Revisiting "Glancing at the Opposition"
A little while back, I pointed out the rhetoric of the deathists quoted within an article on transhumanist goals written from a conservative religious / bioethical point of view.:
Who are these people who are trying to tell us to reject healthy life extension research and suffer and die instead? Here's a glance at some of the thought processes and opinions from that side of the line at Crisis Magazine: "The search for eternal youth is an ancient human impulse, going back to the world's earliest recorded epic, Gilgamesh. But with modern medical technology, we now seem closer to achieving that end than ever before. ... But does this go too far? Theological critics of anti-aging technology have pointed out that aging has long been considered a consequence of the Fall, and that we are undoing God's command when we radically extend life through medical means." At the base of it, these folk are trying to sell a deeply hostile message: suffer and die on their schedule, when you don't have to, because that's the only thing they can come up with that doesn't require them to utterly abandon their present positions. It's always very clear when someone sets out a hierarchy in which the maintenance of his or her own intellectual comfort zone is way and above whether the rest of us live or die.
Not nice people. I'm surprised that more folk don't treat them with the contempt deserved by anyone who aims to cut short your life. The author sent me an email yesterday, reproduced here with permission, in which it seems he thinks I'm referring to him rather than the quoted deathists:
I'm afraid you may have misinterpreted my intent in writing the article for Crisis you mention (http://www.crisismagazine.com/may2007/pavlat.htm). In your review, you quoted merely a counter-claim that I rebut a few paragraphs later; in other words, you quoted my opponents' arguments. In fact, once the argument in that section of the article has been fully developed, the final line of the section on anti-aging technologies reads:
Although we can give a cautious "thumbs up" to some anti-aging technologies, we need to be cognizant of just how many questions currently have no answers."
In addition, the article quotes extensively from a Catholic priest and bioethicist who not only supports anti-aging technology, but is an active participant in the research field (working on immortalizing yeast for the purpose of later applying the results to humans). So calling the article a glance "at the opposition" hardly seems fair, as I, and all of the Catholic-minded bioethicists I talked to, actually *support* anti-aging research. I apologize if the article was unclear on that point.
Your review states, "At the base of it, these folk are trying to sell a deeply hostile message: suffer and die on their schedule, when you don't have to, because that's the only thing they can come up with that doesn't require them to utterly abandon their present positions. It's always very clear when someone sets out a hierarchy in which the maintenance of his or her own intellectual comfort zone is way and above whether the rest of us live or die." This completely mis-states the Catholic position, and I think it much too harsh for someone who, in the final analysis, agrees with your position on anti-aging.
In sum, you're creating an enemy when there is none. I would appreciate a re-wording of your review that states the position of the article more accurately. If you wish, you may also include my apology for not having stated my position more clearly.
So off I went to reread the thing, and I find it rather interesting that the author believes his position to be essentially positive and supportive. That's not the way it comes across to me at all, but then I have a long history of grinding my teeth over the posturing of bioethicists, and a long history of grinding my teeth over those who believe their views give them power over others. I suppose that an argument of "my hierarchy wants to control your life in a much better way than that hierarchy over there" is doomed from the start with folk like me. If folk like Leon Kass and other outright deathists rate a 10 on the scale of trying to be obstructive to progress in healthy life extension, most mainstream bioethicists and regulators are about a 5, and the mainstream of gerontology - laboring away on and promoting the slow boat in this race - are a 2.
Go and read the article again, taking care to keep the quotes distinct. Sounds like a mainstream bioethicist to me, in tone and content. There is something to be said for the rising tide that floats all boats, but I'm more of the opinion that you get things done by getting things done. If you're not working on A, you're not working on A, even if you're working on B that is related to A. The present gaggle of bioethicists, regulators and scientists - determinedly plugging away on the inefficient path, creating problems and hurdles where none exist, shying away from real progress or opportunity, and sabotaging one another by committee - form a mess. A big, horrible, slow mess that won't go anywhere fast enough to help you or I, and will swallow up untold resources in that failure.
And meanwhile here we are, aging and dying just as fast as we were last year. Things have to be made to change, and change rapidly. Those ethicists gently dipping their toes into the water of "maybe we should be telling you to do something that might just, maybe, extend the schedule on which I am comfortable for you to remain alive" are helping not one jot. I don't think they get it, at root: the visceral understanding that death by aging is a greater horror than any other. When you truly understand that, you can't write gentle articles on incremental movements in policy anymore.
Technorati tags: bioethics, religion, life extension