“ETHICISTS GENERALLY HAVE LITTLE TO OFFER, AND THAT INCLUDES ASTROPHYSICISTS ACTING AS ETHICISTS”
—Conservative blogger and pundit Professor Glenn Reynolds, reacting to the “Ars Technica” post, “Are we ethically ready to set up shop in space?”
I agree with Reynolds completely, and the article that prompted his dismissal of my field (except in rare cases, hence “generally”) deserved it.
It begins (the author is Diana Gittig, who “received her B.A. in Biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania, and then a Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Genetics from Cornell,”and “is a freelance science writer and editor in New York’):
Off-Earth will amaze you: On nearly every page, it will have your jaw dropping in response to mind-blowing revelations and your head nodding vigorously in sudden recognition of some of your own half-realized thoughts (assuming you think about things like settling space). It will also have your head shaking sadly in resignation at the many immense challenges author Erika Nesvold describes. But the amazement will win out. Off-Earth: Ethical Questions and Quandaries for Living in Outer Space is really, really good…
The chapter headings, all of them questions, give a great indication of the issues she highlights in the book. Should we even settle space? Why? Who gets to go? How will property rights be distributed and finite resources be allocated? Do we need to protect the environment in space? How will we do that? What happens when someone breaks the rules or needs medical care? What if that person is the only one who can fix the water purifier? Underlying all of these questions, as yet unaddressed by any public or private institution currently shooting rockets into the air: who gets to decide?
Many of these issues have been dealt with, extensively, in fiction. But Nesvolt doesn’t really mention these works except to caution against the risk of taking them as prophecy.
Had it not triggered my bullshit alarm so thoroughly, I might have stopped reading there. Wait: this brilliant author supposedly explores the ethical hypotheticals that have been exhaustively examined by over a century of science fiction writers in literature, movies and TV without mentioning them? That’s unethical! It’s incompetent, irresponsible, unfair and disrespectful: the book is discredited as a trustworthy source of ethics analysis at the outset.
It is the final paragraph of the brilliant reviewer of the allegedly brilliant astrophyicist-ethicist’s revelations, however, that conclusively proves Reynold’s assessment is spot on. Ready?
Nesvolt …notes that if we don’t want to bring war, inequality, exploitation, resource depletion, and injustice with us when we eventually settle in space, all we have to do is eliminate those things on Earth first. And we must do it now, not once all the technical challenges have been solved and we’re ready to leave the planet. If we want a civilization worth exporting into space, we must create it here.
Oh. So I can save myself the price of the book and the time wasted reading it by just gritting my teeth and listening to John Lennon navel-gaze. Hit it, Jojo!
Ethics that are unmoored to reality and human nature aren’t ethical. They are delusions; cheats, false goals and wasteful aspirations based on wilful ignorance; they are virtue signaling, preening, grandstanding mirages. We must always do what we can to minimize the negative effects of war, inequality, exploitation, resource depletion, and injustice, but they are all inextricable features of life among human beings. If “we” must iradicate all of that before we venture into space, then we won’t venture into space, which I strongly suspect we won’t anyway, because we won’t solve “all the technical challenges” and be “ready to leave the planet.” If we ever do, however, “we”—if not the United States, some other less ethically oriented culture, like, say, China’s, will bring—will bring war, inequality, exploitation, resource depletion, and injustice along with us.
The exhorration that we “must” create Lennon’s naive utopia on Earth “now” reveals that this “amazing” book is one more chunk of progressive propaganda emanating from “The Great Stupid.”
The great problem with my field is that so many in it are charlatans. What most have to offer are abstract ideals being sold as achievable goals for the benefit of liars, con-artists and fools.
7 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Week: Blogger-Law Prof. Glenn Reynolds, The “Instapundit””
We’ll colonize space when we have both the means and and a strong enough need, just like every other other colonization.
Regarding the expectation of achieving world peace first, I expect the idea comes from Star Trek and its lofty pseudo-communist ideas. That’s why I tend to prefer Star Wars, where the baser parts of “human” nature are better acknowledged. Of course even in Star Wars most planets have one government, with the idea of nations and empires being being stretched out to interstellar levels. I expect that if we were to ever encounter intelligent life on other worlds (especially if they came to us first), it may motivate us to at least put our own conflicts on the backburner, just to present a united front to them. Or you’d have different nations competing with each other to get on their good side or plunder them first, like the Europeans were with the Native Americans.
Mein Gott in Himmel. If it weren’t for buzz words, these people would have no words at all. “War, inequality, exploitation, resource depletion, injustice!” Ding ding ding ding ding! “Do I win the prize? Do I?”
I think there might be a misunderstanding about the book that is being reviewed versus the review itself; I interpret the reviewer’s comments differently. It doesn’t seem unethical to me for a the book’s author to write, “Here is a question about how we will run things in space. You’ve seen many works of fiction provide their own answers, but do not assume any of those will be what we do. Let’s look at the situation from first principles.”
Likewise, it seems reasonable to point out that the constructive principles of investment, preparation, transcension, and ethics apply no matter what planet you’re on. I had originally assumed that this was the last line of the book, in which case it would be trite, but it sounds like it’s just the last line of the review of the book, which means that we only know the review is trite (pending more information about the book). I would hope the book goes into some detail on ideas for implementing these principles.
Fair point; I concur. But the point of reviews is to determine whether the book itself is worth the time it takes to read it. Unless the review is complete fiction, I have to assume that such an enthusiastic endorsement of the book’s author’s views was based on the books actual content. I think it is reasonable to assume that if the review says, “Nesvolt….notes that if we don’t want to bring war, inequality, exploitation, resource depletion, and injustice with us when we eventually settle in space, all we have to do is eliminate those things on Earth first,” then Nesvolt notes that if we don’t want to bring war, inequality, exploitation, resource depletion, and injustice with us when we eventually settle in space, all we have to do is eliminate those things on Earth first. If that’s really what the author thinks, it’s plenty for me. She’s an idiot posing as an ethicist.
But by all means, EC, read the book yourself and give us a fresh, objective analysis, though I warn you that its likely to be a futile gesture. I wish I had time, but there’s a blog to write and a sock drawer to order.
More, EC: Look at those questions (I think its fair to assume the reviewer isn’t making those up):
Should we even settle space? It’s not going to be settled as an ethical question, but a practical one with business and political implications.
Why? If it promises realistic benefits, that’s why.
Who gets to go? Whoever can afford it, unless they have value to someone else who can afford it.
How will property rights be distributed and finite resources be allocated? The way it always is: treaties, laws, who gets there first, who is more powerful, wars.
Do we need to protect the environment in space? What does “need” mean?
How will we do that? We’ll figure it out as we go along, as usual. How else?
What happens when someone breaks the rules or needs medical care? One is a matter of law and the other is a matter of logistics.
What if that person is the only one who can fix the water purifier? This is not a dilemma unique to space.
Who gets to decide? The Golden Rule: those with the gold make the rules.
This is only hard if someone is willfully obtuse or living in Oz
I do agree that if the book had anything useful to say to answer those questions or help us resolve them on earth, I would rather expect the book reviews to mention it in some way. That said, the review is not enough evidence for me to criticize the book itself. The reviewer could have skipped reading the key points or they could just be bad at identifying them. After checking out a couple other reviews, I’ll mentally file the book under “potential food for thought”.
There is a book I can definitely recommend, though: What’s Our Problem by Tim Urban (author of the blog Wait But Why). Here’s one way to access it: https://www.amazon.com/Whats-Our-Problem-Self-Help-Societies-ebook/dp/B0BTJCTR58. (The most recent post on Wait But Why links to other avenues to purchase the book. I’ll hold off on linking it because posts with more than one link get spammed.)
I’m still reading What’s Our Problem, and I find it an excellent deconstruction of how groupthink persists in societies and how the problems with the intellectual status quo developed. If you’d like to read a thorough synopsis of toxic social movements and how they accumulated the influence they currently have, definitely check it out.
Once I finish reading the book I’ll reach out to Tim to offer assistance with dissolving toxic ideologies.
“O Brave New World, to have such people in it!” Quoting both the Bard and Huxley, tho Huxley is the better choice if you want irony…