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Kepler Discoveries and Peter Singer's View on Utilitarianism - Intelligent Life and Famine Hypothesis.

Updated on November 16, 2015

NASA launched the Kepler space observatory on March 7th, 2009 with the intention of discovering Earth-like planets orbiting other stars. The Kepler observatory currently surveys a small portion of the Milky Way in search for Earth-size extrasolar planets in or near the habitable zone.

The Kepler space observatory has located hundreds of “goldilocks” exoplanets and some resemble Earth with the likelihood of supporting life. NASA publicly announced the discovery of Kepler-452b on July 23rd, 2015. Kepler-452b is the first potentially rocky super-Earth planet revealed to be orbiting within the habitable zone of a star similar to our Sun. [1]

Space-travel is undoubtedly in our future as humankind and technology evolves over time. As a result, we will inevitably face a moral philosophical debate regarding our position in the universe. A hypothetical dilemma may arise in the event that an indigenous civilization is discovered on another planet. For example, what will be our responsibility if the indigenous people on the new planet are found to be dying of starvation? Are we required to act as moral and duty based beings? Or are the laws of nature and obligation suppressed as a result of the vast intergalactic divide?

Assuming that we will have the capability of prevent unnecessary death and famine, we must first examine several philosophical questions regarding the matter:

Do we, as evolved beings, have an obligation to feed and care for other intelligent life forms? Is it our universal duty to provide relief for all life forms outside of our planet? Does the Universe instill an innate moral code of conduct that requires us to take action? Are we responsible for the care and rehabilitation of alien civilizations outside of our solar system? If so, what does that mean in relation to God?

As you can see, there are a number of ethical quandaries posed with this hypothetical dilemma. To examine this further, we need to set some theoretical guidelines in order to properly assess this position. Let us assume that humankind has evolved to the point where there is no war, poverty or famine amongst our own planet. Let us also assume that the standard of living is above average for our civilization and that everyone is content and happy. Now let us examine the hypothesis; “To avoid mass starvation and death on this [theoretical] planet will require that all people on Earth to reduce their standard of living to the minimum required for survival for many generations. Are those living on Earth morally required to do this?”

In the words of Peter Singer, “…suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care [is] bad. I think most people will agree about this, although one may reach the same view by different routes. I shall not argue for this view. People can hold all sorts of eccentric positions, and perhaps from some of them it would not follow that death by starvation is in itself bad.” [2] Singer further elaborates that his notion of utilitarianism holds the following to be self-evident; “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything else morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.” [2] In this case, under the universal code of morality, we must take the responsibility of providing relief to other civilizations if it proves to be of no harm to our own.

Singer sets the limitation of relief as, “[giving] until we reach the level of marginal utility - that is, the level at which, by giving more, I would cause as much suffering to myself or my dependents as I would relieve by my gift.” [2] He offers the caveat that providing direct relief only serves as a temporary bandage and does not offer a long-term solution to the problem. [3] Singer’s utilitarian principle suggests that in addition to famine relief, we must also provide education about population control as how it relates to the underlying problems of famine and poverty. Singer suggests that contraceptive and voluntary sterilizations facilities should be developed in order to curb over population and encourage economic prosperity.

Although Singer’s utilitarian may seem cold and heartless on the surface, he closes his thesis with the following statement; “Granted, in normal circumstances, it may be better for everyone if we recognize that each of us will be primarily responsible for running our own lives and only secondarily responsible for others. This, however, is not a moral ultimate, but a secondary principle that derives from consideration of how a society may best order its affairs, given the limits of altruism in human beings. Such secondary principles are, I think, swept aside by the extreme evil of people starving to death.” [2]

In conclusion, assuming that we all agree that death and starvation is bad, the utilitarian principle regarding this dilemma leaves us with one simple truth: We have a moral responsibility to act only if it causes no harm to our own civilization. If it is decided that famine relief shall be granted, it must only be temporary. Education and contraceptive assistance must also be supplied in order to curb over-population. Lastly, economic conditions must be created that encourage security, prosperity and self-dependency in order to generate a long-term solution to the problem.

Although this was an exercise in philosophy and space exploration theory, we can use this as a model on how to approach our current global famine and over-population dilemmas: Simply put, we must act.

Works Cited:

  1. “Kepler Discoveries.” http://kepler.nasa.gov/Mission/discoveries/. Web. 10 November 2015

  2. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring 1972), pp. 229-243 [revised edition]. http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1972----.htm. Web. 10 November 2015

  3. “Outline of Peter Singer on Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” http://web.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/phil%20115/Singer-Famine-Affluence.htm. Web. 10 November 2015


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