Science & Technology

You Shouldn't Live So Long

President's Council on Bioethics asks, Who wants to live forever anyway?


Fresh off its proposed ban on all human cloning, the President's Council on Bioethics is now considering whether or not it is ethical to pursue biomedical research aimed at extending human life spans. Last month the Council met to discuss the staff working paper "Age-Retardation: Scientific Possibilities and Moral Challenges."

"If we remain at our prime, in full swing, for decade after decade, and even for centuries, the character of our attitudes and our activities would likely change significantly," suggested the paper, which raised five areas of concern with regard to individual lives and three worries with regard to the health of society.

First, the paper frets that much longer lives would weaken our "commitment and engagement." Now we live with the knowledge that we will soon die and thus "we seek to spend our lives in the ways we deem most important and vital to us." Second, our "aspiration and urgency" might flag because we would ask, "Why not leave for tomorrow what you might do today, if there are endless tomorrows before you?"

Third, the paper worries about our commitment to "renewal and children," wondering whether "a world of men and women who do not feel the approach of their own decline will likely have far less interest in bearing children." Fourth, our "attitudes toward death and mortality" might shift dramatically because "an individual committed to the scientific struggle against aging and decline may be the least prepared for death, and the least willing to acknowledge its inevitability." And fifth, age-retardation might undermine "the meaning of the life cycle" so that we would not be able "to make sense of what time, age, and change should mean to us."

The staff paper goes on to admit, "powerful as some of these concerns are, however, from the point of view of the individual considered in isolation the advantages of age-retardation may well be deemed to outweigh the dangers." Indeed. But what about the consequences of longer human life spans to society as a whole?

The paper highlights three additional areas of societal concern. Significant age-retardation would disrupt the succession of "generations and families." This succession "would be obstructed by a glut of the able," the paper suggests, since cohorts of healthy geezers would have no intention of shuffling off this mortal coil to be replaced by younger people. Longer lives could also slow down "innovation and change" since "innovation is often the function of a new generation of leaders." Finally, even if we are not aging individually, we will need to worry about "the aging of society" that would then result. Societies composed of people whose bodies do not age significantly might "experience their own sort of senescence—a hardening of the vital social pathways."

All of the concerns in the staff paper reflect the particular long-standing anxieties of the panel's chairman, Leon Kass. Kass raised these issues publicly as early as 1971, when he served as the executive secretary of the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on Life Sciences and Social Policy. For example, the February 23, 1971, New York Times quotes him predicting, "If efforts to understand and alter the aging process are pursued full tilt, by the end of this century the 'useful' life span of some individuals may be extended 20 to 40 years."

Was this cause for celebration? Certainly not. The Times story goes on: "The young generation of today, he asserted, is the first to grow up without fear of lethal diseases. Hence its members, as a whole, have neither faced death as a real threat to themselves nor seen it take a certain number of their contemporaries, he said. Dr. Kass argued that people were therefore becoming less and less conditioned to accepting death as a natural and merciful way to terminate the aging process."

Unfortunately, Kass was wrong about how much biomedical progress would be able to boost average life expectancy by the end of the century. In 1971, average life expectancy was 71.1 years; today it has increased to around 78 years—up seven years, but a far cry from 20 to 40 years. But it is clear that for more than 30 years now, Kass has been doggedly pursuing his pro-death agenda.

There are many rejoinders to Kass' concerns about boosting healthy human life spans, but during one panel discussion, council member Michael Sandel deftly sliced through the Gordian knot of issues tangled together in the staff paper. Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard, simply noted that if longer life spans are bad, then shorter ones must be good.

"Are the background conditions in human self-understandings for the virtues just about right now at 78 years…or such that they would be eroded and diminished if we extend it to 120 or 150, or 180?" asks Sandel. "Is it the suggestion that back when [average life expectancy] was 48, rather than 78, a century ago…that the virtues we prize were on greater display or more available to us? And if so, would that be reason to aim for, or at least to wish for or long for, a shorter life span, rather than a longer one?"

Some subsidiary questions clearly arise from Sandel's query. If an average life span of 48 produced people who were more engaged and committed than does an average life span of 78, was that necessarily good? (Heightened engagement and commitment can easily lead to fanaticism and dogmatism.) Were our forbears who lived 30 fewer years on average more committed to their children?

There's plenty of evidence to suggest that our ancestors were less inclined to devote time, resources, and emotion in children who would likely die well before they reached maturity. Besides, how do we know that the current birth rate is the perfect birth rate anyway? Sandel also wonders if people were more heroic when they could expect to live to only 48. If so, should we cut life expectancy from 78 in order to nurture the heroic virtues?

With regard to the "glut of the able" and "succession of generations," Sandel's question also applies. Couldn't we achieve even greater innovation through a faster turnover of generations by lowering average life expectancy? Empirically, this is not likely—after all, social and technological innovation has in fact been most rapid in those societies with the highest average life expectancies.

The Bioethics Council paper does acknowledge that it is a "reasonable expectation" that "if effective age-retardation technologies become available and relatively inexpensive, the vast majority of us would surely opt to use them, and they would quickly become popular and widely employed." Unless, of course, Leon Kass gets his way.