Bioethics: January 2008 Archives

Radical Life Extension

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Ilya Somin takes on Daniel Callahan on an issue we don't hear about all that much: radical life extension. Callahan argues against any technology that could extend the human lifespan to double its length. His reason? It's not tragic that people die, at least if they've lived a relatively long life. Somin seems to take this approach as indicative of social conservatism. There are so many things wrong with this that I'm not sure where to begin. I'll start somewhere though, and I hope I'll get to it all.

1. If this is supposed to be an argument against life-extending technology, it fails hopelessly. Suppose it isn't tragic if someone dies at age 86. Does that make it wrong to extend the person's life to 145, say? I don't see how that follows.

2. The fact that dying at age 86 is relatively better than dying at age 2 does not mean dying at age 86 is not tragic.

3. Similarly, the fact that we can alleviate our existential agony at confronting death at 86 by saying "oh, it's all right; she lived a good life" also does not mean dying at age 86 is not tragic. It's simply a sign that we seek to find coping mechanisms by comparing lives that are relatively not as bad as others. That doesn't make death ok, and it doesn't mean death isn't tragic even with a relatively long life. It certainly doesn't mean a longer life wouldn't be better.

4. There is good reason to think all death is unfortunate. Why wouldn't it be better to extend our lives indefinitely? Even if an 86-year life is better than a 23-year life, it doesn't mean 86 years is the best there can be. There are people (I know a number of them) who claim that they wouldn't want to live too long a life, but that's at least partly because we're used to shorter lives and partly because this existence in a fallen world involves a lot of grief. There come points in life when we wish for more but don't have it. That doesn't make a 200-year life bad, though. It just means a 200-year life might well have lots of bad things in it, just as a 100-year life can, and just as a 50-year life can. The fact that there will likely be twice as much bad might drive people from wanting the possibility, but there will just as likely be twice as much good. I suspect the real desire not to see a 200-year life as good is that we've become too used to not wanting what we can't have.

5. I don't know if Callahan is a Christian, but most social conservatives in the U.S. are. If Somin thinks this is typical of social conservatives, I'd be extremely surprised if he's correct. Christians tend to think of eternal life as intrinsically good. It's true that longer life in this life isn't the goal for Christians, but the extended life itself is intrinsically good according to Christians, even if the more important goals are spiritual, including eternal life in the new heavens and new earth. So I have a hard time thinking Callahan's view should be typical of social conservatives.

6. What's worse for Callahan's view according to Christianity is that the current limit on life is actually a penalty. Death is intrinsically bad, and Christians can't deny that even if they seek to see extra years as not intrinsically good. It is at the very least a consequence of sin, and most Christians would see it as a penalty for sin. Even if animals would have died had humanity not sinned, human death is the result of sin according to Christianity. The only sense in which death can be an instrumental good is that it is a release from the fallenness of this world, but even that is only true of someone who will receive eternal life after this world.

This just leaves me bewildered that this view could be seen as representative of social conservatism, even aside from the reasoning that I've questioned. I'm not going to advocate putting lots of effort into extending our lives in order to put off something I consider every human being to deserve. It may be important to treat out bodies well because we're made in the image of God and represent him, and it may be good to see the intrinsic goodness of life as God has created it, but that doesn't mean it's good to put in a lot of effort to stave off what God has declared to be the end of every human being in this life. Christians do have reasons to try to resist expending a lot of resources on this sort of thing. But I don't think Callahan's opposition is well-grounded, and I hope it doesn't become the approach associated with social conservatism. It sounds to me more like resisting change for the sake of resisting change rather than having any real grounding for such opposition.

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