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.