The Morality of Immortality
29 Jan, 2013
“None of you are invited to my 200th birthday party!” I proclaim, somewhat facetiously, to a group of friends in an attempt to open a discussion on one of my favorite topics: radical life extension. My statement is met with an assortment of eye rolling, dismissive (and rather rude) hand gestures and arguments of all shapes and sizes as to why I will not, and indeed, should not live that long.
There is a growing faction within the scientific community that holds the belief that it is entirely possible for people alive today to live for hundreds of years. Raymond Kurzweil, a prolific inventor and ardent futurist with the freshly minted title of Director of Engineering at Google Inc., is one such scientist. He believes that through advances in bio and nanotechnology, the human lifespan could be, for all intents and purposes, indefinite. He argues that there is a “law of accelerating returns” inherent in technological evolution that makes its growth exponential, suggesting that the pace at which our technology improves is itself quickening. Though Kurzweil will be working primarily with language possessing and machine learning artificial intelligence, his influence will no doubt be felt throughout one of the of the biggest and most forward looking firms out there.
The question of scientific viability, however, is not one I expect to fully address here and so we will proceed on the assumption that radical life extension is possible, and indeed, inevitable.
Overpopulation, crushing boredom, greater economic inequality and playing God are the typical challenges to the normative question of indefinite life spans. These arguments are often used by opponents of technological enhancements and therapies that extend life dramatically, including Leon Krass, a professor at the University of Chicago. The policy implications of life extension, such as ensuring proper allocation of scarce resources and keeping people productive for centuries, would no doubt be a defining issue of a future where radical life extension is pervasive. Furthermore, humanity’s new challenge will be feeling around for that fine line between self-improvement and self-destruction.
It would be foolish to suggest that there are no drawbacks to humans living indefinitely; the widening of a socio-economic gap that is already tragically large in many countries is a very real potential ramification of radical life extension as the rich gain access to therapies before the rest of society.
A vision of the future in which a society is divided between a wealthy, immortal elite and everyone else is decidedly dystopian in nature. Nevertheless, one must keep a sense of perspective. Initially, access will be limited to those with means but it is hardly controversial to suggest that in the last century all people have benefitted from improvements in medical technology in absolute terms. Aging, along with the physical and mental deterioration that characterizes it, is undesirable. Potential economic and social difficulties notwithstanding, living longer and healthier lives is a positive and productive premise. Acceptance of the preceding premise leads to the conclusion that the technology that would facilitate radical life extension ought to be pursued.
Dr. Aubrey De Grey, a Cambridge gerontologist with a formidable beard, offers the argument that it would be morally dubious of us not to develop these technologies and deprive future generations of the benefits therein. To have the ability to develop therapies that lead to longer and healthier lives makes it our responsibility to do so. Policy decisions concerning the adoption and implementation of the policies should be left to those generations in which they are most relevant; it is presumptuous of us to make those decisions for them by not developing these therapies. In his view, it is not only desirable but a moral imperative to give future generations the choice and allow them to decide on implementation. Our hesitation in diverting resources to the development of these therapies is actually condemning future generations to a life span that is far shorter than it could be were we to actively pursue life extension technology. Furthermore, we cannot presume to fully understand the social and political landscape of the future and their priorities – they will be best suited to make a choice and we should allow them to do so.
Without going so far as to characterize those opposed to life extension technology as luddites, there is a serious risk of preventing the potential benefits of these technologies from reaching us, or our children, in time. Some people’s fear of what may happen if people live ever longer lives is not a basis for pre-emptive policy decisions.
In a world dominated by dualism – white and black, hot and cold, matter and anti-matter – we are readily willing to accept life and death as an inevitable part of the universe. Yet still, humanity has always been enamored with the concept of immortality. Fortunately, human fascination with the fountain of youth is accompanied by commensurate ingenuity. It is this ingenuity that will allow us both to achieve great strides in life extension and tackle the resulting externalities.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.