Who Gets Left Behind If We Must Abandon Earth for Space?

Who Gets Left Behind If We Must Abandon Earth for Space? February 1, 2016
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Who gets left behind if we must abandon earth as a species for space? Now some might consider the answer to the question to be a secularized version of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind series drama: instead of answering in the affirmative to “Do you believe in Jesus?” be able to answer in the negative to “Do you have bad genes?” More on that later. For now, let it be said that “Who gets left behind if we must abandon earth as a species for space?” is by no means an abstract one, if we account for acclaimed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking’s haunting warning in 2010: “abandon earth—or face extinction.” Exponential population growth and the accompanying decrease of natural resources necessary for our survival without sufficient sustainable alternatives risks such as nuclear disasters, and global climate change are all factors that make the move inevitable in his estimation. See the article at Big Think; one can also find more here.

It may sound like science fiction to some, and indeed, science fiction has engaged the subject. In the 2014 movie Interstellar, a lead scientist sends astronauts into space in the effort to save humanity. He hopes that they can colonize one of three planets and repopulate the species with frozen embryos stored on their spacecraft (See “Synopsis for Interstellar).

If not everyone could go, who (or what embryos) would be abandoned? Those without money? After all, it is quite likely that the rich will get their tickets no matter the price—at great cost to our humanity in a universe where only market value has value. What about those with disabilities or ‘bad genes’? Recall the movie Gattaca? ‘Bad’ genes become the basis for discrimination against space travel, not religion, race, or gender (Refer here for the plot summary for Gattaca).

Before one decides for or against those with disabilities (Hitler went the latter route: see “Hitler authorizes killing of disabled”), one should keep in mind that in space there is a sense in which everyone is disabled given that the environs are radically different; outer space may become the great equalizer. Or just perhaps, some with disabilities are seen to have extraordinary bodies, as certain science fiction tales seek to convey. Moreover, consider that those who have had to cope and adapt to function and succeed in our society may have an advantage over the rest of us emotionally and mentally to be able to adjust to still different environmental conditions in outer space. Moreover, sometimes environments and not just bodies determine disability. As the article “Disability in Science Fiction” conveys,

As a tool for political change, the social model of disability insists that rather than being something inherent to the individual, disability is created by barriers in society which disable a person.  The disability is created by barriers in the environment – which can include attitudinal barriers as well as architectural ones.  What I’d like to suggest is that the alternative environments presented in some science fiction offer opportunities to depict the social model in action – that these texts offer, in some sense, a literalization of the social model.  By demonstrating that a person’s, or community’s, status can change from impaired to non-impaired, and vice-versa, depending on the environment they are placed into, these texts show clearly that disability is not only a matter of individual bodies, but about the relationship of bodies to particular environments.

Beyond all these considerations, we must account for compassion and altruism. Do we want compassion and altruism to play a part in the world beyond—that is, in outer space? Whether or not we ever have to make the determination in outer space, we do need to make that determination here, as it relates to genetic adaptations and the like. Considerations of the great beyond involving astrophysics and astrobiology assist us in accounting for how we should live here below. If such qualities as compassion are bound up with evolutionary adaptations to protect weak and suffering members of our communities, would we wish to hamper or limit compassion’s development by removing the weak and suffering individuals from our midst? See “Compassion: An Evolutionary Analysis and Empirical Review” for more on the subject of compassion and evolution, and for more on the claim “that compassion evolved as a distinct affective experience whose primary function is to facilitate cooperation and protection of the weak and those who suffer….” Do compassion and altruism grow with use, as Aristotle would maintain?[1] If so, the move to exclude or remove the disabled from habitats in space would alter the life-scape and disable us emotionally and ethically.  We are actually crippling ourselves when we do not include them.

It’s also worth noting that if it is true as a Scientific American article argues that the wealthy appear to be less prone to compassion. See “How Wealth Reduces Compassion: As Riches Grow, Empathy for Others Seems to Decline.” After noting the research methods and findings of Berkley psychologists Paul Piff, Dacher Keltner and their colleagues, the article concludes with the following:

But why would wealth and status decrease our feelings of compassion for others? After all, it seems more likely that having few resources would lead to selfishness…the answer may have something to do with how wealth and abundance give us a sense of freedom and independence from others. The less we have to rely on others, the less we may care about their feelings. This leads us towards being more self-focused. Another reason has to do with our attitudes towards greed. Like Gordon Gekko, upper-class people may be more likely to endorse the idea that “greed is good.” … wealthier people are more likely to agree with statements that greed is justified, beneficial, and morally defensible. These attitudes ended up predicting participants’ likelihood of engaging in unethical behavior.

Given the growing income inequality in the United States, the relationship between wealth and compassion has important implications. Those who hold most of the power in this country, political and otherwise, tend to come from privileged backgrounds. If social class influences how much we care about others, then the most powerful among us may be the least likely to make decisions that help the needy and the poor. They may also be the most likely to engage in unethical behavior. Keltner and Piff recently speculated in the New York Times about how their research helps explain why Goldman Sachs and other high-powered financial corporations are breeding grounds for greedy behavior. Although greed is a universal human emotion, it may have the strongest pull over those of who already have the most.

In the event that not everyone could depart Earth, but only a remnant could abandon the planet, would it be important to hold a drawing and make sure the rich don’t cheat and bribe? Or would it be better to select people from various classes, educational backgrounds and genders, ethnicities, religions, and genetic makeup, including the disabled? The study above suggested that the rich and powerful and even the best educated (at times?) are less likely than those on the opposite end to be compassionate. If so, perhaps it would be better to stay behind on Earth rather than try and survive on a planet of Gordon Gekko’s, Donald Trumps, as well as those whose I.Q.’s rival financial moguls’ market prowess.

It is worth considering at this juncture that if the rich and brilliant were left to themselves on a planet in outer space, they would compete with one another, no doubt with some winning and others losing, just as in our free market and democratic society. Those who lose out might lose out even more in that there likely would not be a safety net to catch them when they fall. Many of them have not been trained in the virtue of compassion, if the research noted earlier holds true. Thus, it would take quite a long period of time for such virtues to permeate the habits and habitats of those who lose out in this exceptionally competitive domain through compassionate action among the losers. By the time they are prepared to catch the fallen, those who have tumbled out of positions of power and influence may have already come crashing down. Given the amount of time it would take for such virtues to be embodied, it might prove too little too late in a natural environment already ill-suited to their survival.[2]

In light of the preceding reflection, let’s return once again to the advantages of having disabilities or being at a disadvantage socially. The preceding point on what might occur when rugged individualists of economic and educational prowess are left to fend off one another may prove advantageous to choosing their less well-off and less able though more altruistic fellows to make the long journey into space either with them or apart from them. The last advantage for those with bad genes or disabilities and less money may be altruism and compassion themselves. They may win out over the selfish in the evolutionary end anyway, if as Peter Singer claims, there may be “an evolutionary advantage in being genuinely altruistic.”[3] If cognizant, people will choose altruistic partners, and likely have a better chance of survival if they and their partners are altruistic. So just perhaps, the first—the rich and brilliant—will be last, and the last—the less well-off and less-naturally endowed—will be first in outer space, just like the religious alternative, namely, the kingdom of God. Don’t get left behind.

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[1]Aristotle maintained that “…by doing just things we become just; moderate things, moderate; and courageous things, courageous.” The same principle would hold true for compassion and altruism. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated, with an interpretative essay, notes, and glossary by Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), Book 2,  Chapter 1, page 27, line 1103b; see also page 26, line 1103a.

[2]Virtue (arete) entails such things as right intent (not simply right action). It is more than a habit. It is a disposition that goes all the way down to the core of one’s being. It is also more than an emotional state, for it entails practical wisdom (phronesis), which signifies that it takes a long time to cultivate and cannot be done by ‘children’, who may possess emotions of compassion but who do not act virtuously, which entails practical wisdom cultivated over a lengthy period as in the case of morally mature adults. Morally good people who are compassionate will not operate immorally. Such moral virtue constitutes eudaimonia, an ideal moral state of happiness or human flourishing. As such, it is not wanton pleasure, or merely a subjective state of happiness: “…virtue ethicists claim that a human life devoted to physical pleasure or the acquisition of wealth is not eudaimon, but a wasted life,…” See the discussion of “Virtue Ethics” at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/. It is important to note that just because poorer and sometimes (?) less-educated people express a greater sense of compassion than the rich and brilliant it does not necessarily follow that such compassion is shaped by wisdom and virtue. While we may find acts of compassion virtuous, true virtue such as compassion really arises from the ethical agent’s personal moral being and disposition cultivated over many years; thus, it is important that those given to more compassionate expression and solidarity with the weak based on life circumstances and other factors train themselves in practical wisdom in the pursuit of true happiness or human flourishing. With the latter point in mind, it is worth noting that in my overarching discussion of compassion and altruism, some of what I have written in this piece accounts for utilitarian or consequentialist ethics—namely, limiting new planet habitation to the rich and well-educated may not lead to the best end; from this vantage point, making space for the more compassionate yet less well-off financially and less educationally trained may prove beneficial to societal well-being.  One more factor to account for when addressing Aristotle’s virtue ethics, is that Aristotle’s community where altruism is on display was an elite group of educated males. Ultimately Aristotle cannot lead us where we need to go in this matter.  From a Christian vantage point the holy, unconditional love of God poured out in the Spirit is the necessary condition for the possibility of loving our neighbor, even that individual who appears ugly, weak, and even hostile.  As Martin Luther said, “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.  The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.” (Martin Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989), p.48.  Please see my piece: “Aristotle and Luther: Virtue, Justice, and the Reformation of Values.”

[3]Peter Singer, “The Biological Basis of Ethics,” in The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981), pp. 23-53.

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