September 09, 2009

Stupid arguments against life extension

MementoPractical Ethics: Longer life, more trouble? - I comment on a Times article that claims life extension will make us worse off because 1) it would be bad for society, and 2) because the finiteness of life give it value. These are bad arguments that seem to crop up again and again.

Arguing that we shouldn't do X because of bad social consequences hinges on the assumptions that we can accurately predict these social consequences to be bad, that we cannot fix them in a reasonable way and that their badness will always outweigh the good X could do. The assumptions in the case of life extension are very debatable, since we actually do have data about how societies handle longer lifespans and it suggests that they do adapt nicely and become happier. Maybe an extremely rapid shift would be wrenching, but again that would also correspond to a large number of people who would otherwise have died now not dying often horribly. Trying to find some social effects that can outweigh the badness of 100,000 deaths a day is hard, and I have not seen any convincing argument along these lines. Worse, even if the consequences were indeed that bad, then the person making the argument needs to make a convincing argument that people would be unable or unwilling to overcome them. This is obviously problematic when dealing with issues like pensions, employment or overpopulation where societies have indead dealt with them (not always wisely, but that is not enough to save the argument)/

The argument is basically a consequentialist argument, since in a rights ethics we might still have a duty or right to do X no matter what.

The claim

And that is not to mention the obvious ethical problem that, in a democracy, it is impossible to see how successful techniques that arrest ageing could be kept as the property of only those who could pay the requisite price. The more genetic information we gather, the more we need to settle to whom it truly belongs.

is particularly telling. So the problem is that life extension wouldn't be limited to the rich? Either this is a typo and actually the typical "but only the rich will be able to afford it" argument against enhancement, or the author thinks that life extension is so bad that it is a problem that it will leak out to the public, who unwisely would use it.

If it is the first kind of argument, then the reference to democracy shows the internal inconsistency: in liberal democratic societies the voters tend to get what they desire and in market economies prices of technology tends to fall due to technological advance and the incentives to supply more. Life extension is hence unlikely to remain only for the rich unless there are some extreme fundamental costs associated with it (maybe it needs a fully trained doctor on standby all day?) More likely it is going to be expensive at first, then come down in price and soon be regarded as a right in the health care system (and quite likely a cost-saver too, since a slowing of ageing reduces multiple chronic diseases).

The second argument, that life extension is bad but people still desire it, has to be powered either by some psychological claim (like the "death gives life a meaning") or some fundamental ethical claim. The article handwaves the meaning claim, which is clearly problematic since either the length of life matters or merely that it is finite. If length of life matters, then we have empirical data to refute it (happiness studies of long- and short-lived nations and populations). If it is merely finitude, then life extension has clearly no effect since it doesn't solve mortality. Giving an ethical claim that a slowing of ageing is bad is certainly possible, such as a Sandel-like acceptance of the Given or that we have a Kass-like devotion to posteriority, but this is rarely done in general debates - mostly because most such arguments are themselves rather iffy.

It is like the "death gives life meaning" argument. It sounds deep, but nobody would consider "divorce gives love meaning" or "bookworms give libraries meaning" profound or even accurate. The meaning of love is to be found in the deep positive emotions and relations, not in their breakdown or ebb. Similarly life has a meaning based on that it is *lived*, not any boundary condition.

Posted by Anders3 at September 9, 2009 08:50 PM