Another Brief Detour into Morality

Why can't we just focus on the engineering when it comes to aging and our biology? Stuff in our biology is broken, it causes tremendous pain and suffering, not to mention most of the world's deaths, so let's work on fixing it. This seems like a simple enough proposition, one that nobody has issues with when it comes to specific manifestations of aging like heart disease or Alzheimer's. Yet as soon as you talk about fixing the brokenness of aging itself, the very root causes that produce things like heart disease and Alzheimer's, suddenly half of the room wants you to know just how terribly immoral this would be.

We do not live in a rational age. Not that any of the others were any better, but still. We should be better - we have the grand sweep of recorded historical irrationality to look back on and learn from.

Throughout history people have aged and died because they had to, even as they struggled to live and railed against the inevitable, because there was nothing that could be done. Now there is something that can be done: we can build rejuvenation biotechnologies to repair the known causes of aging. That wasn't plausible centuries ago, or even three decades ago, but it's plausible now. The research and development community is not pursuing this goal in any energetic way, however, and there is no great public clamor for greater longevity through medical technology. So one might argue that the defining characteristic of this new age of ours is that its occupants, presented for the first time with the option to choose life, are instead choosing death.

They are choosing death not just for themselves, but for every future individual that might have had the choice to use rejuvenation therapies had the work started now in earnest. A day late is a hundred thousand lives short: aging produces a sweeping, staggering toll of death. More people than you will plausibly meet in a lifetime have died of aging already today. Tomorrow it will happen again, and for every new day until we choose to stop it from happening.

This is the status quo, this avalanche of funerals and pain. Yet those who tell us that it would be immoral to do anything about it often raise up the status quo, the present structure of society, the bounds of what is, as something of greater worth that must be preserved. See this, for example:

Joichi Ito, who as a high-tech investor and director of the MIT Media Lab might be expected to be a natural ally. The lab, after all, aims to be at the center of today's technology revolution. Ito, speaking today at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, said he believes the singularity vision puts the wrong priorities first.

"I'm on the other side of the singularity guys. I don't think immortality is a good thing," Ito said. People who think about maximizing efficiency "don't think about the ecological, social-network effects. In the future, every science invention we do should be at least neutral," and preferably positive.

"When you introduce immortality, you have to think about what does it do to the system. At the Media Lab, our design principle is not to make the world more efficient, but making the system more resilient, more robust."

A mighty god, the system - on a par with the environment and society when it comes to people willing to march themselves and others to death in its name. Grouping individuals and then coming to see only the group, to the point of discarding the individuals as worthless, has been all too familiar this past century - with its fervors, its global wars, and its megadeaths. I don't imagine that it'll be any easier going forward to convince people like Ito that saving tens of millions of lives every year is more important than their precious abstractions.


"We do not live in a rational age. Not that any of the others were any better, but still."

I think other ages have accorded more respect to rationality and logical argument especially in the domain of human action. Educated people of the High Middle Ages under influence of Scholastic philosophy probably showed the greatest respect for logic. The increase of scientific knowledge disguises this aspect of the history of thought.


To the extent Mr. Ito "argues" against immortality and the singularity in the quoted excerpt, it is a tissue of meaningless buzzwords. The whole cnet article seems to be rather poorly structured, with many of the introduced topics having nothing to do with each other or with the title. Certainly there doesn't seem to be any conflict I can discern between immortality and less hierarchical models of education or rapid prototyping with 3D printers.

Posted by: José at February 1st, 2013 2:03 AM

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