I recently got around to watching The Martian, a science fiction film about the effort to rescue an astronaut from Mars. Matt Damon, who is often rescued in movies, plays “astrobotanist” Mark Watney. The discussion that follows contains some spoilers, so those who have yet to see the film might wish to stop reading now. Those who have seen the film might also wish to stop reading, albeit for different reasons.
At the start of the movie Watney is abandoned on Mars after the rest of his team believes he died during the evacuation of the expedition. The rest of the movie details his efforts at survival (including potato farming in space poop) and the efforts of NASA and the Chinese space agency to save him.
After learning that Watney is not dead, NASA attempts to send a probe loaded with food to Mars. The launch fails, strewing rocket chunks and incinerated food over a large area. The next attempt involved resupplying the returning main space ship, the Hermes, using a Chinese rocket and sending it on a return trip to pick up Watney. This greatly extends the crew’s mission time. Using a ship that NASA already landed on Mars for a future mission, Watney blasts up into space and is dramatically rescued.
While this situation is science fiction, it does address a real moral concern about weighing the costs and risks of saving a life. While launch costs are probably cheaper in the fictional future of the movie, the lost resupply rocket and the successful Chinese resupply rocket presumably cost millions of dollars. The cached rocket Watney used was also presumably fairly expensive. There is also the risk undertaken by the crew of the Hermes.
Looked at from a utilitarian standpoint, a case can be made that the rescue was morally wrong. The argument for this is fairly straightforward: for the “generic” utilitarian, the right action is the one that generates the greatest utility for the being that are morally relevant. While Watney is certainly morally relevant, the fictional future of the film is presumably a world that is still very similar to this world. As such, there are presumably still millions of people living in poverty, millions who need health care, and so on. That is, there are presumably millions of people who are at risk of dying and some of them could be saved by the expenditure of millions (or even billions) of dollars in resources.
Expending so many resources to save one person, Watney, would seem to be morally wrong: those resources could have been used to save many more people on earth and would thus have greater utility. As such, the right thing to do would have been to let Watney die—at least on utilitarian grounds.
There are, of course, many ways this argument could be countered on utilitarian grounds. One approach begins with how important Watney’s rescue became to the people of earth—the movie shows vast crowds who are very concerned about Watney. Letting Watney die would presumably make these people sad and angry, thus generating considerable negative consequences. This, of course, rests on the psychological difference between abstract statistics about people dying (such as many people dying due to lacking proper medical care) and the possible death of someone who has been made into a celebrity. As such, the emotional investment of the crowds could be taken as imbuing Watney with far greater moral significance relative to the many who could have been saved from death with the same monetary expenditure.
One obvious problem with this sort of view is that it makes moral worth dependent on fame and the feelings of others rather than on qualities intrinsic to the person. But, it could be replied, fame and the feelings of others do matter—at least when making a utilitarian calculation about consequences.
A second approach is to focus on the broader consequences: leaving Watney to die on Mars could be terribly damaging to the future of manned space exploration and humanity’s expansion into space. As such, while Watney himself is but a single person with only the moral value of one life, the consequences of not saving him would outweigh the consequences of not saving many others on earth. That is, Watney is not especially morally important as a person, but in terms of his greater role he has great significance. This would morally justify sacrificing the many (by not saving them) to save the one—as an investment in future returns. This does raise various concerns about weighing actual people against future consequences—but these are not unique to this situation.
There is also the meta-concern about the fact that Watney is played by Matt Damon—some have contended that this would justify leaving Watney to die on Mars. But, I will leave this to the film critics to settle.
(Apologies on falling behind on the blog, this was due to the holidays and surgery on my hand).