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