On the ethics of extending human life: healthy people have a right to carry on living.
Humanity has long demonstrated a paradoxical ambivalence concerning the extension of a healthy human lifespan. Modest health extension has been universally sought, whereas extreme (even indefinite) health extension has been regarded as a snare and delusion—a dream beyond all others at first blush, but actually something we are better off without. The prevailing pace of biotechnological progress is bringing ever closer the day when humanity will be able to act on the latter view by rejecting a clear and present opportunity for much longer healthy lives. Indeed, some biogerontologists (including myself) contend that that day has already arrived, to the extent that our hesitation in embarking on a vigorous “war on ageing” is already delaying the point at which a cure for ageing will be developed. Here I consider whether our present caution concerning the wisdom of truly curing ageing is likely to survive the increased scrutiny that it will receive in coming years as a result of these technical advances. I conclude that it will not, because of its irreconcilability with values that are more deeply held by the large majority of humanity than any values that argue against the quest for a cure. I further conclude that all the major current reasons given for not curing ageing are mere crutches to help us cope with the immutability of ageing that we have been brought up to accept. Our failure to set aside such irrationality (as it has become with recent advances in biomedical gerontology, even if it was justifiable on psychological grounds hitherto) is already shortening potential longevity—quite probably of those already alive today—to a staggering degree. Once we realise this, our determination to consign human ageing to history will be second only to our shame that we took so long to break out of our collective trance.