Remember that Professional Ethicists Justify their Wages by Inventing Problems

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:

The Tricky Ethics of Living Longer

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."


Err... I don't understand why you're so riled up against ethicists, Reason. They're useful. The ones you are quoting don't even want to prevent progress. Every concern contained in the article is legitimate - rejuvenation gap, generational interference, prison sentences, etc. Real problems. I think you're embarking on a wrong and counter-productive crusade here.

Posted by: Nico at March 24th, 2016 11:02 PM

Nico, I think their concerns are plainly stupid. For example, the "only for the rich" concern: that scenario is highly unlikely, for many reasons, and even if it happens, we have a worse scenario now, where absolutely everybody has a death sentence after decades of suffering.

Posted by: Antonio at March 25th, 2016 1:51 AM

"Personally, I'm cautiously optimistic about life extension research, but we need to be careful to manage the hype and not ignore the risks"

The real risk is that of the 100,000 people that will die today of a disease that could be eliminated if only moderate research funding were provided.

Posted by: Antonio at March 25th, 2016 1:55 AM

This is way ad hominem. I saw a congressman saying that climate scientists wouldn't have a job without claiming climate change exists. Today's article had a similar feel. It's taking the intellectual low road when an advocate of a particular view says that opposing experts are in it for a paycheck.

Posted by: Patrick Colleton at March 25th, 2016 2:11 AM

@Patrick: Climate scientists will *do* have a job if climate change didn't exist.

Posted by: Antonio at March 25th, 2016 2:23 AM

Solid post Reason.
As far as climate change is concerned, please remember no one argues that generalized climate does not exist, the issue is specifically anthropogenic climate change.

Posted by: JohnD at March 25th, 2016 10:34 AM

@Antonio: It's not "only for the rich", it's "difference between the rich and the poor". Those differences are real, there's a healthcare gap right now, depending on your income and/or location.

As for your second post, how exactly are you refuting his point? Where did he say that lives shouldn't be saved? Do you pretend that greatly extended lifespans will come without any social issues ? Are social issues not real problems in your view ?

@Patrick: Agreed. It's disappointing to read this from Reason, who's more thoughtful and tactful regarding other topics.

Such an attitude is detrimental to our movement; not because we're activists means we're like ostriches with their heads in the sand refusing to consider the nuances of reality, calling anyone who isn't as enthusiastic as us "useless" and "greedy".

I am not an anti-intellectualist and I don't want to be associated with such people.

Posted by: Nico at March 25th, 2016 10:54 AM

@Nico: I think you miss my point. I am pointing out that medical ethics is a solved, closed issue, with definitive and fixed answers. Anyone who claims to have found reasons why we shouldn't develop new medicine that produces better lives is simply wrong. Pointing to any aspect of the present organization of society such as retirement, the way people feel, or other similar items, to say that possible or even definitive changes to it outweigh saving and improving lives is simply wrong.

Again, medical ethics is a solved issue. The nature of that solution isn't changed in the slightest by progress in technology, but the professional ethics industry requires the stance that it is, or is changed by any number of other irrelevant things, in order to justify their own existence as guides in an allegedly shifting world. This is painting white as black, or vice versa, on a vast and brazen scale. It is an enormous con, perpetuated for all the standard reasons that these counterproductive, nonsensical, obviously false things persist in large organizations: because there is a living in it for those who choose that path, and it is too costly for other individuals to act to root out the rot. Everyone makes short-term decisions that lead to a more ruinous outcome.

Posted by: Reason at March 25th, 2016 11:42 AM


The healthcare gap today is minimal. See for example the 2 graphs here: Do you really think that the second one is compatible with a big healthcare gap?

And, as has been argued countless times here, real rejuvenation therapies (i.e., therapies that will bring you 20-30 years of extra life), will be cheap as dirt. See for example the second comment by Slicer here:

"Are social issues not real problems in your view ?"

You can bet on it! If you were given a death sentence, will you worry about what they will give you for lunch in the prison?

Posted by: Antonio at March 25th, 2016 12:34 PM


I think claiming that all of medical ethics is solved is a really facile casting of the complexity of lots of contentious questions. For example, the right to die doesn't clearly map onto "do no harm," so it requires discussion and debate. I think you're passing off fairly straightforward *goals* of medicine as the difficult implementation of those goals. Ethicists also weigh in on problems of implementation, such as equality of distribution, who pays for things and how. Those questions are by no means "solved." Arguably for the two major US political parties, their goals in the broadest sense largely align - increase security, decrease poverty, increase prosperity etc. But obviously, saying that doesn't get you very far, in practice.

You're totally right about the cultural attitude being biased against evidenced-based life extension for no good reason. Opponents' reasons fall in the vague space occupied by "It's unnatural," "It's not right," "It's not possible" and "What? I didn't hear you, I had headphones on." But I also can't help but notice an emotional thread running through proponents of life extension that comes through in their presentation of their ideas, too. We're afraid to die and it comes through in our defense of SENS and other programs against all criticism, whether that criticism is parochial or legitimate.

I'm 31 and I've been following this site and a few others for a few years. I want radical life extension to succeed before my time. But my null hypothesis is that I'm going to die at about 80 (maybe 85 or 90) with better quality of life than previous generations. All the research I've seen so far is of the form "Hey, this seems to work for mice." and "In principle, maybe aging works this way." and "Actually, maybe this particular thing doesn't work like we though" and "In five years, this cool thing will totally be in clinics." (some of those things I read five years ago or more).

But I believe that aging research has real money and real research behind it for the first time in history. So maybe we've got a shot. I allow for the logical possibility that it won't, though, even with SENS, Calico, Wake Forest and everyone going at full steam with perfect funding. I'm not even sure, the entire GDP of the planet put towards this enterprise would work in time. It might.

Emotional attitudes are working for and against life extension. My personal attitude is let's see.

Posted by: Patrick Colleton at March 25th, 2016 2:09 PM

Reason your assertion that ethicists are simply wrong is unreasonable. We live in a democracy where one of the core assumptions is that nobody has knowledge of all perspectives on an issue. Hence, we engage in stakeholder consultation and analysis of issues to form policy, gauge impacts.

Posted by: Chris at March 26th, 2016 9:07 AM

Science is not a democracy. Engineering is not a democracy. Not all ideas are equally sensible and not all arguments are correct.

Posted by: Antonio at March 26th, 2016 9:40 AM

"Ethicists also weigh in on problems of implementation, such as equality of distribution, who pays for things and how."

Yes, but when was the last time anyone listened to any of them? Health care policy is set by politicians who have an entirely different set of concerns.

These "ethicists" seem to be in the same camp as the people who wrote that one paper on feminist glaciology (not a typo, Google that yourself). Talking about prison sentences and Social Security (dealing with that is also a political problem, not an ethical one) and all the rest of it is totally, abjectly meaningless. You could make an equally compelling case that we should simply start shooting people in the head on their eightieth birthdays.

"Stakeholder consultation" and "democracy" are, similarly, totally meaningless. The number of people who believe something stupid doesn't make the stupid thing true.

These people aren't actual scientists, they're professional opinion-havers trying to tell people what to be worried about. Except anyone with any sense is going to be more worried about slowly degenerating to an agonizing death while his brain falls apart than what opinions these people may or may not have. I'm genuinely surprised Reason even bothers making articles about them at all; why give them attention?

I've said it before, I'll say it again: you make it apparent that this is actually possible and all of this crap will fall by the wayside. Saying "no" on a theoretical question is virtue signaling, paranoia, general small-mindedness; you have the question of "do you want it?" asked by a 80-year-old lady with her cross-links cleared (so she looks like a 25-year-old) and the "no" vote will be vanishingly small.

The real problem faced by life extension advocates is making people understand that their lives are at stake, but accepting prolonged death by senescence is woven too tightly into the cultural fabric.

People 500 years from now, unless we're here to tell them, are going to wonder what the hell was wrong with us.

Posted by: Slicer at March 26th, 2016 2:53 PM

Hi all,

I believe what is more important is focusing on getting these therapies out quickly and the rest will fall into place. People will finally realize that it's not a fantasy anymore and you can live much longer, happier and healthier. The Fear of Dying, The Uncondionnality/100% Assuredness of Your Death Before 120, The Fear of Leaving This Life - Forever, The Total Acceptance As Fact You Will Die and It-Is-So..So, So-Be-It, You Die...all of these notions..gone... Asked between 'do you want cancer, alzheimer's, heart attack or any, have your pick of the litter terrifyinglu hurtful and decrepitting disease; and die at 90-120, or hell just live healthy up to 122 tops ?' or 'do you want no cancer, no alzheimer, no heart attack, sharp mind, happiness, healthiness and near-limitless/immortal life/you choose when you die of a natural death (stop rejuvenation/''pull the plug'' when you want) and life is too boring at that ultra-late point of centuries lifespan you had ?'

You will the see that people Will prefer to choose their own choice, Now They Will Have a Choice - As To Dying or Not. We have no choice, and so say, in this...we die, all of us, end of story. What if that story was different, the Ending, could be post-poned, as we like and enacted when we wanted (think of like the daughter of the Elf in the Lord of The Rings movie, she, like her father, is immortal, one day she meets a 'mortal' (Aragon) and falls in love with him, she now wants to be a 'mortal' and die beside of him as a 'mortal' because she thinks it's beautiful and a 'Gift (to be 'able to die' that creates a 'Finity/Finitness/Finality' to a mortal life), she has lived a 1000 years, she had enough it's boring all mortals die and die, while she lives on eternally, she is too sad seeing all these mortal die...her father, the Elf Chief who is immortal too (Dad is still around! Yep, you can thank immortal elf powers lol), tells her this will be the 'End' of her if she relinquishes her immortality to become a mortal to 'die beside her 'mortal' Aragon man'. She does not listen to her Father and wants to be less selfish (immortality is selfish, we here that all the time...ethicists : ''Please Die so you can be replaced and there must be a roll, people die and are replaced, don't be selfish, think for others and die soon to let the new kids in and replace you''. Immortality is selfish, but, times are changing, no one lives in YOUR body, but you, only you lives and decides of its fate in it (you want to suicide and jump off a cliff, your decision - your body), always remember that, very selfish, but true). The immortality or let's say Much longer lifespan is For Everyone, in equality, not just rich people or rich countries. It should be a Global Thing - But it is Still, at the end of the day, You in Your Body, and No One Elses Lives in it.

It makes me think of Aubrey de Grey's recent PRO vs CON debate that he went against these sort of ethicists/philosophists/fatalists-lovers in face of a public, who saw, thankfully, that life extension is more important to happening than should be stopped by was heart-wrenching to see him defend himself with exaggeration : 'end of the world, overcrowding population, selfishness, resource draught, only rich people, you must die, suffer or else you are immortal and it's not ok ,I said, etc etc'.

So, Reason, don't let that put you down, it's incredible what you have accomplished and I am of the opinion that you can, on very own property/website, can talk what you wish; although internet is an open space and of course, some people may disagree with your statements; it's what we take in risk when we start crusading on different revolutionary/reality-changing issues, which some people are not/do not wish to accomodate to (don't want to change/hard headed in old dying ideas (pun intended)).

Posted by: CANanonymity at March 27th, 2016 11:05 AM

@Reason: But you are conflating issues and, I believe, yourself missing the ethicists' points.

Reasonable ethicists do *not* say that medical issues are outweighted by non-medical ones. They are saying that medical issues aren't everything there is to rejuvenation, that there are many other profund effects to come, and that we must also take them into account.

How is that unreasonable ? How is that a scam ?

@Antonio: About 2,5 million of my compatriots live, right now, in what is known as a "medical desert". That's a huge medical gap in my book. Will they be able to be given rejuvenation treatments as quickly, and with the same quality, as the others? I don't know, but that's a real concern based on actual issues.

I also obviously disagree with the way you downplay the many social problems to come. They're lower in terms of priority than medical problems, right, but just because they don't rank first in the list of worries makes them irrelevant altogether. Arguing this is, as Patrick Colleton put it above, "the intellectual low road". It's preaching uninformed judgements, and a disgrace to the community of forward thinkers.

@Slicer: My above objections to Reason and Antonio also apply to your post. You mention "paranoia" and "general small-mindedness", two terms which equally apply to a portion of our community: it's like nothing except medical problems can and should be discussed, because there is this paranoia that mentionning any other sort of problems will divert efforts towards rejuvenation treatments. 'Medicine is the mantra, anything else will hamper our hopes and progress'. This is such a ludicrous and disappointing mindset to bear.

Then you mention life extension advocates. Yes, about them... What do you expect advocates to reply to an audience who is convinced about the medical benefits but worried about the structural impact on society? Just how serious do you think you will sound, when you answer them: "LOL who cares, fund us or you'll die! Anything other than medicine is a non-issue and you're all a bunch of idiots if you're giving it any thought"?

Really, how is that making life extension advocates thoughtful, well-rounded individuals; worth listening to and trusting? How is this attitude any better than demagogue politicians? How is this putting our advocacy in a better position than the ethicists you decry?

Posted by: Nico at March 27th, 2016 6:17 PM

"an audience who is convinced about the medical benefits but worried about the structural impact on society"

Outside of the ivory towers, there is no such audience! Does anybody, anywhere, go "hmm, maybe this lifesaving cancer treatment isn't for me, I have to think about the structural impact on society"? There's a lot of "vaccines cause autism" idiocy, but nobody even remotely pretending to be rational ever went "we can't cure polio, we have to think about the structural impact on society". There were a lot of people saying that everyone carrying a cellphone was a bad idea, but who listened to them? Cars, televisions, same deal. If you prove it's possible, everything else will just vanish like fog.

To even bother with these people is like debating creationists. There's no point. Nothing productive can be gained from the exercise. They don't have any kind of influence on longevity fundraising, and the voice of "it's bad for society to make people live longer!" is not one heard at the FDA.

That's why the medical issues are paramount and why the only legitimate concern is one of equal and cheap access, but I'm pretty sure that societal pressures will grant that rather quickly.

Posted by: Slicer at March 27th, 2016 6:52 PM


Apart from what Slicer just said, to which I totally agree, it's pointless to worry about LE consequences when LE research is so badly underfunded and unknown to the public. To worry about LE consequences you need LE! And ANY of these consequences will be much much better than what we are experiencing now. Not in a distant future, NOW. 100,000 people dying every day, after decades of pain and misery, for then and their relatives.

The problem of the 1% of the population being in a "medical desert" than doesn't even show itself in the life tables? Compared with the problem of the 100% of the population having a fatal disease with no cure, that kills them after decades of suffering? Mmmm... can really exist a problem of priorities here? Just wondering.

Posted by: Antonio at March 28th, 2016 1:07 AM

@Slicer: Your comparisons are biased in that those impacts you mention (curing cancer/polio) would be much less structurally important than those of systematic rejuvenation, in the grand scheme of things.
There have already been complaints about overpopulation for years - outside of the longevity extension topic. As well as recurring complaints about cellphones, cars, etc. Not so vocal, but persistent. And for good reasons, if you ask me.

But to get to your point: medical issues are paramount, yes, but I stand by my opinion that it doesn't make other issues any less legitimate. Having less priority, yes; being less legitimate, no. And I'm not just arguing words and splitting hairs, here. It's a matter of mentality, a mentality which governs what and how we root/advocate for.

@Antonio: Again, we all agree that the medical side of extended longevity is where the current efforts should be directed to. I have said it earlier. Since this is agreed on, and acted on through donation towards rejuvenation projects, why the need to put one's head in the sand and deny the discussion/legitimation of the other sides of longevity? To me, doing so amounts to anti-intellectualist posturing.

Posted by: Nico at March 29th, 2016 6:09 PM

While I generally dislike bioethicists it is fair to admit that curing aging will likely lead to some new challenges for society. We shouldn't be polyannaish and claim there's won't be some issues. That said, the positives will far outweigh the negatives, and I feel confident we will be able to adapt.

That said, I agree the "only the rich" argument has to be the worst argument I've ever come across. Only the rich in the developed world can afford things like chemotherapy and kidney transplants, but we don't look at that as bad or try to restrict it. Also, most innovations cost a lot in the beginning, but always come down in price and eventually become affordable to most people. There'd have never been any progress if people listened to the only the rich argument.

Posted by: KC at March 31st, 2016 2:05 PM

Indefinite longevity will of course raise new challenges and questions, socially, economically, culturally, politically, etc. But that does NOT make it unethical. Few people seem to realize that science does not need to stop for ethics to proceed. Let the scientists do their science, while the ethicists do ethics. Ethics is supposed to be a branch of philosophy. That means it should involve dispassionate analysis and consideration of all arguments for and against. It should also consider the current state of science and not resort to fictional scenarios, like Brave New World or GATTACA. Instead, it is far too often personal opinion. Daniel Callahan, a well known medical "ethicist", proposes denying anything other than palliative care for patients older than 75. That has no scientific or philosophical rationale. Callahan simply likes the idea. Callahan also claims (even though he is not a scientist) that evolution created aging. When Aubrey de Grey (an actual biomedical gerontologist) refuted that claim with science, Callahan offered no rebuttal, and just kept repeating the same cliched arguments. Aubrey de Grey has addressed the concerns of SENS far better than his critics.

Posted by: Adam at September 4th, 2017 1:52 AM

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