Rejuvenation Biotechnology as a Full Employment Program for Ethicists

Whenever I am told by ethicists that enabling people to live longer is a threat to society, a complex development that must be held back and studied so as to understand how best to allow it to progress, if at all, I have the feeling that I'm being held up for money. Ethics is, I feel, someone undermined in this day and age by the incentives that operate on the ethicist as a professional, with an office and a titled position in one or another institution. If he or she fails to find thorny problems that will require years of careful study, then he or she is out of a job. As a consequence I think a sizable proportion of the more modern incarnation of the field is essentially nonsense.

Acting to reduce the suffering and death of aging, by far the greatest cause of human pain and loss, isn't ethically complicated at all. It is the simplest thing in the world. Are we for or against suffering and death? Against? Good. Then we should bring an end to aging. That really is all there is to it, and all that has to be said on the matter. Medical science is close enough to the goal of rejuvenation therapies that no amount of effort deployed to other means of reducing suffering and death can be anywhere near as efficient a use of resources. Yet, strangely, those other approaches still receive far more attention. So we advocate for an adjustment of priorities: less war, less waste, more life science.

The author of New Methuselahs is one of those folk cheerfully carving out a portion of their living by making the ethics of rejuvenation appear much more complex than is actually the case. There is no problem that could possibly arise from ending aging that would be worse than what presently occurs as a result of aging; the hundred thousand lives lost daily, the hundreds of millions suffering pain, loss of capacity, loss of dignity as their bodies and minds corrode. The threat of overpopulation that is constantly brought up is a Malthusian dream, not a reality. Frequently predicted overpopulation and resource exhaustion has never come to pass, current trends head in the opposite direction, and the demographic models show that ending aging doesn't result in rapid population growth. If anything it is a madness of our era that we collectively have the capacity to do something about the death and suffering of aging, but would rather talk than act.

New Methuselahs: the Ethics of Life Extension

Life extension - slowing or halting human aging - is now being taken seriously by many scientists. Although no techniques to slow human aging yet exist, researchers have successfully slowed aging in yeast, mice, and fruit flies, and have determined that humans share aging-related genes with these species. In New Methuselahs, John Davis offers a philosophical discussion of the ethical issues raised by the possibility of human life extension. Why consider these issues now, before human life extension is a reality? Davis points out that, even today, we are making policy and funding decisions about human life extension research that have ethical implications. With New Methuselahs, he provides a comprehensive guide to these issues, offering policy recommendations and a qualified defense of life extension.

After an overview of the ethics and science of life extension, Davis considers such issues as the desirability of extended life; whether refusing extended life is a form of suicide; the Malthusian threat of overpopulation; equal access to life extension; and life extension and the right against harm. In the end, Davis sides neither with those who argue that there are no moral objections to life enhancement nor with those who argue that the moral objections are so strong that we should never develop it. Davis argues that life extension is, on balance, a good thing and that we should fund life extension research aggressively, and he proposes a feasible and just policy for preventing an overpopulation crisis.

Want to live longer? Consider the ethics

Life extension - using science to slow or halt human aging so that people live far longer than they do naturally - may one day be possible. Big business is taking this possibility seriously. From my perspective as a philosopher, this poses two ethical questions. First, is extended life good? Second, could extending life harm others?

Not everyone is convinced that extending life would be good. In a 2013 survey, some respondents worried that it might become boring, or that they would miss out on the benefits of growing old, such as gaining wisdom and learning to accept death. On the other hand, not everyone is persuaded that extended life would be a bad life. I'm not. But that's not the point. No one is proposing to force anyone to use life extension, and - out of respect for liberty - no one should be prevented from using it.

However, our liberty right is limited by the "harm principle." The harm principle says that the right to individual liberty is limited by a duty not to harm others. There are many possible harms: Dictators might live far too long, society might become too conservative and risk-averse, and pensions might have to be limited, to name a few. One that stands out to me is the injustice of unequal access.

It is unjust when some people live longer than the poor because they have better health care. It would be far more unjust if the rich could live several decades or centuries longer than anyone else. Some philosophers suggest that society should prevent inequality by banning life extension. This is equality by denial - if not everyone can get it, then no one gets it. However, "leveling-down" - achieving equality by making some people worse off without making anyone better off - is unjust. Indeed, most of us reject leveling-down in other situations. For example, there are not enough human organs for transplant, but no one thinks the answer is to ban organ transplants.

Another possible harm is that widespread life extension might make death worse for some people. All else being equal, it is better to die at 90 than nine. At 90 you're not missing out on many years, but at nine you lose most of your potential life. In a world where some people get life extension and some don't, what's the right measure for how many years death takes from you? If so, then the fact that some people can get life extension makes your death somewhat worse. This is a more subtle kind of harm than living in an overpopulated world, but it's a harm all the same.

However, not just any harm is enough to outweigh liberty. After all, expensive new medical treatments can extend a normal lifespan, but even if that makes death slightly worse for those who can't afford those treatments, no one thinks such treatments should be banned. I believe that life extension is a good thing, but it does pose threats to society that must be taken seriously.


This guy is seemingly for life extension and his flip flopping on things is still kind of irritating. I mean, does boredom really need to be investigated as an issue? If I'm bored, that's my issue, no one else's.

That said, I followed one of the links on the site and ended up on this article: which was from 2004 and a reply to something John Harris wrote on life extension. It's a lot of nonsense rationalizing, but We're going to have to deal with many more of these types of viewpoints that want to call for bans on this type of stuff. I feel like some of these ethicists get off on trying to play god, all under the guise of 'equality' and 'justice'. Which of course is nonsense when you consider that their everyday lives are vastly more lavish and wasteful compared to the literal billions of poor people they claim to be concerned about.

Posted by: Ham at September 5th, 2018 6:28 PM

I forgot to add that I agree 100% with Reason in regards to how he feels about 'bioethicists'. Ugh.

Posted by: Ham at September 5th, 2018 6:30 PM

With liberty of human beings, if someone does not believe in anti-aging medicine, then they can pass on the medicine when it comes.

However the violence in their argument is they want to use force/threat of violence to prevent you from being allowed to take the anti-aging medicine if you so want.

Eg.. the guy who says he would get bored living for a long time. Its an argument for why he should avoid taking the anti-aging medicine.

Posted by: aa3 at September 5th, 2018 7:25 PM


This is why it aggravates me. People should have the option. But that's not enough. Because now if people have the option, living longer can 'hurt others', so it should be banned. Because 'evil dictators, resources, population, and of course inequality'. I'm so tired of the ethical mental gymnastics. Pinker has the right idea IMO.

Posted by: Ham at September 5th, 2018 7:29 PM

Any potential investor that is deterred by a bioethicist (surprised that word is in my autocorrect) was never going to invest anyway. Any laws that might be made to deter life Extension will be made as a form of economic warfare by the have nots against the haves, not because of anything a bioethicist says.

Posted by: JohnD at September 5th, 2018 8:19 PM


Given today's political climate, I don't doubt that something like that is possible, even likely. Far too many people begrudge the arbitrarily evil rich people, or anyone more successful than themselves. And it's not so much the investors being deterred by bioethicists, it's the regulators and policy makers. What good is billions of dollars that could be used towards research if it's held up in red tape because of 'inequality and injustice'?

Posted by: Ham at September 5th, 2018 8:34 PM

John D, the regulators are captured by Big pharma for the purpose of greater profit, that bureaucracy you mention is captured
by large corporations on purpose. Please understand this. The ubiquitous drug commercials inform the mainstream
media (large corps) to not ask more basic questions in this realm - advertising, the cash cow might go away. Trump's 2018 budget called for a 20% decrease in NIH funding. Read from more sources.

Posted by: To Age or Not to Age at September 5th, 2018 9:29 PM

Surprisingly, the comments section on the 'want to live longer, consider the ethics' article weren't as terrible as I had anticipated. There were some gems though, mostly from the same person:

'Seriously? Death is natural and good, and without it, we would not be what we are today, nor would we progress any farther. IMHO stagnation of the human race would be the result. Im guessing you're still young …'

'I feel that life without aging would make it so much more precious to the extended "lifer" and that they would go to great lengths to protect it instead of enjoying it. If you have a good 300 ageless years ahead of you, are you going to risk it skydiving? Or will you live a very risk free (boring) life?

No I would not take a pill to speed up aging, because if it were good to die earlier, I would already be dying earlier. I live about 80 years because that is the natural life span of a human. Insects and rabbits live short lives and breed rapidly. They are in balance. Predators of insects and rabbits live longer and breed more slowly. They are in balance, they are all in balance together. Humanity is out of balance.'

And this gem:

'Overpopulation is a major harm to the earth and therefore a major harm to all the occupants. It may be difficult, but banning life extension must be done. Although having said that, I'm sure a few wealthy people would do it illegally, and perhaps set the stage for a fork in evolution, where there is a superior race and a slave race … but if we do nothing, we'll end up in a Kurt Vonnegut story …'

It's like a walking and talking meme here. Hits all the original concerns in the most uninspired way possible. So much concern over everyone else. Who cares if people find their life more precious because it's goikg to last longer. Is it some kind of crime to value your continued existence, regardless if it's going to last another 50 years or another 100 years? You're still going to die at some point. Will some people be more risk adverse? Sure. But not everyone. But why does it matter what someone else does as long as society continues to function. These people that call for bans because they don't want something really grind my gears.

Posted by: Ham at September 6th, 2018 5:21 AM

Obviously bioethicists' arguments are non-sensical. But can they stop this, or even delay it much? We seem to be on the cusp of big corporations investing in anti aging therapeutics. My guess is that public perception will shift after the event. Others have already mentioned that the comments sections of prominent articles are no longer so negative - soon those arguing to ban these therapies will seem like the crackpots, when not so long ago it was us advocates that were cast in this light.

Posted by: Mark at September 6th, 2018 5:59 AM


I'd like to think they can't stop it. But I'm sure they can certainly hold it up for an non trivial amount of time. But then again the first treatments are going to be for certain things, not just some 'longevity shot' that people think of, so that may buy some time.

But you see how the world is today. Everyone wants to seemingly stick it to the evil rich man. This desire to level down is real with some people.

Posted by: Ham at September 6th, 2018 7:53 AM

One thing that you can be sure of is that these windy ethicists will be crowding their way to the front of the line when fairly painless regeneration therapies appear. How many among them have refused existing therapies that were life extending miracles only decades ago? Do they vaccinate their children against polio, etc.?

Unfortunately, reason is but a minor consideration in social policy, and usually an unwelcome factor. Reason might better have named himself "Politics," since that is the realm where the work most needs to be done. Unfortunately, in our time and for the foreseeable future (since there is no contravening leadership in sight), politics is essentially criminal in nature, populated by sociopaths who are comfortable with that reality, and working actively to preserve it. If that were not the case, we would have long ago achieved peaceful, egalitarian prosperity, which is the obvious and technically possible solution for humanity, as well as aggressively seeking regeneration biotechnology from the top down, both firmly rooted in reason. We as humanitarians have grossly failed by the blind eye turned to this dilemma, instead kissing up to tech billionaires and philosophically bankrupt free-market solutions, ignoring the horrible armageddon that lurks in the shadows, 100% based upon unjust inequality and insatiable capitalist expansionism. How much will even profound health extension be worth in a world ravaged by nuclear war and environmental catastrophe?

Posted by: Walter Crompton at September 6th, 2018 8:46 AM

@Walter Crompton
It is my sincere hope that radical life extension will cause people to take the 'long view' with respect to the environment and other problem areas; many people say they care about their descendants, but they actually do little to insure a good future for them. OTOH, I see that many people don't even seem to care for their own future selves that much (poor health practices, no financial planning, etc.), so perhaps my hope is misplaced.

Posted by: CD at September 6th, 2018 11:59 AM

Another positive benefit of rejuvenation therapies would be a second chance at youth for exonerees. The Innocence Project has freed many wrongfully convicted individuals; their stories of having decades of their lives stolen from them - and often being disbelieved and abandoned by so-called friends and family - are truly heartwrenching.

The Innocence Project now has a dedicated fund to support exonerees upon release; in some cases they are not only not given any compensation for their wrongful conviction, but are also denied the basic support given to newly released ex-convicts. I know most here expect that rejuvenation therapies will be affordable in the future, but in the early days at least I expect there to be a cost barrier to access. I hope all reading this post will consider charitable donations to support rejuvenation therapies for any exonerees who want them when they become available.

Posted by: CD at September 6th, 2018 12:55 PM

"Bioethics - when you want to sound important... but aren't".


I think people living longer will take a longer view. So we have to control our numbers. Big deal, we'll figure it out.

So who wants to live in an environmental catastrophe? Well, living in anything is probably better than dying, and we can correct the problems with long lives. You won't have to "have it all now" because you'd have more time.

I also think people will start to ignore the demagogues, because things will be clicking in the form of "Oh, we've seen this show before" - and they won't buy it any longer.

Posted by: bmack500 at September 6th, 2018 3:01 PM

Walter Crompton, reading your message reminded me how progressive the progressive of the mid-20th century really were. The same arguments could be made against the technologies they were pushing such as antibiotics and vaccines. Overpopulation, the rich getting access first, some living longer than others, etc.

Unfortunately humanitarians do have to fight the political battles, and it will always be a brutal trench warfare against the vested interests who profit on the status quo, while being threatened by change of any kind, including progress.

The way to control universities is through the state funding. The universities largely have one customer, the state. If money is flowing to universities who employ and promote radical progressive thinkers, that is what the universities will do.

For an example, as the new technologies come we could use bioethicists to help us determine some of the inevitable ethical challenges that emerge. But the number of those professionals we need is proportional to how far the technology is advancing.

Posted by: aa3 at September 7th, 2018 3:39 AM

I wanted to add that most people aren't big thinkers. That isn't their nature, they think of the world as it is. And any changes they get scared, start thinking only negative things about the change.

Part of our job as people who do think about science fiction like ideas, is to help them to see positive aspects to a change, and address their concerns on the negative possibilities.

For example I found a powerful argument to people in middle age, is that if they could add 30 years to their health span, they could take all the knowledge they built up in their careers and make some serious money over the coming 30 years(which they could build up a family fortune or donate to charities or whatever their financial dreams are). But a frustration they have is just when they have 'figure things out', they are nearing the end of their careers.

Now to me that type of thinking is blatantly obvious, but most people aren't thinking all the time. It doesn't mean they are bad people, they might be focused on their work that day, and then their family, then enjoying a movie, then going to bed. They don't go to blogs talking about futuristic ideas.

Posted by: aa3 at September 7th, 2018 3:47 AM

AA3 - " But a frustration they have is just when they have 'figure things out', they are nearing the end of their careers."

Wow, couldn't have said it better. I feel like I'm better positioned to succeed than ever before, however I need to continue my education and just don't have the time; family has to come first.

Posted by: bmack500 at September 7th, 2018 7:24 AM
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