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ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR TERRAFORMING MARS: Glenn Reynolds of InstaPundit links to an this article(pdf format) by Robert D. Pinson in the November 2002 Environmental Law Review.

Pinson gives a nutshell history of the concept, and explains why Mars is the perennial favorite target for its application. He then discusses the techniques that have been proposed for terraforming Mars, and how to get to Mars in the first place, with heavy reliance on the ideas of (who else?) Bob Zubrin….the Mars Prize gets a plug here as the better alternative of the three general models for getting us there.

Having set up the problem, he proceeds to tackle the title issue: the ethics of terraforming. “Should we terraform Mars?” First making a distinction between life and nature, Pinson then divides environmental ethics along three fundamental axioms: anti-humanism, wise stewardship, and intrinsic worth.

The anti-humanist view sees humans as just another co-equal part of nature, and the use of technology to change the environment as something to be avoided. The terrestrial environment is too complex for us to understand, therefore we should contemplate rather than alter it, and we shouldn’t go messing around with the equally complex (in its own way) environment of Mars. The counterargument is that by the anti-humanist view there is no nature without life, and terraforming would expand the reach of life to another world.

Wise stewardship is an argument based in utilitarianism, and holds that humans may alter their environment so long as the alterations are “wise” and serve the long term interests of humanity. This view is the most common one in discussions of terraforming, seeing terraforming of Mars specifically as the “restoration” of a vanished environment, and an opportunity to improve the place for aesthetic and educational benefits (such as learning how ecosystems work).

Intrinsic worth views existents as having value just as they are, and encompasses both animate and inanimate objects. A distinction may or may not be made between the value of one versus the other — all life and non-life may be co-equal, just as human and non-human life is of equal value. If life is of greater value than non-life, the intrinsic worth axiom would be no impediment to terraforming a Mars which never possessed life, but would complicate matters if struggling terrestrial-related life were to be discovered, and would pose serious conflicts if a wholly-indigenous Martian life were to be found. If life and non-life have co-equal value, the presence or lack of any sort of life on Mars would be irrelevant as Mars would have value just as it is, barren and undeveloped (some may recognize this as a close philosophical cousin of the “Red” position from the Mars Trilogy).

He then divides ethical responses into three categories, which are subdivisions of a “geocentric” view: anthropocentrism, zoocentrism, and ecocentrism.

Anthropocentrism sees intrinsic value as the product of the ability to think rationally and act morally, an ability which humans alone are known to possess. This leads to a wise stewardship ethics, in which amoral nature is managed for the long-term benefit of mankind, and under which terraforming of Mars, such that it would enhance human existence more than leaving the planet as-is, would be a moral act.

Zoocentrism expands the definition of valued life to include all animals, which are deemed sentient and therefore in possession of rights which must be considered in actions regarding environmental alteration. If the terraforming of Mars enhances the prospects for conscious life overall, it would be a moral act. Since life on Mars is unlikely to be sufficiently sophisticated to be considered sentient, there appears to be little in zoocentrism to oppose terraforming so long as the rights of any animals used to assist the process are not violated.

Ecocentrism is the all-inclusive case, which holds that all forms of life are of equal value and must be preserved. If Mars possesses no life of its own, ecocentrism would not regard terraforming as inherently immoral. If Mars life exists — in whatever form — then it is intrinsically valuable and its interests reign there; thus any meddling with it or the conditions under which it exists for human benefit would be considered immoral. Things would never get that far in any case, as the morality of ecocentrism would demand that we here on Earth eschew the very technologies that would enable us to reach Mars, rendering the ethics of terraforming moot.

In addition to these familiar “geocentric” envionmental ethics responses, Pinson discusses three alternative approaches: cosmic preservationism, restorationism, and inventionism.

Cosmic preservationism is the ultimate in intrinsic value ethics, holding that all the universe has the right to exist just as it is, without interference of any kind by humans, whose only moral course is to stay home and observe the universe from there as best they can. A subset of this is the “Explorer Ethics”, which would set aside as inviolate certain loosely-defined places of value, the definitions so loose as to effectively apply to everything and forbid human intrusion most anywhere…and to certainly forbid the terraforming of an entire planet.

Restorationism mixes the ethics of preservationism and wise stewardship, regarding it as moral to “restore” life through terraforming to a world where it is believed to have once existed. The preservationist coloration to this view makes restoration a moral imperative, in fact, as all life must be valued and protected, and restored when necessary.

Inventionism is the ethics most amenable to terraforming. It sees the expansion of knowledge through scientific discovery and application as a moral activity, while recognizing (like wise stewardship) the importance to humans of a healthy and stable natural environment. Technological development is moral so long as it does not disrupt nature, so terraforming would be moral in the absence of indigenous Mars life. Should indigenous life be discovered, however, terraforming would still be moral if the indigenous life could be incorporated into the plan or assisted in some way by transplated terrestrial life.

He then tackles the big question: Why? The Why boils down to two general answers: because we can, and because life is precious. In the former case, Pinson makes the familiar “New Frontier” argument familiar to MS’ers — we should do it because it is a great challenge which will serve to stretch our horizons as well as our abilities, in much the same way that America served as an experimental laboratory for European civilization and culture and knowledge from colonial times onward. The latter case is a variant on the “asteroid insurance” argument, in which terraforming of Mars would preserve what (for all we know) may be the only life in the universe from the sort of cosmic catastrophes we know have happened in the past.

In the end, Pinson concludes with the opinion that we must, in fact, terraform Mars, taking the anthropocentric view that it is the moral course to place human interests ahead of the “interests” of rocks and maybe some struggling bacteria, as human interests will ultimately lead to a greater diffusion and diversity of life throughout the solar system, and eventually the universe. Terrestrial life forms should be introduced to Mars and allowed to adapt or perish as they will, coexisting with, integrating with, or extinguishing whatever life may be there.

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