Thinking out loud about past, present and future (#3) — Thoughts on (space) travel, ethics and the ‘self’
“The most fruitful and natural exercise for our minds is, in my opinion, conversation.” — Michel de Montaigne, Of The Art Of Conference
As we, Eitan Reich and Mark Storm, are planning for a transformative learning program to help senior managers and executive leaders make sense of the world, we often share our thoughts and ideas, and talk about our own experiences. Our conversations meander in many directions and frequently run into dead-end streets. We like to share them anyway because we believe that ‘thinking out loud’ is not only “the most fruitful and natural exercise for our minds” but also leads to the most beautiful results, in the end…
In this episode, apart from Mark struggling with the word ‘humanitarian,’ they talk about Elon Musk, the need for ethics in business (“should we simply because we can?”) and how we can never escape from ourselves, not even on Mars.
On (space) travel, ethics and self
Elon Musk believes, like many scientists, that life on Mars will be theoretically possible with continuing improvements in technology and the dedication of enough time and resources. But when I read about Musk’s plans to terraform Mars, I always think of the Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman Seneca, who in On Tranquility of Mind reminded his friend Annaeus Serenus that all journeys are unsuccessful attempts to flee from ourselves. Adding, “But what is the good if he cannot get away from himself?” Today, we would, no doubt, call this ‘escapism,’ the habitual diversion of the mind to escape from reality. But apart from this, Musk’s escapism also confronts us with some important ethical and moral questions.
In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron, an American poet and musician who had cultivated a reputation for his socially charged spoken-word performances, debuted a new piece, called Whitey on the Moon. It voiced concerns about the priorities of a country that could send men into space while millions of people lacked medical care, shelter and food:
“A rat done bit my sister Nell
(With Whitey on the Moon)
Her face and arms began to swell
(And Whitey’s on the Moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bill
(But Whitey’s on the Moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be paying still
(While Whitey’s on the Moon)”
With Elon Musk’s plans for terraforming Mars, Scott-Heron’s poem has again become relevant. Even though “there are good reasons to worry about the future of humanity,” as Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel argue in Whitey on Mars.
According to Russell and Vinsel, Musk’s plan to colonise Mars is a sign of an older, recurring social problem. “What happens when the rich and powerful isolate themselves from everyday concerns?,” they ask. Rather than to take care of it, or fix it, and stay, Elon Musk wants to innovate and leave Earth. “Like so many of his peers in the innovating and disrupting classes, Musk prefers to dwell in fantasy and science fiction, safely removed from the world of here and now. Musk is a utopian, in the original Greek meaning: ‘no place.’ Repulsed by the world we all share, he dreams of a place that does not exist,” Russel and Vinsel write.
“Our concerns are moral concerns about the priorities that Musk is articulating and that his followers are echoing,” Russel and Vinsel write. “At this point in human history, the colonisation of Mars is a distraction from the severe problems facing human societies. The moral detachment of the plan signifies a deeper pathology that afflicts our culture of innovation, and celebrates innovators such as Musk, who are all too eager to play with gadgets and leave their fellow humans behind.”
Apart from moral question regarding leaving Earth, there is also the ethical question whether we should reshape Mars. In an essay for Nautilus, entitled The Argument Against Terraforming Mars, Robert Sparrow, a professor of philosophy at Melbourne’s Monash University, argues we have both ethical and aesthetic reasons to leave Mars alone.
Sparrow doesn’t imply that space exploration is necessarily unethical or that we should not try to explore or colonize other worlds. Yet, “each time we venture out into space we should look within — or, perhaps better, at each other — and consider what our involvement in the particular project reveals about us. If we proceed in awareness of the beauty and complexity of the systems we explore, if we are conscious of the limits of our own powers, and are moderate in our ambitions, then these activities may contribute to our flourishing.
But if we proceed recklessly, glorying in our own power, and without concern for the beauty and integrity of the worlds we aim to conquer, our activities are unethical because of what they reveal about our character. Because our character is a function of how we’ve behaved in the past, the way we treat our own planet is relevant to the ethics of our exploration of others. Before we set out to induce a greenhouse effect on Mars, we should do something about the one we have created here on Earth.”
The Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, William A. Anders and James A. Lovell, who captured Earthrise, one of the most iconic photos of the 20th century, all later said the most important thing they discovered was Earth. In this film they tell their story.
A final thought…
In a wider context, all innovation is a form of escapism — a desperate attempt to escape from our ‘past and present.’
So we will add ‘the good,’ ethics, ethical decision-making and the ‘self’ to our toolbox for ‘new ways of thinking and being,’ next to ‘better,’ mastery, playfulness and ‘being wrong’(#2), and curiosity, craftsmanship and beauty (#1).
“One of the oldest ethical traditions, virtue ethics, can teach us something about this very modern topic. Many popular approaches to ethics focus on actions or intentions, while considerations of a person’s character are secondary at best. But virtue ethics, most famously developed by Aristotle, starts with the observation that we are often more confident in our judgements about who is a good person than we are about what the right thing to do is in a particular situation. If we wish to become a good person, then we should strive to be like those people we admire. According to virtue ethics, what makes someone a good person is that they possess various virtues, such as kindness, courage, and wisdom. What makes someone a bad person is that they possess various vices, such as cruelty, cowardliness, and naivety.
Virtues and vices are features of a person’s character and consist in a history, or pattern, of actions and feelings. A single kind act does not make a cruel person kind, nor does a single cruel act render a kind person cruel. According to Aristotle, to lead a distinctively human life — a life of human flourishing — is to develop and exercise the virtues.” — Robert Sparrow in The Argument Against Terraforming Mars