22 January 2014

The moral bankruptcy of deathism

As research related to life extension has progressed and the concept has begun to register with the mass public mind, we increasingly face objections arguing not that we can't achieve it, but that we shouldn't.  The stated grounds for this usually consist of a handful of clichés repeated over and over (overpopulation, boredom, cultural stagnation, only the rich will benefit, etc.), and the substance of all these has already been addressed (so please read this and especially this before posting negativity in the comments).  But as with objections to other innovations such as gay marriage, it often seems that the stated deathist objections are a mask for something deeper and unthought, a visceral recoiling from the unfamiliar.  That's what I want to address here.

Technological innovation has often met with resistance.  Religionists in colonial times denounced Ben Franklin's invention of the lightning rod as impious because lightning bolts were instruments of God's judgment and should not be warded off.  19th-century moralists objected to the use of anesthesia in childbirth, quoting the Bible to the effect that the pain was part of God's punishment for original sin.  Their 20th-century successors condemned the first antibiotic treatment for syphilis for promoting sexual "immorality" by removing one of the consequences (there have even been such objections to research into an AIDS cure), and attacked birth-control pills on similar grounds.  In-vitro fertilization, therapeutic cloning, stem-cell research, and other medical innovations of recent times have met with the same agitated yammering about going against nature or violating "God's plan", which is basically the same thing expressed in religious terms.  The objections to anti-aging research are just the latest incarnation of the same old mentality.

Another tack some people take is to insist that they personally would not want to extend their lives indefinitely.  I doubt this -- very few people, in practice, refuse an opportunity to save their own lives when death is staring them in the face -- but even if they're telling the truth, it's perfectly irrelevant to the larger issue of whether research in the field should keep going.  Even when radical life extension becomes a reality, anyone who seriously objects to the idea will be free to refuse whatever therapies are involved, just as adults today are free to refuse blood transfusions or other medical treatments to which they object on whatever grounds.  The fact that some people and religious sects have such objections is not a basis for arguing that blood transfusion should not have been invented.

And this is the key point:  the deathist moral position is an abominable one.  It boils down to saying that I need to die because of your visceral discomfiture with something.  If you try to obstruct the research that could someday save me from dying of old age, you are no different than the religious moralist who argues against AIDS research on the grounds that homosexuals deserve to die for their sins (the analogy is a good fit -- I've previously discussed the similarity between aging and AIDS).  The anti-life-extension position is not merely wrong, it is outrageous and disgusting, a call for genocide by inaction.

Consider, too, that radical life extension will not arrive in the form of a single magic pill at a specific moment which will present everyone with a stark choice.  There will just be a steady, accelerating arrival of therapies for the various forms of deterioration which make up the aging process, and these therapies will be improved over time.  An example would be last year's development of NAD treatment to reverse muscular aging (the results achieved in mice were equivalent to restoring the muscle system of a 60-year-old human to the condition of a 20-year-old), which may start testing on humans this year.

Indeed, we're already quite some ways down this road.  During the 20th century, life expectancy at birth in developed countries roughly doubled, from about 40 years to about 80, due to vaccines, antibiotics, and various other innovations.  All the clichéd objections that are now made to radical life extension -- overpopulation, cultural stagnation due to having too many old people around, widening the gap between rich and poor countries, etc. -- could just as easily have been made in 1900 against these achievements.  But it would be an audacious deathist indeed who would argue today that we should not have invented vaccines, or should stop using them now.  The coming advances which will extend an individual's youthful life to centuries and eventually millennia are essentially a continuation and acceleration of the same trend.

Aubrey de Grey said it best.  Aging kills over 50 million people a year.  Will the eradication of aging cause problems?  Obviously it will.  Will it cause any problems as bad as the death of 50 million people a year?  No, not even close.


Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

I very much look forward to the continuing research in this subject. Thanks for an intriguing article.

I couldn't help but think of this song from "Porgy and Bess:"

The song "It Ain't Necessarily So."

"Methus'lah lived nine hundred years,
Methus'lah lived nine hundred years,
But who calls dat livin'
When no gal will give in
To no man what's nine hundred years ?"

23 January, 2014 13:45  
Blogger Grundy said...

I really don't get it beyond the "playing God" rhetoric. What's the worst that could happen by trying to evade death? Dying? Well, it was going to happen before we tried so...oh well.

23 January, 2014 17:10  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Shaw: Thanks. Well, I can see Methuselah's problem, but how about a guy who's been 25 for 900 years?

Grundy: Yep -- the worst that can happen if we try is what would happen anyway if we don't.

24 January, 2014 08:20  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

"...but how about a guy who's been 25 for 900 years?"


24 January, 2014 16:01  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Healthy people don't stay exhausted long. It's aging that robs your energy.

25 January, 2014 01:06  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OMG, that was SOO well-put!

A great film about death and deathism was Zardoz, with Sean Connery. The Eternals (immortals) became so bored that they stopped having sex and got so apathetic that they became catatonic.

Only when the certainty of death was returned to them by Connery, did the apathetics suddenly wake up and fuck on the streets.


If I was an eternal 25, I'd do it with any man anywhere anytime who told me to strip naked, lie on my back, and open my legs.

I'd have sex continuously every waking moment, even while I ate breakfast. The weird ones could fuck me while I went to the bathroom, and all of them could fuck me in my sleep.

But NO! I had to be a shy, wretched girl-geek and pass up opportunity after opportunity until they all ran out. I only WISED UP after I got too old to actually DO anything.

When I talk to a young guy online who's not having sex, I don't know whether to find him and kick him in the balls or cry in despair at what he will one day discover he lost.

If there really are gods, I'm sure they're having a tremendous laugh before they kill me.



03 February, 2014 19:14  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Faye: Thanks! I'm glad you "get it", even if many others don't.

The worst part of aging and death is all the experiences a person cannot have after death, or even in old age because of the physical and mental deterioration that happens. By the time people have learned what's really the right way for them to live, it's too late to act on it. That's what the conquest of aging will enable us to overcome.

04 February, 2014 02:20  

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