Here’s a quite engaging and very sensible interview with Bennett Foddy on the possibilities for and the ethics of life extension. I would put this philosophy professor in the moderately Cartesian camp. Fodder sees that what nature—as described by evolutionary science—wants is not always good for ME, and there’s no reason I should prefer what’s best for evolution (or what’s best for society) to what’s best for me. That’s not to say we can or should transcend the natural world in any decisive sense. Nobody what we do, natural death will be the fate of each of us eventually.
Foddy’s most instructive take-away points:
Aging is natural, but it’s not beneficial to ME. Not everything evolution provides is good for individuals. That means, of course, that self-conscious individuals don’t experience themselves as wholly at home in nature. Nature, at best, is a neglectful and at worst a cruel and random mother.
We’re already doubled the average lifespan. People a generation ago might have regarded that success on behalf of the individual as dangerously unnatural.
Our goal should be to live like the American Lobster, who doesn’t weaken or waste away much prior to death. That’s because they have “an enzyme that helps them replenish their telomeres—the caps that hold DNA together.”
Lobsters pretty much have been laying around and investing “their evolutionary chips, so to speak, in resisting the aging process.” Meanwhile, we’re developed giant brains and have been all about fleeing from danger. But there aren’t any saber tooth tigers to be afraid of anymore, and so maybe we should work on burning few calories and reinvesting our chips.
But it goes without saying that any such conscious choice to alter evolution is a kind of joke. Surely we couldn’t have the upsides of being lobsters without the downsides in terms of quality of life. We do know of people who have radically reduced their caloric intake and spend their lives laying around to fend off death with some success. They remind us that quality of life means a lot more to us than lobsters.
But the more sensible incremental progress we see with antioxidants and even aspirin—not to mention the highly unnatural chemotherapy—is not nothing. And our victories in pushing death back are likely to be incremental and far from wholly successful.
What happens to us after menopause is boring, so to speak, to evolution. But it’s not so boring to each of us. That’s when aging starts big-time, because there’s no natural point to any of us staying around. But we want to nonetheless. Aging is natural, but not beneficial to me. After menopause, I’m not beneficial to evolution, but nature yawns rather than vomits if I linger for a long time.
We’re not negating nature when we combat aging. Nature doesn’t care whether each of us grows old and dies or not. What we suffer from as we age is evolutionary neglect. What evolution neglects, each of us really cares about.
So Francis Fukuyama is wrong to say that the struggle against death is really a dangerously blind struggle against the evolutionary nature we far from fully understand.
Still, the life extension we’ve achieved so far is from ideal. It might not be so great to have so many old people and so few children. Foddy, unfortunately, doesn’t speculate on the possible connection between life extension and the birth dearth. There’s actually evidence that it might be really bad for society and even the species.
But Foddy is right that we should think about how to live well with extended lives—and probably fewer kids—because it’s not like we free persons are going to choose against them.
We’re spending too much time and money on “nursing,” because so many people are being kept alive for a long time who are frail and debilitated. This “giant burden” on both the state and the young can only be alleviated by devoting more thought and resources to the living more like the lobster strategy. Our goal should be life extension as youth extension.
Right now, the old become less useful and more burdensome. Our response has often been to cut them out of our lives and warehouse them in nursing homes. The idea that this slow aging process is good for us because it makes it easier to let go of people as we gradually stop relying on them is perverse.
That process might make a person’s death more acceptable for the living, as Leon Kass says, but it’s not so clear it’s good for the people whose lives slowly become more pointless and painful. There might be some connection, of course, between thinking of people as either merely free individuals or merely products of the evolutionary process and no longer knowing what old people are for.
So we return to the lobster: We’d enjoy grandma a lot more—and she would have enjoyed her life a lot more—if she would drop dead in good health at a very old age.
We’ve given death too much dignity—made it the source of too much meaning—because it seems so inescapable. It is, contrary to the transhumanists, inescapable, but that fact shouldn’t make us way existential or way fatalistic. We can make some progress as free beings in pushing the inevitable back.
Even if we cured every disease and perfected regenerative medicine, we could and eventually would die in some sort of accident. Our efforts to bring death under our rational control would in fact make death seem less necessary and more accidental.
I wish Foddy had said something about the psychological upsides and downsides of that progress. We might experience ourselves as more contingent than ever. We might waste our lives obsessing about risk factors and knocking ourselves out avoiding accidents. There might be more reason than ever to get way existential and even way religious.
Our reasonable goal is not to accept dying at 80 and work toward something between 120 and 150. Living beyond 1,000 would involve replacing all chance and necessity in the cosmos with personal control.
So a Darwinian would note that impersonal nature—evolution—wins in the end over all our personal efforts to remedy nature’s neglect. The technological approach to death doesn’t make obsolete the ones embedded the virtues we’ve received from tradition, faith, and reason.