Let the Martian Die

Matt Damon is the Martian to be saved in the film adaptation of Andy Weir’s book, but neither book nor movie address ethics around allocating resources between exploring the universe and saving lives. To save the Martian, China agrees to redirect their space rocket from scientific exploration to rescue mission. They shouldn’t have.

Primitive societies make choices balancing the short term and the long, gathering food for today and building tools for tomorrow. Technology allows such choices to be more extreme, and Weir’s scenario brings a twist. China must have neglected millions of poor people (seeking better safety, food, shelter, education) in favor of a bold scientific mission to space. Then, for political reasons (the public relations value of doing something the United States could not was lost between book and movie), China redirects their mission to save a single life. In effect, millions sacrificed for the one. On the world stage those millions were faceless and the one was personal.

Humans evolved in small groups to protect family and tribe. That behavior benefited our genes because we shared them with many in our small group. Technology can make the most remote person (even on Mars!) feel like part of our tribe and worthy of great sacrifice to save. It is instinctive to identify with someone whose story we know and whose face grows familiar. Even technology fails at connecting our instincts with millions of people. Contrast the one life in the iconic photo of an emaciated child watched by a vulture with the millions of lives represented by a chart on malaria deaths:

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Our instinct to protect each other is good. So is our instinct to invest in our collective future. But instinct that evolved in a tribal world with primitive technology is insufficient today. As Daniel Kahneman reveals in his brilliant book Thinking Fast and Slow, our intuitive and fast mode of thinking fails miserably at evaluating novel situations, especially those involving probability or statistics. In familiar, practiced situations it is fast, requires little effort, and can be very effective.

Technology gives us choices ever farther removed from the familiar. If we don’t take the time to “think slow” then the evolutionary tail wags the technological dog. And we feel good about saving a person we think we know using the resources withheld from millions we’re sure that we don’t know. If one of our explorers is ever stranded on Mars, the wise and humane choice is to let the Martian die.