Deconstructing Deathism, an Essay

The essay linked below was originally published in 2004, but I have no recollection of reading it back then - so I'm going to assume that many of you folk also missed it the first time around. Another item lost to the mists of memory is exactly where and when I first heard the term "deathism," in the sense of an outlook that promotes death as a good thing rather than something to be avoided. You won't find much mention of it prior to 2007 here at Fight Aging!, for example. Deathism is usually put forward in the context of aging as an essentially conservative view: deathists are people who stand against change and for the continuation of the status quo, often without any great consideration, no matter how terrible it might be, and no matter that rampant change is underway in all aspects of human life and society nowadays.

Many similarities can be found when comparing the person who believes that everyone should live the same lives as their parents, aging to death at the same count of years, with the person who doesn't want a new train line built, or decries the latest addition to the downtown skyline, or waxes nostalgic for the foods of yesteryear. But there is an important difference here: people who advocate for the continuation of death and aging are also advocating destruction, pain, and suffering on a grand scale in a way that other conservatives are not. Destruction, pain, and suffering is invariably not their motivation, but it is what they call for nonetheless, and that fact should not be swept politely under the table.

Tens of millions of lives are lost every year, and hundreds of millions more are locked in terrible degenerative suffering and frailty - the human cost of death by aging year upon year is four times that of an eternally ongoing World War II, a horrific toll that our society does its best to ignore. Thus it is socially acceptable to say that aging should continue, and the average person in the street will claim to want to age and die on the same schedule as his or her parents - because that is the socially correct answer, the conforming answer, the one that seems to be taught at a young age by some form of educational osmosis. Sheep and cliffs spring to mind.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the essay mentioned above, in which the author adopts a more optimistic view of the pervasiveness of the desire for a life without end, albeit sidelined into generally unhelpful religious directions. I encourage you look though the whole thing:

Deconstructing Deathism - Answering Objections to Immortality

In Aesop's ancient fable, the fox seeks the juicy grapes to quench his thirst on a hot, sunny day. Finding them out of reach, however, he concludes "they must be sour." The thirst for longer life and better health, which would hopefully extend to a happy existence of indefinite duration, is basic to human nature. Just about everyone has been tempted by these appealing "grapes," notwithstanding that a substantial extension of maximum human life-span, healthy or not, is quite out of reach at present, and always has been. Mortality is a basic feature of earthly life. Yet humans, who seem to be the first life forms on the planet to understand this, are not happy with it. Yes, it's "natural," but our instincts tell us it's still not "okay."

The roots of our irrepressible immortalism stretch well into prehistoric times, as is suggested, for example, by the burial of artifacts such as hunting implements with the dead. In more recent though still ancient times, the feeling flowered into major religions that promised the sought-for immortality and a happy future existence. Many of these belief systems are still with us and their adherents total perhaps about half the humans alive today.

We see then how the wish for existence beyond the biological limits has survived the intractable difficulties that its practical realization has offered. In recent years, moreover, hopes for death-transcendence have taken on new life through scientific advances that offer possibilities of addressing the problem directly. The mechanisms of aging are being unraveled and eventual, full control of the aging process and known diseases is anticipated by some forward-looking people, along with other life enhancements not previously known. People can meanwhile arrange for cryopreservation in the event of death, in hopes that resuscitation technology will eventually be developed, along with the means to reverse or cure any affliction they may have suffered, including aging itself.

Not everyone, of course, can be counted among the immortality-seekers or supporters, even when the new scientific perspective is taken into account. Among those who freely reject the "grapes" of life extension are a predictable fraction who would find them sour as well. These critics defend a counterproposal of deathism, namely, that not only is one's eventual demise inevitable and final (the grapes are out of reach) but that this should be seen in a positive light (but sour anyway, so not to worry).


Arguably deathism is not a genuinely conservative view, since the practice of medicine is something we have from time immemorial and therapies against ageing are mostly a continuation in kind of improvements to human health that medicine has always sought. Saying that we should draw a line in the sand when it comes to ageing and terminate an endeavour that has been with us throughout history is a novelty in itself.

I think most times deathism is one of a category of pseudo-opinions that people espouse because they want to be congratulated on what it supposedly reveals about their underlying character, rather than for authentic conviction.

Posted by: José at February 13th, 2013 2:32 AM

I believe most of the deathists are here because the science and technology for the antiaging procedures are not fully developed yet. And therefore there is no technology that can let people to live indefinitely (only limited by accidents) and to abandon a need for a hope of the life after death.

So this is a vicious cycle. But it can be broken through a slow advance of the science and technology and at the same time by gathering impetus for funding for the antiaging technology by more and more people (with fewer and fewer deathists).

Also I think the hope for a life after death may not fully negate the hope for living for a long time. I would think that there is a room for a belief for a soul-like life after a million-year life before actual death. So maybe this idea has to be just more popular with people who believe in God and a life after death. Help them believe that they can be with God after they die, but just it will take a bit longer to get to that point.

Posted by: nanotech at February 13th, 2013 11:18 AM

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