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June 30, 2004

Shrinking from Death

In the way ideas and life seem often to interact, it just so happened that the very week that I began to find a profound thread in the still-jumbled topic of radical life extension, I witnessed the birth of my second daughter and received news that an acquaintance (not close) of about my age was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia and immediately lost her summer prospects to similarly aggressive treatment.

To be sure, while looking through glass at a roomful of newborns, a parent would prefer to have more pleasant thoughts in his head than this:

There will be progressively fewer children around, but we'll get used to that just as easily as we got used to wearing these absurd rubber contraptions whenever we have sex just in order to avoid having too many kids once infant mortality wasn't culling them any more.

That absurdly disturbing prediction is one aspect of what life will be like in a world of "indefinite lifespans," according to Cambridge University biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey in an interview with Glenn Reynolds. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that a man who believes that children and condomless sex are of equal social significance can nonchalantly declare that life, for an immortal society, "will be very much the same as now... except without the frail people."

Upon reflection, the unpleasant dissonance of such thoughts while pain-faced women shuffled past, with rattled men hovering around most of them as if ready to, at any instant, dive for a catch, was an echo from my self-loathing atheist days. Since we are all doomed to die, the dark thought went, it is ultimately birth that kills us; parents bring their children into the world condemning them to a life spent in knowledge that, eventually, they will cease to be. But what if we come to believe that birth into this world does not require death from it? Well, then we get this sort of thinking:

my universal response to all the arguments against curing [aging] is simple: don't tell me it'll cause us problems, tell me that it'll cause us problems so severe that it's preferable to sit back and send 100,000 people to their deaths every single day, forever. If you can't make a case that the problems outweigh 100,000 deaths a day, don't waste my time.

It ceases to be the nature of life that causes death. Rather, those who prevent, or even impede, the search for the Fountain of Youth become the cause of death. So thoroughly does this frame of mind set in that de Grey feels justified in sweeping away all objections. It isn't even a matter worthy of moral consideration. It isn't even a question. The next step in this logic would be, for example, to state that a presidential administration that stands in the way of funding for such research is thereby sending 146 million people to their deaths, owing to the four-year delay.

This — one needn't be a theologian or novelist to see — is a fanatical religion awaiting adherents. Not only are the claims of other faiths soul-destroyingly wrong, but they are ridiculous superstitions to believe. (To the Orthodox Intellectual, superstition is the sign of the infidel.) "Once [people] realise that we may be able to reach escape velocity within 20-30 years, all these silly reasons people currently present for why it's not a good idea will evaporate overnight." Although I believe de Grey dramatically overestimates the number of converts that he can expect from other religions, I've no doubt that many among the irreligious, or mildly religious materialists, will rush to the laboratory-table alter. When its promise draws near:

The only way to have a sense of proportion about this period is to remember that it'll be the last chapter in what we can definitely call the War On Aging -- people worldwide will readily make the same sort of sacrifices that they make in wartime, in order to end the slaughter as soon as possible.

In context, de Grey is talking about the "staggering" cost of providing "rejuvenation therapies" to everybody, rich and poor, but money isn't the only sacrifice that people make during wartime, and the "War On Aging" won't be purely against a fact of nature. If people are willing to kill to secure a salvation that they must take on faith, how much more extreme will their drive be when salvation is from the necessity of death? Imagine the rabid desperation of people who think there's a clock to beat before eternal life becomes eternal oblivion. Even if nobody stands directly in the way of the research, the pent-up desire will make for a powerful weapon, no matter the ulterior motive for wielding it.

If de Grey's comments are any indication, passions will further be stoked through hints of utopia. Beyond the optimistic view that "adult education" will be adequate occupation to make "life never get boring" (which, if it does nothing else, stands as an example of the academic's myopia), de Grey further prognosticates:

Another important difference, I'm convinced, is that there will be much less violence, whether it be warfare or serious crime, because life will be much more valued when it's so much more under or control.

Broadly speaking, to begin with, will life in fact be "much more valued"? My experience has been that things under our control are more apt to be taken for granted. By this, I mean that the fact of life going on and on will be the norm; people will keep a white-knuckle grip on their own mortality, but the sense of life's preciousness will dull. When natural causes take the lives of the young, we ache more not necessarily because a higher number of years have been lost, but because the death was less to be expected. What our collective view will be when death is never to be expected may not be as easy to predict as it would seem.

It could be that the end of natural deaths will mean that people who don't value others' lives at all will gain control over them; murder may become much more frightening a threat when its outcome isn't inevitable anyway. Violent people, inasmuch as they can be understood in a general way, don't seem to care whether their victims are 20 or 80, so the length of life deprived is not a deterrent. Moreover, a certain dementia will surely be exacerbated when people all ages have a teenager's sense of mortality. And who will risk his own life to save others' when the sacrifice is eternity?

Warfare only translates these difficulties to a grander scale. Won't tyrants perceive this new weakness? When one can tally infinite years in a currency of pills, the barrel of a gun or, for that matter, blockage of the medication will see a rise in premium. Experience and history both teach that people will always exist who do not value life; the advantage of that distinction will only increase to correspond to everybody else's clinging to it.

It may be, I'll concede, that violence will become somewhat less alluring among the general population when it is more a reminder, rather than a distraction and defiance, of lingering mortality. Still, one need only look around modern society to see the possibility that killings would simply become antiseptic and, therefore, forgettable. After all, even now, we kill those with the most life ahead of them and call it a "procedure."

Having laid all this out, I finally come to the aforementioned thread of profundity, and although it has the darkest implications, it also brings a whiff of hope. The apostles of this new religion have found a mythology and symbolism in Nick Bostrom's piece in The Journal of Medical Ethics called "The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant":

Once upon a time, the planet was tyrannized by a giant dragon. The dragon stood taller than the largest cathedral, and it was covered with thick black scales. Its red eyes glowed with hate, and from its terrible jaws flowed an incessant stream of evil-smelling yellowish-green slime. It demanded from humankind a blood-curdling tribute: to satisfy its enormous appetite, ten thousand men and women had to be delivered every evening at the onset of dark to the foot of the mountain where the dragon-tyrant lived. Sometimes the dragon would devour these unfortunate souls upon arrival; sometimes again it would lock them up in the mountain where they would wither away for months or years before eventually being consumed.

That brought to mind another dragon, one who brings forth a beast from the sea and heals the beast to rule over men, who precedes a great whore of a city as well as another beast, an echo of the dragon, about whom it is said:

The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because he once was, now is not, and yet will come.

To be honest, I can't help but feel that the modern version of the quest for eternal life on Earth is yet another hopeless endeavor. We don't know what we don't know. Will we get far enough that people will be astonished at a return of death? Or will the prophets of this new religion work enough miraculous signs to enthrall some number of people to wreak another shameful era for humanity and then fade away into history?

Whatever the case, my religion suggests that catastrophe must precede salvation, and that we must eventually choose between either:

Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed.


They overcame him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
Posted by Justin Katz at June 30, 2004 7:51 PM

Great piece, Justin.

It doesn't logically follow that people with extra-long lives will value their lives more than they do now. That makes sense for upper-class Americans who have more comfortable lives than just about anyone else on the planet or in all of human history. We assume that our eternal lives will be full of pleasure. But that's just an assumption.

The ancient Greeks contemplated eternal life quite a bit—recall that their Gods were immortal. The fates of Prometheus, Sysiphus, and Tantalus give vivid images of how much more horrible pain can be when combined with the knowledge that one will never be released from it. This idea is also present in many Christian conceptions of Hell: What makes it so awful is not just the immediate pain, but the knowledge that you can't die to escape it.

So doubling your life span, for instance, makes your life twice as precious if you assume that your life will be generally pleasant. But it would also make your life twice as awful if you assume that your life will be full of pain. (And human nature is such that the dividing line between pleasure and pain usually rises over time. A pleasant life of 200 years ago would be absolutely miserable by modern standards.)

This has direct implications for euthanasia: There's no point suffering while waiting around for death if it will never come. It also has implications for dangerous behavior.

Suppose that you think you lead a generally miserable life, and you're facing the dismal prospect of it going on for a long, long time. But you still don't have the nerve to go directly to a doctor and ask him to just kill you. (You still have a bit of survival instinct in you.) You decide that the proper goal of life is to maximize your average pleasure per day of your life, as opposed to maximizing total lifetime pleasure).

If you accept those premises, none of which is manifestly outrageous, then starting a drug habit makes perfect sense. You'll get wonderfully intense pleasure during most of your remaining days, and you'll be shortening your life span. Both of those will contribute to maximizing your average per-day happiness. If you get the right kinds of drugs and manage to die before the really nasty effects of long-term use kick in, it could really be a winning strategy mathematically.

If drug use is too emtional of an issue for you to think about clearly, you can substitute other dangerous pleasures and get the same result, e.g. extreme sports, dangerous sex, or a life of crime.

The flaw in this thinking is the assumption that the purpose of life is pleasure. Many people believe this, though they rarely think carefully about its consequences. Others don't agree with it, but struggle to find some other purpose for life that everyone can agree on. The tension between those two sides underlies most of the great issues of our age:

1. If sex is about pleasure, then every form of sex is essentially equivalent to every other form—ergo SSM. If sex is about procreation, then procreative couplings are more important than non-procreative ones and deserve special recognition.

2. If pleasure is the purpose of life, then it's cruel to burden a young woman with raising a baby she doesn't want. Her life would be more fun without the baby. If life is more important than pleasure, then keeping that baby alive is more important than the mother's short-term happiness.

3. If pleasure is the purpose of life, then we have no reason to inconvenience ourselves to free foreigners from tyrrany. If we instead believe that the freedom of others is more important than our own pleasure, then it's worth some money and loss of life to free others—even if we see no direct benefit from it.

4. If pleasure is the purpose of life, then we have a moral duty to end unpleasant lives.

5. If pleasure is the purpose of life, then we have a duty to prevent the creation of lives that we expect will be unpleasant.

6. If pleasure is the purpose of life, then people who derive lots of pleasure from homosexual sex (or any other kind of sex) should pursue it and even organize their lives around it—even if that means that they will never reproduce. If life is more important than pleasure, then they should enter into an OS marriage to produce some children and raise them—even though that means giving up some sexual pleasure.

The modern choice is between life and pleasure. I say choose life.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at July 1, 2004 2:33 PM

Ben and Justin,

Amen, brothers.

Posted by: Mike S. at July 1, 2004 3:34 PM


I was with you for longest time on this. I absolutely agree that the 'pleasure' concept has taken over our culture to a harmful degree.

But let me address your examples of its effect.

1. SSM - unless you are advocating that we should have arranged marriages then this has no merit. By allowing us to choose who we spend the rest of your lives with, we are valuing pleasure over principle. Aren’t we ? And then again, maybe those who arrange the marriages can arrange same-sex marriage - even for heterosexuals, since the pleasure part does not matter ....

2. Abortion - I actually agree with you here. This is a literal case of choosing pleasure over life with horrific consequences.

3. War on Iraq - I'm a supporter of the war. But applying the 'pleasure' principle to this is downright silly. So where do we draw the line ? Based on your principled application, the US should engage in each and every humanitarian effort in the world and should go to war with each and every country under tyranny rule.

4. Euthanasia - I understand your logic but I have trouble agreeing with it. I guess I happen to feel that sparing pain can be a valuable thing but I'll admit it does follow the pleasure principle and also see that this is a troublesome slippery slope and grey area. I see your point – but I can’t accept it.

5. Birth Control - This is where I think your logic crosses the line. Do you really feel that the use of birth control is selfish ? I guess it can be seen that way but having children can also been seen as selfish based ones personal situation. You can also apply similar logic to health care as in going to see a physician as opposed to the sole use of prayer. Is that selfish ?

6. Sex (outside of marriage) - I can certainly see where the pleasure principle applies here. I'd argue about government intervention in this area but that's not what you advocated in your response so no need to address it.

I agree with you that the modern choice is between life and pleasure. But I don't think this is an absolutist or mutually exclusive choice. You may choose life in all cases, but I think that the secret lies in balancing between what is best for others (the 'life' choice, as you put it) and what is pleasurable to ones self.

I do not think that eliminating pleasure in the name of 'life' is what should be strived for. I think it ultimately leads to martyrdom.

We all make choices that are inherently pleasurable. That is one of the tenets of capitalism versus socialism. In this case, your view is more towards socialism - where others choose your path based on their view on what is best for all.

But I will agree that today's culture is weighted too heavily towards the pleasure principle. Where we disagree is that I think that manifests itself in ways that are not strictly partisan and that we should strive for a healthy balance or some place within that intersection between 'life' and 'pleasure' - as I think that is God wants for us.

Posted by: Mark Miller at July 1, 2004 5:27 PM


I don’t claim to be certain about how to apply the principle to each case. But if we agree on the principle, then we have a lot in common.

On applying this to SSM, I should explain it in much more detail than is appropriate in this thread. I’ll try a condensed version: First, we’re talking about moral ideals, not about forcing anybody to live with anybody else.

From my view, the real crux of the SSM debate is the importance of procreation. OS couples can do it. SS couples can’t. Should that matter? I say it should, because we’re still mortal and we still need babies, properly raised, if our country and culture are to survive. Virtually every SSM supporter I’ve talked to claim to see nothing important about reproduction, either morally or as a governmental objective.

Maybe you’re the exception, Mark. If so, please explain how reproduction is important, and yet the Constitution forbids us from offering special recognition to those OS couples who are likely to do it responsibly.

War on Iraq: “Based on your principled application, the US should engage in each and every humanitarian effort in the world and should go to war with each and every country under tyranny rule.”

Not at all. The country can’t afford to go to war with every tyrrany. Just taking out one of the worst has created intense internal upheaval. It doesn’t really advance morality for good people to die pointlessly chasing an impossible ideal. America’s strength is vast but not limitless. We do what we can.

Euthanasia: I share your ambivalence, Mark. It’s easy to say in principle that people should go on living, but terrifying to think of condemning someone to Promethean pain. Here we can benefit from the European countries that have loosened the rules on euthanasia with much weaker principles than the traditional sanctity of life. The artificial principles they tried to institute have quickly fallen apart, and people are being killed on the flimsiest of excuses. (“We love you, Dad. But your medical care is awfully expensive. Don’t you think that . . .”) The lesson I see here is that modern artificial moral principles cannot safely substitute for the traditional ones. This is not an age of moral giants.

Birth Control: Actually, I was thinking of eugenics when I wrote: “If pleasure is the purpose of life, then we have a duty to prevent the creation of lives that we expect will be unpleasant.” The confusion is interesting.

I don’t have strong feelings on birth control. (Maybe I should.) It’s easy to think of people who use it choose their own personal pleasure over the pain, work, and nuisance of children. I’m actually acutely aware of this issue, as my wife and I are toying with the idea of a third child. There are always short-term reasons not to have children. But somebody’s gotta do it, don’t they?

“I do not think that eliminating pleasure in the name of 'life' is what should be strived for.”

I totally agree. Pleasure is a vital component to life. But intellectually, life should be the goal, not pleasure. People will always seek pleasure most of the time; it’s impossible to stop them. The question is about the moral ideal in their minds. From time to time, people will take a break from pleasure and strive for something more. The moral ideal in their mind is what they’ll strive for in those moments. But if they’ve been convinced that morality is a lie and life is merely pleasure, then they have nothing to strive for, and they’re just animals.

“In this case, your view is more towards socialism - where others choose your path based on their view on what is best for all.”

It could be viewed that way, I guess. But I see a big gap between morality and the law, which is why I’m against socialism. Governments are blunt instruments: They’re good at hurting bad people, but they aren’t good at encouraging good people. People only flourish when they’re largely free of government coersion.

What I’m thinking of is a moral only. We need a moral ideal of what people should strive for. It’s not a law. No money changes hands. Nobody pays a fine or goes to jail. We just agree on a moral ideal—on the kind of life we should strive to live—while acknowledging that we probably won’t live up to it. It’s just an idea: some pixels on a screen, the vibration of some air, the arrangement of some neurons in some heads. That’s all morality has ever been. But that’s where all of civilization came from.

You’re right that this isn’t strictly a partisan issue. The partisan question is generally about the proper scope of government. But this isn’t about government. It’s about morality per se.

The starting point is to establish that there is such a thing as morality, and that it’s OK to advocate a moral principle without adhering to it perfectly. Then we try to figure out not just what today’s moral ideal is, but also what the rules are for generating new moral ideals in response to the inevitable changes that we’ll face. The first of those rules has to be that we should live. From there we can argue about all sorts of details: We live as bodies, as genes, as minds, and as members of a nation and culture. How do we balance those lives?

I suspect that once we get that basic principle down—that we should live—then at least we have a foundation to build on.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at July 2, 2004 2:32 AM


We are in agreement on the basic principle.

Just a few short comments:

With regard to SSM, I've already responded to others and possibly you too how I don't feel the procreation argument works as a basis for denying legitimization to same-sex couples. The only way that works is if we give special status to couples and their biological offspring only. Of course, reproduction is important. Is it a moral imperative ? I guess if everyone stops it could become one. But even in Scandinavia, reproduction is still occurring but the issue seems to be whether it is occurring outside of marriage. Is it a government objective ? I think that being responsible for your offspring or other legal dependants is the governmental objective.

War on Iraq: All I meant to say was that your original comment seemed to imply that ALL opposition to the war was based on this principle. I acknowledge that some of it is but the issue is overall more complicated.

Birth Control: My wife and I have gone through the same decision you and your wife are (2 or more). I understand except that I don't think that the decision not to have additional or even any children is solely a selfish one. Are you really concerned that you should have more children because no one else will ?

As I said, I agree with your response - that the balance between pleasure and 'life' (I'm still not totally comfortable with how you use that) is the foundation for our culture to succeed both morally and through the law.

Posted by: Mark Miller at July 2, 2004 9:34 AM


Just a quick note: the problem in Northern Europe isn't purely that children are being had under the wrong circumstances, but that enough of them aren't being had period.

Still, I'd insist that the importance of amassing children isn't the sole — or even central — determinant of procreation's relevance to marriage. The circumstances under which those children who are born are raised represent the key element.

Posted by: Justin Katz at July 2, 2004 10:05 AM

"The circumstances under which those children who are born are raised represent the key element."

Believe it or not we agree that this is the key debating point.

Posted by: Mark Miller at July 2, 2004 12:06 PM

Mark: If we agree that the question is about children, then suppose that marriage were extended only to SS couples in which both members had adopted a child. Would that placate you?

Posted by: Ben Bateman at July 2, 2004 5:12 PM


Before I respond, let me say that I am not the poster-boy for advocates of SSM. I do feel there should be some way to give legal recognition to same-sex couples but I am less sure of whether it should be called 'marriage' because I do see the point that SSM would indeed change the definition of marriage and am not sure the legitimization of gay couples warrants that change.

In summary, I'm not your typical SSM advocate but that doesn't stop me from arguing against what I consider illegitimate reasons to deny gays legal recognition such as the procreation argument or the morality argument.

To your question of whether I would be satisfied if marriage were extended only to SS couples in which both members had adopted a child:
---- I think that legal recognition (and the support) to gay parents would be a step in the right direction. But the obvious next question is why should the government recognize opposite sex relationships without children but not recognize same sex relationships without children. Seems to me that the only just solution is to withhold legal recognition to all couples until children become involved. Not that I support that, I think it's silly and unnecessarily intrusive - but remember that our goals are different - I wish to further normalize gay relationships in our culture and you do not.

Posted by: Mark Miller at July 6, 2004 12:03 PM

I believe there is no ultimite purpose in life. life is how you see it.the purpouse you think is the right one depends on how you think about things. The meaning of life can be about pleasure if thats what it seems to be .if there is any consequences in pleasure indulge in pleasures that don't result in consequences. it depends on the type of person you are and mabeye how you were raised to create purpose.
on life and death I think a reincarnation exists but it is not actually you or an I THAT GETS Reincarnated. I think the brain creates an illusion that we are individuals and that we are ourselves and not someone else so there could be distinctions between ourselves and others. I believe that that there is just universal manifestations that manifests themselves into what seems many egos that vary to some extent.

Posted by: Hank at July 23, 2005 11:16 PM