The news around the traps this morning is that Peter A. Thiel, co-founder and former chief executive officer of PayPal, has made an announcement pledging US$3.5 million to help support the Methuselah Foundation's anti-ageing research. The Methuselah Foundation is the organisation set up by Aubrey de Grey to research technological means to halt or postpone ageing. De Grey argues that the ageing process can be broken down into seven more specific processes in our bodies, all of which are, in principle, capable of being retarded or even reversed. If we could control them, then very long or even indefinite lifespans are possible.
Three cheers for Aubrey!
Now, I'm not at all qualified to comment on the soundness of de Grey's theoretical work, but if private money is being put up to test it, then that's a great step forward from my particular viewpoint. I'd welcome some public money going into the enterprise as well, though for now there's an argument for prioritising it to more mainstream anti-ageing research, such as that of S. Jay Olshansky and his colleagues.
It totally baffles me why anyone wants to argue that ageing is something we should welcome as individuals - though it's true that there would be cumulative social impacts that we can't predict, if everyone could in fact live forever. If we could predict them all, we might not consider all the outcomes desirable. That is enough for me to doubt the claim that a quest for a "cure" for ageing is morally obligatory in any simple sense. The question is, "Morally obligatory against what background?" The social changes would be so drastic that I don't think our ordinary moral thinking even applies in any straightforward way - it's like trying to apply Newtonian physics, or pre-Newtonian physics, to calculate the properties of objects moving at relativistic velocities. (Actually, that's a problem for many attempts to apply our inherited moral norms to choices that confront us in the twenty-first century. This often frustrates me when I read the work of other moral philosophers. They seem to think that our moral norms are our masters; I think of them as our tools. We need to design new tools for new circumstances.)
In the end, some of this comes down to personal values, and the overriding one from my viewpoint is that of retaining and exercising our capacities for as long as possible, rather than suffering the humiliations of decline and dependence. Despite all the pro-death propaganda around, I'm betting that this value will eventually prevail. It's in our nature to be dissatisfied with at least some of our limitations, and we will continue to search for technological means of pushing them back. We may not always want more (possession of a radar sense is surely beyond the horizon of desire for most people), but we certainly want to hold on to what we have, and to rebel against the erosions of time.
When and if we are able to extend the normal period of adult health, vitality and robustness, there will have to be consequential changes in our social arrangements and our inherited moral norms, but that's not something I'm afraid of. Kindness and love, curiosity and joy will still exist in a society of very long-lived people. If a whole lot of other things have to change, then let it happen.