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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Anti-aging, again

In an earlier blog entry, I presented my reconstruction of an argument, developed by Aubrey de Grey, that attempts to demonstrate the existence of a moral obligation to fund radical anti-aging research, i.e. research aimed "curing" the human aging process. In this entry, I'm going to identify a problem for the argument, and I'll then comment on the implications. I also think that there's an additional problem, but I'll merely mention it, and leave it for later time.

Curing?
First, I have placed the word "curing" in inverted commas to signal that I am well aware of the argument that the word "cure" and its cognates can legitimately be used only of a disease or disorder that interferes with an organism's species-normal functioning. According to this argument, aging is "normal", and so cannot be "cured". Having adverted to this, I must add that I think it's unhelpful to the debate. I find the distinction between what is normal and otherwise, or between what is therapeutic and what is "enhancing", rather problematic. I don't deny that such distinctions can be made coherently in some contexts, but even in those contexts their moral significance is unclear.

Anyway, de Grey's meaning is clear enough: he wants to find a way to stop, or even reverse, the aging process. His argument - the argument I've been considering - does not depend on the strong premise that aging is closely analogous to a disease, and when he uses the word "cure" it can be interpreted without that connotation. Admittedly, it connotes the idea that aging is something undesirable, something whose conquest we would rightly celebrate. Again, however, nothing in the argument actually assumes this.

Formalising the argument
Here, again, is my attempted formalisation of the argument:

Sub-argument one

P1.1. If we provide substantial funding for radical anti-aging research, then biomedical science will develop technologies capable of stopping, and possibly reversing, the process of aging.

P1.2. If biomedical science develops technologies capable of stopping, and possibly reversing, the process of aging, those technologies will be widely used.

P1.3. If biomedical technologies capable of stopping, and possibly reversing, the process of aging are widely used, then at least some human persons will have their lives extended beyond what would otherwise have been their duration.

C1. If we provide substantial funding for radical anti-aging research, then some human persons will have their lives extended beyond what would otherwise have been their duration.

Sub-argument two

P2.1. (C1.) If we provide substantial funding for radical anti-aging research, then some human persons will have their lives extended beyond what would otherwise have been their duration.

P2.2. If we do not provide substantial funding for radical anti-aging research, then some of those human persons will not have their lives extended beyond what would otherwise have been their duration.

C2. If we do not provide substantial funding for radical anti-aging research, then we will fail to extend the lives of some human persons beyond what would otherwise have been their duration.

Sub-argument three

P3.1. There is no morally salient distinction between shortening the life of a human person against that person's will and failing to save the life of such a person.

P3.2. There is no morally salient distinction between saving the life of a human person and extending the life of such a person beyond what would otherwise have been its duration.

C3. There is no morally salient distinction between shortening the life of a human person and failing to extend the life of such a person beyond what would otherwise have been its duration.

Sub-argument four

P.4.1. It is morally impermissible to shorten the life of a human person against that person's will.

P4.2. (C3.) There is no morally salient distinction between shortening the life of a human person and failing to extend the life of such a person beyond what would otherwise have been its duration.

C4. It is morally impermissible to fail to extend the life of a human person beyond what would otherwise have been its duration.

Main argument

P1. (C2.) If we do not provide substantial funding for radical anti-aging research, then we will fail to extend the lives of some human persons beyond what would otherwise have been their duration.

P2. (C4.) It is morally impermissible to fail to extend the life of a human person beyond what would otherwise have been its duration.

Conclusion. If we do not to provide substantial funding for radical anti-aging research, we act in a way that is morally impermissible.


Analysis
As I've stated previously, it's not immediately obvious where, if anywhere, this goes wrong. If the argument is not strictly valid, that looks easily fixed. I also think that all the premises relied on in the first two sub-arguments are plausible enough to justify acceptance. If the argument fails, it has to be because at least one of the following is unacceptable: P3.1., P3.2., and P4.1.

Those premise are critical because they support a controversial premise ultimately relied on in the main argument:

P2. (C4.) It is morally impermissible to fail to extend the life of a human person beyond what would otherwise have been its duration.

It appears clear that that needs support. It is a very strong statement to make, given that it is meant to include extensions of lives beyond their so-called "natural" durations. Someone who simply asserted this claim, without any supporting argument, and then relied on it to support anti-aging research, would fail to persuade most rational opponents. The difficulty here is that it is the kind of premise that would be denied, quite comfortably, by most opponents of anti-aging research. It certainly does not seem to be a recognisable principle adopted in commonsense morality; this is understandable, since it does not relate to the kind of everyday situation that commonsense morality deals with.

Of the premises in its support, P3.1. and P3.2. look controversial:

P3.1. There is no morally salient distinction between shortening the life of a human person against that person's will and failing to save the life of such a person.

AND

P3.2. There is no morally salient distinction between saving the life of a human person and extending the life of such a person beyond what would otherwise have been its duration.

By contrast, P4.1 looks straightforward:

P4.1. It is morally impermissible to shorten the life of a human person against that person's will.

However, things are seldom what they seem.

Premises 3.1 and 3.2 are the sorts of claims that utilitarians and other consequentialist moral philosophers are likely to accept. Such theorists are likely to take the following view: if the consequences are the same, e.g. Xavier dies an early death, Yasmine lives to a ripe old age (or beyond), or Zeke suffers a year of horrible pain, the rightness or wrongness of the conduct is also the same, irrespective of whether the conduct is classifiable as, for example, an act or an omission.

However, I doubt that we should accept this analysis, despite its popularity in the academy, and I think that there is a point to commonsense morality's distinction between acts and omissions.

The actual codes of morality that govern societies (what is sometimes called their positive morality) do not function to require the individuals concerned to maximise the happiness, or preference satisfaction, of all, whether quantified across all citizens of the society, all beings with interests of any kind, or any other set of plausibly relevant beings. Positive moralities seem to have much less ambitious functions, at the core of which is the imposition of constraints on the degree to which we are at liberty to conduct ourselves as positive dangers to each other's livess and bodily integrity. While morality may provide for the kind of solidarity, in a dangerous world, that connects with a duty of rescue, even the failure to carry out very easy rescues is seldom considered to be equal in seriousness with active attacks. A compelling explanation for this is that the restraint of actual violence (or analogous kinds of attacks) against other human beings is essential for social life. By contrast, it would at least be possible to have a morality that imposes no general right to be rescued - i.e., expecting people to rely on their own resources when danger does not come from the violent attack of a fellow citizen in pursuit of social or economic gain, but from some other source.

Seen from this perspective, P3.1 and P3.2 are quite problematic. It may still be a moral requirement that we rescue people from danger, or even extend their lives, but the requirement may be hedged around considerably. Failing to rescue is not treated in the same way as stabbing, electrocuting, or poisoning, and there may be many questions about how much effort or resource expenditure, or other cost, is involved in saving someone whose need for rescue has arisen independently of your own actions. Thus, rescues and life extensions may have some moral importance, but they are usually not seen from the viewpoint of positive morality as obligations of the very highest order. With positive attacks, by contrast, no degree of possible gain to the individual concerned is considered to be a good justification; the idea is to remove acts of violence from the repertoire of competitive actions that are socially tolerated.

Furthermore, I am not simply assuming, in the manner of vulgar moral relativists, that we must all defer to the positive moral systems of our respective societies. On the contrary, my point is that the relevant distinctions made by actual moral systems may well be justifiable, if morality is looked on as something more like a social contract for mutual gain, and less as something like a total scheme for maximising general utility on an impartial basis.

Because of my fundamental understanding of the nature and function of morality, which I've only sketched here (and without claiming that something like Hobbesian social contract theory gives a complete account of morality), I am inclined to reject P3.1. I also think that P3.2 may be difficult to defend - though de Grey makes a forceful attempt - but it is not necessary to critique it separately.

If we reject P3.1, the argument fails to establish that merely not funding anti-aging research is morally comparable to shortening people's lives. That is enough to show that the argument fails. If even one premise on which the conclusion relies is unacceptable, then we do no have a logically sound argument on our hands. The argument fails to demonstrate that there is any obligation here comparable to the negative obligation not to commit acts of murder. In one sense, of course, that is an unsurprising result. I expect that most people would find such a claim quite counterintuitive. Interestingly, though, this result was reached by applying a methodology that I am independently committed to. It shows the explanatory power of that approach.

Meanwhile, what about P4.1? I don't think it is acceptable. Indeed, utilitarians in particular should reject it. While there may normally be very strong moral obligations to avoid shortening human lives, this observation needs to be qualified in many ways, and the qualifications that are relevant to debates about curing aging, and questing for the grail of biological immortality, may be very significant. That, however, is a subject too large to pursue before I head to bed tonight. It will have to await my next blog entry on the subject.

Some final comments
I do not intend to deny that contributing to anti-aging research is morally praiseworthy, or even that it may turn out to be morally obligatory in current circumstances when all facts are known and all things finally considered. It's just that the nature of any moral obligation has not been demonstrated to be of the same high (if less than absolute) order as the obligation to avoid murdering other human beings. Thus, the force of any such obligation might need to be weighed against other claims on resources, possible unwanted side effects, and so on. Anti-aging research may still be worth paying for through the tax system, but a quite different sort of argument will have to be made as to why this is good policy in the whole range of circumstances that now confront us.

Apart from the sheer intellectual stimulus involved, it gives me no great pleasure to criticise particular arguments in support of funding for anti-aging research, because I am actually in favour of such funding. However, it looks to me right now as if arguments that attempt to establish an overwhelming moral obligation, similar to the obligation not to murder, are doomed to failure. The problems I've identified above will probably affect all arguments of that kind.

If I'm right about that, advocates of anti-aging research may have a more arduous and less palatable task than is immediately apparent. It will involve facing questions about whether human desires to resist aging, and preserve youthful health and robustness, are rational, and whether they are worthy of being satisfied for their own sake. My claim is that these desires can, indeed, survive scrutiny, and that it takes an unattractive, if not uncommon, kind of puritanism to want to deny them. Bioconservative moralists of the left and right, who typically dismiss such desires as narcissistic or hubristic, are on shaky ground. However, making out this case will require a different style of argument.

I'll return to that issue another time - probably often.

5 comments:

kriscurtis said...

I'll probably be interested to get your opinion on my ss as it involves, although not debated upon, this topic. The daf-2 gene managed to get a mention, I just hope it all fits.

Russell Blackford said...

Sure, Kris - you're a friend. I'd be happy to have a look at it as it advances.

I suspect that there are only about three people reading this blog, which makes my private Hellfire Club quite a small one, but never mind. It's like a sandpit for playing with ideas. I love it.

kriscurtis said...

Surely there are other people in your field who visit to check up on your latest positions? Besides, Hellfire Club sounds cool. I'll wear that badge, lol. Darn, I think I can smell my muffins burning...

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Kegger said...

I read it! :]. I am doing my dissertation on Transhumanism and Utilitarianism, and your blog posts are exceptionally helpful in clarifying Aubery's position. I just found this post after spending a day formulating it myself; I think yours makes more sense then mine! Anyway, keep writing, and I'll keep reading! ^^ :] Kinjal :]