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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Friday, May 26, 2006

More thoughts on killing and life extension

I still owe an explanation for my rejection, in a previous discussion, of the strong claim that it is always wrong to shorten the life of a human person.

This claim might also be expressed by saying that human persons have an absolute right to life - meaning, I take it, that each of us is under a comprehensive moral obligation not to take the life of any human person. On this formulation, any such action would be the wrongful infringement of someone's right to continue living (and no such action would be, for example, a morally permissible infringement of a right, analogous to a necessary act of theft to save somebody from great and imminent danger).

Note, at this point, that I am confining my discussion to a relatively plausible class of cases - those involving human persons, i.e. beings who possess such properties as rationality, self-consciousness, and a sense of themselves as existing in time, with a past and a future. If the class of cases under discussion were defined by mere species membership, rather than personhood, any claim of absolute rights to life, or inflexible duties not to kill, would be implausible from the beginning.

However, even if we confine ourselves to human persons and develop the discussion in terms of rights, the claim that there is an absolute right to life cannot be sustained. There are too many easily-imaginable situations, such as in some of the notorious "Trolley cases", beloved of philosophers, where most of us would judge that killing a human person is the morally right action, perhaps to save others, or to achieve some other great utilitarian benefit.

At the same time, utilitarians and other consequentialists do not accept the existence of rights at all, except as conventions or rules of thumb; nor do they normally accept inflexible rules. For them, everything depends on what course of conduct will have the best consequences, seen by utilitarians as the maximisation of happiness or preference satisfaction. Even rule-utilitarians will adopt only those rules that have a prospect of producing the best consequences within a specified social, economic, etc., context.

To the extent that I put particular weight on a moral rule against killing, it is in response to the widespread human fear of death, particularly sudden, violent death at the hands of other human beings. This fear is deep in our nature. When we sense this fear in other people, it tugs at our sympathies, while the reality of others' capacity for violence in the service of social or economic gain necessitates laws against the kinds of acts that we categorise as murder. It is unsurprising that murder is forbidden - or at least drastically restrained and regulated - in all cultures.

But these sorts of utilitarian, Humean, or Hobbesian reasoning get us a rule that is less than absolute, and which is always subject to specification and qualification according to the relevant historical circumstances. Indeed, all of our recognised moral rules are useful only in so far as they meet important human interests and needs in the sorts of circumstances that shaped the rules in the first place. Until now, those circumstances have universally included such facts as that we are mortal, that most people who live into their 80s become very frail, however robust they formerly were, that it is almost unheard of for people to live to 120, and so on.

If we are now considering technological changes that could greatly alter the human condition, and with it the context within which moral rules evolve and moral intuitions are shaped, it is not at all obvious that the existing moral rules can be retained in their entirety. On the contrary, it is easy to imagine science fictional societies in which killing people when they reach the age of 300, or even at the age of 100, is justifiable on utilitarian grounds - though whether such scenarios actually seem at all plausible might depend on fiercely contested perceptions of human nature, such as conflicting beliefs about the inevitability of ennui and despair if one lives long enough.

Even before we find ourselves in such a futuristic setting, all bets may be off. If we are now in a world where anti-aging technologies are a real prospect, that is already a different world from the one in which our intuitions about the wrongness of killing were formed. If historical assumptions about human decline and mortality can no longer made, our moral norms may need to change. We cannot take a radical view of what changes are possible, while taking a conservative view that our current norms remain appropriate to the altered situation. This makes moral and policy debates about emerging technologies very tricky.

Assume for the sake of argument that failing to provide the general population with an immortality drug, if one became available, could be considered equivalent in some sense to killing the individuals who are so deprived. Even if we get to that point, it is not clear that this sort of killing would be morally wrong. It depends on what would be the actual effect of having a population of people who use an immortality drug. If the outcome would be some kind of disastrous conflict for resources, or some kind of widespread, catastrophic unhappiness, withholding the drug might be justified.

Thus, bioconservatives such as Francis Fukuyama, who evidently expect dreadful outcomes are being rational, in their fashion, in claiming that society and the state are morally entitled to tell us how long we may live. Of course, it is a shocking kind of rationality. I immediately want to add that the last thing I want to do is join Fukuyama in handing such a power to the state - any state, no matter how democratically accountable. To be clear, I am suggesting that there is no absolute right to an immortality drug, even if we had one, or for some more plausible "cure for aging". But at the same time, I want to stress what kind of argument has to be run if there is to be an intellectually credible case against technologies that would extend human life.

It appears to me that the burden lies heavily on the opponents of life extension to develop such a case, because nothing I've said above (or anywhere else) denies that longer, healthier lives, and particularly the radical extension of our times of physical robustness and mental clarity, are all very attractive. In fact, that is just the point. We should be supporting technological advances that will give us these things - basing our case squarely on the fact that they are things which really are attractive to beings like us, that it is rational for us to want them, and conversely that it is rational to struggle against the process of ontological diminution (David Gems's useful term) that comes with aging. Indeed, supporting research that could deliver these benefits would be a rational and appropriate use of public funds.

Opponents of life extension have little prospect of success unless they can make out a case that the probable result is something horrible. I am not afraid to concede that such a case could be made in principle, but let's see if it can be sustained in practice. Transhumanists and life extension advocates won't have everything their own way in a debate over this issue, but that's because it is far easier (and far easier to be be taken seriously) to present as a pessimist about the future, referring to valued things that could change or be superseded, than to be an optimist, attempting to picture a better future in convincing detail.

In the end, however, I expect that the bioconservatives' case will not be made out intellectually and will have only short-term success in gaining converts. Perhaps ironically, their problem is that their aims run against that thing they hold sacred - human nature - for it is in our nature to change things, including ourselves if we can, to bring them closer to the heart's desire.


Andres Vaccari said...

Hey Russell,

I'm not sure you realize that only people who have a Blogger account can leave comments in your blog. Is this intentional?

Andres Vaccari said...

sorry, I've just fired up the comment too soon. This is interesting. I might get back with more comments, for what's worth.

Russell Blackford said...

I did set it that way, but I now wonder why I did. Just changed it to allow anyone to leave comments. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Andres. :)

Andres Vaccari said...

What follows are some comments, not all of them connected:

1) It seems to me you are correct to argue that moral norms will need to change if the being to which they apply also changes. If humans are historical beings whose nature is not fixed (or only historically fixed, as biological beings, etc.), the status of ‘personhood’ will be in a state of becoming, and so will be the norms that apply to this personhood or nature.

2) I’m not so certain that ‘absolute rights’ and the possibility of their annulment in certain situations are so irreconcilable. As I understand it, the Enlightenment tradition and its Universal Declaration of Rights postulates such a kind of absolute right to life, while also accommodating its suspension in certain cases (where a lot of other lives are at risk, for example). After all, freedom is also an inalienable right, but people still get locked up for their own good and the good of others. (This, however, is a minor point).

3) You begin your argument by speaking of rights, but then you end up arguing about desires. I’m not certain how the two are linked. It’s not clear why it would be desirable for ‘beings like us’ to extend our life-spans. Surely, this can only occur to human beings in a certain historical and social position (i.e., middle- and upper-class individuals from industrialised nations with enough idleness and resources to think about these things). It seems to me that the ‘right’ to a longer life-span does not fall into the same category as the right to life (however we conceive it). It is not ‘given’ in the same way, and is not as categorical.

Death can be seen as a defining component of human nature (at least as things stand right now, in this historical stage). If this human nature will change, isn’t this already an ‘ontological diminution’ (or ‘augmentation’, the result is the same)? Again, then, desirable for who? If you will alter the nature of this personhood, then you have already lost the rational ground from which such a desire might be construed as reasonable.

In other words, it depends on your commitments about the ultimate ontological nature of humans, if they have a fixed essence, or they are historically becoming. If you argue about absolute rights, you must admit that the right to life extension does not fall into the same category as the (absolute, universal) right to life. If you believe in a contingent, becoming human nature, then the nature of this ‘desire’ for life extension must be founded on something more solid than a mere whim (i.e., you can no longer justify it as absolute).

Death is ontologically inseparable from life, constitutive of its very being. Biologically speaking, death is the essential mechanism of change, evolution, regeneration and renewal. Decay is just a natural outcome of growth. A drag? For sure. Unpleasant, undignified, horrible? Yes. A diminution? Perhaps. Ontological? No.

Of course, this doesn’t mean (at all!) that we shouldn’t change it or do anything about it. But the argument will have to be changed somewhat. Unless you are ready to speak of ‘deficiencies of nature’ that need to be fixed (like Descartes does in his ‘Optics’, inaugurating a long posthuman tradition). However, Descartes believed in intelligent design, and this is the only way you can metaphysically justify the whole notion of deficiencies of design, etc. (If there is some other way, I’d be curious to know).

4) Do you want the state to fund this technology but not to control it or regulate it?

5) I’m curious about the (presumably hypothetical) argument that denying life extension would amount to killing. We could make the same argument right now about denying AIDS medicines to Africa, for example. Following this argument, the industrialised nations of the world would be guilty of genocide on a daily basis. Which, of course, doesn’t refute the argument, but makes it more interesting.

6) In the end, I’m not certain what all the fuss is about. Given the present socio-political stage (market capitalism) these technologies will likely be developed by rpivate companies / corporations, and available to those who can afford it. The state, I guess, will only be justified to intervene if there is a clear risk or danger (or if the technology involves something like using human materials, like what happened with stem cell research.

I haven’t read Fukuyama’s book (after trying to read the deeply offensive The End of History Etc., I’ve boycotted him, but maybe I should read this one); but if what he fears is some kind of ruling elite of superhumans, this seems unfounded. Most probably, what we’ll get is some kind of parasitical grey class of super-pensioners going in endless yacht cruises, haranguing their grandchildren, dating eighteen-year olds, and complaining about the current fashion (or something like that). I don’t see how it could be stopped. And why make a case for these technologies? There surely will be a great demand for them (look at the case of Viagra, for example), and there are lots of laboratories all over the world seeking to satisfy this trillion-dollar market.

In fact, as you well know, ‘our’ life-spans (i.e., the life-spans of middle-class etc.) are already much longer than they used to. We already have an elite class of filthy rich oldies who live much longer than they should (for example, Rupert Murdoch or Kerry Packer, to give you two local examples). It might not be necessary to come up with far-fetched scenarios to see what is coming.

7) The whole optimistic/pessimistic scenario thing lost me a bit. It seems clear that already, right now, there is a competition for resources and that the world will not be able to support the expanding population. I don’t see how having such a parasitical class could help things in any way. However, this is where the argument changes completely, and we move into a completely different discussion (i.e., the present distribution of wealth and resources, the kind of technological and social changes that we will need to survive, etc.)

Sorry, this was going to be a short post but I overstayed my welcome. Hope that this is some help and that it livens your comments forum a bit.

Andres Vaccari

Russell Blackford said...

Thanks, Andres. Food for thought - though I'm not sure what the problem is about the expression "deficiencies of design". Of course, the human body was not literally designed - it evolved. The only thing it can be said to have been "designed" for was to pass on its genes to the next generation. I.e., it is "designed" by evolution for its own reproductive success in the environment of human evolutionary adaptedness.

However, what we want our bodies to do may be something quite different and quite varied. Many people don't even want children at all. We are conscious beings quite capable of rebelling against the tyranny of the mindless replicators (to paraphrase Richard Dawkins). From our viewpoint(s), the human body might well have design flaws. The way its capacities diminish after our best reproductive years is a good candidate - from our viewpoint that is pretty damn annoying. For example, even something as relatively petty as my increasing inability to read print annoys the hell out of me. Thankfully, we can overcome that one relatively easily - as a result of the availability of reading glasses, as a bit of minor cyborgisation of the body.

This discussion of "design flaws" is a metaphor, of course, since no literal design was ever involved. But it is a useful one.