TCS Daily


A Conservative Case for Immortality

By Charles N.W. Keckler - September 12, 2006 12:00 AM

One of the sharpest dividing lines we experience as human beings -- the difference between life and death -- has long been a part of American politics. In the abortion debate (and related), the battle lines have been drawn, with most conservatives coming down on the side of life, which is understood as not interfering with human development at the beginning of life. Likewise in the controversy over euthanasia: for conservatives, life is best left well enough as it is, allowed to run its course, without a medical bureaucracy stepping in to decide if death would be a superior social outcome.

But when it comes to life extension, many conservatives -- without otherwise abandoning their pro-life credentials -- turn out to be "pro-death" in the sense of opposing as at least unwise or imprudent any serious attempt to slow down, halt, or reverse the aging process.

The most prominent conservative critic of anti-aging efforts has been Leon Kass, former Chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics. Kass orchestrated a government report warning of its dire cultural and social consequences, and has given numerous speeches and writings in favor of accepting the natural human lifespan, the infirmities of old age, and eventual death. The Anti-anti-aging position is now an important component of an emerging "bioconservative" intellectual movement.

This view is not prima facie hypocritical. Conservatives such as Kass are urging inaction instead of action; to allow natural events to unfold without human interference. If a baby is conceived, let him be born; if death is coming, do not hasten it, but also do not act to stave it off indefinitely. This is a respectable position, in accord with the natural instincts of a conservative temperament.

What's more, an indefinite lifespan would create an historical discontinuity, and effect unpredictable social and cultural changes. This brute fact will be enough for many conservatives to maintain their pro-death positions.

But they may want to temper such instinctive reactions because, perhaps surprisingly, there are genuinely conservative arguments for life extension. Central to any conservative social agenda -- using Russell Kirk's principles as exemplary -- are desires to inculcate order, temperance, and prudence. And all of these are well served by encouraging longer lives, not shorter ones.

These points are not totally without precedent. After all, the lifespan of the average person has increased thirty years in the twentieth century alone, without altering human biology in any fundamental way. The presence of a more elderly population -- and one in which the rest of us expect to be elderly -- has induced, it could be argued, clear preferences for insurance (government or private), risk aversion, and general social stability. Such preferences are apparent in Japan and the Western European countries where interest in life extension has been most pronounced. This is only to be expected, for we all have more to lose than our forefathers.

It is easy to critique such caution and argue it has led to excessive stability -- but this would not be at root a conservative critique, for it is hard for a conservative to inveigh against peace, prosperity and stability. One glance at life in Africa or the Mideast -- turbulent, youthful, and short-lived - suggests that these characteristics are all interrelated and that the omnipresence of death has hardly made these places better in any conservative sense. Indeed, shortness of life has not made Somalia or Afghanistan more culturally productive, nor given their inhabitants a more meaningful existence.

An interesting question is whether the relationship between social stability and average lifespan would continue with further life extension in the West. I think we can assume that it will. Certainly people who prefer mortal risks to boredom will not like this. Such people might be daredevils, but they are not conservatives.

In his 2002 book "Our Posthuman Future", Kass's Bioethics Council colleague Francis Fukuyama opined that "political, social, and intellectual change will occur much more slowly in societies with substantially longer average life spans." Fukuyama thinks this is a bad thing. He may be right about the speed, but his premise is only partially true -- particularly if we take the shifts in the 20th Century as a guide. To make his point, Fukuyama relies upon the idea of paradigm-shift. According to this theory, "revolutionary" (as opposed to "normal") changes in science are often associated with generational changes in scientists, since it is rare for people to adopt fundamentally new habits of thought in middle age. The transition between classical mechanics to quantum mechanics can be captured by the old quip: "physics advances, funeral by funeral." Therefore, one might infer, fewer funerals, fewer advances.

The mistake in such reasoning is the assumption that revolutionary change is the only kind of change there is. Cursory inspection of recent history shows our institutions to have generated unprecedented technological and scientific creativity, all during a time of increasing lifespan. In part, innovation is due to that increase, which gives individual researchers the capacity to master tremendously complicated technical material and then to develop long-term research programs.

It is false that extending lifespan blunts innovation, except, perhaps, that of the "paradigm-shifting" sort. Conservatives are generally ambiguous about that sort of change, anyway. Therefore, I see no inconsistency in conservatives also seeking to preserve the true embodiments of the past, the repositories of wisdom and experience we ourselves will become if fate -- and the federal government -- let us.

Charles N. W. Keckler, M.A. (Biological Anthropology), J.D., A.B.D (Human Evolutionary Ecology), is a litigator and former law professor living in Washington, D.C.

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13 Comments

Who is actively arguing against an end to death? Anybody?
I have never seen this view espoused or advocated by anybody. It would be nice if the author would provide an example or two, rather than just asserting that such opposition exists.

I can only assume that this "conservative opposition to the end of death is based on opposition to cloning or stem cell research.

The fundamental issue here is whether or not it is justified to extend life by extinguishing other lives. I would say that it is not. The stem cell issue centers on abortion. If the potential for embryonic stem cell research were not used to justify abortion, then there would be no problem with it. However, because it is being used as a backdoor way of claiming that abortion is a good thing, people have issues with it. If we limited stem cell harvesting to the embryos of women whose pregnancies posed a risk to their health, then nobody on the Right would have a reason to complain. The Left, on the other hand, would go ape excrement because that would destroy a justification for their pet issue: abortion. Cloning falls in to the same category.

As a final note, I know what the argument that I am about to hear will be: But the embryos that have already been aborted/reside in fertility clinics are never going to be alive! They are just going to sit there in cold storage or be thrown away!

That is true, but it does not address the fundamental dispute. Once again, this is not about stem cell research, it is about abortion. Until that issue is addressed, we cannot have an actual debate about stem cell research.

immortality and it's consequences
The problem is that nobody knows what the consequences of dramatically and suddenly increasing life expectancy would be.

It would be a conservative position to declare that we should look before we leap. The bigger the change we are proposing, the longer and harder we should look first.

I've read a number of science fiction books that explore this subject, and the ramifications, in the authors views are more widespread than people think.

For example in science. Most of the radical breakthroughs have been made by relatively young scientists, who then spend the rest of their lives, defending their work against the newest generation of upstarts. Perhaps this problem could be solved by a policy that department heads must move on after a decade or two.

What happens to corporate advancement, if the current management decides to stop retiring and dying? Who's to decide when wisdom and experience ossifies into stubborness?

As the author mentioned. Life expectancy has increased about 30 years in the last 100 years. And society is still trying to figure out how to deal with the consequences of that rather small change.

It's quite possible that medical science will come up with something that will extend life another 100 years tomorrow.
If it does, it would be the height of totalitarianism to prevent that discovery from being applied. (like anyone could keep that genie in the bottle anyway)

Perhaps it would be wise for govt to not fund research in this area, until we as a society have a better idea as to how we will respond to the changes such an advancement would create.

No Subject
Seems like a good time to trot out the theory of relativity. Not Einstein's version but the everyday ordinary one. If a population is living longer on average then the rate of social change can in fact slow down without remotely as much harm as some predict. If our threescore and ten extends out a few more score then there's less psychological urgency in all things. Presumably the greater the extension the more relaxed the general zeitgeist. Almost inevitably population increase will abate further due to better control over our fecundity and the sheer lack of need for a crowded cohort of progeny, it's already alarmingly low in most industrialized societies, so dramatically extending life span poses little danger of swarming the planet with bodies. Social changes will be profound but woe unto those who think they can accurately predict them. It's likely to be better and worse in ways at present unimaginable but we can be sure that in the next century healthy 120 year olds are not likely to be volunteering en masse for the Soyent Green tanks. Change may be slower but I doubt that we'd be so somnolent we couldn't appropriately respond to great emergencies in a timely fashion. The key to all this is whether or not we merely extend a crippled dotage or actually reverse the effects of aging. If it's the second then most would likely not want to trade down to a 19th century lifespan nevermind a 19th or 18th century version. Relativity. To an Australopicithine an 80 year lifespan would have seemed a fair definition of immortality.

We'll see how steadfast Mr. Kass still is if and when he hits his eighth decade and is staring down the reaper's shotgun barrel. Just because nature was "negligent" in designing us to live twelve decades doesn't mean we have to take it literally lying down.

Human Engineering
Human engineering will be THE growth industry of the 21rst century.

Controlling/eliminating senescence and enhancing human capability with technology will of course be disruptive, just as the trains, autos and computers were disruptive. As I have a right to live, so I have a right to enhance.

Because the many on this earth do not accept the concept of human freedom, the growing movement towards post-humanism may become quite confrontational, if not apocalyptic.

Tempest in a teapot. . .
There have been no increases in MAXIMUM human lifespan over the past century. Zip. Zilch. Zero. Nada.

No movement of any sort towards the DeGrayian "escape velocity" fantasies.

Carpe f****** diem and be here, right now, instead of imaginary thoughts of a glorious future where your body is somehow going to avoid the fate of all temporary forms.

PubliusJr, Re-Read Second Paragraph
The author, Mr. Keckler, provided links to specific examples in the article. Abortion seems to be irrelevant to his thesis.

Keckler made some very good points. With the impending vast increase in the elderly population (both in quantity and as a percentage of the total population) in Western countries -- including the US -- over the next few decades, the moral, ethical and fiscal issues surrounding aging will be very important.

Even excluding science-fiction like technology changes, most likely we will face some very profound socio-economic and political issues in our own lifetimes, such as generational conflicts over asset and income disparities, healthcare costs (already here), social spending (will the elderly want to pay taxes to educate generations and generations of neighbors' schoolchildren) and employment (when no one retires, how do younger workers advance?).

Great article -- very thought-provoking (and already Instalanched)!

Storage space
If we don't get rid of the old ones, as new ones come to take their place, where are we going to put them all?

One Option
Roy, its called the Final Frontier.

Envy
One obvious problem is that (at least at first) only the very wealthy will be able to afford the treatments and procedures needed for radical life extension.

Why should only the super-rich get immortality?

What about a Saddam-like dictator using an entire country's resources to achieve their own radically extended life span?

It raises questions about the worth of human life, and if some individuals' lives are worth more than others ... and who gets to make those decisions.

And these considerations aren't just confined to radical life extension. In a post-human society, there will be people who alter their physical bodies in ways we cannot even imagine now.

But again, only those who can afford it will do it. One can envision a world in which to be a "pre-singularity human" is a mark of shame, of low status, of third-worldliness.

Can you imagine, a 180 year-old Paris Hilton? Just shoot me now ...

I was thinking Soylent Green myself.
...

Back to Adam and Eve
I counted at least three perspectives I hadn't considered so there's always something to learn at TCS. Can I offer one more?

Bioethics is probably the toughest discipline of all, real life or death stuff. Although I am not personally religious, I can't help thinking of one of the oldest Bible stories of all, Adam and Eve.

God tells the naughty pair, "Okay, inquiring minds want to know. Don't say I didn't warn you.” And all human civilization has been one giant case of "Why not?" ever since.

The best we can do is debate, limit the potential disasters, and soberly assess the results.

Limiting potential disaster means taking the government out of the equation. It may act wisely or (more likely) it may act foolishly but the worst aspect of its actions is it acts permanently.

Creating life for the living to use (fetal stem cells) reduces life to a morally neutral commodity. A wise government would ban this potential disaster. Cloning (which would end up the same way) falls into this category.

Euthanasia allows others the power to place a value on life that sanctions the elimination of a person who cannot defend against a low valuation (check out how many euthanasia victims in Holland every year have any idea they are about to receive this nifty "benefit”.) Disaster again.

But advances in life extension is, IMO, no place for the government. It cannot protect the health or life enhancement of the poor other than in a strictly “hit or miss” way. It is meaningless to mention a wealthy person's advantage; the wealthy will always, by definition, have the material ability to buy superior goods and services. Any person that really desires any particular good or service has the means to acquire capital in our system.

As to the cost/benefit analysis, others have rightly pointed out that no one really knows. Did any one ever mention in the original debate that the institution of wage and price controls would spawn a health care crisis? Employers chose benefits rather than wages to compete for workers. Now, the stupidity of this third party payment system for health care has created a bureaucratic nightmare that defies all efforts to repair it.

First, do no harm, Adam (and that goes for you there behind the tree, Eve).

No storage shortage
The UK has a population density of 264 people per km2. The US' density is 31. Were the US as densly populated as the UK, it would have a population of 2.7 Billion. While feeding that big a crew might need a new green revolution, it certainly means that we're not going to run out of space in the near future.

Stack 'em close together
"The UK has a population density of 264 people per km2. The US' density is 31. Were the US as densly populated as the UK, it would have a population of 2.7 Billion. While feeding that big a crew might need a new green revolution, it certainly means that we're not going to run out of space in the near future."

Well, yes. I suppose if all we ned is the space we could just pack them in cubicles and stack them out on the esert. But if they want something to eat, that becomes more problematic. That is what I meant.

It will take quite a bit more than another Green Revolution. The limits to agricultural growth in the century to come are going to be twinfold. First, there will be the decision as to whether to commit our agricultural regions to foods or biofuels.

One will assume that at some point we'll have to curtail our consumption of meat, as it costs ten times its equivalent in grain to produce. And one also assumes we'll be eating a lot more algae and other hydroponic crops.

But the second limit is more troubling. This will be the shortage of fresh water in quantities useful to massive agricultural schemes. Relative to the world's expanding population, this crisis is already fast coming on us.

What we will need to provide all the food and fuel necessary for just the nine billion people we can already anticipate in 2040 is nine or ten additional earths to use for growing crops. Six or seven of those extra earths will be needed just for the food, if everyone is to have an American diet.

I think many of us will be unhappy with the desire of many who are able to afford it to enjoy immortality, thus adding to the burden on our one and only available earth.

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