Major Tom and the Space Virus

Posted on November 7, 2006


Here am I floating round my tin can
Far above the moon
Planet earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do.

[David Bowie, Space Oddity]

There are many Utilitarian thought-experiments in philosophy, most of which are moral dilemmas designed to illustrate the idea that Utilitarianism is the normative position most in line with our own moral intuitions and sense of ethics.  I would like to suggest a thought experiment which illustrates a certain limitation of deontological approaches to morality.

The Problem:  Consider the following scenario, which takes place in the not-too-distant future.  Major Tom and his two companion astronauts have been on a mission to Venus.  Their mission has been successful, and they have collected various pieces of useful scientific data.  They are on their way home, when the internal sensor array detects the presence of an unfamiliar virus on the hull of the ship.  Scans from earth corroborate this.  Medical analysis proves without doubt that this virus would be both highly contagious and deadly were it to come into contact with humans.  Unlike viruses from Earth, this virus can exist indefinitely outside of the human body, and will not expire on the hull of the ship.  There is no way to remove it from the hull, and no way for the astronauts to return to Earth without their ship.  If the virus were to enter Earth’s atmosphere,  the results would be catastrophic.

What is the right thing to do here?  I take it that both possible outcomes are unhappy and unwelcome.  Either the astronauts return and the virus devastates humanity (including the astronauts) or they do not, which is tantamount to letting them die (which is at worst tantamount to killing them and arguably morally preferable).  Two prominent possiblities present themselves:

Preference/Interest Utilitarianism – It is likely that the astronauts themselves would prefer to condemn themselves to floating around the void of space, and certain that the general population of earth does not want to die at the hands of an alien virus.  Result:  the right thing to do is to condemn the astronauts to the void.

Kantian Ethics – The second formulation of the categorical imperative states “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” This would seem to suggest that it will not be morally right under any circumstances to treat the fate of the astronauts as a means to ridding us of the virus.

There are some similarities between my thought experiment and the famous “Jim and the Indians” example.  However, it removes the element of active killing, thereby making the dilemma that more acute.  We are not given the choice between killing one Indian to save twenty, but whether to allow three to die to save mankind.

I argue that it is quite clear which option is morally preferable.  One criticism commonly made of Utilitarian approaches is that they can endorse policies courses of action which run contrary to our moral intuitions, such as slavery or torture.  A sufficiently sophisticated Utilitarianism based on a more complete notion of utility than psychological hedonism can overcome this.  There is also a potential point of convergence between Utilitarianism and Habermas:  communication can be the means by which we express and agree upon our norms and our preferences for social action.  (NB. Smart, however, argues that Utilitarianism is resolutely non-cognitivist.)

The paucity of deontological approaches is that they are unable to accommodate the possibility of extreme scenarios, or of choosing between two undesirable alternatives.  ‘Major Tom and the Space Virus’ is a hypothetical, but conceivable set of cirumstances.