Ethics and Human Spaceflight

“Defining your moral standards serves as an ethical compass that prevents you from straying off course when the winds of temptation begin howling around your ship of life.”
–Robert J. Ringer


A very interesting class I’m taking this term is Ethics and Moral Development.  Understand that I think of myself as an ethical person.  Yet to be perfectly honest about it, if you were to press me as to why, I’d probably give you a blank stare.  Prior to entering into federal service, I had no formal academic courses or training in ethics.  Everything I learned about ethics was environmental: through family and friends, through my long childhood association with the Boy Scouts, and through my academic background in the sciences.  Now in federal service, I get the annual ethics refresher that all us government employees get, plus the special briefing related to ethics and the procurement process whenever I kick off a new procurement strategy team.  That’s about it for any “ethics training” I’ve received so far.  That is why I’m finding this class so insightful, and why I’m choosing to write about it today.

I’m pleased to say that ethics is a matter taken seriously in the federal workplace and at NASA.  Because huge sums of money are involved in the role in which I serve – on the order of $200 million annually for NASA’s Mission Control-Houston, astronaut training facilities, mission planning systems, and mission operations “plan/train/fly” services – the confidence that the public has in a part of NASA could be at stake should any questions of integrity arise with my work.  I view ethics and moral behavior as a key means of instilling confidence in the American taxpayers that we are faithful stewards of their tax dollars.

As for the class, we’ve explored several topics on ethics so far with more to come.  One of the first is relativism, which has its roots in, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” and “Who can say whose morals are right?”  I consider myself as highly adaptable and tolerant, and quickly identified with the characteristics of relativism as described.  However, that was an intentional trap: relativism is inherently contradictory (although some have attempted to resolve the contradictions – see the Wikipedia article on relativism).  What I learned is that tolerance as a value is not to be confused with relativism as a means, and I think that is an important lesson.

We’ve also explored utilitarianism – which is weighing societal benefits versus societal costs, a form of the value equation about which I’ve written previously, rights and duties – which gets into the political supercharged topic of negative rights versus positive rights, and Kant’s categorical imperative as a basis for why moral rights exist in the first place.  Along the way, we’ve explored case studies in ethics, such as the Arthur Andersen’s dual role at Enron, slavery in the chocolate industry, the Ford Pinto debacle, and Unocal in Burma.  In one sense, it is quite easy to see the ethical problems with the advantage of hindsight in each of these cases – each are rather clear-cut to me.  The challenge I see is different when the situation is at hand – is it necessarily as clear cut when one is “in the middle of it”, or the situation deals with something close to the heart, such as ethics in human spaceflight.

With that, I’m curious to hear from you.  What ethical dilemmas do you see involving human spaceflight?  It could be something that human spaceflight is doing specifically, or the way it is conducting business, or something it is not doing that it should be doing based on ethical standards that you hold.  It could be a question you have or a position you hold, or something you’d like to get off your mind.

Fire away!

Text © 2012 Joe Williams.  All rights reserved
Photo via iStockphoto

Ethics and Human Spaceflight

6 thoughts on “Ethics and Human Spaceflight

  1. billgamesh says:

    I find the possibllity of our species being rendered extinct quite disturbing- especially considering we have the means to prevent many extinction level events. Impace deflection and survival colonies are the two ways to use space to protect and expand human civilization but the powers that be simply ignore the situation. Ethically inexcusable. The DOD spends uncounted billions on shiny toys that mostly sit on the runway or in a silo. Flying around the backside of the sun on an intercept course or being engineered in a modest lab somewhere could be the end of the world- right now. We may be too stupid to survive. You are certainly “in the middle of it” Joe. Will you just ignore it or really address the issue.

    And before you go there, the odds of it happening argument is not ethically appropriate. The fact is that pratically, if not statistically, it is a random event and can happen at any time.

    1. During one of our classes we talked about risk management in conjunction with an ethical principle called “utilitarianism.” Utilitarianism is an attempt to do the greatest amount of good for the most people – kind of a large scale value equation, which oversimplifies it yet is basically on track. In a utilitarianism view, one would weigh the social costs versus the benefits. One can argue quite reasonably that nothing is more important than protecting our species from extinction from an asteroid impact, for instance. Where the conversation goes next in public policy circles is that we have a limited amount of resources – how should those resources be spent to do the greatest amount of good, when all pressing matters are taken into account? Based on what we know today, extinction-level events caused by near Earth asteroids are viewed as such a low probability that other pressing needs call for attention. The question, “Is that right?” is a matter of priorities. The question, “Is that ethical?” is supported by utilitarianism, as I understand it today. I’ve also learned that utilitarianism is not the end-all be-all ethical approach appropriate in all situations. It is the one that dominates public policy decisions today, however.

      Thanks for the comment.

      1. It is not an issue of leadership if my moral reasoning disagrees with your assertion that the United States is acting amorally because it is not doing everything in its power to deflect some unknown future asteroid collision. Ed Lu makes an importance case, not a morality case. Nevertheless, this topic would make for an interesting case study in morality and ethics.

        My earlier comment was to share my moral reasoning, which is this: that utilitarianism is a valid ethical model in many cases, and it so happens that public policy decisions (Government-sponsored near Earth asteroid detection and deflection being an example) are usual ran through a utilitarian calculus, trading the societal benefits versus costs against all possible avenues available. For example, becoming a multi-planet species is another avenue that can be run through the calculus and weighed versus near Earth asteroid deflection, relative to the societal benefit: survival of the species. Therefore, it’s not unethical to not choose a particular avenue if other alternatives provide a greater societal value, from a utilitarian standpoint.

        However, I’m going to discuss this question with my MBA classmates to get their perspectives because there are other ethical models and moral considerations. It ought to make for an interesting conversation.

  2. billgamesh says:

    I would think an MBA is more about filthy lucre than an extinction level event. If the world ends then there will be no profit margin so who cares? That is the “calculus” that has made us an endangered species. It is just russian roulette by another name. We keep counting on that click and ignore the bang we won’t even hear if it happens. Which is the point Ed Lu makes about other civilizations.

    It is not just about impacts Joe; it is about engineered pathogens, chemicals never seen in nature saturating the ecosystem, and even sudden earth changes that could leave us without food for a couple years. If you want to discuss it in class you might want to watch the movie “The Road” first. It is exactly what would happen if there was no food for even a couple years. Plants get diseases also. And a big volcanic eruption could do it also.

    The point is…….we will deserve it if we go extinct. We have the resources and technology right now to prepare for most scenarios. We are just too stupid. And the profit motive is a big part of that. Even though it has given us technology- that will not matter one bit if we get wiped out by a dumb rock or a microbe somebody tweeked in a lab.
    Thanks for your time Joe.

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