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Wednesday, May 07, 2003

Wayward, as usual

The Dante's Inferno Test has banished you to the Sixth Level of Hell - The City of Dis!
Here is how you matched up against all the levels:
Purgatory (Repenting Believers)Very Low
Level 1 - Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers)Moderate
Level 2 (Lustful)Very High
Level 3 (Gluttonous)High
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious)High
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy)Low
Level 6 - The City of Dis (Heretics)Extreme
Level 7 (Violent)High
Level 8- the Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers)Moderate
Level 9 - Cocytus (Treacherous)Moderate

Take the Dante Inferno Hell Test

Sunday, May 04, 2003

The ethical dilemma of changing anything about the way we live right now

The President's Council on Bioethics, headed by Leon Kass, is considering the moral challenges of age-retardation; that is, the ethics of slowing down the aging process in humans if such a technology were available. Within the context of a staff working paper, they provide an accurate overview of the current research in this field, and then attempt to consider the ways that a significant increase in lifespan might affect both individuals and society. (It is worth noting that the current research, as fascinating as it is, does not point to an immediate breakthrough in our understanding of human aging, much less our ability to manipulate it.)

In a recentish article in Reason, Ronald Bailey has only to lift quotes in order to mock the fretful tone of the paper. As it is written, the working paper demonstrates a distinct lack of joie de vivre much along the lines of someone who receives a pony as a present but only complains about the shit. The most positive thing the Council has to say about the prospect of life extension is that everyone would want it. And, with only one exception, none of the "concerns" they raise are real ethical dilemmas. All fall into the category of either 1.) gut fear of new things or 2.) vague sniffling about things changing their meanings. On the other hand, the resulting conversation among council members was quite interesting (and they acknowledged that the paper was a downer.)

Assuming that it would be possible to significantly extend the productive years of human life, and that such a technology would be readily available to all, the Council on Bioethics raises eight "ethical issues". I've paraphrased them below:

At the level of the individual:
1.) We may be less committed to our activities because we know that we aren't really spending that much of our lives (percentage-wise) on them. If I understand it, the argument here is that we tend to place more value on things for which we have paid dearly, and since we will have more life, each hour will be worth less. Moral inflation, I guess.
2.) Since we will feel we have plenty of time, we won't be in as big a rush to accomplish stuff.
3.) Assuming that an increase in longevity will be accompanied by a decrease in childbearing (either due to inherent biological reasons or to decreased desire for renewal) we may become less welcoming of children and less interested in raising them well.
4.) We may become preoccupied with avoiding death.
5.) Since an extended life cycle will be different than the one we have now, our concept of what is supposed to happen at various stages of life will change.

At the level of society:
6.) The power dynamics between different generations may change in such a way that is not good for for families.
7.) Because people will live longer, there will be a "glut of the able" that inhibits innovation.
8.) It is possible that the average age of the population will increase, thus societal attitudes and culture will change.

Where to begin? First, I think issues #1 and #5 are non-issues. Yes, if the world is different, we will think about it differently. So what? A worldview in flux is not an ethical problem, and why assume a new one will be inhuman or less profound? Besides, I don't think I'm less committed to science now that I expect to live to 80 than if I expected to live to 40. In fact, if I had reason to believe I would die at 40, I might as well stop working on difficult problems because I probably wouldn't have time to make much progress anyway. So in that way, I may be more committed to my work and to my personal engagements because I expect the long run to be, well, long.

Issue #2 seems like an over simplification of human nature. Fear of death does generate a sense of urgency, but I question whether it is the underlying motivation for achievement. In fact, there seem to be many people who begin worrying at an early age whether they are making sufficient use of their lives (think about undergraduate university applicants). Our lifespan has increased over the last century, but I don't think the drive for achievement has decreased, nor does it start later. And again, I may have more incentive to finish small projects if I feel death is looming, but I'm less likely to undertake an epic masterpiece.

As far as being overly cautious (#4), ok, I agree that age-retardation would probably increase our tendency to be weenies. However, we have so much of this going on today that its hard to believe it could get much worse. Perhaps if we lived longer (as healthy adults), people would become better able to assess risks? Actually, I've noticed that the most cautious people are those who are old enough to be frail and those who have young children. If the ratio of the very old and very young either stays the same or decreases, maybe this trend won't be so bad....or maybe I'm being too optimistic. At any rate, is this an ethical problem?

Objections #6 -8 consider only the negative aspects of an aging population. If we assume that this putative anti-aging technology does not simply increase the length of human decline, but similarly increases the number of productive years, we will also have a more talented population. Personally, I feel that I am getting better at what I do the longer I do it, and that includes training the generation of scientists below me. A "glut of the able" also assumes a limited number of jobs or ways to express creativity.

The only issue that could constitute a real problem, might be a sharp decline in childbearing (#3). Here I worry less from the point of view of someone who is interested promoting "family values", than as a biologist concerned with proper continuation of the species. Its not a given, but if a longer lifespan is mutually exclusive with fertility, it might be possible to get to a point where there is a bottleneck of fertile adults, as is the case in some endangered species. Somehow, though, I think we would see that this was happening, and, clever monkeys that we are, some of us would sacrifice a few years to produce children. And as for the argument that we would be less responsive to the needs of children if we had fewer of them, my retort is: grandparents. Mine are extremely generous, patient, blind to any flaw (apparently I have none), and they still send me money and cookies when they can. I think we are more likely to run the danger of raising a small cohort of spoiled brats than of neglecting them.

Anyway, the idea of living to 200 appeals to me enormously. Wouldn't it be fun to have more time to get good, I mean really good, at what you are doing? There are so many languages to learn, books to read, people to talk to... in fact, I would distinctly relish a glut of the able. Maybe I'll have my grandmother send some cookies over to the Council on Bioethics, because life is just really not that bad.

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