‘You can check out but you can't leave.’ Critic and sociologist Steve Fuller makes the case in this installment of Document's imagining of lunar life from the Fall/Winter 2019 issue.
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The most obvious historical precedent for reinventing humanity in outer space occurred in the early modern period, when for various reasons Europeans began to colonize the rest of the world. They encountered lands of which they were at best half-informed and which were, in any case, radically different from their homelands. The philosophical imagination responded with that cornerstone of modern political thought, the social contract, which will also come in handy for our lunar settlers.
The social contract is a thought experiment that tries to imagine the principles on which the first humans would have governed themselves. Those speculations inspired the colonial settlers to draft their own social contracts, which we continue to honor in the form of written constitutions. Already in 1980, Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman had updated the social contract for a Star Trek generation that had become accustomed to the idea of space travelers having to decide among themselves how to operate once they land on an alien planet.
Social contracts tend to do three things at once. They make explicit what we already demand of a “good” or “just” society, they invite questions about whether our current societies meet that demand, and they motivate people to create new societies to make up the difference. However, those new societies may look very little like the ones they came from. A good case in point is the U.S.A., whose founding documents quite explicitly aimed to realize the best of emerging British liberal attitudes to politics, religion, and economy—but in an environment much more hospitable to them than Britain at the time.
“I propose a ‘Hotel California’ meta-principle, which requires settlers to commit to remaining in the new world. You may be able to ‘check out’ in some sense, but you can never leave.”
So, what principles should be informing our lunar explorers as they draft their social contract? To be sure, many of the principles are likely to carry over from earlier social contracts. After all, while the U.S.A. has made good on many of those original British values, it has done so in ways that have generated their own problems. Thus, principles like freedom, equality, democracy, and fairness never grow stale as social-contract ingredients. However, I would like to suggest one meta-level principle, which captures the frame of mind in which any such contract should be made.
This meta-principle is more than 1,500 years old. It emerged once Christianity was adopted by the Roman emperor and church leaders started to think that the religion could bring about a new world order. While many found this an attractive proposition, it was often interpreted in ways that could prove destructive to the project’s long-term viability. Indeed, Christianity was pulled from two opposing sides—one insisting that the original settlements are the basis for indefinite entitlements, and the other equally insisting that settlers have the right to withdraw or even depart altogether from their settlements, should they see fit. In terms the church leaders would have appreciated: “pagans” and “gnostics.”The “pagans” are responsible for the idea that inheritance brings legitimacy, the most persistent cause of inequality in human history. In contrast, the “gnostics” are behind all known sources of social instability, ranging from civil disobedience to capital flight—and all political unrest in between. While both sides remain potent, today’s lunar settlers will need to be especially mindful of the gnostic threat. It comes in the form of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and others promoting lunar voyages primarily as a stepping stone for settling potentially more hospitable places in outer space. In the spirit of venture capitalism, they are open to abandoning the project as soon as it fails as a commercial proposition. However, the lunar settlers should themselves avoid this mind-set.
And so I propose a “Hotel California” meta-principle, which requires settlers to commit to remaining in the new world. You may be able to “check out” in some sense, but you can never leave. The hazards of long-distance sea travel in the early modern period made this idea intuitively obvious. But courtesy of Musk and Bezos, it might now become all too easy for some settlers to move to the next planet or galaxy if they don’t happen to like developments on the moon. In that case, no outer space settlement would be safe from the gnostic threat of settler flight. The checkered history of overseas exploration shows many things, but the overriding lesson is that only when people are committed to making the new world their new home do they truly succeed.