A Blithe Acceptance of Death and Centralized Control

We live in an age in which the majority of people blithely accept the suffering and death of aging as a given, an axiom, something of no great consequence to the arrangement of everyday life, and do much the same for the centralized control over lives and activities undertaken by a small, empowered elite. The latter is not a novel situation - see ancient Sparta, for example - but the sheer, pervasive breadth and depth in which it is presently practiced is an invention of the past few hundred years, made possible through great increases in wealth and technology. The Panopticon state is a modern creation, Sparta only its tiniest seed. Aging is aging, of course, and has been with us since the beginning. But both of these things are far from inconsequential, and indeed they shape our lives to a very great degree.

It is an important point that most people consider it unremarkable and entirely ethical to talk of regimenting society, placing widespread strictures on everyday activities and choices. Part of the struggle faced by researchers and advocates focused on lengthening human life stems from the fact that a large portion of the population sees nothing inherently wrong in forcing other people to act or not act as they see fit - or worse in forcing them to suffer and die to a timetable. It's somewhat irrelevant that the reasons for such would-be tyranny are flimsy and illogical. The real horror is that this is considered normal and reasonable.

Prompting this line of thought, earlier today I stumbled over an unusual argument against working to reverse degenerative aging and extend healthy life. At root it appears to suggest that a higher throughput of human lives is better (for nebulous reasons relating to variety of life and culture at any given moment), and since population will tend to fall off with increasing wealth and longevity we should thus refrain from trying to prevent the tremendous suffering and death caused by aging. As I was thinking what to make of this particular example, it occurred to me that in order to put forward this sort of argument, you really have to be very accepting of the present cost of aging: the pain, the death, the loss. It has to be a trivial axiom, something that isn't all that important, if you can focus instead on incrementally steering the variety of culture present in the world. Further, you would also have to be pretty comfortable with the sort of tyranny needed to force the world to relinquish biotechnology and die to a particular arbitrary schedule.

Life Extension? No Thanks

My most serious worry is about the lower total population of 90-150. 10 people wind up existing in 240 years, in contrast with 14 in 30-90. The reason this troubles me is not because I'm concerned about the four missing people. They are not harmed by not coming into existence. The reason why 30-90 seems better is because it has greater human richness. It's more diverse because four more people come into the world, and that diversity has advantages for the people who exist in that world.

Greater human diversity goes along with more intellectual and technological progress, or so it's been hypothesized by [diverse] authors. They hypothesize that the huge current population of the world is one reason why we are at a point of unprecedented development in many areas. More people means more specialization, more minds working on problems. The crucial thing here is not just how many people exist at a time, but how many exist over time. Arguably, 30-90 is better than 90-150 for the reason that more people are around to contribute to the human enterprise in 30-90 (though the same number exist at one moment in time).

It is an ongoing failure on our part that people can idly - or not so idly as has been the case in past years - make arguments of this nature without being noted as unethical, evil, and morally bankrupt. You can advocate enforcing the deaths of as many people as you like, and for whatever thin reasons, so long as they are old, or so it seems. Few people will think you any less of an upstanding fellow for doing so.


Even in terms of the author's perverse stated values, the whole argument is wrong. My comment is awaiting moderation over there, so I'll reproduce it here:

Putting aside the appalling cavalierness with which you dismiss concerns about the human suffering brought on by aging and death, your 90-150 model is completely wrong. You have every generation except AB reproducing at 30 and dying at 90.

To get population to stabilize at the same level as the 30-90 model, you just double both numbers. A 60-180 model, in other words.

You then end up with having only ten people exist in 240 years. But that's not a real issue. Even if we grant that this "human richness" is so important that it justifies forsaking a doubling of human lifespan, it's not necessary to do so. What really matters is not how many people have existed in a fixed span of time, but rather how many were born over the course of so many lifetimes.

The passage of time in and of itself is meaningless. In billions of years the universe will succumb to heat death, but aside from that, time is scarce only insofar as human biology makes it so. If it takes 360 years instead of 180 to produce six generations, who cares? It's still two lifetimes.

Posted by: Brandon Berg at January 22nd, 2013 8:06 PM

The entire idea of the state is premised on aggressive violence so that without such means it could not exist. It's then no surprise that the propagandists for state power teach the acceptability of aggressive violence and people adopt this as an appropriate recourse for moulding the behaviour of others in whatever way they see fit.

To respond to the linked article's other two enumerated points:

1.) He should show the evidence that raising children makes people happy. In point 2 the author alludes to some supposed evidence from psychology but here the evidence is curiously absent. Furthermore, the same evidence alluded to in point 2 shows the child-rearing years to be the least happy for most people! It is at least conceivable if not likely the belief that child-rearing is joyous results from cognitive biases. It may be very difficult for parents to imagine the hypothetical alternative in which they don't have children, and they may deprecate their happiness in this scenario because they love their children and don't want to admit that they might have been happier without them. Choice-confirming bias may also play a role. In any case, the anecdotal reports of parents on this matter are certainly not to be taken at face-value.

2.) If people get happier as they grow older past middle age, why would you want them to then drop dead? Why would you want happy people, moreover, people that according the "U-shaped" happiness curve thesis have the prospect to become *even happier* to lose all their happiness and cease to exist? The only way to rescue the author's point from being complete and utter gibberish is to infer that the reason elderly people are happy is that they are frail and about to die so that prolonging their lives would in fact negate their happiness rather than prolong and increase it. Needless to say, this is a massive logical leap unsupported by any evidence. Among the alternatives, as mentioned in point 1, perhaps children are actually bad for happiness and the elderly are happier for not having to take care of them.

On a more philosophical note, the author seems to assume a purely utilitarian theory of value. One antique objection to this philosophical position runs that not all happiness is of the same quality, and the example de rigueur is that pigs are quite happy to eat slop and wallow in the mud. Uncomfortable as it might be to consider, could the happiness of the elderly be in part like the pigs' happiness? That is, could the deterioration of their mental condition from the effects of ageing have rendered them incapable of apprehending what a young mind would feel as the misery, indignity and monotony of their condition?

Posted by: José at January 23rd, 2013 12:26 AM

The author seems to suffer from status quo bias in evaluating human diversity and richness.
To promote even greater diversity and richness, would the author support a Crystal Age inspired scenario? Programmed death at 30, sexual majority at puberty. I bet not.

Posted by: Hervé Musseau at January 25th, 2013 2:39 AM

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