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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Moral Case For Life Extension Research

Could death be a bad thing? Why it’s morally necessary to switch from building nuclear weapons to extending human lifespans.

My position on death is controversial: I am against it. Most people I know are in favor of it. Not me. I think death is a thoroughly bad thing, and I oppose it entirely. What’s more, I can’t understand why nearly everyone else seems to disagree. Oh, they say they agree that death is a bad thing. But they don’t. Not really. When you press them, most people think death is a natural part of the life cycle, one we must all resign ourselves to. I do not subscribe to this belief. I think it is perverse. There seems nothing “natural” about death to me. Living is what seems natural.

What fascinates me is the difference between what people insist they believe about death and what they actually believe. When I say that I find death bad, and I am opposed to it, people think I am saying something incredibly obvious and trivial. But when I discuss the implications of this, namely that life extension research would be a thoroughly good thing, it turns out that it isn’t quite so obvious and undisputed that death is bad. In fact, many people hold the extreme position that “without death, life has no meaning.” They believe that is not only an unavoidable fact of human existence, but that it actually confers a benefit on us, because long lives would somehow be unnatural or unbearable. In fact, when I actually discuss it with people, it ends up proving extremely difficult to convince people of the proposition that supposedly everyone already believes, namely that death is bad.

I have never wanted to die. And I have never wanted any of my friends or relations to die. (Nor have I even wanted my nemeses to die.) So long as I am in good health, as I hope to be, I can’t see that situation ever changing. And yet I am consistently told that I must die. That’s supposedly because death is inevitable and necessary, and without it life would not be life. And when I ask why more people don’t see death as something that ought to be eliminated, people either say this is impossible (even though we do not know that) or that doing so would be going against nature (even though we go against nature constantly, and the distinction between the “natural” and the “unnatural” is an arbitrary construct). We know that this conclusion is unsubstantiated: there are creatures on Earth that are close to immortal, and humans are only at the beginning of our research on the aging process. Yet our short lives are accepted as inevitable, perhaps in part out of an irrational assumption that what always has been the case must always continue to be the case.

From my perspective, believing that death is bad, life extension research seems not only good but morally necessary. That’s because my view on death stems from my view on human freedom generally: people should get to decide for themselves how their lives will go. Death, presuming a person doesn’t want to die, is an abridgment of a person’s capacity to choose the direction of their life for themselves. Thus death is an abridgment of human freedom, and getting rid of as much of it as possible should be part of our broader effort to make people freer and freer from the restrictions on their autonomy imposed by both nature and other people. I believe that people should get to live as they please. That means I believe they shouldn’t have to die, not if they don’t want to.

But life extension research has never been a particularly compelling social priority. Its public proponents are limited to a few fringe figures like Aubrey de Grey of the Methuselah Foundation, who seems intent on undermining his public credibility by sporting the beard of a biblical prophet. “Life extension” isn’t what we think about when we think about medical research; we don’t think about preventing “death” but about preventing specific diseases that cause death. There is a strange lack of serious discussion or interest in trying to allow people to live as long as they would like to live.

I think we would do well to consider “death” as a problem to be solved, and see all deaths, whether from aging or anything else, as something we must work to eliminate. Something is gained by seeing death as a problem in and of itself: we begin to recognize the common principle, which is that we are trying to free people of being involuntarily deprived of their ability to choose how to live. Yes, people die from cancer, heart attacks, car accidents, falling pianos, old age, and snakebites, and those things are in no way the same. What every cause of death has in common (with the possible, though highly debatable, exception of suicide) is that nature or another human being has stolen a person’s free choice over their destiny.

Illustration by Kevin Alvir

That’s why I think death is an urgent problem in every form. And I don’t believe it gets much better if a person gets to live to an old age. I find it terribly sad that perfectly lucid elderly people are forced to begin to come to terms with the fact that, regardless of how they feel about it, they will soon be killed. “Killed” seems the wrong word, because it implies an intentional actor, but either way the experience is the same for the person who must die. Nobody should ever have to be told “I’m sorry, regardless of how you feel about it, your life will soon be taken from you.” We live in a world where everyone is told that. We should do everything we can to change that.

One reason I’m so anti-death is that I think life is such a truly extraordinary thing. I love life; it is everything. It is the precondition for every single other thing that a person can have or do. To take it from them, or allow it to be taken from them, is to deprive them of everything they have. It is the ultimate crime, which is why we punish it so highly. But if we value life, we should be trying to give people as much of it as possible.

Of course, no matter how much we increase the capacity to live, people might still choose to end their lives. Nobody should be forced to live, just as nobody should be forced to die. But the point is that there ought to be a choice; a moment’s empathy should convince us that one of the most horrible positions to be in is that of the person who wants nothing more than to live but knows they are about to die. When we talk about “ending death” we are not so much referring to an infinite lifespan as to a “choice” of lifespan; the freedom to decide just how long one’s life should be, and a commitment to constantly expanding the range of choices so that people can live as long as they feel they would like to live. Personally, I would not like to live forever. Instead, I would like to live for as long as it takes me to complete all of the projects I would like to do, and have all the experiences I would like to have. That will take a long time. Probably several thousand years. But currently, it is not an available option.

It goes without saying that it is only worth extending lives if we are simultaneously maintaining the quality of life. A long life spent in agony or in a state of mental decay may not be worth living. If we are to decide between keeping lifespans as they are and greatly improving the quality of life people have within those spans, or increasing lifespans without improving quality (or decreasing average quality), quantity will obviously not be the top priority. Yet it remains true that, conditional on being able to give people the sort of lives they would actually enjoy, longer possible lives are always better. Nobody will be made to choose a longer life, but respecting individual desires means making sure they actually have the choice.

When I have presented my position on life extension to people, I have been shocked at just how willing people are to endorse depriving others of life. Some people think that even if research into immortality seemed promising, we should not pursue it, because “death is what gives meaning to life.” Life is defined by the fact that there is death at the end, and if death were not there, neither would meaning be. I find that position shocking, because it amounts to being willing to force other people to die in order to make sure everyone follows your conception of what gives meaning to life. When I hear the sentence “death gives meaning to life,” I feel as if I have found myself in the village of a suicide cult, who chant “death gives meaning to life” over and over as they poison me. Why should your perverse conception of meaning be everybody else’s?

I believe that people give meaning to their own lives. If someone believes that only death can give meaning to life, then they can opt to die. But it seems to me like the consensus position should be in favor of autonomy: people should get to decide how their lives will have meaning, which means that people should get to live a long time if they so choose. That means that everybody should support life extension, because even if you believe that “death gives meaning to life,” you should still support increasing the ability for people who do not share your personal conception of meaning to extend their own lives.

The “naturalization” of death, another common argument, simply seems to me to be an error. Death is no more “natural” than salmonella, the New York subway system, or cottage cheese. Distinctions between that which is “natural” and that which is “unnatural” always seem to me to be based on mere assertion, rather than any actual meaningful principled difference. Death exists, we know that. But if life extension technology existed, it would be no less natural than death, because existence is existence.

Some in the pro-death crowd carefully dance around the issue with poetic phrases about how we should humbly accept our essential mortality. “Radical life extension smacks of an intemperate claim to have unlocked the fundamental mystery of life,” said Roger Cohen of The New York Times. But Roger should say what he means. In practice, what he means is that given a choice between massive quantities of death and zero death you would take the former, because of some nonsense poetry about temperance. I find this position a bloodthirsty kind of madness, and I resent Roger Cohen for wanting me to die.

Every discussion of life extension must deal with two core objections: the population problem and the inequality problem. The first holds that however desirable life extension would be in principle, it would create a population crisis on earth and would therefore lead to either (1) mass misery and resource depletion or (2) totalitarian restrictions on childbirth in the manner of China’s infamous one-child policy. The inequality objection holds that life extension will inevitably be unequally distributed by class, and will simply result in rich people becoming immortal while the poor’s existences remain nasty, brutish, and short.

As to population, first, I do not think it is a particularly serious concern. Overpopulation fears from Malthus to The Population Bomb have always been drastically overblown. As countries develop economically, their birthrates drop drastically, to the point where countries eventually level off and achieve relative population stability. Innovations for more efficiently using resources, combined with a curtailing of the lifestyles of waste and excess encouraged by capitalism, could massively increase the earth’s capacity to support human life. Yes, the absolute elimination of death would ensure perpetual population growth. But the elimination of death is not actually practically likely to occur. (Although jellyfish seem to have achieved immortality easily enough.) Instead, what we are talking about in practice is reorienting ourselves to see death as a problem in and of itself, and to take steps to reduce its occurrence as much as we can. We are, realistically, speaking, not actually going to create full immortality anytime soon, and if we ever did succeed in doing so, we would simply have to set ourselves to work on solving a new problem: spreading life elsewhere in the universe, either through finding other habitable planets or through terraforming uninhabitable ones. No, it wouldn’t be easy, but we are speaking about long-term goals. In the meantime, attacking the problem of death should simply be done in conjunction with efforts to spread prosperity and birth control, and to eliminate the hideous and environmentally destructive waste created by a lifestyle grounded in consumption.

There is also something of a moral problem to believing that population fears should cause us to turn away from life extension research. If the moral argument in favor of life extension is freedom-based, namely that people should be free to live as long as they please due to their autonomous control over their own destinies, then the idea that we should deprive them of that freedom in order to make room for new people (who do not yet exist) is highly debatable. If, as I suggest, there is very little distinction between “declining to invest resources in efforts to prevent death” and “inflicting death on people against their will,” then we are faced with the question of whether a person’s right to create new life trumps an existing person’s right to continue to live. Since I believe the right to remain living is crucial, I tend to think restrictions on birth are far more justifiable than the refusal to eliminate death. (Though as I say, I doubt things will come to that.)

The inequality problem is a far more serious one. Many of the most prominent people who have showed an interest in life extension are Silicon Valley billionaires. Nobody wants those people to live forever; inhabiting the same planet as them for even a short time is already a trying experience. Any successful life extension technology would be far more accessible to the rich, which might create an unprecedented and horrible new kind of feudal division, between those who died quickly and those who never died at all. And if death truly is as terrible as I believe it to be, the poor are then disproportionately saddled with something horrific that the rich can simply buy their way out of. There is already a divergence in average lifespans across classes in the United States, with life expectancy differing by as much as 20 years depending on whether you are on Native American reservation in the Dakotas or in a wealthy suburb in Colorado. By some measures, this divergence is getting worse, with some poor people’s life expectancies actually shrinking even as the overall national average life expectancy increases. The better we learn how to prevent old age, the worse this will become.

It’s difficult to get around the inequality problem. One could simply justify the inequality, and I am sure there are some utilitarians (and some utilitarian Silicon Valley billionaires) who would do so. But I share the belief that a situation in which billionaires never died but the rest of us did is probably one of the most horrifying kinds of dystopias, one that must be avoided (even if avoiding it means that nobody gets to have their lives extended). The important point here, however, is that the inequality problem is a practical problem rather than a principled one. It’s a problem because of the economic system we happen to live under. But it wouldn’t be a problem under a different economic system, one without differences in access to life-saving medical treatments.

The elimination of differing health care access by social class seems, to me, to be a prerequisite to pursuing life extension. The first priority is to make sure that poor people have access to the same opportunities for (what are presently classified as) long lives as rich people. Then we can try to extend lives at the top end. In other words, first we should make sure everyone is living to 80 rather than dying of treatable illnesses at 50. After that we can talk about how to raise the average to 85 or 90 or 15,000.

In practice, then, my commitment to life extension comes after my commitment to creating a just economic system, because having a just economic system is the only way to ensure that life extension won’t be implemented in a way that is horrendous. But since I strongly believe that life extension is an urgent moral imperative, I believe that creating a just economic system is an even more urgent moral imperative, and I would like us to get one quite quickly, so that we can eliminate death with all possible haste. We must solve life before we solve death. But also, we must solve death.

Whenever I discuss the problem of death with people, I end up feeling like a madman. To me, it is so obvious that life extension is an important human priority, that involuntary death is always a very bad thing and that everyone should agree that we should be trying to eliminate it as much as we possibly can. But people so easily accept the necessity and inevitability of death, they so quickly make up justifications for it, and they are so blasé about our need to stop it.

“But where is the ship actually headed?” I managed to ask, deliriously.

“Do we know?”

“Oh yes. It is on a fixed trajectory straight towards the center of the nearest large star.”

“But if the ship sails into a star, won’t it instantly be incinerated?”

“Oh, yes, absolutely. In a nanosecond!”

“Why on earth are we heading into it then?”

“We have always been heading for it. For the entire history of this ship, this has been its destination.”

“Can we change the ship’s direction?”

“It is unlikely.”

“But do you know for sure?”


“Is anybody trying to navigate the ship onto a different course?”

“Oh, no. That would be tampering with nature. The ship’s trajectory is what gives its journey meaning. We define ourselves as The Ship On Course For Collision With A Star. If we were not to collide with the star, we would no longer be that ship. Do you see?”

I did not see at all.

In discussing death with people, I often feel as if I have woken up on a spaceship heading for the center of the sun, where the crew seem to be making no effort to keep us from being incinerated. In response to my wondering why we don’t try to steer the ship in a different direction, why we are accepting our trajectory as inevitable and natural, they come up with explanations for how plunging into the sun will give meaning to our voyage, or they explain why efforts to change the situation would be doomed to failure even though nobody has tried them. But for some reason I cannot resign myself; I cannot stop myself from thinking, over and over: “Why aren’t we trying to steer the ship away from a path toward certain destruction of our lives? Why are we simply resigning ourselves and then jerry-building a narrative as to why this is both inevitable and desirable? How did I end up in this madness, and why am I the only one to whom it even appears as madness?”

I am a strong believer in the right to life. I believe we should all have as much life as we possibly can. As I get older, I am more and more frustrated by the fact that human beings spend trillions of dollars coming up with new ways to murder each other in large numbers, money that ought to be spent figuring out how to keep us all alive for as long as we wish to enjoy this wondrous planet. As my parents get older, I consider it not just a tragedy, but an injustice that I might lose them. I do not understand why this is accepted as natural when we have no reason to conclude, at this stage in our understanding, that it is impossible to give human beings the same kind of indefinite lifespans as jellyfish and sponges.

And so the idea of opposing life extension research, in fact, of not seeing life-extension research as a top human priority, is to me pro-death. I see it as an essential issue for human freedom, perhaps the essential issue. Billions of people have lost their lives when they would not have chosen to. Because life is the most precious thing we have, we must do everything to make sure that future people do have this choice, that they can have as much life as they please. I believe in maximizing human capability and the control we have over our own destinies. Thus I cannot accept the fundamental absence of this control represented by death.

I am very strongly anti-death. Why isn’t anybody else?

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