The Pursuit of Knowledge: An Ethical Responsibility

buzz-aldrin-on-the-moon

Introduction 

Solving ethical problem as complex as climate change requires a multidisciplinary approach. A collaboration of scientific, economic, historical, and ethical knowledge is required in formulating a practical approach to first identify and then solve the problem. In this paper, I argue that information is essential to make informed ethical decisions, and that the acquisition of knowledge should be an ethical concern. Further, this information has the ability to alter mind states and change perspectives which influence human systems of values. Solutions that are based on science and technology are all-encompassing and inspire a new perspective to ethics.

Information

Information is the most important factor in making ethical decisions. Without information it is impossible to distinguish between ethical and unethical situations. For most of history humans have relied on experience and intuition to solve ethical problems. Cause and effect in relation to our sense experience was a primary way to reason through problems. With the advent of technology, we were able to create tools that became extensions of ourselves. These extensions offered new abilities and increased the amount of information perceived by our senses. The application of science and reason to information has the ability to be applied in a way that mitigates errors in human intuition, revealing a closer representation of reality. Information has expanded our consciousness to include the Universe, Earth, and the creatures who inhabit it. I argue that a better understanding of nature, when applied with an ethical model, produces a better world than one using intuitive reasoning alone. Intuitive ethical models are inherently biased and lack a calculated and extended view. These intuitions were developed to ensure the survival of the human species and nature takes survival precedent to ethics. The human species has reached a level of sustainability in which it has become possible to create a global civilization founded on understanding which has the possibility to be ethically superior. Given this argument, I assert that it is an ethical duty to respectively obtain all information relevant to a situation and taken into ethical consideration. It is an ethical obligation for society to invest in scientific pursuits which lead to more informed decisions.

The issue of climate change is one of many examples of how information inspires ethical action. Climate change has been described by many to be the most important environmental ethical issue that humanity and the biosphere is currently facing. It presents an especially difficult challenge because it conflicts with self-centered human interests or intuitive senses of being right. The idea that humans can change the environment, a seemingly endless supply of land, water, and air seems hard to believe on some primitive level. The oceans seem immeasurably large as the sky seems infinitely high, though science can offer a different perspective. Because human interests conflict with ethical obligations, information about the issue and its effects are necessary to formulate a valid and convincing argument. If one were to shrink the Earth down to the size of a classroom globe a new perspective might form. The difference between the tallest mountains and the deepest depths of the oceans would be less than that of the depth of a human fingerprint. From this perspective the globe would feel relatively smooth, with a barely evident coating of water in some places. Similarly, the atmosphere extends outward from this globe about as far as the lacquer is thick. Attaining knowledge is crucial to overcoming our intuitive senses about the effects of our actions and offers a necessary perspective changing effect which is needed to take action. To effectively implement changes that will fix the climate crisis, one must first look at how civilizations have coped with morally wrong but seemingly necessary dependencies in the past.

A History of Change

lion-tamer
A Lion Tamer at Bertram Mills Touring Circus, Ascot

To successfully employ a tactic for major societal changes, a brief understanding of how they have been done in the past is crucial. To dismiss this inquiry would be to purposely disregard relevant information that has the potential to advance ethical understanding. Energy crisis on a global scale is not a new human problem, rather a recurring one that has been solved primarily by the same method. Abject slavery was said to have been an “ethically justifiable” position for millennia. It was a form of technology employed by slave owners which exploited the energy from manual labor, and was used to the fullest extent to fulfill the wishes of slave masters. After slavery began to be rejected by various religious and humanitarian groups, the notion that slavery was ethically wrong slowly became evident among the public. Politicians and business owners argued that although slavery may be wrong, it was absolutely essential to the fundamental functions of local and global economy. Thomas Jefferson once said that slavery was, “like holding a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other” Without slavery, civilization as humanity had come to know it, could not exist. They were at least in part correct in this assumption. The solution to ending slavery was inadvertently solved beginning with a bright young scientist and mathematician named Isaac Newton. Newton discovered an equation that changed the world, force equals mass times acceleration (F=ma). This short equation is what made the industrial revolution possible. With a better understanding of physics, (and a short time later, engineering) machines were developed that were hundreds of times more efficient and accurate than human labor became possible. Arguments against slavery were stronger than ever  ethical arguments did not produce economic alternatives. The primary argument had to be attached to an economic and technological solution to be viable. Abolitionists of the day would have been much more effective if they invested, and encouraged to invest, in industrial companies that were in direct competition with slave labor. The same is true today with climate change. Someone who invests in alternative energies or encourages legislation (such as subsidies) to solar, wind, and other sources, contribute far more than simply raising a moral argument. Scientific discovery and innovative engineering techniques allowed for a cheaper and more productive system. This change was only possible because it was a new and innovative way that better suited humanities needs both economically and morally. As stated by Peter Singer, sometimes it is better to do the right thing for the wrong reasons so long as the path of progress is positive for all parties involved. This progression of civilization is only possible through hindsight, however, we can learn that scientific investment has the potential to revolutionize the world. If we are not ready for our next energy revolution, then it becomes the governments (as mediated by its citizens) job to promote these goals, even when there is no promise of a short-term return.

Some say radically changing the way society functions is impossible. They say the system in place is essential for maintaining stability and to do away with it would mean the end of our way of life. Dr. Carl Sagan disagrees with the notion that fundamental changes are impractical or against human nature. He cites examples of a worldwide revolution against slavery, the empowerment of women, and social movements within aggressor nations protesting war, are all clear signs of the contrary. “ The old appeals to racial, sexual, and religious chauvinism, and to rabid nationalist fervor, are beginning not to work. A new kind of consciousness is developing that sees itself as a single organism, and recognizes that an organism at war with itself is doomed.” The mechanism Dr. Sagan describes is an informative one. The more people know, the more they recognise the connections between themselves and their environment.

Science and its relative applications to our way of life are not always as obtainable as we might like them to be. One cannot simply invest in the next big thing because no one is sure where it will happen. For exploratory science, there is no promise of return on investment, often science can be expensive with unexpected results that may or may not be useful to an investor. In a capitalist economy, an investor does not do so for the sake of the society, but rather for their own self-interest. This is economically discouraging for the private sector in some fields more than others. Industries like pharmaceuticals have demonstrated a pattern of return on short-term investment, while enterprises like space or physics are not as clear. Doing what has never been done before requires an incalculable risk that many private investors cannot afford to systematically take. The job of government however, should be to look for investments, short and long, that are in the best interests of the people and not based solely on quarterly reports and profit. It is the ethical responsibility of the citizenry to support such programs and make these goals a priority so that society becomes better equipped to handle ethical problems.

Space

mission-control-apollo-10
Apollo 10 Mission Control

As Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson says, “We need to look at NASA not as a hand out, but as an investment.” Scientific and technological investment through governmental space programs is important for two reasons. The first being an informative one. NASA has been a chief instrument in realizing there is a climate change problem. There is no other organization that has collected or analyzed more scientific data that provides more information about what climate change is, and how it progresses. Before one can react to such a complex threat, one has to identify it and parameters must be established in order to identify the scale of intervention that is required. This is essential in order for us to prevent climate change from getting worse or slow the progression by alleviating the cause. Information about the problem also offers important insight as to how it could be fixed.

NASA, is also the world leader in planetary science. They have sent out more probes to other worlds and launched the most advanced space telescopes to study extraterrestrial objects, than any other organization on the Earth. This has led to a much deeper understanding of how planetary systems work, including those of Mars and Venus, both affected by natural climate change that has made them uninhabitable to humans. Knowing these things can have applications on our home planet. The study of Venus in particular has been instrumental in understanding the potentials of greenhouse gasses on a planetary scale. A discussion of greenhouse gasses was ignited on a world stage with the research of Venus’s atmosphere by Carl Sagan in the early 1960s. Venus (because of the greenhouse effect) is the hottest planet in the solar system, surpassing even Mercury, which is much closer to the sun. While Venus has shown us the extreme effects of a runaway greenhouse effect, Mars illustrates a planet which has lost its ozone layer. The surface of Mars is very similar to an environment that has been sterilized by hydrogen peroxide. Mars lacks hydrogen peroxide but without an ozone layer, dangerous cosmic rays are abundant. Observing these consequences informs policy makers of the potentials of human interventions, they are reminders of what could happen if we do not change our ways.

Space is a multidimensional enterprise that taps the frontiers of many disciplines: biology, chemistry, physics, astrophysics, geology, atmospherics, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering. These classic subjects are the foundation of the STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—and they are all represented in the NASA portfolio. – Tyson

These endeavors allow us to learn more about our own planet but also enrich it by creating advanced technology which translates to public applications such as, the miniaturization of computers, weather satellites, hydroponic and aeroponic closed agricultural systems, and so on. The list of NASA spinoffs are listed annually on their website and while they do enrich people’s lives in a variety of ways, there lies a deeper more important cultural function of the space program.

Though hopeful, technology and knowledge are not a fix all solution. The second reason space agencies like NASA are important, is the cultural impact the agency has on the nation and the world. Science, while contributing to informed decision-making, also has a powerful force on human consciousness. To discover something new forces one to reassess one’s place in the cosmos. In 1968, Apollo 8 did a figure eight around the moon. Upon orbiting around the back side of the moon, astronaut William Anders took a high-definition picture of the Earth rising over the lunar surface. “Earthrise Over the Moon.” After being published on the cover of Time Magazine, it has since been the most published photo ever taken and many like nature photographer Galen Rowell, suggest, “it is the most influential photograph ever taken.” It was the first time the earth was seen in its entirety and contrasted starkly with historical ideas of the planet. Illustrations of the Earth from the 1950s and before were always color coded by country and included no clouds, greenery, ice, or atmosphere. This perspective of a divided and distant relationship to each other and our environment was drastically changed by viewing Earth from space. Astronauts who traveled to space, particularly beyond low Earth orbit, have experienced what has been dubbed “the Overview Effect”. The overview effect is explained to be a profound shift in consciousness from observing the entirety of the Earth in conjunction with one’s self in the vastness omnidirectional presence of space. It has been said by astronauts to evoke a realization of the fragility of the Earth with it’s very thin atmosphere floating through the void of space. National boundaries dissolve and violent conflicts seem meaningless. The need to create a planetary society and protect Earth as a whole becomes self-evident from this perspective. “We went to the moon  and we discovered Earth” – Tyson. 297755main_gpn-2001-000009_fullThe sensation of being in deep space with a view only a few humans have ever seen is not the only way to achieve the overview effect however. In 1977, some four years after the last crewed mission to the moon, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched. It was designed to study the solar system then explore interstellar space. In 1990 while traveling at 40,000 mph and a distance on six billion kilometers, Dr. Sagan managed to convince (after much deliberation) NASA officials to take a picture of Earth from this vantage point. The Pale Blue Dot. He argued though the photograph would hold little to no scientific significance but could benefit human culture. “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” Examples of technological achievements and new cosmic perspectives from NASA do not appeal to traditional ethical theory in any particular way, yet they inspire discourse, reasoning, and a reprioritization of values. Photographs, metaphors, comparisons, and engineering the seemingly impossible, have a profound and universal effect on human culture in a way that theoretical and philosophical publications fail to achieve. They provide multidimensional benefits including economic growth, cultural and ethical enrichment, and serve as motivation to become better and explore more. “Epic space adventures plant seeds of economic growth, because doing what’s never been done before is intellectually seductive (whether deemed practical or not), and innovation follows, just as day follows night.” If we truly wish to adopt a new and distinct environmental ethic, it is more likely to be done by ways which relate directly to organisms and our place in the Universe and work to satisfy the most disciplines. Changes in perspective directly correlate with changes in behavior. An enriched perspective of the Cosmos and the Earth has the potential to transcend culture and even species, to form a more unified ethic that takes into consideration the entirety of life and its place in the Universe. The pursuit of such a perspective and the tools it provides is essential in establishing a universal ethic that inspires ubiquitous change in the way humans interact with nature.

Using our tools Effectively and Ethically

In recent decades, science and technology have fallen into a positive feedback loop. One feeds the other and they continue to grow resulting in exponential growth. This rapid growth is presenting humanity with new ethical issues unknown to previous generations. If we are to respect the environment and other human beings, we should be held responsible for the changes these feedback loops cause. Just as important as science, is how humans use it. It is true that technology and scientific understanding led to the industrial revolution, utilization of fossil fuels, creating societies that are dependent of those fuels, and so on. Even the space programs of the United States and the Soviet Union were initially developed to create intercontinental ballistic missiles and purposes of war. The technological achievements hold no real ethical implications in themselves, but their application and consequences do. War, pollution, laxed environmental policies, and damage to the global climate system, are all observed consequences of the technology which must be included in ethical discourse. When presented with the information that fossil fuels damage the environment, one has the obligation to use this information in an ethical conversation to determine the next course of action. Actions can be made that directly contribute to human, animal, and plant flourishing, that are known through empirical inquiry. Paul Taylor, in The Respect for Nature, argues that all living things have a good of their own. Objective facts about reality can directly contribute to this fulfillment, “The more knowledge we gain concerning these organisms, the better are we able to make sound judgments about what is in their interest or contrary to their interest, what promotes their welfare or what is detrimental to their welfare.” It is only through this knowledge that people are able to understand how and what to inhibit or encourage and to what extent. With a clearer idea of objective priorities, the most efficient path to change can be accomplished. Smart investments by individuals as consumers and as citizens are the foundation these changes. When an understanding of science and political/economic systems is applied with an ethical theory, it becomes possible to implement. One must have both an understanding of the depths of their actions as environmentalists, as well as the impact on society, and what strategic sacrifices can be practically argued for as well as structures within political/economic systems that should be changed.

Mitigating Climate Change Through Investments

To take action against climate change, requires an investment by the citizens of the world. That investment could be time spent applying techniques to minimize one’s carbon footprint, electing officials who pledge to take action against climate change, and supporting legislation against climate change. The influence can also be exerted economically by affecting demand by choosing to consume or promote certain products. These investments are a direct reflection of value systems and are tied both to ethics and practicality. While minimizing one’s own carbon footprint is a small way everyone could help, citizens as taxpayers and consumers have the ability to allocate funds to or away from different ends. It is a duty of the world’s citizens to use this legislation for a better world for all to the best of their abilities. This assertion can only be made with a scientifically literate public to establish the proper method of investment. Without this perspective, there is no way to distinguish if the sacrifices which are demanded are worth the cause. Holding individual moral agents accountable for their role in stopping climate change is crucial. If a public is informed, they are more likely to hold those accountable for wrongdoing as the arbiters cannot then cast unscientific doubt to misdirect blame. As the authors of climate change, we are the only moral actors who have the ability to stop climate change for the well-being of all living things or distribute restitutive justice. Without an informed and motivated populus, the societal foundation for change cannot be practically established.

Though this argument comes across as anthropocentric, investing in science and technology has the ability to serve all organisms by forming a new and informed perspective. This perspective is one that illuminates the connectedness of nature and includes the needs of other organisms with the needs of ourselves. To discover that one’s atoms were fused in the center of high mass stars which later exploded and formed our solar system and all its forms of life, is perspective changing. “We are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more importantly than both of those facts, is that the Universe is in us.”  “We are connected to each other, biologically, to the Earth, chemically, and the rest of the universe atomically.” Dr. Tyson follows in the footsteps of his predecessor Dr. Sagan who similarly remarked, “We are star stuff, we are a way for the universe to know itself.” These scientific truths cause a shift in perspective which is distinct from our ancestors who had to slowly realize that they were not the sole purpose for, and direct center of, the entirety of the Universe. This centrality of man, is correlated with empathetic behavior toward other beings while science empowers the informed decision-making process. The new perspective also emphasizes a method of problem solving that seeks knowledge, self correction, and a willingness to change ideas and behavior based on new information.

Conclusion

Through the understanding of how cultural dependencies and major societal changes occur, one can deduce that a multi-faceted approach that suits the needs of the majority of people is needed in order to apply practical changes to societies. The more a reward is all-encompassing, the more a change is likely to happen in pursuit of that reward. An innovative and inspiring investment in knowledge and science creates new economies which moves toward a future that is more closely aligned with utilitarian ethical concerns. The right information is imperative to establish the parameters needed to have an informed discussion. The combination of information, technology, participation, and a motivation for progress all contribute to a practical means for addressing complex ethical issues like climate change and contributing to the flourishment of a global society and biosphere. It is necessary to incorporate practical approaches when attempting to apply ethics to a global citizenry. Sometimes doing the right thing for not all the right reasons should be acceptable so long as it produces a better world for all organisms. Since efficiency is a trait shared by economists and by environmentalists, discovery and innovation is a way to satisfy both demands while simultaneously empowering humans ability to recognize and act on ethical dilemmas of every kind.

Bibliography

Singer, Peter,  Not for Humans Only: The Place of Non-humans in Environmental Issues

“Carl Sagan Answers The “So What?” Question.” YouTube. Accessed March 09, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THENMBWcVhw.


DeGrasse Tyson, Neil. ‘Past, Present, and Future of NASA – U.S. Senate Testimony’. June 2003. Accessed March 10, 2016. http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/read/2012/03/07/past-present-and-future-of-nasa-us-senate-testimony.

Sagan, Carl. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. New York: Random House Publishing Group, 1997.

‘Global Climate Change’. March 2, 2016. Accessed March 10, 2016. http://climate.nasa.gov/.

P. Taylor, Respect for Nature, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Holding A Wolf By The Ears.” The Course of Human Events. 2011. Accessed April 18, 2016. https://congressshallmakenolaw.wordpress.com/2011/10/25/holding-a-wolf-by-the-ears/.

White, Frank. The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987

Tyson, Neil, The Most Astounding Fact, Time Magazine, 2008

Taylor, Paul W. Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Here is a link to a version that includes all of my in-text citations.

climatechange

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