Is the Quest to 'Solve Death' Selfishly Immoral?

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



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.