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'Star Wars' terrorism and the ethics of space

If space is the final frontier, it is also an important ethical frontier — a place whose exploration is fraught with serious ethical questions, about mining asteroids, space militarization, and even the possibility of encountering extraterrestrial life forms.

DS-2 Death Star II, “Return of the Jedi.” Credit: LucasFilm, Ltd.

Brian Green is the director of technology ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. His recent book, “Space Ethics,” asks serious questions about the human dilemmas posed by space exploration — and offers insights into what thinking about space can teach about ethics on Earth.

Green talked with The Pillar’s Charlie Camosy about ethics in space, his personal journey, and the 1994 Kevin Smith cult classic, “Clerks.”

Camosy: Your new book, “Space Ethics” doesn't make an explicitly theological argument, but I'm guessing your theological commitments play a role in coming to this set of issues.

Can you say a little bit about this?

I hope this work will help guide humanity towards a better future, which I see as a religious requirement of Christianity.

And, of course, ethical use of space might not only help us survive, but also flourish, as thousands of space “spinoff” technologies have already done. Science and technology are fundamentally endeavors that can help us fulfill God’s purposes for humanity: to love God and neighbor. That is also my hope with this book.

The book is also a toolkit for applied ethics, and there are several “ethical tools” in it from the Catholic toolbox: just war theory, double effect reasoning, and cooperation and noncooperation in evil, and more. These tools have religious origins, but easily transfer to secular contexts.

As you note, nothing in the book is argued theologically. The book is meant to be secular and accessible, though a Catholic reader will notice Catholic themes, such as the importance of secular reasoning for allowing discussion with all people.

Theological commitments motivated me to write the book, but these motivations – for the most part – are not exclusively theological. For example, I think human extinction would be terrible and a lot of atheists, utilitarians, and others agree. And Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have both said that the Church is to “above all protect mankind from self-destruction.”

Space settlement could act as a means to avoid that self-destruction, by spreading humankind more widely, with various settlements acting as reservoirs for civilization, as monasteries did in the Middle Ages. But hopefully things would not get that bad.

In a more basic way, I just hope the book facilitates better decision-making in technology in general.

What are some issues you raise in the book which have important theological implications?

What were once “the Heavens” have become “space.” I think this transition is worth pondering.

One major issue is metaphysics: the study of being, purpose, and all the first principles that everything else is built upon. These issues become surprisingly important when it comes to space exploration, use, and settlement.

After all, why are we here in the universe? Does humankind have a purpose or not? If we have no purpose then we can do anything we want. But if we do have a purpose, then only those choices that lead us towards fulfilling our purpose can be called good.

The Gospels tell us to love God and neighbor. One way to love God is through learning more about God's creation – generations of religious scientists have followed this approach.

But, perhaps less intuitively, space exploration and settlement is also a way to love our neighbor, in a longer term way.

This might seem counterintuitive because serving people’s immediate needs makes clear sense in Christianity, while nebulous research might not, but we also ought to ask: does filling immediate needs include utilizing the products of technological research, or specifically, nowadays, space research? And the answer is yes.

Space science and technologies save thousands, if not millions, of lives each year, through things that we take completely for granted, such as weather satellites detecting storms, satellite navigation, satellite data helping agriculture, sensing technologies used in medical procedures, and so on. It seems that, in fact, loving God via scientific discovery of Creation makes us better able to love our neighbor through technological innovation – an outcome commanded in the Bible yet only comprehensible in retrospect.

It might be tempting to think that we should spend all our Christian effort on immediate needs, but better solutions are possible if we do the research and development to serve those needs better in the future. I don’t know what the balance should be, but I know that if generations of scientists and engineers, many working in monasteries centuries ago, had never done their work then we would likely still be living in medieval conditions and not having this conversation at all – and we would understand less about God.

Perhaps we should extrapolate these ideas forward as well: one future of research and greater fulfillment of God’s purposes for us, and another future of stasis or collapse, and less ability to fulfill God’s hopes for humankind.

There's been lots of talk about astrobiology, and its supposedly dramatic theological implications.

I've always thought this has been a bit overblown, especially in a Catholic context, where we've posited other-worldly beings, like angels and demons, as a matter of course.

Your book has a chapter taking on some issues raised by astrobiology — what's your view?

Theologian Ted Peters ran a study a few years ago that showed that most people think the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would cause turmoil for other people's worldviews, but not for their own. In other words: “My beliefs are fine with discovering aliens, but yours won't be able to handle it!”

In fact a majority of Americans already believe in extraterrestrial intelligence and civilizations on other planets, so the belief is already present. It is, apparently, not that damaging.

So I think that people have already thought about it and not found it to be of much relevance. However, I think it might depend on the practical implications of the discovery. If the aliens are benign or too far away, then it’s no issue. But if the aliens are extremely evil and start harming us, then it might heighten the problem of evil to such a degree that belief in a benevolent God becomes more difficult. I personally don't see that as a “game over” scenario for Christianity, but it could present an obstacle to belief.

I need have to ask you the all-important question asked by Kevin Smith in his movie ”Clerks.”

In ”Return of the Jedi,” was the Rebel attack on the second Death Star (especially in light of all the independent contractors present) an act of terrorism?

First we need to define terrorism itself, which is the use of violence to instill terror for the sake of political ends. This is different from a state of open war, which the Rebels and the Empire were in.

Second, Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin’s intention for the Death Star itself was to be as a weapon of terror to rule the galaxy through terror, and the use of the first Death Star on the peace-loving planet of Alderaan proved that Tarkin and the Empire fully intended to use it as such a weapon of terrorism. The construction of the second Death Star shows that the Tarkin Doctrine of “rule by fear” is still in effect. If anything, the leaders of the Empire are terrorists.

Third, the second Death Star was in the Emperor's own words a “fully operational battle station.”

Smith’s argument is a red herring, since this is clearly an operational weapon of mass destruction during an open war. “Independent contractors,” - if there were any - would have known what they were doing, and risking, especially given what the first Death Star did, and what happened to it.

So the Death Star was absolutely a legitimate military target. War is never good, but this was the best outcome among bad options.

And, by the way, science fiction is a great source for cases in space ethics! As science fiction becomes technological reality, we should consider all the thinking that we have already done when it comes to space ethics, much of it done by fiction writers.

Brian, I think we met for the first time at a conference for young [!] Catholic moral theologians. Can you tell us a bit about your background and interest in theology, ethics, and technology?

As a kid in the 1980s, I was raised nominally Catholic, but I was really an atheist. I loved Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos “TV series and watched it over and over again. This made me want to become a scientist, and at the time I naively thought that science and religion were irreconcilable.

Thanks to attending a Jesuit high school I realized that science and religion were not opposed. I also heard about the Jesuit Volunteers Corps (JVC) and kept that in my mind as a possible opportunity. I also gained an appreciation for all the good work that the Catholic Church does in the world. Yet I was still an atheist.

Brian Patrick Green
Brian Patrick Green. Credit: Santa Clara University.

I went to the University of California at Davis and found that I didn’t like math enough to be a physicist and didn’t like lab work enough to be a biologist. This left me adrift in terms of career. At this same time I met some very intelligent Evangelical Christians. I realized science could not answer some very basic questions that Christianity could answer. So I became a Christian. I still didn't have a career direction, but I had met my future wife and we got married. We joined the Jesuit Volunteers and went to the Marshall Islands.

There is a proverb – “If you don’t know what to do then help someone” – and I highly recommend following it! Joining the Jesuit Volunteers was incredibly important because I not only discovered that I loved teaching but also that the world absolutely needed better thinking about technology. The Marshall Islands were used for nuclear weapons testing, still are used for ballistic missile testing, and are now being sent underwater by climate change.

This is no joke; an entire nation is at stake (and ultimately the world) because of technology. I had to try to make the world better by directing technology towards better goals. I pursued this by going to the Graduate Theological Union and getting a PhD in ethics. After 50 job rejections, Santa Clara University’s School of Engineering and the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics hired me.

In retrospect, given the world situation right now, I can only give credit to Providence for such an appropriate outcome.

Any last thoughts?

Space exploration and settlement is an endeavor with much hope and peril. The ethical wisdom of all of humanity is necessary as a part of this noble and difficult project – and Catholic wisdom needs to be in there too.

My book is just one piece of a conversation, but I hope it is one that will help us move towards a more ethical future.