When advocates of radical life extension discuss the social benefits of humans having much longer lifespans, it is often just a footnote to a personal desire to prolong life. As a consequence, cynicism from critics is often encountered. It hard to counter such skepticism effectively because people may believe you are just trying to make an essentially selfish desire look socially desirable.
There is an alternative. We can approach the topic from the other direction if we ask what kind of lifespans would be desirable if we want to increase social welfare and reduce human suffering. Let’s look at a number of issues.
There is a large literature about coping with the death of loved ones, relatives, and friends. While many people find support from such self-help books, most people would agree that no amount of anticipation or coping can eliminate the suffering and devastation that follows the death of a loved one. Is there an upside? I am not aware of any serious writer pontificating about the positive aspects about a person dear to you dying or suffering from aging-related disabilities. A society in which humans have control over the aging process would be desirable because it would eliminate the dominant cause of death (age-associated diseases) and the suffering it brings to survivors.
It is not uncommon to hear people being accused of not caring about the effects of their actions on future generations. This complaint is particularly prominent in discussions about the environment and the use of natural resources. If humans were not born to die on a predictable schedule this whole dynamic would change because the distinction between current and future generations would cease to exist. If consideration of the long-term consequences of our actions requires a prominent place in human life, we should not want humans to replace each other but generations to coexist in time and space.
Age discrimination involves discrimination of individuals on the basis of their age. In most instances, however, this discrimination concerns biological age and its effects on appearance, physical health, and mental skills. Biological age is not hard to observe and can usually be inferred from chronological age. If we prefer that people are not treated differently because of their date of birth we should want to live in a society where rejuvenation biotechnologies sever the link between chronological age and biological age.
What about economic welfare? Ageless people would be able to remain productive and generous, medical costs associated with the debilitating health and mental effects of biological aging would be substantially reduced, and highly talented people would not cease to exist.
Reasoning backwards from what morality and welfare would “dictate” about human lifespans is not just a talking point in discussions about the bioethics of life extension. One can imagine the rise of a social movement that seeks to educate the general public about the social benefits of biological control over the aging process. Such a social movement would not be in the business of making excuses for eccentric individual desires but would recommend that the reduction of suffering, sustainable growth, and more virtuous conduct would require that humans do not have a fixed expiration date.
Originally published as a column in Cryonics magazine, December, 2013