Printed: 2020-10-26

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

IEET Link:

Popular Arguments For and Against Longevity

George Dvorsky

Future Current

March 05, 2008

Jeriaska at the Future Current blog continues his service by transcribing the talks given at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies’ “Securing the Longevity Dividend” seminar in Chicago July 23, 2007. At that seminar the IEET’s George Dvorsky gave this talk on popular arguments for and against radical life extension.


I am speaking today about the most popular arguments for and against longevity.  This is not going to be a discussion of the scientific arguments that are put forth–I will leave that to the biogerontologists and the specialists.  These are the kind of arguments that do come out of academia and some of the political lobbies, but these are also the kind of arguments you hear from the person on the street that you bump into. If you mention this in casual conversation, you can almost assuredly expect these kinds of retorts and objections to these sorts of issue of life extension.  So this is to arm ourselves and to think about the various ideas that are out there.


When I first prepared this, I went through all the arguments I could find, synthesized it, wrote it all out, and it was hideously long. It would have been well over an hour.  So the challenge for me was to compress it, both in terms of which arguments to put forth, but also to find some common ground.  Can we find certain consistencies with where these arguments are coming from?  Hopefully, that’s what I’ve done, and we can go about discussing it.  Again, these are not necessarily the best arguments.  By no means are these the most valid or credible arguments.  It’s simply a discussion of what’s out there in terms of the discussions that are happening today. I’m not going to be analyzing the arguments for their worth.  I might add some anecdotes here or there, but we can always discuss afterward where you might think that these particular arguments are either valid or invalid.


We are going to start off with the opposition to radical life extension.  I discovered that there tends to be three main sources opponents will draw their main arguments from.  There tend to be the moral and the ethical arguments. There are the practical arguments, which are the real hard-and-fast inhibitors to life extension, where they may not have an ethical problem with it, but they say we cannot do it, because there are fallacies built in.  Because I found so many of them, I thought I should probably include them.

Here is what I came up with.  There were five broad categories in which I hope you could pigeonhole any argument you can find in opposition to radical life extension:

-The appeal to nature

-Undesirable psychological consequences

-Undesirable social consequences

-The desire for life extension comes from questionable ambitions and skewed priorities

-Fallacies used to argue against life extension


1.  The appeal to nature

One of the most common arguments that is put forth in opposition to life extension is the appeal to nature.  I’m sure we are all familiar with this–the suggestion that what is natural is inherently good or right, and that what is unnatural is somehow bad or wrong.

A number of critics make the claim that life extension is a violation of the natural order–that humanity is tampering with nature, which is inherently good.  It’s often argued that the quest for life extension goes against the natural cycles of birth and death, and if we attain immortality we will have stepped so far outside the natural order that we could no longer be considered as humans.  Advocates of this view believe that life extension is a dehumanizing usurpation of the natural order.  Some of the most outspoken proponents of this view include Leon Kass, Francis Fukuyama, Bill McKibben, and Daniel Callahan.  For them, death is seen as something that is very much in our collective and personal best interest, which would run into direct contradiction to what the life extensionists argue.

McKibben, for example, argues that without death, life would be robbed of its meaning.  Humans would not have the opportunity to sacrifice for their children.  There would be no reason to pour out a life’s worth of work out under the literal deadline of mortality.  This adjunct in the appeal to nature essentially states that meaning to life is somehow that you something that you pull out of your mortality–a limited lifespan motivates people to spend their time wisely, and it is through a sense of urgency, they argue, that we are able to refine and exploit our best qualities.  Even things like courage, heroism, sacrifice, and creativity arise from the acknowledgment that I and everyone else only has so much time here.  Consequently, the implication is that life extension would create a population that is lazy, spoiled, apathetic, self-centered and indulgent, and that life would not be serious or meaningful without death.

Death, apparently, also provides us with morality and a need for morality.  We could not and would not sacrifice ourselves for something if we were immortal.  In this sense, attributes such as virtue and morality have a direct relationship with our condition as vulnerable, transient entities and in how we suffer and sacrifice.  Death, therefore, has a social function in this regard.  Self-sacrifice, dying in combat or policing, so-called honorable deaths, are part of the normal social functioning of society.

Another argument against life extension is the idea that it would cause people to become extremely conservative and risk-averse. Who wants to risk their indefinite lifespan to go hang gliding or parachute jumping, and so forth?I guess the argument here is that if you are only going to live to be about 80 years-old, it’s not so much that I’m putting at risk.  But if it’s a thousand years, or 10,000 years, suddenly the stakes are much higher.  The fear is that you would have a very conservative, risk-averse society that would not have any fun.  It’s also been argued by such thinkers as Leon Kass that not only would life be devoid of meaning, but beauty is derived by both the object’s and the subject’s impermanence in the world.  Quoting Kass, “Just as a pretty flower is beautiful because we know it will eventually wilt, the sunset is beautiful because it is short-lived.”

James Hughes (sotto voce):  Unlike mountains, which are all ugly…

The anti-life extension camp is also very sensitive to what might be called utopian ideals.  They often champion imperfections of humanity.  Bill McKibben, the author of Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age writes, “I like this body and all its limitations, up to and including the fact that it’s going to die.”  A key element of the call to nature argument is in fact its human-centeredness.  Life extension interventions are condemned in the same way that transhumanist technologies are condemned, whether they be genetic modifications or cybernetic enhancements–that hese are interventions that will somehow dehumanize us or lessen what we currently are.  Again, quoting from Kass, “The pursuit of perfect bodies and further life extension will deflect us from realizing more fully the aspirations to which our lives naturally point: for living well, rather than merely staying alive.”

As a subset to the call to nature there perhaps is the call to the unnatural–non-secular variations of the naturalistic appeal. That is, there are broader metaphysical implications to death–that the materialist assumption is wrong and something does in fact await us on the other side.  Heaven, some kind of transcendental rebirth, or what have you.  I have heard that from time to time.


2.  Psychological consequences

The inadequacy of the human psyche to deal with radical longevity.  It is a distinctive argument, but there is considerable cross-over between this line of thinking and the line of argumentation that was just put forward.  That humans would be bored, apathetic, and so on–these are assertions that human psychology is not set up to deal with this.  It is distinctive, however, from the naturalist argument in that this is named as a practical barrier to life extension, rather than the more abstract call for the preservation of the natural and the moral delineation between good and bad.

This is the big one.  We’re going to be bored when we have indefinite lifespans. We would be bored and life would be full of repetitious tedium.  So severe would this boredom be actually that we should probably forgo life extension altogether.  It is an unpredictable social experiment–we do not know what will await us beyond our expected normal lifespan right now.  It is dangerous and reckless for us to go down that path.  As John Cougar Mellencamp once said, “Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone.”  Indeed, the passion of youth is a commonly cited argument against life extension.

But as Mark Walker noted in a paper called “Boredom, Experimental Ethics, and Superlongevity,” boredom seems like a rather trivial objection to radical life extension.  Really what is being discussed is a bit more profound and deep-rooted, and that is the condition of ennui.  The condition of ennui is a state of chronic and debilitating apathy and disdain.  “Ennui” is derived from the Greek term ‘to be annoyed.’  It is defined as a reactive state to wearyingly dull, repetitive or tedious stimuli, suffering from a lack of interesting things to see or do.  It is a condition of pervasive boredom, in the sense that one tires of the earth itself.  And the only solution, as some philosophers have posited, such as Bernard Williams, is death.

There is also the possibility of madness–that we would go insane for having such long lives.  Take for example the Twilight Zone episode “A Nice Place to Visit,” in which a gambler who believes himself to be in heaven is in a casino and he is winning all the tables.  He cannot possibly lose, and he’s loving this at first, but as time goes by it’s starting to get a little predictable, it gets boring and then it gets tedious.  It gets so bad for him that he actually at this point wishes to be sent to the “other place.”  At which point, we have our classic Twilight Zone ending narration: a scared, angry little man who never got a break.  Now he has everything he’s ever wanted and he’s going to have to live with it for an eternity in the Twilight Zone.

This is an interesting one: that we will lose a sense of psychological self-continuity over time.  I know that as someone who is 30-something, I can certainly relate to this.  I do remember what it was like to be in my early 20’s, and even as a teenager, but I am so far removed from that person as to be a different person altogether.  The suggestion is that given hundreds of years, if not thousands of years, that you will be so detached from your previous self, so detached from the person who bought into life extension, that it actually defeats the purpose of life extension, because the person who wanted life extension no longer exists.  This is the argument–I’m not saying it’s a great argument.


3.  Social consequences

In principle, one could be in favor of life extension on moral grounds, but be opposed to it due to the practical applications of its onset.  Not only might there be psychological consequences to life extension but severe and intractible social consequences, such as the so-called Tragedy of the Commons.  This is, in many respects, the obverse of what we are here for today at the Longevity Dividend, saying there are actually positive social consequences.

There are of course the issues of social and distributive injustices.  Life extension interventions, it is argued, are bound to be both cost prohibitive to a large segment of the population, and I guess the assumption is that the widening gap between the rich and poor will lead to greater social inequality.

Another undesirable social consequence is undesirable demographic skews. If only the rich have access, for example, both racial and class balances might be upset, and will end up in a divided world with parallel populations and new classes altogether.  Francis Fukuyama has warned that we risk creating a “nursing home world” filled with aging, miserable, debilitated people draining resources from the young to keep themselves alive.  More realistically to what we are addressing, in a world where elderly people would remain forever physically and psychologically vibrant, workplace demographics and the issue of retirement would become pertinent.  How will younger generations work their way into positions of more authority if the older generation never has to give up those roles?  This is what legal philosopher Steven Horrobin has called “The Problem of Incumbency.”  In a world of life extension, people of authority, wealth, or power would remain there indefinitely.  There could be the problem of generational dominance.  Misguided and deviant people would not wither away and die. Elites would not give up their positions, either in business or in politics.

There is also the threat of scientific and cultural stagnation.  It is a well-known cycle of life, it has been argued, and it may provide other benefits to society–the elimination of death may curtail the important social processes that we take for granted.  There is the possibility that there would be fewer fresh ideas.  Quantum physicist Max Planck once said, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”  Similarly in the context of social change, the issue of same-sex marriages is culturally divided almost exclusively along demographic lines, where you have an older generation that is very uneasy about it and a younger generation for which it is an absolute no-brainer.  So this kind of thing could result in cultural and social stagnation.

Issues of overpopulation, environmental non-sustainability, and other Malthusian scenarios are extremely common arguments levied against the concept of radical life extension.  Environmentalist E.O. Wilson has calculated that for every person in the world to reach present U.S. levels of consumption with existing technology,  you would need four planet earths.  Suffice to say, life extension would greatly compound the issue. This is very much a neo-Malthusian argument.  In terms of the eart’s food, water, and energy, everything that makes up our global footprint, cannot possibly keep up with a perpetually increasing population.


4.  Questionable motivations and skewed priorities

Opponents of life extension frequently question the motivations of those in search of extended lives and suggest that there are much more pressing concerns for human civilization.  A number of critics like Callahan believe that our motivations for wanting extended lives is deeply problematic, and there is no known social good coming from the conquest of death.  The quest for life extension has been referred to as “anti-social,” and those who wish to live longer lives have been called selfish, arrogant, hubristic, irreverent, childish, and narcissistic… and those are the nice things they have to say about life extensionists.  Critics are also aware of the potential for life extension to hit the mainstream.  Consequently, some critics have already made the proclamation that governments should be required to intervene and do what is right for society, because people will not do what is in society’s collective best interest.  The state will be required to uphold the social good.

Brian Alexander, who authored the book Rapture: How Biotechnology Became the New Religion, once asked Francis Fukuyama if the government has the right to tell its citizens if they have to die, and Fukuyama answered, “Yes.  Absolutely.”  Leon Kass has noted, “The finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual, whether he knows it or not.”  John Harris, author of Immortal Ethics has referred to this threat, I suppose, as “generational cleansing.”At some point, because the technologies actually exist, that this would be a kind of genocide enforced upon the elderly population.  The idea is that some cleansing will have to be enacted in the interest of society.

Again from Kass, “Simply to covet a prolonged lifespan for ourselves is both a sign and a cause of our failure to open ourselves to procreation and to any higher purpose.  The desire to prolong youthfulness is not only a childish desire to eat one’s life and keep it, but it is also an expression of a childish and narcissistic wish incompatible with the devotion to posterity.”  Again, there is something wrong with life extensionists and their quest for long life.  Furthermore, there are more important problems to be dealing with right now: global warming, human poverty, disease.


5. Logical fallacies

Now, arguably life extension has been the target at times of pseudo-skepticism, which is characterized by unfair, biased, presupposed and overzealous lines of attack.  Everyone is familiar with ad hominem attacks against life extensionists.  They are characterized as being pseudo-scientists or practicioners of pathological science.  Again, I think this speaks to the high degree of emotionalism that is invested in the issue.

The suggestion is that there is something deeply wrong with life extensionists.  A couple years ago, Technology Review’s Editor in Chief Jason Pontin laid into Aubrey de Grey, using the opportunity not so much to critique Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence but to launch personal attacks, referring to Aubrey, forgive me, as a “troll.”  He slammed Aubrey as a person, questioned his life choices, and criticized his personal habits and appearance. We’re not talking about man on the street, this is the editor of Technology Review magazine.

Nor does it have to be a character attack like this.  It can also be an accusation of psychological instability, “quirkiness,” or eccentricity.  Psychology Today recently put out an article about life extensionist Michael Anissimov called “Champions of the Lost Cause.”  The presence of the piece in a psychology magazine, even if it might be a popular magazine, hinted that Anissimov’s quest for life extension was somehow psychologically quirky or eccentric, not something a normal person would want to pursue for themselves.


Arguments for longevity

For those of us who are in promotion of life extension, we also will put forward ethical reasons and practical arguments for doing so, although it’s very top-heavy in the first category.

To date, the arguments have been almost exclusively about why life is valuable, not really having the evidence or wherewithal to develop some hard-and-fast reasons from a social or economic perspective as to why we should do this.  This is why an event like this is so unbelievably encouraging.    One can make the case now that it’s starting to happen, we are putting forth arguments for the social and economic benefits of life extension.  I find that arguments on behalf life extension tend to be somewhat on the offensive.  We are under attack and many of the arguments are meant to deflect criticism.


There are four broad categories to the arguments of pro-longevists: the value of life and undesirability of death, the ethical and legal right to life extension, that there are desirable social consequences, and that it is an issue more of working toward the inevitable than striving toward the feasible.


Life is good, death is bad.  That pretty much says it all for life extensionists.  But that being said, you can’t just say, “Life is good.”  It’s almost a self-evidentiary argument.  We have to at least justify why it is the act of living that we value, not just “life” itself.”

There is the notion that death at the age of 17 is far more tragic than death at the age of 87. The life extensionists would respond that this is based on our conditioned response and expectations of a maximum lifespan.  If we could live to 1000, therefore would we consider the death of someone at 350 to be just as tragic?  Is this an issue of relativity?  Could we ever come up with a maximum lifespan that is not arbitrary?  I argue, absolutely not.

These issues, they do have deep existential connotations. There is a panoply of related issues, including the meaning of a good life, the infinite totality that is death, and the bizarre acknowledgment that we exist in the first place.

It was said by the Greek philosopher Epicurus that death is nothing to us when we are dead.  Death is a non-condition.  That said, death is most certainly to the frustration of the living.  People who desire to go on living, they have objectives for the future, objectives which it is hoped will translate into real experiences.  Death can be seen as the denier of these desires, which is why death is seen as something that is so undesirable.

A great quote from J.R.R. Tolkien: “There is no such thing as a natural death.  Nothing that happens to Man is ever natural, since his presence calls the whole world into question. All men must die, but for every man his death is an accident. And even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation.”  I love how that is almost an absolute obverse to Leon Kass’s issue about how death is valuable whether we know it or not.  Tolkien argued that it is unjustifiable whether we know it or not.


Again, death tends to be seen as something overwhelmingly undesirable and wasteful–accumulated memories, experiences and the wisdom of others has been lost forever upon death.  Moreover, it is a terribly thing for us to have to deal with death. Quoting Eliezer Yudkowsky, who experienced the death of a sibling a few years ago, death is nothing any sentient being should have to deal with.

Life extensionists are cognizant of the fact that hundreds of thousands of people die each day.  They have a death counter in mind.  This is how they do frame it, as a kind of global catastrophe, and therefore it does extend into a civil rights issue–that it is among our rights as individuals to manipulate and transform our bodies as we see fit.

Because so many of the opponents to life extension have argued that we should eliminate it altogether because not everyone can immediately have access to it, the pro-longevists would say that this does not make it therefore unjust to develop life extension anyway for those who can initially afford it.  In denying affluent groups the right to life extension out of consideration for the societal divides, John Davis has said that in other contexts we accept the general principle–that taking from the haves is only justified when it makes the have-nots more than marginally better off.  If life extension is possible, one must wave the light fears at stake for those who receive the treatment against whatever burdens making such treatments available might impose on the have-nots who cannot afford the treatments.  Again, one thing that the IEET is very cognizant of is working to ensure that these types of technologies have as broad access as possible.


The potential for long lives, say the pro-longevists, will have positive social consequences.  It has been said that one consequence of a protracted life is increased personal responsibility and accountability.  Individuals would have a longer time to deal with the repercussions of their negative actions.  Long lived people will have developed a deep and profound wisdom, particularly as pertains to social relationships.  Nick Bostrom has argued that with longer life expectancy, people will have a personal stake in the future, and this will lead to more responsibility and sustainable policies.  It also makes utilitarians happy. Michael Anissimov has said that life extension is important to utilitarians because billions of people want it.  Utilitarianism is about doing what makes people happy, so life extension is automatically a utilitarian priority.


Another interesting take, one I am somewhat partial to, is that we’re actually talking about, as James would say, arguing against the plow.  Let’s talk about how we are going to manage the process and get into the whole issue of obligations.  Again, this is one argument made on behalf of life extension.  We all know what life expectancy and health habits have done over the past one hundred years.  To this end, we should be arguing for the conquest of disease, to give seniors a higher quality of physical lives.

Transhumanists and humanists in general would argue that this is the continuation of the human mission in general.  Combined with the legal and ethical aspect, we have to bring this within the purview of responsibilities as compassionate people.

Injunctions against the development of life extension would most assuredly open up a Pandora’s box of problems.  Preventing the development and proliferation of life extending technologies would be extremely difficult and dangerous.  Demand would be through the roof, with desperate people willing to do virtually anything to get their hands on these things.  It could cause a number of problems, including black markets, unregulated labs and testing.


If we can actually show that the seemingly practical inhibitors to life extension are surmountable, in what ways are we now obligated to do these things?  Aubrey de Grey has argued that we are responsible to future generations.  Reason’s science correspondent Ronald Bailey has noted that our ancestors, our grandparents and parents, did not ask our permission to do so–they just went ahead and did it.  It is unlikely that our descendants will have any more reason to regret our decisions than we have to regret our forbears’.

A number of technologists contend that many of the opponents of life extension ignore the advancements that are happening, that we may drastically reduce the global footprint, resolve environmental problems harness safe alternative high-energy sources, learn to manage the potential physiological and psychological artifacts of life extension, even alternative living arrangements that could house millions of people, and so on.  Quoting Ray Kurzweil, “We need to expand our intelligence and our capacity for experience, which is exactly what new technologies will enable us to do.  Then an extended lifespan would become not only tolerable but a remarkable frontier where we could pursue the real purpose of life.”

George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.


Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
IEET, 35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
phone: 860-428-1837