To my eyes professional ethics is a self-defeating field, in that it appears to corrode the ethics of those who participate. The basic problem here is one of incentives, an age-old story. The funding and standing for a professional ethicist depends upon finding a continual supply of ethical issues that can be used to justify the continued employment and budget of said ethicist. When it comes to medicine, however, and for most other fields of human endeavor, there is no such supply. All of the true ethical problems in medicine and medical science were solved long ago and the solutions finessed in great detail across centuries of thought and writing. These ethical problems in medicine are few in number and basically boil down to what to do in limited resource triage situations (the best you can), whether or not to harm people deliberately (no), and whether or not to work towards better medicine (yes). Thus a gainfully employed professional ethicist must invent new, not-actually-real problems pretty much from the get-go, or give up and admit that the job is pointless. Natural selection then ensures that we only see those who prefer the money over the integrity.
We can measure the decay in the ethics of professional ethicists by the degree to which they can contort themselves to produce different answers to those I provided for the few legitimate ethical challenges in medicine above. If you spend any time at all following the progression of aging research and efforts to extend healthy human lives, then you will see a great many ethicists demonstrating the decay of their personal ethics in just this fashion. There are any number of salaried ethicists willing to throw their newly invented logs in front of the wheels of progress in this field, and tell us just how terrible it would be to cure age-related disease and lengthen productive and healthy human lives. The processes of aging and the age-related disease it produces are the greatest cause of pain, suffering, and death in the world by a very large margin. The way to remove all of this pain, suffering, and death is to build therapies that can repair the causes of aging, therefore preventing all resulting disease and disability. That will also extend life, because healthy, youthful people have a very low mortality rate. Yet the cadre of professional ethicists weigh their present position against the lives and livelihoods of billions and go right ahead with their flimsy objections.
That this whole situation exists, that institutions responsible for providing and improving technologies have increasingly indulged a parasitical arm that siphons off funding in order to obstruct the processes of improvement, is yet another sign that the world we live in is far from perfect. It also suggests that human nature leaves much room for improvement in the years to come, once such an engineering project becomes possible. In this article we see an example of the type of "ethics" I find so objectionable, though it isn't as though one has to try hard to find other examples:
Tortoises typically live well past 100 and might be able to survive even longer. In 2006, a giant tortoise thought to be 255 years old died at India's Calcutta Zoo. We humans have yearned throughout history for longevity and even immortality. Science has already helped us live much longer than our ancestors did, by improving hygiene and protecting us from infectious diseases through antibiotics and vaccines. But current research into extending our lives presents an interesting twist. It also raises ethical questions.
I spoke to experts who foresee a coming revolution in medicine, where we treat age instead of disease. To do this, they are trying to figure out how aging works at the molecular level. The goal isn't exactly immortality. Instead, these scientists have noticed that a variety of diseases, from cancers to Alzheimer's, share aging as a major risk factor. Rather than spending a lot of money to treat each disease individually, why not tackle the root cause? What if there was a pill that slowed how our cells age, letting us avoid age-related illnesses - and also likely extending our lives? It's a safe bet that when most of us contemplate the gaping abyss of mortality, we decide we'd like to postpone that fate as long as possible, while remaining mobile, independent, and mentally sharp. If we must die, let us go peacefully in our sleep, at home, when we're at least 100.
But how might such a revolution ripple across society? Life expectancy already varies greatly. It's tied to education, wealth, and even where you live. According to Alexander Capron, an expert in health policy and ethics at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, life-extending therapies could exacerbate these differences. For example, if these treatments are expensive, or aren't covered by affordable health care plans, only people with disposable cash will have access. This means people with money and resources will have the choice to live longer. Those who don't, won't.
"We can't cherry-pick the costs or savings to focus on," says Patrick Lin, director of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University. Instead, he says,to fairly examine the ethics involved, we should consider impacts both on the individual and society level. "Yes, healthier people may mean lower health costs and more productivity, but that's a partial picture at best. We'd also have to consider the impact of extended lives on, say, Social Security, pensions, job openings given fewer retirements, crime from unemployment, natural resources, urban density, copyright durations, prison sentences, and many, many other effects."
Another effect to consider is how families pass on their legacies, says Nigel Cameron, president of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. Life extension would mean more time with extended family. But it will also mean that inheritance and property will transfer later and less often, which could put more pressure on younger generations to acquire property independently. Lifespan extension could also influence politics and social change, with different age groups pushing for different policies. "There are big generational differences in economic and social interests," Cameron says. "The whole thing becomes much more extended if people live longer, much more competitive."
Still, the research that could lead to life extension is happening, so the conversation about its implications should, too. "Personally, I'm cautiously optimistic about life extension research, but we need to be careful to manage the hype and not ignore the risks," says Lin. "Will we ever become immortal? I don't know, and no one else can see that far, either. But even extending our lives another 20-100 years or more, to start with, is a game-changer."