Immortality

Is the Quest to 'Solve Death' Selfishly Immoral?

Some bioethicists think that 75 years of life is enough for you.

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Charlieaja/Dreamstime

The thanatophiles are out in the public square again arguing that the pursuit of radical life extension is immoral. One such is University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel who denounced in his review of three new books reporting on the search by various Silicon Valley moguls for technologies and treatments that could slow or even reverse aging. Recall that Emanuel is the man who at age 57 famously declared in 2014: "Seventy-five. That's how long I want to live: 75 years." Why? "By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life," he asserted. So why hanker for death? Emanuel argued:

Living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.

Of course, that is exactly what aging does to us all. But if the Silicon Valley and other innovators succeed at slowing and then reversing aging, all of those losses would be eliminated. The point of aging research is not to make us older longer, but to make us younger longer. So what then Emanuel? In his book review Emanuel now declares, "One of the most disturbing aspects of this immortality mania: its utter selfishness." Selfishness? Radical life extension would necessarily mean, he argues, less reproduction in order to keep world population in check. That would therefore end of the "possibility of creating new people with novel characteristics and perspectives. Life would become one long, boring rerun."

Evidently, Emanuel believes that oldsters have a duty to die and get out of the way of the younger generations. If anti-aging treatments work, oldsters won't be elderlyl and thus will not soak up social security and Medicare since they will be healthy enough to support themselves. And presumably technological progress will not halt, so it is reasonable to expect all sorts of biotech and digital enhancements that will strengthen physical bodies, sharpen mental acuity, and regulate emotional states. In other words, the perpetually young would be endowed with novel characteristics and perspectives. And in the unlikely event that Emanuel turns out to be right about eternal ennui, there is a solution: You can experience the thrill of dying simply by stopping your longevity treatments.

Emanuel is not along. For example, an article over at Wired asserts, "Silicon Valley Would Rather Cure Death Than Make Life Worth Living." The article cites the recent data by Princeton researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton that mortality rate for poor white Americans with a high school or less education is rising. Disconnected from community and work, many now succumb to drug overdoses, alcoholism, and suicide: basically dying of despair.

Instead of frittering away their talents and their money on the search for immortality, Wired wants Silicon Valley titans to devote their resources to solving the social and economic dysfunctions that are shortening the lives of their less fortunate fellow Americans. Of course, some vast tech fortunes are already being spent on programs aimed at creating better lives for the poor. Ultimately, Wired is posing a false choice. Progress in one area of human endeavor does not preclude progress in other areas. It is highly likely that whatever treatments stem from research on aging will ameliorate many different illnesses including those that afflict poor Americans.

For more background see my article, Eternal Youth For All.

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  1. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.

    Someone took Gulliver’s Travels a little too seriously.

  2. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.

    Someone took Gulliver’s Travels a little too seriously.

    1. There’s something seriously wrong with the comment system here.

      1. Yeah, that problem is called “the people who run the site don’t give a fuck.”

  3. Aha, nice to finally see the backstory behind the “Ron’s Quest For Immortality” meme… always enjoy your work though, especially the stuff on poor rural America. But back to immortality – I’ve always felt that in this case, scarcity creates value, and mortality gives you an underlying sense of urgency and purpose. This gave me a lot to consider, because you are right, we definitely could accomplish a lot more if we had the wisdom of an an older person combined with physical and mental capabilities of a younger person. I don’t oppose others extending their lives or think it’s immoral, but the whole concept of eternal life is still just so unsettling to me for some reason, and I can’t really put my finger on why.

    1. If only mortality drives us to create, why do children create before they know what death is?

  4. “whole concept of eternal life is still just so unsettling to me for some reason, and I can’t really put my finger on why.”
    That would be just great. Imagine having Hillary running forever (assuming she didn’t eventually win)

    1. Which makes you wonder… since people are already able to justify punching Nazis, real or contrived, it’s not too far of a stretch to imagine some delusional person being able to vindicate the murder of someone they consider evil, since it would be pretty much the only way to stop them. And then 100 years in prison for their heroic misdeeds, funded by the taxpayers, of course. A century in prison definitely wouldn’t be living life to the fullest, but it’s just a slap on the wrist compared to eternity.

      I don’t know, I just keep going back to feeling like the value of life goes down in most situations.

      1. at the same time the death penalty or life of hard labor….gets a whole lot scarier

  5. University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel

    If Rahm and Ari were my brothers, I’d probably want my life to end more quickly too.

    1. I always hoped Zeke was dyslexic…..and his 75 year sell by date was really 57 years …..which meant we could already be not lamenting his passing!

  6. Disconnected from community and work, many now succumb to drug overdoses, alcoholism, and suicide: basically dying of despair.

    Maybe they’d cheer up a little if they got some good news.

    Oh, I don’t know, like they and everyone they love may live for thousands of years?

  7. These bioethicists remind me of politicians who at first are all for term limits. Then about their third term it’s all about “well, I’m on this powerful committee and I’ve figured out the game and just one or two more terms and…

  8. Malthusian fucksticks should put their money where their mouths are and eat a fucking bullet…..

  9. “Thanatophiles”

    Keeping that.

  10. Zeke Emanuel is a ghoul. He doesn’t need old age to render him pathetic. He already has that covered.

  11. If he wants to off himself at 75, I wouldn’t lift a finger to stop him. If he tried to off anyone else, I’d intervene with deadly force, as an decent person would.

    -jcr

  12. It makes sense. How difficult will it be for Logan to run at 75, as compared to 30?

  13. “Progress in one area of human endeavor does not preclude progress in other areas.”

    If I believed that we were all fighting over a fixed pie, I’d sure as hell want to off myself. What a grim existence.

  14. oldsters won’t be elderlyl?

  15. Conveniently for the party establishment, Bernie Sanders turned 75 about five months ago.

  16. How about a compromise: rather than a duty to die, every century or so you have a duty to consume mass quantities of drugs to shake you out of mental ruts.

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