TCS Daily

"In Perpetuity"?

By Rand Simberg - June 22, 2005 12:00 AM

I recently asked what the implications of a life-long office might be in a world in which life might last indefinitely. This is a question that will increasingly come up as new breakthroughs in life extension start to gradually appear.

The most recent news story to potentially raise this concern is the overhyped situation at Guantanamo, in which the administration now reportedly claims that prisoners there can be held in perpetuity.


Setting aside the issue of whether or not they've received proper adjudication and justice, let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that this is legally correct. What does it mean?


One suspects that those making the claim mean by this phrase that they can be held for the rest of their natural lives. And it's unlikely that they consider that duration to be more than a few decades, because probably few of them follow closely the ongoing medical and technological advances in this area, and would be expected to think otherwise. But for those of us who do (hopefully, including many of the readers of this web site), what does "in perpetuity" really mean in an age of indefinite lifespan?


This raises other societal and ethical issues as well, of course, because achievement of such an indefinite lifespan will require some sort of medical intervention beyond the prisoners' control. Should, and will prisoners, particularly prisoners imprisoned for "life," be entitled to life-extending technologies? So far, the precedent has been largely established that the state is responsible for the health of prisoners in its care. For instance, prisoners have been given expensive organ transplants, at taxpayers expense, perhaps even on death row. More absurdly, there has been recent (and in my opinion appropriate) outrage about imprisoned sex offenders being provided with Viagra, again funded from the public purse. So if life-extending therapies become available, given the precedents, on what grounds will the state refuse them to prisoners?


For a while, they may be able to claim that such measures are too costly and extraordinary to justify the use of hard-earned taxpayer funds to prisoners, but the organ-transplant precedent would have to be set aside for this argument to have any force. And eventually, there will likely come a point at which such therapies become so well established, and so commonplace and low cost that this argument will fail as well. So at some point, the state will have to make a conscious decision to extend lives, making the prisoners a burden on society forever, or let them end naturally. In an era of cheap life extension, the latter course could be logically viewed as a slow form of capital punishment, like starving or dehydrating, or depriving of air. It's a punishment that in fact, being drawn out over a long period of time (cutting off air or water kill relatively quickly in comparison), could be viewed in that time as needlessly cruel (though it's hard to view it that way contemporarily, because it's currently the fate of all of us who don't die of some unnatural cause).


But if the goal is to allow the death of the prisoner so that "in perpetuity" doesn't become literal, then why not simply mercifully end his life quickly? What's the ethical difference in the two forms of capital punishment? And on which side will current opponents of capital punishment come down?


Of course, this also begs the question of what's truly cruel. There was an interesting discussion among some smart bloggers a while back as to whether "an eye for an eye" really represented justice, and whether the purpose of punishment was for rehabilitation, incapacity, deterrence or retribution.


Take the case of Saddam Hussein. Can he be rehabilitated? Unlikely. Will a brutal punishment discourage other psychopaths? Probably not. If retribution is the goal, then justice might dictate that he be subjected to the same hideous fates that he gleefully dealt to others, perhaps with the victims and their survivors being allowed to operate the apparati. In fact, in a world of life extension and powerful new medical techniques, it might be possible to rend him repeatedly, and then put him back together for more, imposing a punishment heretofore capable of being performed only by Greek gods.


But would this be the ultimate cruelty?


One of the benefits of mortality is that no matter how miserable one's life, one could always take solace in the fact that it would eventually come to an end, even if one didn't end it oneself. How cruel then, for Saddam to have to spend an eternity not being the head of Iraq, watching that nation progress toward becoming a democratic beacon for the rest of the Middle East, his monuments destroyed, his picture and memory reviled? How hard a fate for devoted Islamists to see women driving in Riyadh, other women showing their faces to the sunlight in Mecca, their co-ideologists continuing to be hunted down until their vile ideology, like the Nazism that helped inspired it, is also thrown on the ash heap of history.


That, it seems to me, would be a punishment both cruel, and in the context of past ages, quite unusual. But it might be quite just.


Rand Simberg is a consultant and entrepreneur in commercial space, space tourism, and internet security. He publishes a weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.


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