Returning to the Moral Imperative to Develop Working Anti-Aging Medicine

Do we have a moral imperative to step up to the plate and help develop medical technologies to prevent and reverse the root causes of age-related degeneration? Russell Blackford has been considering this of late; I jumped straight to the (libertarian) answer to the question in a post two weeks ago. Blackford took the much longer, more scenic route in a series of later posts, but I think the destination is much the same, albeit with a different take on the meaning of the journey.

Anti-aging, again:

I do not intend to deny that contributing to anti-aging research is morally praiseworthy, or even that it may turn out to be morally obligatory in current circumstances when all facts are known and all things finally considered. It's just that the nature of any moral obligation has not been demonstrated to be of the same high (if less than absolute) order as the obligation to avoid murdering other human beings. Thus, the force of any such obligation might need to be weighed against other claims on resources, possible unwanted side effects, and so on. Anti-aging research may still be worth paying for through the tax system, but a quite different sort of argument will have to be made as to why this is good policy in the whole range of circumstances that now confront us.

Apart from the sheer intellectual stimulus involved, it gives me no great pleasure to criticise particular arguments in support of funding for anti-aging research, because I am actually in favour of such funding. However, it looks to me right now as if arguments that attempt to establish an overwhelming moral obligation, similar to the obligation not to murder, are doomed to failure. The problems I've identified above will probably affect all arguments of that kind.

If I'm right about that, advocates of anti-aging research may have a more arduous and less palatable task than is immediately apparent. It will involve facing questions about whether human desires to resist aging, and preserve youthful health and robustness, are rational, and whether they are worthy of being satisfied for their own sake. My claim is that these desires can, indeed, survive scrutiny, and that it takes an unattractive, if not uncommon, kind of puritanism to want to deny them. Bioconservative moralists of the left and right, who typically dismiss such desires as narcissistic or hubristic, are on shaky ground. However, making out this case will require a different style of argument.

Of course, we libertarians can simply skip over the "justify your existence" stage of using our own resources in ways that cause no harm to others. The only justification you should need is the one you use to convince yourself. The biggest problem with modern society is all those folk who have come to think that an opinion is in fact a veto...

But onwards: you should read all of these posts from Blackford, since the excerpts really don't do justice to the breadth and length.

More thoughts on killing and life extension

Assume for the sake of argument that failing to provide the general population with an immortality drug, if one became available, could be considered equivalent in some sense to killing the individuals who are so deprived. Even if we get to that point, it is not clear that this sort of killing would be morally wrong. It depends on what would be the actual effect of having a population of people who use an immortality drug. If the outcome would be some kind of disastrous conflict for resources, or some kind of widespread, catastrophic unhappiness, withholding the drug might be justified. Bioconservatives such as Francis Fukuyama who evidently expect dreadful outcomes are being rational, in their fashion, in claiming that society and the state are morally entitled to tell us how long we may live.

Of course, it is a shocking kind of rationality. I immediately want to add that the last thing I want to do is join Fukuyama in handing such a power to the state - any state, no matter how democratically accountable. To be clear, I am suggesting that there is no absolute right to an immortality drug, even if we had one, or for some more plausible "cure for aging". But at the same time, I want to stress what kind of argument has to be run if there is to be an intellectually credible case against technologies that would extend human life.

What do I get out of this?

As I've been writing about life extension, a cure for aging, etc., over the last few weeks I've been struck (again) by the fact that I personally am now too old to have much prospect of benefiting from any truly radical technological breakthroughs that would greatly extend human capacities or the maximum human life span.

It's good to be realistic - many people in the healthy life extension community are too damn optimistic about their prospects, leading to a lack of activity and support. But I think Blackford swings too far in the opposite direction here, underestimating what could be accomplished and made economically feasible for you and I over the course of the next three to four decades. We are indeed at the beginning of a biotechnology revolution to match the information technology revolution of the past 30 years - but it is up to us to ensure that this revolution delivers the goods.

Watching from the sidelines isn't good enough - all that will get us is the privilege of being the last generation to live and die on an old-school timescale. If you want a better future, then get up and do something about it!

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