Is Immortality Unethical?

When a writer posits an intriguing theory and then fails to support it credibly, there are only a few alternate conclusions the reader can reach. One is that it is a viable theory, but the advocate didn’t have the skills to explain it. Another is that it is a mistaken theory, and the advocate is wrong. A third is that the failure of the writer to make a case for his theory shows how wrong it is.

A recent article in The Guardian is in the last category, I suspect. It is an argument so inadequate and dominated by flaccid rationalizations  that it nearly disproves the proposition it is supposedly defending. The thesis: “Immortality isn’t unethical.” In other words, achieving the goal of allowing human beings to live for centuries, or forever, wouldn’t result in a Hell on earth. This is  part of a developing debate on the ethics of “transhumanism,” the technological alteration of human beings into something superior or monstrous, depending on your point of view. A human variety that never ages and lives forever certainly meets this definition. Foreign Policy recently republished an essay by historian Francis Fukuyama in which he warned that transhumanism was a portal into potential moral and ethical collapse. He wrote:

“The first victim of transhumanism might be equality. The U.S. Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal,” and the most serious political fights in the history of the United States have been over who qualifies as fully human. Women and blacks did not make the cut in 1776 when Thomas Jefferson penned the declaration. Slowly and painfully, advanced societies have realized that simply being human entitles a person to political and legal equality. In effect, we have drawn a red line around the human being and said that it is sacrosanct.

“Underlying this idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin color, beauty, and even intelligence. This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism. But modifying that essence is the core of the transhumanist project. If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind? If some move ahead, can anyone afford not to follow? These questions are troubling enough within rich, developed societies. Add in the implications for citizens of the world’s poorest countries — for whom biotechnology’s marvels likely will be out of reach — and the threat to the idea of equality becomes even more menacing.”

In rebuttal to these elegant and thought-provoking warnings, Alexander Chisolm, the author of the pro-immortality essay, offers these “arguments”:

  • Isn’t taking food supplements and trying to extend one’s youth and life as long as possible really the same as seeking immortality, just in small increments? And nobody thinks that’s unethical, right?
  • True, it will be easier for rich people to be made immortal than for poor people, but if we can provide health care for everyone, why wouldn’t we provide immortality for everyone? “It’s the ultimate health care.”
  • While it is true that if nobody died, population control would be a problem, but immortals might put off procreating for centuries. Besides, the world will probably be over-populated  anyway.
  • Wouldn’t it be great to be healthy and young forever?

That’s about it. No discussion of the obvious social problem of the endlessly-experienced older immortals  perpetually squeezing their younger competitors out of jobs and opportunities, leading to a permanent underclass. No explanation of how society would afford eternal health care, or whether it would be rational to immortalize criminals. dead beats, sociopaths, and fools. No solution to the problem of an  immortal human using up infinite resources. No discussion of how wealth would be passed down through generations, if all generations endured and thrived forever. Ho discussion of land use, or how all land would either be owned by the oldest in perpetuity, or in the alternative, owned and regulted by the government, in an immortality-mandated communist system.  No quality thought about what having all generational differences obliterated would do to society’s family or social structure. No thought about the inherent selfishness of discarding the natural biological and social progression and succession of life, leading to a society where the old never make way for the young, because they don’t have to.

The author’s last, and presumably most persuasive argument, is the most ethically obtuse of all. Of course it would be great to be young, health and alive forever, looking at the question from a completely self-centered viewpoint, just as it would be subjectively “great” to have all the money in the world. Ethics, however, demands that we think beyond our own desires and needs, and consider the impact of our lives and actions on others. Because Chisolm, unlike Fukuyama, doesn’t acknowledge that, his brief for immortality doesn’t make the case that it can be ethical.

In fact, it doesn’t even consider it.

7 thoughts on “Is Immortality Unethical?

  1. Interesting article. Perhaps the discussion can focus on some ideas that are more tangible. I think this is a flood gate for discussions and here are some topics:

    1) Memory / Knowledge Transplant. A rich, scientific genius finds a way to “bottle” his memories, knowledge, and experience. The lucky recipient of this acquired brain power will still be his or her original self.

    2) Brain Transplant. Not actual surgical replacement of the brain, this process wipes the software (i.e. their identity), from the young host and is reprogrammed with a dying older person’s entire identity. Personality – Memories – Experience – Knowledge. Dollhouse

    3) Better Medicine. Through a combination of medical advancements, Doctors and Researchers have extended the average life span of an individual to 160 years. They accomplished this by meticulous genetic screening, performance enhancing medications, and bionic implants and replacements.

    • Tim, the second one is per se unethical. Wipe away someone’s consciousness is essentially murder, because you just destroyed a sentient being. Also, the ick factor: Who’d want to live as some sort of parasite?

      The more realistic concept, is the saving of a person’s mind as an AI construct (as seen in William Gibson’s Neuromancer).

      • So how about the Dollhouse scenario? Everything I just described, but the person has their identity wiped and stored for a contract period of 5 years. While their body is without its true identity, it is able to be programmed with custom built contract labor – i.e. an experienced hostage negotiator. At the end of the contract period, identity is restored and the negotiated fee is paid.

        • Wouldn’t you agree that this is like consenting to be a slave? One abandons all autonomy, and is used by another for his or her own purposes, while one is powerless to object or refuse? It’s clearly a Kantian ethics violation—using a human being as a means rather than an end. The question comes down to whether autonomy is something someone can ethically take away, except as punishment. I tend to think not. Just because one consents to unethical treatment doesn’t mean that the treatment becomes ethical.

  2. I was struck by the comment “Wouldn’t be great to have all the money in the world?” [This may be a bit off-topic.] My answer is “No, it wouldn’t.” If I had all the money in the world, the world would find some other medium of exchange, since no one else would have the money method, and my money wouldn’t be good any more. Further, if I had all the money in the world, it wouldn’t do me any good unless I spent some of it, and then I wouldn’t have all the money in the world any more.

    • I hope you realize that was an intentionally facile example. I wouldn’t want to live forever, either…and having everyone live forever really does sound like Hell.

      Imagine being the only rich individual in a world of poor people. Horrors.

  3. Ethics, however, demands that we think beyond our own desires and needs, and consider the impact of our lives and actions on others.

    I don’t think that immortality falls undet this category, since it would require someones ecistence to be inherently harmful. Being smarter more experienced are not crimes as you seem to claim, otherwise every genius who won the genetic lottery would be a criminal. Of course we would have to adapt our ethics but living indefinite is not inherently harmful, just like procreation is not inherently harmful, it all depends on the context.

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