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How to Ensure Equity in Commercial Exploitation of Outer Space Resources

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How To Ensure Equity In Commercial Exploitation Of Outer Space Resources

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        Since ancient times, it has been human’s intrinsic desire to find out more about space. Our relationship with the sky seems to be closer in the recent a few decades because technology breakthroughs have allowed us to travel further and further away from the Earth. However, advancements in aerospace technology are not the only footprints we left on our course of development. Looking at the world we are living, the population size is bigger and growing faster than any time in the history. We are also threatened by the depletion of essential resources. How can we make sure our coming generations will have secured future for their energy needs? Exploitation of outer space resources will eventually become an inevitable choice of humankind if resources on Earth are used up. Scientific research has discovered that resources on other celestial bodies and Eear-Earth Asteroids (NEA) will meet our demand (Reuters, 2013). Peter Diamandis, the founder of X Prize, even claimed that, “Everything we hold of value on Earth -- metals, minerals, energy, water, real estate -- are literally in near-infinite quantities in space" (Digital Energy, 2014). However, even before the commercial exploitation of outer space resources becomes a reality, equity issues regarding such business activities are a big concern. Should we let a free-market mechanism regulate this future industry by itself? Should we allow any superpower in the world to decide the rules of the game? How should we protect the interests of those countries that are apparent losers in this new space race? The answers to these questions remain unclear. Currently, the international agreement that regulates space activities among countries is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. However, according to Fabio Tronchetti, “ the treaty does not contain any specific reference to the use of space resources. Not even the term “exploitation” is mentioned in the Treaty” (Tronchetti, 2009). Because of its vague clauses and unclear definition of terms, the Outer Space Treaty is not precise and comprehensive enough to ensure smooth development and peaceful commercial exploitation, not to mention equity concerns related to these activities. Without rigorous legal or ethical guidelines for such commercial operations, the profit-driven competition among state-owned enterprises and privately held businesses may lead to undesirable outcomes that are detrimental to mankind. The possible equity issues include but are not limited to the following:

  • The market may only be accessible by a few super powers with advanced technology. They may create high barriers for other countries to enter.
  • Income gap between the rich countries and the poor countries may be further widened because of this new business opportunity.
  • The monopoly or oligopolies in the market may abuse their pricing power and deceive others using asymmetric information.

         Therefore, it is important to use ethical frameworks to define duty bearers’ responsibilities and establish a guideline to regulate their future behaviours. The aim of this paper is to use deontological theory as the ethical framework to achieve the above purposes. [pic 2]

         In this paper, I will focus my discussion on equity issues and define what are the ethical behaviours that should be adopted by the duty bearers. The ownership will not be discussed in this paper because according to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, outer space resources are the common heritage of humankind (Outer Space Treaty, 1967). The duty bearers in this paper are categorised into four different groups. Specifically, they are:

  • The commercial companies that are going to exploit resources in space
  • Governments of such companies
  • International Organisations such as the United Nations
  • People who may benefit from space resources

I will discuss their ethical and unethical behaviours in the later part of the paper. These four groups of duty bearers are selected because they represent a whole range of stakeholders that are involved in the decision making process of commercial exploitation of outer space resources. Commercial companies are the directly involved in research, extraction, transportation and price setting decisions. Governments of such companies are the regulatory bodies. They set tax and legal regulations for commercial companies to comply. They can also intervene the business when the free market fails to allocate the resources efficiently. International organisations such as the United Nations coordinate cooperation among different nations and set the common rules at the international level. Last but not least, the end users of the outer space resources also bear considerable responsibilities to ensure efficient use of resources. Their buying decisions will also directly influence the revenues of the commercial companies. [pic 3]

        Although there are many different ethical theories and frameworks to define what is ethical and what is unethical in various ways, in the case of commercial exploitation of outer space resources, I believe deontological theory is the most appropriate framework to use.  According to Burnor and Raley, the theories reject consequences as a basis for morality and instead intend to focus upon duties and responsibilities  (characterized by principles regarding specific kinds of acts) and intensions (Burnor & Raley, 2011).  At current stage of development, nobody now can predict exact consequences of future actions because the commercial exploitation has not been realised. If we regulate commercial activities based on unpredictable things such as consequences, the guidelines are like a house of cards, which may collapse when the future consequences are not like what we anticipated. In contrast, the duties of various parties to ensure equity in this industry are something we are able to specify now. For example, it is rather hard to predict what will be the exact consequences of allowing commercial space companies collude with one another, but we can specify their duty to always put consumers’ interests ahead of the firms’ financial profits.

       Among the deontological theories, there are two main types of theories. One is Ross’s ethics. The other is Kant’s theory. Ross’s ethics uses seven fundamental moral duties to determine if actions are ethical. The seven moral duties are:

  • Fidelity: the duty to speak the truth, pay back debts, and keep promises and other agreements;
  • Reparation: the duty to set right any wrongs we may have previously done to another (e.g., to apologize, pay for damages and etc.);
  • Gratitude the duty to make some return for favours and services rendered to us (e.g., expressing thanks, committing oneself to act in a similar way when needed and etc.);
  • Justice the duty to ensure the fair distribution of goods according to merit;
  • Beneficence: the duty to improve the condition of others;
  • Self-improvement: the duty to improve oneself; and
  • Non-maleficence: the duty not to harm or injure others.

                                                                                                            (Ross, 1930)

Each of the seven fundamental principles constitutes a binding moral duty and sets the moral standard for actions. These duties have covered almost all aspects of people’s appeal for equity.



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