Monday, October 11, 2004

Is approaching immortality immoral?

An article in Reason asks this question.
What if a biomedical researcher discovered that lives were being cut short because every human being was infected in the womb by a disease organism that eventually wears down the human immune system's ability to protect us? Until that discovery, the "natural" average lifespan was the proverbial three score and ten years.

Once the discovery is made, another brilliant researcher devises a "vaccine" that kills off the disease organism. Suddenly the average lifespan doubles to seven score (140 years). In a sense, this is exactly where we find ourselves today. There are no "vaccines" yet to cure the disease of aging. But biomedical researchers understand more with each passing year about the processes that cause the increasing physical and mental debilities that we define as aging. Aging is no more or less "natural" than cholera, smallpox, diabetes, arteriosclerosis, or any disease that cuts short human lives.

Nevertheless, a number of prominent bioethicists and other policy intellectuals are arguing that we should oppose any such life-doubling "vaccine" on the grounds that it would interfere with the "natural" course of human life.

Here are the arguments put forward "against":
Callahan makes three arguments. First, he points out that the "problems of war, poverty, environment, job creation, and social and familial violence" would not "be solved by everyone living a much longer life." Second, he asserts that longer lives will lead mostly to more golf games, not new social energy. "I don't believe that if you give most people longer lives, even in better health, they are going to find new opportunities and new initiatives," Callahan writes.

And thirdly, Callahan is worried about what longer lives would do to child bearing and rearing, Social Security and Medicare. He demands that "each one of the problems I mentioned has to be solved in advance. The dumbest thing for us to do would be to wander into this new world and say, 'We'll deal with the problems as they come along.'"

Am I crazy, or are they leaving out one of the main concerns: that there won't be enough room and/or resources to deal with these expanding lifespans? Human beings are already decimating the world's fisheries, for instance, and a catastrophe looms if something isn't done about this soon. Farming methods are getting better every year, of course, and that may take some of the pressure off. But what happens when lifespans continue to increase? Where do we put all the people? And how do we feed them? What about housing? What if there are tensions between the young and old on this account - as indeed there already are, in terms of Social Security, for instance. As machines take over more and more of the work, where will the jobs come from? And won't people just continue to try to hang on, in whatever way they can, long after their usefulness has come to an end? Will euthanasia become a booming business at that point? Will death become a ritual? Or perhaps the old can fight the wars instead of the young, and we can solve the problem that way. Will childbearing be extended into women's later years - into their 60s, 70s, or 80s?

Isn't this sort of a big ethical issue? Am I missing something here?

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