Exploring the Heavens and the Heritage of Mankind

In Jai Galliott (ed.), Commercial Space Exploration: Ethics, Policy and Governance. Ashgate. pp. 149-160 (2015)
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‘The heavens’ are among the oldest and most enduring heritage of human cultures: a scene of ancient myths and modern space opera. That something is part of somebody’s cultural heritage implies that there may be ethical duties to conserve it or otherwise treat it with respect, and space is no exception to this principle: recent work by Tony Milligan asserts that the cultural significances of the Moon may count against any prospect of lunar mining on a significantly destructive scale. Current literature on the ethics of cultural heritage, however, tends ordinarily to be suited to more familiar sorts of heritage: artefacts and places contested by terrestrial governments and settled ethnic groups, rather than the distant worlds above us. So long as space exploration is conducted by those same terrestrial governments and their agencies, current international agreements about protection of ‘the common heritage of mankind’ may seem adequate as a guiding light for their ethics in space. Private space exploration, however, introduces further difficulties. -/- Private individuals and corporations often have complex cultural affiliations of their own; and expansion into space may foster the development of identities not strongly grounded in the national and regional cultures of Earth. To look up and observe space is part of the heritage we share as human beings, whilst the names of the ‘heavenly bodies’ we perceive and the stories we tell about them are hallmarks of particular terrestrial cultures; but what responsibilities are borne towards this heritage by people who go out to explore and inhabit and exploit it? This essay considers in what ways, and to what extent, the roles which space has played within the cultures that have developed on Earth might place moral constraints upon private explorers of space. I argue that space qua heritage is best conceptualised as an intellectual resource: explorers will not find legendary heroes or crystal spheres, but it has been possible (for example) for human cultures to feature Moon Goddesses by virtue of the fact that there is a Moon. Drawing on ideas of stewardship which have been influential in archaeological ethics, I develop an account of how duties of conservation might put practical constraints upon the exploitation of this resource.



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Robert Seddon
Durham University (PhD)

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