The Goal is This: Suffering and Death Should Be Optional

The accelerating advance of technology and consequent growth in individual wealth created over the past few centuries can also be seen as an expansion of individual freedom and choice. Wealth is greater available choice, enabled by technology. All of the coins, numbers, and possessions, all of the details of our society and its capabilities are really just a way to enumerate that expanded opportunity for the individual: the choice to fly, the choice to communicate with people on the opposite side of the world, the choice to be warm rather than cold or cold rather than warm, and most importantly the choice to be alive and free of pain and disability rather than suffering or dead due to any number of medical conditions.

Taken as a whole, medicine is the march towards immortality as an ideal, never expecting to get there, but stolidly knocking down as many walls as it takes to move forward one step at a time, each new advance bringing us all just that little bit closer to a world without pain and death. This is a fine and noble thing, and the work of our ancestors has brought us a long, long way from the state of medicine just a few hundred years ago. Helping to continue and expand this progress in technology is the best of what we can do as individuals and as a species, and it is but one slice of what we might call paradise engineering: building the technologies needed to create a rich world of enormous choice and experience that nonetheless entirely lacks involuntary suffering and death.

Here is an eminently sensible article from a professional philosopher that I somehow missed when it was published earlier this year. It makes for a refreshing change in comparison to much of what emerges from philosophy and ethics on the subject of radical life extension and efforts to bring an end to suffering:

Death Should Be Optional

As a non-scientist I am not qualified to evaluate scientific claims about what science can and cannot do. What I can say is that plausible scenarios for overcoming death have now appeared. This leads to the following questions: If individuals could choose immortality, should they? Should societies fund and promote research to defeat death? The question regarding individuals has a straightforward answer - we should respect the right of autonomous individuals to choose for themselves. If an effective pill that stops or reverses aging becomes available at your local pharmacy, then you should be free to use it. My guess is that such a pill would be wildly popular! (Consider what people spend on vitamins and other elixirs on the basis of little or no evidence of their efficacy.) Or if, as you approach death, you are offered the opportunity to have your consciousness transferred to your younger cloned body, a genetically engineered body, a robotic body, or into a virtual reality, you should be free to do so. I believe that nearly everyone will use such technologies once they are demonstrated effective. But if individuals prefer to die in the hope that the gods will revive them in a paradise, thereby granting them reprieve from everlasting torment, then we should respect that too. Individuals should be free to end their lives even after death has become optional for them.

The argument about whether a society should fund and promote the research relevant to eliminating death is more complex. Societies currently invest vast sums on entertainment rather than scientific research; although the latter is a clearly a better societal investment. Ultimately the arguments for and against immortality must speak for themselves, but we reiterate that once science and technology have extended life significantly, or defeated death altogether, the point will be moot. By then almost everyone will choose to live as long as possible. In fact many people do that now, at great cost, and often gaining only a few additional months of bad health. Imagine then how quickly they will choose life over death when the techniques are proven to lead to longer, healthier lives. As for the naysayers, they will get used to new technologies just like they did to previous ones.

[Nonetheless], the defeat of death completely obliterates most world-views that have supported humans for millennia; no wonder it undermines psychological stability and arouses fierce opposition. Thus monetary and psychological reasons help to explain much opposition to life-extending therapies. Still people do change their minds. We now no longer accept dying at age thirty and think it a great tragedy when it happens; I argue that our descendants will feel similarly about our dying at eighty. Eighty years may be a relatively long lifespan compared with those of our ancestors, but it may be exceedingly brief when compared to those of our descendants. Our mind children may shed the robotic equivalent of tears at our short and painful lifespans, as we do for the short, difficult lives of our forebearers. In the end death eradicates the possibility of complete meaning for individuals; surely that is reason enough to desire immortality for all conscious beings. Still, for those who do not want immortality, they should be free to die. But for those of us that long to live forever, we should free to do so. I want more freedom. I want death to be optional.


With the recognition that what people will choose to do with rejuvenation is unpredictable. Most people will want it in the first place so they can have sex with young partners again, but ultimately what they will do with it is probably much different, e.g. undertaking projects that take decades or longer to complete, which previously they would never have considered.

Posted by: Will Nelson at November 8th, 2014 12:00 PM

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