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.
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.
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.