accept them as postulated. [50] Beyond the intrinsic values of the world independent of consciousness, there are other values that are contingent upon consciousness. Minimally, there are values contingent upon uniquely human consciousness. There may also be values contingent upon consciousness simpliciter, recognized by any consciousness, whether human or not, as well as values unique to non-human consciousness.

Consciousness is the conditio sine qua non of forms of value categorically unique from those realized in and by the natural world. The forms of value contingent upon consciousness—aesthetic, moral, and rational values—are not better than the intrinsic values of nature, do not represent an improvement upon the intrinsic values of nature, do not supersede the intrinsic values of nature, and do not replace or eliminate intrinsic values of nature. On the contrary, just as consciousness is the condition of the emergence of categorically unique forms of value, so nature is the condition of the emergence of consciousness. And in so far as consciousness is understood as a feature of nature, as nature having become conscious in and through human consciousness, the forms of value unique to consciousness are additional forms of natural value, nature augmented and extended. Therefore it is misleading to speak in terms of “natural value” and “conscious value” although we shall do this in what follows with the understanding that the reader is aware that the axiological continuum of values is co-extensive with the continuum of nature, and as there is an existential transitivity, connecting earlier and later forms of existence, so there is an axiological transitivity connecting earlier and later realizations of value in the world.

A landscape painting is natural value transformed under the aspect of consciousness into a form of conscious aesthetic value: the earlier, primordial forms of value in nature condition the later, derivative forms of value unique to conscious experience. The same is true of a photograph of the Crab Nebula, which latter is entirely independent of the natural values native to the earth, but which, like the natural values of the earth, is taken up by conscious and made into a conscious form of value. The scope of the world and its values is mirrored in values unique to consciousness, and ultimately extended by consciousness. We may look forward to further forms of value, some of them predictable upon the basis of what we know to be the case, and some utterly unpredictable that will emerge in the course of time, categorically unique forms of value as different from the values of consciousness as the values of consciousness are different from the values of unconscious nature.

The many forms and instances of value in the world constitute a dizzying spectacle, and it is difficult to approach a matter as complex, as subtle, and as diverse as value in a programmatic way, in order to take a rational measure. However, we can simplify and focus on the problems of value by treating value in a strictly quantitative way. Such an abstract conception of value, based upon the sheer existence of an instance or a species of value, as opposed to the unique character of either, can provide a formal method for taking a rational and systematic axiological measure of the world. [51]

In a purely quantitative conception of value, axiological prosperity is axiological diversity; to be rich in a greater number of forms of value is a greater good than to have fewer forms of value, just as to be rich in a greater number of individual instances of value is a greater good than to have fewer individual instances of value. The world is a richer place for having both natural and conscious values. The destruction or elimination of natural value or conscious value makes the world a poorer place. The loss of a species, or the loss of a language, is an instance of axiological impoverishment. [52] On the other hand, the emergence of a new species, or the formulation of a new language, constitutes an instance of axiological enrichment.

A quantitative treatment of value is dissatisfying in so far as we are accustomed to think of value in qualitative forms. But we are not here engaging in the quantitative analysis of value at the expense of a qualitative analysis of value. Distinguishing unique forms of value is a qualitative distinction, as is delineating the emergence and transformation of forms of value and axiological transitivity. The quantitative analysis of value is an additional tool of understanding appropriate to certain levels of abstraction in thought. It is not an exhaustive treatment of value, as it excludes more than it includes, but it does not follow that the quantitative analysis of value is itself without value because of what it excludes, any more than arithmetic is without value because it is silent regarding the taste of the apples it may count. Abstract and concrete thought are complementary; each provides insights the other is likely to overlook.

The reduction of value to price and price only in economic thought is an example of abstract thinking. It is a fruitful abstraction, offering many insights into economic forces and fostering the formulation of general laws about money and prices, and how these interact with the economy on the whole. Many of these general laws would be nearly impossible to distinguish in a less abstract context in which value is more than mere price. But in thinking about value exclusively in terms of price one does not thereby deny that there are other forms of value. Similarly, in thinking of value abstractly in quantitative terms one does not thereby deny the validity or legitimacy of the qualitative analysis of value, but one merely sets this aside temporarily.

Furthermore, there is no reason we should avoid thinking of value in quantitative terms, and in certain contexts a quantitative analysis can offer fresh insights and clarify our conception of value and its place in the world. This is especially true in the consideration of geological or even cosmological time scales. The time of the clock and the calendar govern human life, but our understanding of the world at large, our conception of the cosmos, must take place in a time scale that is orders of magnitude beyond that of the clock and the calendar. The history of the universe staggers the mind, and to maintain our focus we must seek novel methods of analysis appropriate to so vast an undertaking. Regarding such matters intuition and instinct are often silent, and there is no humanly perceptible quality to grasp. In such cases, we quantify.

6. Axiology after extraterrestrialization

The quantitative fate of value under the scenario of extraterrestialization may be compared to the fate of value under the scenario in which extraterrestrialization does not come to pass. This comparison demonstrates a profound difference for the axiological wealth of the world between the two scenarios. It may be the case that conscious values are unique to the human embodiment of consciousness, and these additional forms of value (beyond natural values) make the cosmos, as a whole, a quantitatively richer place. Thus if it is a moral good to promote axiological wealth, we then have a moral obligation to maintain and to extend conscious forms of value as part of the absolute quantitative measure of axiological wealth. By extending human civilization throughout the cosmos we extend the values contingent upon human civilization to the same extent, and render their indefinite continuation more likely (since extension in time is another form of quantitative increase).

In the event of the realization of the extraterrestrialization of human civilization, we may learn that consciousness is not unique to human beings by way of encountering alien forms of consciousness, or we may learn that consciousness is unique by failing to encounter alien forms of consciousness, or we may discover problematic cases that we cannot definitively determine to be consciousness or not to be consciousness. The possibility of alien minds being so profoundly alien that we cannot recognize them as minds makes the third possibility outlined an important one.

If we do encounter other forms of consciousness — which could include the consciousness of alien organic species or eventually the consciousness of machines of our own making — we should expect to find not the same exact values, but rather a family resemblance across values that overlap and intersect. [53]

In his The Descent of Man, Darwin formulated what he called the “Fundamental Proposition,” presumably of moral experience:

“The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable — namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.” [54]

This is indeed a fundamental proposition of a naturalistic understanding of the moral life, and in so far as we understand any other forms of life in the universe naturalistically, they will be subject to the same fundamental proposition, and they will as a consequence have evolved a moral life. This alien moral experience, as noted above, is likely to different from human moral experience.

Beyond the familiar invocation of Wittgenstein’s family resemblances of values that “overlap and intersect,” there lies another possibility that Wittgenstein did not mention: conflict. Human moral experience coming into contact with non-human moral experience, however shocking, would again enlarge our moral experience, and the enlargement of human moral experience inevitably means the enlargement of moral conflict.

If it turns out that human consciousness and the values that depend upon it are significantly distinct from alien consciousness and the values that in turn depend upon it, that is to say, if both human and alien forms of consciousness are sufficiently unique as to constitute distinct forms of consciousness, then both contribute quantitatively to the absolute value of the universe. This holds true also if other forms of consciousness, and other forms of value contingent upon these forms of consciousness, exist in parallel with us on the earth, unrecognized by us as consciousness, as may be the case, for example, with the minds of dolphins, whales, and other species.

If human and alien consciousness are more or less identical, and give rise to similar values unique to consciousness, then nothing has been lost to the universe in the attempt to preserve for cosmological posterity the values contingent upon consciousness—values equally realized in both human and alien consciousness. Furthermore, it could be argued that the preservation of the uniquely human form of consciousness and conscious value realization, however subtle the difference may be from essentially similar yet alien consciousness, still contributes to the overall value of the world.

In the event of conflict between human and alien values, the imperfectly aligned values of multiple forms of consciousness represent a world richer in value than an uncontested single set of values, and the confrontation of these imperfectly aligned values, even if violent, creates further values that can only arise in a contested axiological milieu.

If human beings were to spread themselves through the furthest reaches of the universe and find no other embodiment of consciousness — if, that is to say, we were to demonstrate that consciousness in any form is unique, and human consciousness is the only form of consciousness in the universe—then the attempt to preserve the values contingent upon human consciousness for cosmological posterity would be rewarded by that attempt: the dissemination of human consciousness in the universe would contribute to the likelihood of the long term security of the absolute quantity of value in the universe. The localized risk to these forms of value entailed by human confinement to the surface of the earth will have been eliminated. And, what is more, the human diaspora throughout the cosmos would have greatly expanded opportunities for the realization of further forms of value, not yet imagined to date in the infancy of human civilization.

If life on earth is not unique, then human expansion into space will ultimately issue in an extraterrestrial equivalent of the “Wallace line” that runs through the Indonesian islands and roughly demarcates the species that expanded into the archipelago from continental Asia from the species that expanded into the archipelago from Australia. However, this extraterrestrial Wallace line with run through the Milky Way, or through the local cluster of galaxies.

Furthermore, the only way to ascertain whether or not consciousness and the values contingent upon consciousness are unique (not to mention the uniqueness of life itself) is to engage in the systematic exploration of the cosmos. That is to say, we can only demonstrate our own uniqueness or non-uniqueness by an exhaustive survey of the universe. Exhaustive knowledge can only come from exhaustive investigation, and in the process of investigation the extraterrestrialization of humanity will be an accomplished fact.

Such a world as would be the case in the event of human extraterrestrialization is not without evil and not without conflict, but in the absolute axiological sense it is a world that is more valuable than a world in which humanity never passed the threshold of extraterrestrialization because an extraterrestrialized civilization comprises a numerically greater number of values, and these values can be indefinitely propagated into the future, increasing the total quantity of value in the world.

This world does not embody an ethical ideal and it is in no sense a utopia — homo homini lupus: man will ever be a wolf to man. The relevant question is not whether extraterrestrialization is an ideal, or how closely it approximates an ideal, but whether it is preferable to any and all alternatives. In respect to human spaceflight, the alternatives are between a world that is finite in respect to the specifically human forms of value, and eventually finite for non-human forms of value unique to the earth as well, and a world that is indefinite and potentially infinite in relation to these values. In the potentially infinite axiology of extraterrestrialization, values can be projected in space and time without any intrinsic limitation on their propagation.

In so far as the alternative to extraterrestrialization is eventual extinction, not only of human life and civilization but also of all life on earth, and therefore the extinction of all values that supervene upon civilization and life on earth, therefore the axiological impoverishment of the total quantity of value in the universe, extraterrestrialization represents the axiologically richer state of affairs. Someone might well say that they would prefer nothing at all over the world of today or any scenario for the world in the future, but this nothingness cannot be called a more valuable world, because nothingness is a world without any value whatsoever; nothingness is absolute axiological impoverishment.

7. Copernican civilization

There is no arrogance in supposing that what we possess — human consciousness and the values contingent upon human consciousness — may be of value to the universe at large, and, indeed, are rightfully a possession of the universe. Civilization is essentially a global conception; even where it does not embrace all peoples, it is understood, among the enlightened, to belong to all peoples. And, taking a perspective beyond the Ptolemaic conception of global civilization, human civilization conceived in term of Copernicanism (that is to say, extraterrestrial civilization) belongs to the universe at large. The only way to redeem this promise of Copernican civilization — that is to say, a civilization not centered upon a planet — is through extraterrestrialization.

The social changes brought about by the process of extraterrestrialization would be profound, and would issue in profound changes in the daily way of life for most human beings. In fact, social changes of this demographic magnitude have happened only twice previously in human history:

Firstly, the Neolithic Agricultural revolution marked the transition from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies that emerged simultaneously with the emergence of human beings as a species to settled agricultural civilization in which the bulk of humanity was engaged in agricultural production. Prior to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, the fact of human life was unsettled and nomadic. After the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, the fact of human life was that of agricultural production centered on settled societies.

Secondly, the Industrial Revolution marked the transition from settled agricultural societies in which the vast majority of human beings worked the land to settled industrial societies in which the vast majority of human beings are employed in wage labor in an industrial or commercial setting.

The Extraterrestrial Revolution, should contemporary industrial civilization be transformed by extraterrestrialization, would mean the emergence of an entirely new and unprecedented form of civilization. Human societies of the nomadic paradigm were unsettled and preceded the emergence of civilization in human history. Human societies of the agricultural paradigm were settled societies focused on agricultural production. Human societies of the Industrial paradigm have also been settled societies, though focused on industrial production.

The wholly new form of civilization made possible by extraterrestrialization is that of unsettled industrial-technological civilization. [55] That is to say, there is the possibility that the bulk of human life would be no longer necessarily tied to a settled urban existence for the convenience of large industrial concerns. As long as there remained cities and industrial centers capable of producing, maintaining, and innovating the high technology production such that would make civilizations of the extraterrestrial paradigm possible, mass settled societies would no longer constitute the only viable way of life. [56]

Under this scenario of civilization, industrial production under the extraterrestrial paradigm becomes parallel to agricultural production under the industrial paradigm: an essential but minority undertaking that is peripheral to the main thrust of human life. When nomadism ceded its place to agricultural civilization, nomadism did not entirely disappear, but became a demographically marginal activity; when agriculturalism ceded its place to industrial civilization, agriculture did not disappear, but became a demographically marginal activity.

If industrialism were to cede its place to extraterrestrial civilization, industrialism would not disappear, but it would eventually become a demographically marginal activity (possibly through increasing automation). In this way, many of the values specific to a particular form of civilization would survive, albeit in a modified and marginal form, so that in an absolute sense the succession of civilizations in macro-history results in the axiological enrichment of the world despite the axiological impoverishment occasioned by specific losses, which cannot be denied.

In the context of extraterrestrialization, the greater part of humanity would be free to adopt a way of life that would be the technological equivalent of what anthropologists sometimes call the Paleolithic Golden Age. This would be a way of life more in consonance with our instinctual drives, and thus less compromised than life in settled industrialized civilization. [57] Some of the discontents of civilization that Freud examined would fall away, and in this way an entire class of evils that has marked settled industrial civilization would become marginal and peripheral to the main current of human life. Furthermore, the extraterrestrial dispersal not only of human beings but of ecosystems capable of supporting ongoing human life would make the extinction of life due to either nuclear war or pollution extremely unlikely.

These quantitative decreases in the number of evils intrinsic to industrialized civilization made possible by extraterrestrialization – the marginalization of the anomie and dehumanization of mass industrialized society and the existential threat posed by war and pollution – already recommend extraterrestrialization as the morally preferable state-of-affairs. Beyond the quantitative decreases in the evils of industrialized civilization, extraterrestrialization facilitates a significant quantity of novel and unprecedented values – both goods and evils – by the unprecedented changes to the human condition that result from a Copernican civilization not centered upon a planet.

8. The natural history of value

Biologists sometimes say that an organism that fails to survive or fails to reproduce is invisible to natural selection. And so, too, on a cosmic scale, humanity will be invisible to that natural selection that takes place on the largest scale in the constitution of the universe if we fail to assure the survival and reproduction of our species and our civilization. Being a spacefaring civilization is the first step toward assuring the durability of civilization and our visibility to natural selection on a cosmological level.

In this way we could call the project of extraterrestrialization a grand strategy for the long term future of civilization; we could also call it a grand strategy for our species, for humanity in the long term, but it is more than this. These moral conceptions are anthropocentric and belong to the Ptolemaic era of civilization. We are in the process of transcending Ptolemaic civilization and establishing a Copernican civilization. In the non-anthropocentric context of Copernican civilization, extraterrestrialization is a grand strategy for life itself. Without extraterrestrialization, all known life will inevitably perish, and with it will disappear all the values that supervene upon it. Thus if “the needs of the natural world are more important than the needs of the economic system” (as Derrick Jensen maintains), then this need obligates us to pursue extraterrestrialization above and before all else.

In virtue of being alive and being conscious, we have an obligation to something larger than ourselves, and that is our obligation to life itself and consciousness itself, of which we are at least the bearers, whether or not we are the sole possessors. Our life and our mind also belong to the universe. Our status as agents gives us a unique ability to act on behalf of life and consciousness, and to “benefit the natural communities” [58] upon which our life is based. Life that has not yet evolved into conscious agency is not in a position to act on behalf of life, but we are in such a position. We are agents in the natural history of value.

We have an objective responsibility to the life and to the consciousness that we call our own, and as an objective responsibility it transcends the responsibility that we have to our life or our mind in so far as it is subjectively ours. Adams in her conception of horrendous evils appeals to the value that moral states-of-affairs possess for us subjectively, in so far as they affect our perception of the moral value of our lives. This is ultimately the weakest sense of moral value, because it is contingent upon the personal.

Just as the personal sense of moral indignation over horrendous evils is ultimately the weakest sense of evil, so too the personal sense of triumph in accomplishment or satisfaction in moral rectitude is weak compared to the larger, impersonal forces that shape life and society. It may ultimately be these larger structural forces that decide the fate of life and civilization, although these blind forces are just as likely to culminate in a failure of nerve resulting in a tempering of human ambition as it is likely to culminate in a bold initiative to assert human ambition beyond its present planetary bounds.

If fortune does favor the bold, and human ambition does not experience a failure of nerve that paralyzes us for greater things, so that we content ourselves instead with a diminished life of, “economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands,” [60] then extraterrestrialization will transform human history regardless of whether it is celebrated or condemned. It is likely that the moral benefits of extraterrestrialization in terms of cultivating a world of greater axiological prosperity and diversity, will come about not as a result of any conscious moral effort, but more or less accidentally, as a byproduct of history.

In order for human beings to establish a permanent and self-sustaining presence away from the biosphere of the earth — whether in the form of colonies in space, on moons or other planets, or on the planets of other stars — it would be necessary to bring enough of the biosphere with us to sustain our lives. In this context, human spaceflight is to be understood as an extraterrestrial dispersal vector for terrestrial species.

Past human exploration and colonization has been a dispersal vector for both invasive species and domesticated species that are parasitic upon civilization as planet-bound civilization has been parasitic upon the biosphere. In the context of an existing ecosystem, this has meant the unwitting introduction of invasive species and the loss of biodiversity. However, as with environmental constraint on industrial development prior to extraterrestrialization, human dispersal vectors prior to extraterrestrialization caused unintended consequences that both constrained local ecosystems and these local ecosystems in turn constrained the freedom of human exploration and colonization. After extraterrestrialization, human dispersal vectors will add to the range of existing life into what is otherwise the sterile absence of any ecosystem while supporting the human presence that makes this dispersal possible.

The expansion of the human presence in the universe means the expansion of earth life in the universe to an equal extent. We are potentially the instrument for this greening of the universe, and we may be exapted by nature in order to do so. Thus, humanity intends only its own survival, and we are in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of our intention. Nor is it always the worse for the nature that it was not part of it. By pursuing our own interest we frequently promote that of nature more effectually than when we really intend to promote it. [61]

It is the role of conscious agents in the natural history of value to be exapted by nature. We are a dispersal vector not only for life, but also for consciousness, civilization, and value.


[1] This question has been translated in many ways. The original French is, “Si le rétablissement des sciences et des arts a contribué à épurer les mœurs?” And, to be more precise about the chronology, the Academy formally posed the question in October 1749, Rousseau submitted his response in March 1750, the Academy awarded the prize to Rousseau in July 1750, and the Discours sur les sciences et les arts was published in January 1751.

[2] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The First and Second Discourses, edited by Roger D. Masters, translated by Roger D. and Judith R. Masters, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964, p. 39.

[3] Robert Southey, Sir Thomas More: or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society, London: John Murray, 1829, Vol. I, Colloquy VII, “The Manufacturing System,” Part II, “Manufacturing System.—National Wealth.” pp. 173-174.

[4] T. Babington Macaulay, Essays, Critical and Miscellaneous, Philadelphia: A Hart, 1853, “Southey’s Colloquies on Society,” pp. 104-105 (originally published in the Edinburgh Review, 1830).

[5] Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, Chapter XIII, “Requisites for Social Progress”

[6] Whitehead, Op. cit.

[7] Bertrand Russell in collaboration with Dora Russell, The Prospects of Industrial Civilization, New York and London: The Century Co., 1923, Chap. XIII, “Economic Organization and Mental Freedom,” pp. 273-274.

[8] Gabriel Marcel, Man Against Mass Society, forward by Donald Mackinnon, translated by G. S. Fraser, South Bend, Indiana: Gateway Editions, 1952, Part One, Chap. IV, “Technical Progress and Sin,” p. 76. Originally published in French in 1951.

[9] Op. cit., p. 82.

[10] Op. cit., p. 83.

[11] Op. cit., p. 84.

[12] F. T. Marinetti, “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism,” 1909.

[13] Karl Jaspers, The Future of Mankind, translated by E. B. Ashton, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1963, p. 4. Originally published in 1958 as Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen.

[14] Bertrand Russell, Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1959, p. 91. Ironically, Russell himself did not bring much fresh thought to the matter, since his solutions for international peace in the post-nuclear era closely resembled his solutions for international peace in the pre-nuclear era. But his imagination was evidently stirred, as evidenced in his fanciful passage: “Our planet cannot persist on its present courses. There may be war, as a result of which all or nearly all will perish. If there is not war, there may be assaults on heavenly bodies, and it may well happen that means will be found to cause them to disintegrate. The moon may split and crumble and melt. Poisonous fragments may fall on Moscow and Washington or on more innocent regions. Hate and destructiveness, having become cosmic, will spread madness beyond its present terrestrial confines.” (p. 20) It is difficult to discover whether or not Russell was here writing with tongue-in-cheek, but it does point to his distaste for the militarization of space that led him to condemn space travel as essentially political.

[15] Tom Hayden, Students for a Democratic Society, The Port Huron Statement: the visionary call of the 1960s revolution, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005, p. 128.

[16] The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009, p. 96.

[17] Op. cit., p. 94.

[18] Theodore Kaczynski, Industrial Society and its Future, 1995, section 1.

[19] Op. cit., section 5.

[20] Derrick Jensen, Endgame, New York et al.: Seven Stories Press, 2006, p. ix. Jensen has prefaced his book with twenty Premises, pp. ix-xii, which serve as the theoretical underpinning of an otherwise mostly conversational and confessional text.

[21] Op. cit., pp. ix-x.

[22] Op. cit., p. x.

[23] Op. cit., p. x.

[24] Susan Neiman in expressing this suggests a kind of ineffability: “The claim that Auschwitz represents a form of evil which is radically new persists despite all difficulties in giving reasons for it.” (Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002, p. 256) Neiman also wrote that Auschwitz, “…resists the conceptual categories we have available” (Op. cit., p. 280), and that, “I seek to understand how our consciousness has and has not been changed by contemporary evil” (Op. cit., pp. 252-253), which latter suggests the subtle account that follows in which distinguishing the kinds of evil plays a central role.

[25] Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1999, p. 26.

[26] Loc. cit.

[27] Marilyn McCord Adams, “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God.” Anthologized in The Problem of Evil, edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 221.

[28] Charles Darwin, Letter to Asa Gray (22 May 1860).

[29] Claudia Card, The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil, Oxford et al.: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 9.

[30] Op. cit., p. 3.

[31] Edith Wyschogrod, Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985.

[32] The “Death World” is introduced in conscious contradistinction to the late Husserlian conception of the “Lifeworld” (Lebenswelt). Cf. Chapter 1, Kingdoms of Death. Also cf. my post Existential Risk and the Death Event.

[33] Op. cit., p. 25.

[34] Op. cit., p. 25.

[35] Op. cit., p. 28.

[36] Op. cit., p. 25.

[37] Op. cit., p. 28.

[38] Cf. section 1 above, especially note 13.

[39] Op. cit., p. 15.

[40] Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002, Chapter Four: Homeless, “Mass Murders: Why Auschwitz,” p. 255. Neiman’s discussion of contemporary evils is fascinating, and far from being a reductivist account attributing evil to technology, she makes careful distinctions among kinds of evil and even asserts, “Evils should not be compared, but they should be distinguished.” (Op. cit., p. 286)

[41] N. S. Kardashev, “Transmission of information by extraterrestrial civilizations,” Soviet Astronomy, Vol. 8, No. 2, Sept.-Oct. 1964. I have since written in much greater detail about Kardashev in What Kardashev Really Said.

[42] Robert Zubrin organizes his book Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization according to the Kardashev scale (with sections of the book divided into Type I, Type II, and Type III), drawing attention to the interrelationship between a metric of technological achievement based on energy and a metric of technological achievement based on space flight.

[43] The obvious alternative to a quantitative measure would be a qualitative measure, though how any metric could be fixed on a qualitative measure is difficult to say. Many people have pointed out that the greatest poets aren’t always the greatest builders, with the implied contrary that the monuments we see now of past civilizations that were great builders represent building only, and that there may have been civilizations of great poetic monuments who left no similarly impressive remains. We certainly couldn’t measure the achievement of a poetic civilization in terms of the quantity of poetry produced, since production may be in inverse proportion to quality.

[44] A planet-bound civilization is exposed to a disproportionate degree of what Nick Bostrom calls “existential risk.” The terminology for this that emerged at the 100YSS symposium was “single point failure.”

[45] The earliest use of “technosphere” and “sociosphere” of which I am aware is in J. H. Milsum’s paper, “The technosphere, the biosphere, the sociosphere,” in Ekistics, 1969, Vol. 27, No. 160.

[46] Terms such as geosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, and atmosphere will continue to remain valid for a geocentric conception of the earth, but even these terms can be generalized in a mereological context such that the cryosphere of the earth, for example, constitutes only part of a larger whole of cryospace, which also includes, for example, the polar caps of Mars and the ice shell of Europa, inter alia. These extraterrestrial mereological wholes already exist in fact, whereas human supervention upon the earth in the form of the anthrosphere, the sociosphere, the noösphere, and the technosphere will only take the form of anthrospace, sociospace, noöspace, and technospace after extraterrestrialization.

[47] Aristotle, Ethics, translated by J. A. K. Thompson, revised with notes and appendices by Hugh Tredennick, introduction and bibliography by Jonathan Barnes, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984, p. 118.

[48] It is a central theme of Russell’s analysis in The Prospects of Industrial Civilization that machinery can be used for good or evil, and this is, of course, intuitively familiar to all of us as every new scientific discovery and its associated technology comes into use, and we find these uses to be at times beneficial and at times deleterious.

[49] The question as to how exactly uniqueness should be defined is important for a rigorous formulation of the Principle of Mediocrity (which in some senses is equivalent to the Copernican Principle). Rood and Trefil in Are We Alone? begin with this formulation of the Principle of Mediocrity: “There is nothing special about the solar system or the planet earth.” (Robert T. Rood and James S. Trefil, Are We Alone? The Possibility of Extraterrestrial Civilizations, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981, p. 4) In the course of their inquiry they modify their conception of mediocrity to read, “There is nothing unique about humanity as an advanced technological life form.” (Op. cit., p. 204) These two conceptions have distinct meanings.

[50] If intrinsic values of the world independent of consciousness are rejected, the argument that follows is strengthened rather than weakened. Although the theme of the relation of natural and conscious values is developed passim in the argument that follows, value contingent upon consciousness alone raises the stakes for the role of consciousness in the cosmos. However, if natural value is denied and if it is also denied that consciousness is naturalistic, then the argument as formulated here collapses. It is possible that a parallel axiological argument for non-naturalistic value could be formulated, but this will not be done at present.

[51] Often one is surprised by imaginative efforts to treat qualitative topics quantitatively. What initially seems impenetrable to a quantitative analysis may be shown to betray a good many of its secrets given a sufficiently subtle and sophisticated quantitative schema. This is the whole story of the formalization of economic thought. In the present context an attempt is made to bring such formal insights to bear on ethical theory.

[52] We see how far we have come from how Kant attempted to answer his third question—“What may I hope?”—in noting that a precisely contrary point of view to that expressed above is to be found in Kant’s precritical work, Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens, in which Kant maintains, “…we ought not to lament the perishing of a world as a real loss of Nature” and, “What an innumerable multitude of flowers and insects are destroyed by a single cold day! And how little are they missed…,” (Chapter VII) Kant seems to conceive the world as maintained in an axiological steady-state, in which the emergence and disappearance of mere individuals is of little concern. Elsewhere, and later, Kant further elaborates on the devalorization of the world: “…if the world only consisted of lifeless beings, or even consisted partly of living, but yet irrational beings, the existence of such a world would have no worth whatever, because there would exist in it no being with the least conception of what worth is.” (Critique of Judgment, section 87) This is identical in spirit to Spinoza, who wrote, “Excepting man, we know no individual thing in nature in whose mind we can take pleasure, nor anything which we can unite ourselves by friendship or any kind of intercourse” (Ethics, Fourth Part, Appendix, XXVI). Even while they strained to formulate an axiology independent of anthropological prejudices, Kant and Spinoza both arrived at a thoroughgoing anthropocentricism. (Despite their similarity, however, Kant uses Spinoza as a foil for his own views later in the same section of the Critique of Judgment just quoted.) In criticism of Spinoza, Russell wrote, “Spinoza thinks that, if you see your misfortunes as they are in reality, as part of the concatenation of causes stretching from the beginning of time to the end, you will see that they are only misfortunes to you, not to the universe, to which they are merely passing discords heightening an ultimate harmony. I cannot accept this; I think that particular events are what they are, and do not become different by absorption into a whole. Each act of cruelty is eternally a part of the universe; nothing that happens later can make that act good rather than bad, or can confer perfection on the whole of which it is a part.” (A History of Western Philosophy, Book III, Part I, Chapter X) While we will avoid any formulation in terms of eternity and perfection, this perspective is essentially of a piece with that of the present essay. And Russell’s instancing a negative value, viz. cruelty, draws our attention to the fact that our brief exposition here touches only on half of the scope of value, and that a more complete and comprehensive axiology must treat both negative and positive value.

[53] This translation of Wittgenstein’s family resemblances as, “…a complicated net of similarities which overlap and intersect,” is due to Walter Kaufmann (Critique of Religion and Philosophy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978, p. 55). This is a rather more felicitous rendering than the familiar Anscombe translation: “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing,” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, The German Text, with a Revised English Translation, Third Edition, Malden, Oxford, and Victoria: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, section 66, p. 27e).

[54] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871, Chapter 4.

[55] Well, perhaps not entirely a few form of civilization: it could be argued that the Mongols and the peoples of the South Pacific islands enjoyed something like a nomadic civilization. Toynbee called the Vikings an “abortive civilization,” and there is a sense in which this is accurate, though the Vikings come close to the kind of civilization that is both technical and nomadic: they had their settlements — farms in Norway and Iceland, and a ritual center at Uppsala — but what was distinctive about their civilization was seafaring, as spacefaring would be what would be distinctive about an extraterrestrialized civilization.

[56] It is interesting to note that Gabriel Marcel, whose critique of technological thought was treated in section 1, foresaw this development, but gave it an entirely negative valuation: “Can we really say, in fact, that technical man is becoming more and more strongly rooted in the earth? It does not seem so… Following out this line of thought, we should be forced to ask ourselves whether technical progress does not run the risk of having, as one of its consequences, a kind of return to nomadism.” (Marcel, Man Against Mass Society, p. 93) It is to be expected that this attitude will be retained by many even as the processes of extraterrestrialzation unfold (if they do), so that perhaps has many (or more) will view this social change as evil as will view it as good, just as industrialization was seen as evil by some and as good by others.

[57] For the compromises forced upon us by settled industrialized society, the locus classicus is Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents.

[58] Cf. Derrick Jensen’s eighth premise (note 22 above).

[59] This is to be understood as an implicit reference to Gilbert Murray’s “failure of nerve” thesis in his Five Stages of Greek Religion, which the reader is urged to consult.

[60] This was part of Francis Fukuyama’s original formulation of his “End of History” thesis from his essay “The End of History?” published in The National Interest in Summer, 1989.

[61] To paraphrase Adam Smith. The original formulation of the “invisible hand” from The Wealth of Nations is, “…by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”

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4 Responses to “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight”

  1. Дмитрий Новосельцев said

    For attention — some information about SETI problem and Shkadov thruster:

    Click to access Shkadov.pdf

    Original article on the Russian SETI site:

    Basic article about electric solar sails (ESS) on the Space Colonization Journal site:

    Оne possible purpose for search (first stage):

    I hope this information will be useful to you in your research.

    Best regards,
    Dmitry Novoseltsev

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Novoseltsev,

      Thanks for these links. I was not previously aware of these resources.


      Nick Nielsen

  2. […] my essay The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight [1] I sought to construct an explicitly moral argument for human space travel. I would now like to […]

  3. […] any propulsion method) would be revolutionary, kicking off the process of extraterrestrialization, well-described by J.N. Nielson as being as historically important as the agricultural and industrial revolutions before […]

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