What is the Role of Ethics in the Quest for Discovery and Progress?

Discovery and ProgressThe Big Question
Artwork by: Eleanor Bennett

Before he went to college, my brother told my great-aunt, “I’m going to become an astrophysicist.”

She gave him a quizzical expression. “Really? Now how will that help people?”

He seemed a bit miffed. “How could astrophysics not help people? Exploring outer space broadens our perspectives on life! Through scientific innovations we increase human knowledge! We can find answers to essential questions about the origins of life on Earth? Are we alone in the universe or are there other sentient beings out there? Without space exploration, we live in a bubble, ignorant of the infinite expanse beyond us.”

My great-aunt paused to reflect. “As much as these broad questions are interesting, how does all of this pertain to people in everyday life? Or, for that matter, people in need?”

To provide some background, my great-aunt is a humanitarian, a person who seeks to promote human welfare, and supports numerous charities and nonprofit organizations. Her objection to astrophysics was less about astrophysics itself, and more about the money given to NASA that could go to organizations that help people in need. She did not understand why governments invest so much money in science when there are other worthy causes.

“Well,” my brother explained, “learning more about the science of the universe also sparks interest in people who might not have otherwise been interested in science, and on the whole, has helped us greatly in our everyday life. Through NASA, human communication has progressed with cell phones, radios, and GPS, all made available by outer space satellites. In the early Apollo missions, NASA created digital image processing which, although intended to make the moon more clear, ultimately was found to be most helpful in enhancing images of human organs.”

Although I agree that my brother presented a reasonable argument for helping people, I also understand my great-aunt’s point. It should be asked if there are more ethical ways to spend the money we are allocating to government agencies like NASA. In our world at present there are real problems: poverty, disease, homelessness, and war. Most of the world is in dire need of help. Is it right to spend billions of dollars on sending rockets to Mars or advancing first-world technology, when there are people in the world without healthcare or clean water? Funding projects that establish healthcare facilities, sustainable food supplies, and potable water, in areas around the globe, may be more important than exploring space or advancing today’s technology.

Wealthy, developed nations may send money and aid for people in need, but often the aid does not reach the people it is intended to help. Last year at a group I participate in, Model UN, I learned that most of the money sent by the U.S. and other developed countries to poorer regions goes directly to those countries’ governments, or organizations that distribute the aid, not to the refugee camps themselves.

Just as funding NASA can limit what our government can give to others in need, the expansion of fast-food chains also has unintended consequences. Large, multi-billion dollar corporations don’t just cater to consumers, they encourage us to consume more. Cheap, junk foods are often just a five-minute drive away and the overall effects are far more negative than positive. Fast food chains often put smaller, independently-owned restaurants out of business. They often pay less than minimum wage to their workers. They make their food the cheapest price for the largest quantity, but provide little real nutrition. In addition, the production of many fast food products create an immense carbon footprint. Most of the food, from the meat to the vegetables, is not locally grown or raised and must be trucked or flown in from other parts of the country or the world. People eat fast foods — which is one of the leading causes of worldwide obesity, because the products are easily available, inexpensive, and sometimes trendy — but seem indifferent to the consequences.

We want to move forward, but we don’t want to give up any of our
conveniences. In fact, we are putting ourselves and future generations
in jeopardy.

Many people refute climate change and the growing impact it has on the world. They don’t realize that global warming is not just a threat in the future. It is immediate, it is here now, and worsening. We want new technology and cheaper energy to make our lives easier, but the environmental impacts are immense. Extreme weather events, such as droughts, hurricanes, and tsunamis, are much more common due to climate change. Sea levels are rising, swallowing small islands and eroding coastlines around the world. Ocean temperatures are warming and ocean life, fish, animals, coral reefs, are in danger. We cease to be aware of how our behavior or lifestyles impact our environment. We want to move forward, but we don’t want to give up any of our conveniences. In fact, we are putting ourselves and future generations in jeopardy.

We’re often not aware that we’re making an impact on the natural world in our quest for discovery and progress. When I went backpacking in Wyoming last summer, on my National Outdoor Leadership school trip, I did not think about the impact I would be making on the environment. From my perspective, I was embarking on an adventure, a journey of self-discovery. In that month, I learned so much about myself and the world around us, and was changed by the experience. From an environmental standpoint, I thought what I was doing was incredible: transportation only on foot, no use of technology, using negligible amounts of fuel to cook. We also abided by the “Leave No Trace” policy. Sounds pretty eco-friendly right? Well, kind of. I’m from Maine, so the trip meant driving two hours to Boston, then taking two flights covering 2,000 miles, and finally, an hour-long bus ride. As soon as I’d done the math, I was shocked by the carbon footprint I had left.

Was it ethical for me to have taken that trip? Even though I burned fossil fuels traveling to Wyoming, my experiences that month were life-changing. The trip enabled me to take a new look at our choices in transforming beautiful, untouched wilderness into concrete-smothered cities and rethink the choices I make in my own life. For instance, I recently got my driver’s license, but I now choose to bike most places in order to cut back on fossil fuels. I take shorter showers. I limit my electricity usage. While these are just small lifestyle changes, I am now far more conscious of my own environmental impact. Despite the plane and car rides, ultimately the trip to Wyoming was a good thing as it altered my awareness of the environment.

All of this leads to the big question: What is the role of ethics in discovery and progress? We make choices in favor of advancing technology, consumerism, and even self-discovery, without thinking of the broader, long-term consequences. How do we create an ethical balance? The first step is being aware that there is always a tradeoff, and progress comes at a price.

Gemma Laurence is an outspoken and outdoorsy 16-year-old girl from Maine. She loves writing, running, and playing guitar.

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