Be it through literature, film, or television, the idea of life extension has been nothing short of prolific. The concept has become so ingrained in our cultural psyche that most give its presence little thought. In North America, the average life expectancy today is 78 years of age. Even though our current life expectancy is much higher in the West than in other parts of the world, we nonetheless continue to be fascinated, and in some cases, obsessed with the idea of extending our lives beyond what is currently possible.
Today when we hear of someone living to 100, it is considered almost miraculous. But as scientific developments continue to progress, the idea of radical life extension well beyond 100 may become a reality.
Scientific studies and technology have since developed even further, and brought hope to those seeking a way to extend human life. That being said, there a lot of questions that are raised when we think about life extension. Will everyone have an equal opportunity to benefit from these scientific discoveries? How will this affect the planet? Or society? Because of these questions, the pursuit of life extension is a highly controversial debate that will only become more important with the growth of technological advancements.
The Ethics of Radical Life Extension
The Argument For Life Extension
One of the underlying sentiments behind life extension is the idea the life is good and death is bad. For those who are pro-life extension (“life extensionists”), this perspective is a response to our current experiences and expectations given our limited maximum lifespans. From their perspective, if we were able to live longer lives (and perhaps have better health throughout), this would change how, and if, we perceive deaths as tragic. If we could live to 150, would dying at 90 make us feel the same sadness as it does today?
Another argument amongst life extensionists is that death is a waste since we lose accumulated knowledge, experiences, and memories. Scientist Victoria Stevens was quoted as saying, “I think the prospect of death … it just seems like an awful waste after people spend their lives learning and progressing” (source). For some life extensionists, prolonging human life allows us to preserve the memories and accomplishments of humankind, resulting in positive social consequences. For instance, people may feel a greater sense of personal responsibility and accountability for their actions if they lived longer. If we think about the current state of the environment, this point definitely strikes a chord. If we expect to live longer, we may be more likely to care about how our actions and behaviours influence others, ourselves, and the planet (no more of that, “let the next generation figure it out” mentality).
The Argument Against Radical Life Extension
If humans were to somehow have indefinite life spans, the question of life’s meaning may become even more complex and confounding than it already is. And what would we do with the time that we have? Though it may seem to open us up to endless possibilities, the reality is that our lives would be similar to how they are now – just longer. We would have the same joys, but also the same struggles.
There is also the argument that life extension technologies and treatments will create social problems due to the likely cost of these services. At first, they will undoubtedly be very expensive, essentially meaning that they would only be accessible to higher-income individuals. This presents society with a whole myriad of issues, as only certain people in society would be able to afford life extension, and certain societies (such as third world countries, for instance) would be unable to afford it at all. This could cause greater social inequality, and greater social unrest. Disparities between rich and poor individuals, communities, and countries would grow – the implications of which we cannot possibly know or predict. But it’s likely safe to say that whatever these implications would be, they would not be positive.
There are also environmental concerns to consider. Our planet is suffering greatly from climate change. Earth is over-populated, and does not have enough natural resources to continue to support the current population (that is growing exponentially each year!) So, if life extension is thrown into the mix, what does this mean? If everyone is able to live longer lives, there would have to be entire generations of human beings that were unable to reproduce in order to avoid further overcrowding our world. We would also have to reevaluate how our resources are distributed and preserved. Needless to say, there would have to be a great deal of thinking and rethinking regarding our planet’s population and use of resources in order for life extension to be at all a reasonable pursuit.
Radical Life Extension: Now What?
According to scholar Shai Lavi, one of the biggest changes in the 20th century was the way that death came to be seen as a failure, while medicine and science offered “an intelligible hope in the face of a hopeless existence.” While life extensionists want to showcase a highly optimistic future, the arguments against extending life are worthy of serious consideration. Our new will to master death goes hand-in-hand with the ways in which we avoid death. But as those in the Death Positive movement have tried to argue, death acceptance can bring us a long way towards fulfillment in life, and even hope in death (to say nothing of the role of religion in this respect).
A shift in our values and ethics will be unavoidable in the face of such a dramatic change in the way we live. Additionally, even if we live until 178 instead of 78, human beings are still just that: humans. Radical life-extensionist Aubrey de Grey acknowledges that humans will always be subject to violence, war, suicide, and accidents (Source). Life extension is not the same as invincibility. The extension of our human lives may make us feel more than human, but that is what we will remain all the same.
With these arguments in mind, and regardless of which side of the debate you are on, it is important to consider how life extension will affect how human beings think about themselves and each other.