‘Ruminations on a Moral Code’ – by Graeme Callister


Terra Two can be seen as humanity’s great opportunity to survive. Humanity: the human race, a species that has hitherto used its considerable ingenuity in the most self-destructive manner. Humanity: the sense of compassion, tolerance and altruism that should ideally rule all human interaction. Perhaps the two meanings of humanity once co-existed without fear or shame in an Earth-bound Garden of Eden, but both now stand in the most compromising of positions, their frailties naked to the world without so much as a fig leaf to preserve their modesty. Humanity hangs by a thread; our desire for instant material comfort is threatening our species’ long-term existence, while our fears of that comfort being taken from us undermine our collective compassion and tolerance of those from outside our particular imagined community. Human society on Earth offers a vision of neither individual nor collective well-being. It would take a philosopher of Panglossian optimism to see ours as the best of all possible worlds; it is vital that Terra Two avoids the pitfalls that have led to the decline of humanity on Earth.

The most important aspect in defining the nature of Terra Two will not be the technology available, nor the specific political institutions adopted, nor even the physical characteristics of the putative world itself. The most important defining aspect will be the moral code and founding principles of this new community, which will ultimately dictate every other aspect of the colony’s existence.

In a practical sense the founding principles will determine much else. A colony meant for the few will have a different flavour to a refuge meant for the whole human race; a community determined to ensure the survival of the species will share few similarities with a settlement dedicated to the pursuit of hedonistic individualism. The fundamental nature of Terra Two will be decided elsewhere, but it will be assumed here that the project is imagined as a communal undertaking, rather than as a sanctuary for a small elite while the rest of humanity chokes to death on its collective filth. It will be envisaged as being created with the finest of intentions. Anything else would be morally repugnant.

There will nonetheless be some unavoidable moral ambiguities. There will be a delicate balance between the subordination of individuals to the species, and the avoidance of a society that deplores individuality. It might be convincingly argued that any polity based on instrumentalism and social utility will inevitably value the abstract collective over the individual, and human survival would become conceived as reliant on conformity to the common good. That common good would, of course, be dictated by those in power, who would themselves be limited by an ideological framework that abhors individualism and sees people only as components of a vast organic machinery. In liberal or social democracies such systems have long been the subject of dark dystopian fantasy; in such a system, the human race would survive but humanity might be lost.

The proposed colony must therefore embrace principles of collectivism with toleration, and must ensure that individuals are valued within the communal machinery. This is easier said than done. Different people will have very different views on which behaviours are conducive to human survival and which are not; some will embrace belief systems incompatible with those of others. Many will not see their own particular intolerance as inimical to the collective good. As we know from human history, men can hold universal truths of freedom to be self-evident while continuing to own slaves. Might the enforcement of toleration lead to the refusal to tolerate certain ideas or ideologies, as it has on Earth? Might people of belief systems significantly different from our own become excluded in the cause of promoting diversity? Will we imperialistically dictate the boundaries of toleration to be those of the Western liberal elite, or will we tolerate the survival on a new planet of cultures that embrace what might be considered intolerance and bigotry? It is impossible that the preservation of the current kaleidoscope of terrestrial cultures will permit the creation of a new utopia, but nor is it possible to dictate what beliefs, creeds and socio-cultural norms should survive without embarking on a hypocritical project of unashamed cultural imperialism. Humans are perverse mammals.

Equal ambiguity surrounds the spirit in which Terra Two will be claimed; a benign expedition whose sole purpose is to take, conquer, appropriate. Comfort can be derived from the fact that although the foundational spirit of Terra Two will be adventurous, the settlement should attract fewer adventurers in the mould of Hernán Cortés or Cecil Rhodes. Terra Two is unlikely to reward callous or amoral opportunism. As there will be no Amerindians, Aboriginals or Africans to slaughter, subjugate or dispossess, the mission is unlikely to encourage the ruthlessly destructive (or romantically debonair, depending of your viewpoint) militarism that characterised European expeditions to the Americas, Australia or Africa; nor is it likely to encompass genocide, slavery or widespread plunder. Yet this lack of avaricious bellicosity cannot detract from the fact that the project exists to claim – and to exploit – that which is not yet ours. The mere fact of Terra Two will establish the human right to dominion over all planets, and may have the unintended consequence of launching a spirit of explosive expansionism. Rather than quelling humanity’s need to constantly expand its command over the known universe, Terra Two may lead to its exacerbation.

Here we face another conundrum. The creation of Terra Two is also intended to inculcate a new spirit of concern for the natural environment, yet there is the possibility that it will do just the opposite; that the ability of humans to migrate across the universe will mean that whole planets might become disposable items, to be exploited and cast aside when no longer needed, with humanity becoming little more than a horde of migrating locusts. Every effort should be made to promote the need to conserve and care for the world around us, but throughout history humans have required the physical manifestation of the detrimental impact of their actions before they can be coaxed to desist. The colonists of Terra Two must therefore be strongly encouraged to take a very different view of natural resources; not seeing nature as a resource would probably be a good start.

All of this is to say that the founders of Terra Two will be faced with some exceptionally difficult choices. The new colonists must be encouraged to carve a liveable niche out of a new and inhospitable terrain, even while offering the greatest respect to and having the least impact on the natural world around them. The society must remain content in its surroundings and restrain its innate desire for new possessions, even while flexing its muscles with the unimaginable power of interstellar colonisation. The colony must work implicitly for the needs of the collective, even while avoiding the excessive regimentation of individual existence. And finally it must dictate a new culture of toleration, yet without showing intolerance of creeds other than those embraced by the liberal elite. In the solving of these paradoxes lies the keys to paradise.


 untitled graeme

Dr Graeme Callister is a Lecturer in History at York St John University. He studied in Britain, France and South Africa, completing a BA in History with French and a Masters in History before being awarded his PhD by the University of York in 2014. He taught as a tutor at the Universities of Durham and York before joining York St John University in 2014. Graeme’s primary research interests lie in Britain and Europe of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and include public opinion, national identity, and the making of foreign policy. He also has an interest in civil-military relations since the early modern period. Graeme’s first book, War, Public Opinion and Policy in Britain, France and the Netherlands, 1785-1815, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2017.

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