Life in Overabundance: Agar on Life-Extension and the Fear of Death

Abstract

In Humanity’s End: Why We Should Reject Radical Enhancement, Nicholas Agar presents a novel argument against the prospect of radical life-extension. Agar’s argument hinges on the claim that extended lifespans will result in people’s lives being dominated by the fear of death. Here we examine this claim and the surrounding issues in Agar’s discussion. We argue, firstly, that Agar’s view rests on empirically dubious assumptions about human rationality and attitudes to risk, and secondly, that even if those assumptions are granted, the fears that Agar adverts to are unlikely to dominate people’s lives if and when radical life-extension is made possible. Further, we claim that the structure of the decision-making process around life-extension is unlikely to be the way that it would have to be in order for Agar’s claims about fear of death to make sense. Finally, we argue that Agar is implicitly committed to a narrow conception of human value. In response, we suggest that the pursuit of life-extension can itself be seen as an expression of certain important aspects of our distinctively human nature.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Parenthetical page numbers in what follows all refer to Humanity’s End. Agar discusses a variety of human enhancement possibilities in Humanity’s End; here, however, we confine our attention to his arguments about life-extension.

  2. 2.

    Agar espouses liberal principles in the development and use of human enhancement in his Liberal Eugenics (2004).

  3. 3.

    See for instance Bodnar et al. (1998), Ruan et al. (2002), Finch (2009), Baumer et al. (2011), and Jaskelioff et al. (2011).

  4. 4.

    Roughly, the health-span is the period during which a satisfying level of vitality and ability are maintained, whereas the lifespan is the period of ‘mere’ bodily survival. Not even enthusiastic advocates of life-extension are interested in extending the lifespan without also extending the health-span. (The perils of such a scenario, writ large, are discussed in Fukuyama 2002.) In what follows we will not labour the distinction. When we’re talking about radical life-extension, negligible senescence, etc., we will assume throughout that what stands to be extended is health-span rather than lifespan.

  5. 5.

    Aubrey de Grey is the most notable voice in this camp; he sometimes describes life-extension research as an attempt to find “the cure for aging” (de Grey 2005: 663). De Grey heads up the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Foundation, a research and advocacy group based in California, whose aim is to “ensure widespread access to rejuvenation biotechnologies which comprehensively address the disabilities and diseases of aging” (see www.sens.org).

  6. 6.

    The literature typically focuses on extended lifespans in bodies functionally similar to those we currently have, rather than the prospect of people ‘uploading’ their minds into cyberspace. Agar does also examine ‘uploading’ independently of his discussion of life-extension in Humanity’s End. He argues that uploading one’s mind is irrational if there is a non-zero probability that this would constitute one’s death, e.g. if the substrate of one’s ‘mind’ would, post-uploading, merely be simulating feelings, memories, etc. This argument has generated some discussion in the artificial intelligence literature (see Levy 2011; Agar 2012).

  7. 7.

    Some authors like David Gems (2003) have a foot in both camps; he agrees with de Grey, Harris, et al. that life-extension would benefit the individual, but he sees the likely social consequences of life-extension technology, in particular the potential for power to become more concentrated over time, as a decisive reason against its development. Alongside the debate between advocates of life-extension and conservatives, there are numerous pieces in the literature examining how that debate is framed and what implications different ethical theories have for it. Some authors, concerned with Parfit’s (1984) distinction between mere survival and identity-preservation, ask whether we can expect radically-extended human lives to allow for identity-preservation across time, or instead for mere survival, or for some lesser continuity relation, and what the ethical consequences would be given each prospect (see Glannon 2002b; Harris 2002a, 2002b; Schloendorn 2006; Barazetti and Reichlin 2011). Others draw on economics research into the trajectory of people’s happiness levels across the lifespan, to formulate predictions about what might be at stake, from a purely utilitarian perspective, in prolonging human lives (Walker 2007; Blackford 2009). Others examine parochial judgements—e.g. about elderliness, gender, and generational change—which lead to a moralisation of ideas about what is ‘normal’ in human society, and the consequences of this in life-extension (Overall 2003). And finally, some authors question whether bioethics as a discipline is adequately equipped to address ethical questions about life-extension, given that the kind of anxieties that life-extension generates cannot be readily articulated in bioethics’ prevailing idiom (Trotter 2004).

  8. 8.

    Hence de Grey’s comment about banning driving (see §3); de Grey has also suggested, in personal communication with one of the authors, that the argument from fear of death is among his greatest worries about negligible senescence.

  9. 9.

    Some studies find that while people are generally hyperbolic discounters of future rewards, we conform to the exponential discounting patterns of classical economics more the longer we live (see e.g. Green et al. 1994); and one might argue that this is pro tanto evidence that negligibly senescent people will approximate the attitudes of rational utility maximisers. The argument, roughly, would be that since long-living (normally senescent) humans approximate the attitudes of rational utility-maximisers in one respect (discounting of future benefits), we can expect very long-living (negligibly senescent) humans to approximate the attitudes of rational utility-maximisers in other respects, including appraisal of mortality risks. But this is a dubious inference. The best explanation of the data on the relation between discounting benefits and age is that approaching the end of one’s life makes one attend more carefully to the value of future benefits. Proximity to life’s end, rather than living longer per se, drives the attitudinal change. Thus, although negligible senescence increases years of life, it actually delays the key factor (i.e. proximity to death) which most plausibly explains the closer approximation of rational utility-maximisation in older (normally senescent) people. We are grateful to an anonymous reviewer from this journal for bringing this point to our attention.

  10. 10.

    Observe John Harris’s response to the suggestion that negligible senescence would turn out to be a poisoned chalice: “I would (as of now) be quite happy to sample a few million years and see how it goes” (Harris 2002b: 284).

References

  1. Agar N (2004) Liberal eugenics: In defence of human enhancement. Blackwell, Oxford

    Book  Google Scholar 

  2. Agar N (2010) Humanity’s end: Why we should reject radical enhancement. MIT Press, Cambridge

    Book  Google Scholar 

  3. Agar N (2012) On the irrationality of mind-uploading: A reply to Neil Levy. AI Soc 27(4):431–436

    Google Scholar 

  4. Barazetti G (2011) Looking for the fountain of youth: Scientific, ethical, and social issues in the extension of human lifespan. In: Savulescu J, ter Meulen R, Kahane G (eds) Enhancing human capacities. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  5. Barazetti G, Reichlin M (2011) Life-extension and personal identity. In: Savulescu J, ter Meulen R, Kahane G (eds) Enhancing human capacities. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  6. Baumer Y, Scholz B, Ivanov S, Schlosshauer B (2011) Telomerase-based immortalization modifies the angiogenic/inflammatory responses of human coronary artery endothelial cells. Exp Biol Med 236(6):692–700

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Blackford R (2009) Moral pluralism versus the total view: why singer is wrong about radical life-extension. J Med Ethics 35(12):747–752

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Bodnar AG, Ouellette M, Frolkis M, Holt SE, Chiu C-P, Morin GB, Harley CB, Shay JW, Lichtsteiner S, Wright WE (1998) Extension of lifespan by introduction of telomerase into normal human cells. Science 279(5349):349–352

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Bostrom N, Ord T (2006) The reversal test: eliminating status quo bias in applied ethics. Ethics 116(4):656–679

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Buchanan A (2011) Beyond humanity? The ethics of biomedical enhancement. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Book  Google Scholar 

  11. Callahan D (1994) Manipulating human life: Is there no end in it? In: Blank RH, Bonnicksen AL (eds) Medicine unbound: The human body and the limits of medical intervention. Columbia University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  12. Camerer CF, Kunreuther H (1989) Decision processes for low probability events: policy implications. J Policy Anal Manag 8(4):565–592

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. de Grey ADNJ (2005) Life-extension, human rights, and the rational refinement of repugnance. J Med Ethics 31(11):659–663

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. DeJoy DM (1989) The optimism bias and traffic accident risk perception. Accid Anal Prev 21(4):333–340

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Dohmen TJ, Falk A, Huffman D, Sunde U, Schupp J, Wagner GG (2005) Iza discussion paper No. 1730: Individual risk attitudes: New evidence from a large, representative, experimentally-validated survey. Institute for the Study of Labor, Bonn

    Google Scholar 

  16. Finch CE (2009) Update on slow aging and negligible senescence: a mini-review. Gerontology 55(3):307–313

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Fukuyama F (2002) Our posthuman future: Consequences of the biotechnology revolution. Picador, New York

    Google Scholar 

  18. Gems D (2003) Is more life always better? The new biology of aging and the meaning of life. Hast Cent Rep 33(4):31–39

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Glannon W (2002a) Extending the human life span. J Med Philos 27(3):339–354

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Glannon W (2002b) Identity, prudential concern, and extended lives. Bioethics 16(3):266–283

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Green L, Fry A, Myerson J (1994) Discounting of delayed rewards: a lifespan comparison. Psychol Sci 5(1):33–36

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Habermas J (2003) The future of human nature. Polity Press, Cambridge

    Google Scholar 

  23. Hackler C (2004) Extending the life span: mythic desires and modern dangers. HEC Forum 16(3):182–196

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Harris J (2002a) Intimations of immortality: The ethics and justice of life extending therapies. In: Freeman M (ed) Current legal problems. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  25. Harris J (2002b) A response to Walter Glannon. Bioethics 16(3):284–291

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Harris J (2004) Immortal ethics. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1019(1):527–534

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Horrobin S (2006) Immortality, human nature, the value of life and the value of life-extension. Bioethics 20(6):279–292

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Huber O, Wider R, Huber OW (1997) Active information search and complete information presentation in naturalistic risky decision tasks. Acta Psychol 95(1):15–29

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Jaskelioff M, Muller FL, Paik J-H, Thomas E, Jiang S, Adams AC, Sahin E, Kost-Alimova M, Protopopov A, Cadinanos J, Horner JW, Maratos-Flier E, DePinho RA (2011) Telomerase reactivation reverses tissue degeneration in aged telomerase-deficient mice. Nature 469:102–106

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Kass LR (2001) L’chaim and its limits: Why not immortality? First Things (May 2001): 17–24

  31. Kass LR (2003) Ageless bodies, happy souls: biotechnology and the pursuit of perfection. New Atlantis 1:9–28, Spring

    Google Scholar 

  32. Kunreuther H, Nomevsky N, Kahneman D (2001) Making low probabilities useful. J Risk Uncertain 23(2):103–120

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Levitt SD, Dubner SJ (2009) Superfreakonomics. Allen Lane, London

    Google Scholar 

  34. Levy N (2011) Searle’s wager. AI Soc 26(4):363–369

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Marshall J (2006) Life-extension research: an analysis of contemporary biological theories. Med Health Care Philos 9(1):87–96

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. McKibben B (2003) Enough: Genetic engineering and the end of human nature. Bloomsbury, London

    Google Scholar 

  37. Overall C (2003) Aging, death, and human longevity: A philosophical inquiry. University of California Press, Berkeley

    Google Scholar 

  38. Parfit D (1984) Reasons and person. Clarendon, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  39. Ruan H, Xiang Dong Tang ML, Chen MA, Joiner GS, Brot N, Weissbach H, Heinemann SH, Iverson L, Chun-Fang W, Hoshi T (2002) High-quality life-extension by the enzyme peptide methionine sulfoxide reductase. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 99(5):2748–2753

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Sandel MJ (2004) The case against perfection. The Atlantic Monthly (April 2004): 51–62

  41. Schloendorn J (2006) Making the case for human life-extension: personal arguments. Bioethics 20(4):191–202

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Singer P (1991) Research into aging: Should it be guided by the interests of present individuals, future individuals, or the species? In: Ludwig FC (ed) Life span extension: Consequences and open questions. Springer, New York

    Google Scholar 

  43. Slovic P, Fischhoff B, Lichtenstein S, Corrigan B, Combs B (1977) Preference for Insuring against probable small losses: insurance implications. J Risk Insur 44(2):237–258

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Svenson O (1981) Are we all less risky and more skillful than our fellow drivers? Acta Psychol 47(2):143–148

    Google Scholar 

  45. Temkin L (2011) Is living longer living better? In: Savulescu J, ter Meulen R, Kahane G (eds) Enhancing human capacities. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  46. Trotter G (2004) Why bioethics is ill equipped to contribute to the debate about prolonging lifespans. HEC Forum 16(3):197–213

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Velleman JD (1992) Against the right to die. J Med Philos 17(6):665–681

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Walker M (2007) Superlongevity and utilitarianism. Australas J Philos 85(4):581–595

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Weinstein ND (1980) Unrealistic optimism about future life events. J Personal Soc Psychol 39(5):806–820

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Williams B (1973) Problems of the self: Philosophical papers 1956–1973. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

    Book  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

We are grateful to Simon Rippon, Nicholas Agar, and three anonymous referees from this journal, for their thoughtful feedback and criticism in response to this paper.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Robert Mark Simpson.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Bhattacharya, A., Simpson, R.M. Life in Overabundance: Agar on Life-Extension and the Fear of Death. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 17, 223–236 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-013-9431-6

Download citation

Keywords

  • Life-extension
  • Human enhancement
  • Agar