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« For Those Who Were Confused | Main | Elevator Counterpoint »

More Decline In The "Giggle Factor"

Not about space tourism. About anti-aging therapies. From Reuters:

Olshansky and his colleagues have called on the U.S. government to inject $3 billion a year into the field, arguing the benefits of achieving an average seven-year delay in the process of biological aging would far exceed the gains from eliminating cancer.

Ethically, the extension of life is controversial, with some philosophers arguing it goes against fundamental human nature.

But John Harris, Professor of Bioethics at the University of Manchester, said any society that applauded the saving of life had a duty to embrace regenerative medicine.

"Life saving is just death postponing with a positive spin," he said. "If it is right and good to postpone death for a short time, it is hard to see now it would be less right and less good to postpone it for a long while."

Yes, this is the logical dilemma that the Kassians and other deathists find themselves in. Who are they to decide how long other people should live?

I was talking about this with someone last summer in DC, and he asked an interesting question. There's a respectable argument to be made that, while not every individual requires religion to be good, society itself does, because not everyone will be moral without a belief in a divine lawgiver and retribution in the afterlife. Similarly, he asked me, though no one wants to die, isn't it good for society that we do?

My trite response, a la Groucho, is "what has posterity ever done for me?"

Unquestionably, death has some beneficial consequences for society. For one thing, it's currently the most effective means of defeating dictators and tenure (which are often the same thing). I think the answer to that, though, is to come up with more effective means of dealing with dictators than the UN, and once it's recognized that people are effectively living forever, or at least as long as they want to, tenure will have to face reform as well (in addition to an end to life-long appointments in general). Death also promotes innovation (as the old saying goes, science progresses, funeral by funeral).

But I'm not aware of any benefits that are worth sacrificing my life for. Risking, yes, but not sacrificing it. If death taking a holiday causes problems, I'd rather spend my life coming up with better solutions to those problems, rather than arbitrarily deciding that three-score and ten, or any other number, is the right one. After all, if one is going to argue that we should only live for a finite period of time, how would one come up with the right length? And how does this differ from mass executions, for the mere crime of living too long? It seems to me that the slope on which folks like Leon Kass and Eric Cohen tread is very slippery, with extremely ugly terrain at the bottom.

Posted by Rand Simberg at March 16, 2006 10:28 AM
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Posted by wickedpinto at March 16, 2006 11:05 AM

Oh, and using a rocket to get to GEO also benefits from the Oberth effect: adding energy to the vehicle deep in the gravity well leaves it with more energy at GEO. The self-fueled climber must lift much of the fuel/oxidizer to high altitude, which leaves the resulting combustion products higher at higher gravitational potential.

The biggest negative I see to elevators (assuming the materials aren't a roadblock) is the existence of globally catastrophic failure modes. One break can take out all the elevators around the world. A single rocket launcher failure will just take out that launcher.

Posted by Paul Dietz at March 16, 2006 11:52 AM

Oops, posted that in the wrong place.

Posted by Paul Dietz at March 16, 2006 11:52 AM

If probability of death remains positive, almost everyone will die despite clinical immortality. If a year becomes a day and we live 30,000 years each on average, we will still be mortal. We will still reach middle age. We will be able to achieve the stars in a single lifetime, but would life be so vastly different? More divorces per lifetime, but less per year? More kids per lifetime, but less per year? No drinking or driving until you are 1000 years old?

Posted by Sam Dinkin at March 17, 2006 06:29 AM

If life extension becomes possible then most people will want it. Preventing a massive rise in the average life span therefore means banning the technology, turning people against it, or killing anyone who reaches a certain age. In a democracy it would be impossible to get a mandate for banning life extension - "vote for us and we'll force you to die!" - unless a large majority of the public had already turned against it. It's hard to imagine that happening in any Western nation, and even harder to see a ban surviving the many legal challenges it would face.

What's more, a ban would be even harder to enforce than the prohibition of alcohol was. Many of those who wanted to live longer would be willing to break the law to do so, and if you consider how many ordinary citizens were once willing to break the law for a shot of booze just imagine how readily they would do it for another thirty years of life. It would also be impossible to frame anti-anti-ageing legislation unless the technology arrived in one easily identifiable package, rather than as the cumulative effect of many separate innovations. In the latter case, it would amount to banning an arbitrary selection of medical treatments until people were dying at the desired rate. But if the rationale for banning certain treatments was that they helped people live longer, we should logically have to ban antibiotics and clean drinking water.

Even if such a ban was practical or politically possible, it would be tyrannical for the state to control how long people are allowed to live. The demand that people refrain from living too long for the alleged good of society is a particularly oppressive form of collectivism. It would be abolishing the most fundamental right of the individual, the right to life, after which it would be comparatively trivial to abolish any other liberties that were considered disruptive to the greater good. Indeed, this would follow quite naturally, as draconian measures would be required to suppress the trade in illegal life-extension products.

It would also lead to elderly people being denied ordinary medical treatments as well as those specifically labelled as life extending. Any treatment that saves a patient's life is by definition life-extending, so if you believe that people should not live beyond a certain "natural" span it becomes wrong to help a person who has reached that age survive any longer. It is then a short step to concluding that the old have a duty to die, and one more short step from there to supporting compulsory euthanasia. Of course, if the capability to extend life existed there would always be a temptation to use it in exceptional cases, to prolong the lives of people who were considered particularly valuable to society. There would also be a temptation for the powerful to make themselves the exceptional cases, gradually dividing society into the elite and the expendable.

Hopefully that worst-case scenario is unlikely, and the most damage the advocates of unnecessary death might do is to spread anxiety and delay the introduction of beneficial new technologies. In the best-case scenario, they might do more good than harm by promoting debate about how society will need to change.

Posted by Andrew Zalotocky at March 17, 2006 10:48 AM

I've been saying for about 5 years now, that we are in an odd situation. The parents of my generation are actually aging, the people my age often look very young (if you are remotely healthy at 30, you don't look 30) My parents have been terrified of looming death because they are middle age, and middle class, my generation still acts like teenagers. We are, in fact, influencing the lifespan so possitively, that we are creating "tweens." 10 years ago, (I believe) the life span for a man was 72, and now it's 77, so, by the time I hit 77, is 47 years from now, that gives of enough time to expand life expectancy by 34 and 3/4 yeas? years (assuming it's a linear progression) that means that I will be 112 years old before i die,(about) ON AN AVERAGE! If I'm healthier than my peers, I will live longer, if I'm not, it doesn't matter, cuz 112 is FRIGGEN OLD. That means that faced with the fact that I am, (statisticaly) likely to live a long friggen time from now (if we continue as is, I have more time left, than the average person dying now) Knowing that, people like me (not my age, but people who think of the terrifying idea that I might live that long) selfishly hold on to a chaotic independance that keeps me from chosing a path in life. Teenagers believe they are immortal because most have never experience a significant failure, most have never had a broken bone, most chose to quit and never play, than deal with the realities of life that they MUST take part in the world, and risk failure, there is a fundamental disconnect for teens and the world.They are allowed to, and they feel entitled to that, because they have a lot of time left. If you had 70? 80? years left? Would you settle down? Would you act to affect the world?

Also, thinking along the lines that I might live for that friggen long is TERRIFYING! largely because of the "immortals" I remember from "Gullivars Travels." How would any person who cherishes their mind above any other trait feel, knowing that they will likely lose their mind, at least enough portions of it, that they remember less of their life than they forgot? In 112 years, we would re-create our own identities enough times, that we likely don't even recall a single thing that is actually true. If we KNOW we will live 112 years, and an event occurs when we are 30, would we bother to record that event? or would we take our time, waiting long enough to let the truth of the events fade?

All that said. If we KNOW! at age 5, that we will live a thousand years, will we still be fully functioning human beings by 15? (21 by law, 35 by insurance(if you are a man)) Or will we wait until we are 150 years old? If our parents KNOW that THEY will live for a thousand years, will they bother to teach us to be fully functioning human beings before we are 150? I think there is a value to impending mortality. It makes us realize that time truly is precious and we take advantage of it. If time is nearly endless, then we are more willing to be more risk averse, and cautious and slow moving.

This dream of banzai is exclusive to those of us who expect to die, and operate on the idea that we can use our current work ethic and effort to take full advantage of that time, but it also retards those of them who never understood a concept of impending mortality.

Posted by wickedpinto at March 17, 2006 08:07 PM

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