Of late, the healthy life extension community seems to be spending a fair amount of time and ink discussing biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey's persuasions and ethical or moral arguments for all-out, fast as possible, large-scale anti-aging research. I'm all for that - the more people thinking about healthy life extension and what we have to do in order to develop meaningful anti-aging technologies in our lifetimes the better. It all adds to the background level of education by osmosis and support for progress in extending the healthy human life span ... and we certainly have a long way to go yet in raising that level.
Still, it's reassuring that I see ever more common sense and educated awareness on healthy life extension in the blogosphere as time moves on, such as this one on last year's unfavorable (and widely attacked) Nuland article:
The author, Sherwin Nuland, is pretty down on de Grey's philosophy of life extension. He seems to view it as unnatural and socially disruptive. However, Sherwin himself is a medical doctor, in fact a surgeon who has "cared for around 10,000 patients" according to the article. He never explains why his own contributions to "life extension" are so much more virtuous than de Grey's.
All of Nuland's arguments against de Grey can be used as arguments against modern medicine. If extending the maximum life of one man from 100 years to 1000 is a crime against nature, surely handing out penicilin makes you the equivalent of an eco-hitler. Or vaccinating people's kids against smallpox. The list goes on and on.
As for myself, I would be happy to live to be 1000, given a certain minimum quality of life. I'm not sure if I'm up for eternity, but I certainly want more than just a century.
But back to the discussion of moral and ethical arguments for healthy life extension. If you found Russell Blackford's thoughts on the matter interesting, you'll probably also want to read Anne C.'s long, long post that uses Aubrey de Grey's presentation at the IEET Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights conference as a starting point:
There is a considerable degree of cognitive dissonance required to maintain a respect for life and at the same time, an opinion that death and frailty should be forced upon people when there might be a means to prevent these things
Dr. de Grey makes the case that by not acting with vigilance and haste toward medically addressing human sensescence, we are committing a moral transgression rooted in inaction. In short, Dr. de Grey applies the "bystander effect" hypothesis to issues associated with aging treatments; if it is possible to act, and people die due to the fact that those who could act refuse to do so, then these people are in a sense accountable for the deaths that occur.
Now, I think it is quite possible to take this "bystander effect" observation to a ridiculous and paralyzing extent; I actually have a bit of a problem with this "inaction is negative action" line of reasoning unless one assumes that the circumstance requiring action is the most important circumstance in observable reality. This, of course, is impossible to determine. As far as I am concerned, all involuntary deaths are tragic, regardless of whether these deaths occur when a person is 9 or 90 (or 900)! Even the fact of potential overpopulation doesn't make involuntary death any less horrible -- while I do not deny that overpopulation is a practical issue in need of being seriously and rationally addressed, I think that humans as supposedly rational beings ought to be able to come up with a better solution than condoning the deaths of scores of innocent people.
I should say that I view these sorts of events somewhat warily; you might want to read Ronald Bailey's comments on the conference for some of the reasons why. On the one hand, there is a strong subcultural bias towards talking rather than doing - a worldview in which making rules and inventing reasons to slow down progress in medical science is valued more highly than the hard work of creating a cure. On the other hand, you have the willful embrace of socialism and centralized control, the use of force to enact policy, and other strategies that destroy freedom, choice and the ability to create wealth and progress. As usual, this all drags along the sad array of attendant memes, such as opposition to free markets and property rights, a liking for large, meddlesome government, and the economic ignorance necessary to hold the other ideas in mind without cognitive dissonance. A pro-progress socialist is a runner with one leg shackled to the starting line - the terrible fates and utter poverty of those trapped within the Soviet Union should more than adequately demonstrate this fact.
But I digress. Most people in the Western world are pro-socialism; we'll hear more of these views as the healthy life extension community grows. I think it's unfortunate that so much effort is spent propping up and fighting for the reigns of a societal order that is so clearly corrupt, unethical, dangerous and wasteful.
This morass is why I largely prefer to focus on getting things done rather than sinking into the swamp of ethics discussions. The future is not going to make itself - we need to step up and make sure tomorrow is the sort of day we'd like to see.