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The Future of Death:  Cryonics and the Telos of Liberal Individualism


This paper is addressed to four questions: First, what is trajectory of Western liberal ethics and politics in defining life, rights and citizenship?  Second, how will neuro-remediation and other technologies change the definition of death for the brain injured and the cryonically suspended? Third, will people always have to be dead to be cryonically suspended?  Fourth, how will changing technologies and definitions of identity effect the status of people revived from brain injury and cryonic suspension?
I propose that Western liberal thought is working towards a natural end, a “telos:” the association of the ethical value of a life with its level of consciousness.  Just as human rights have been made independent of race, gender and property, in the future rights will be made independent of being a breathing human being. 
I discuss the way that technology will force three clarifications about the value of consciousness, at the beginning, the end and boundaries of human life.  Sentience and personhood will be seen as the basis of moral concern, regardless of its media.   

But even as we make this transition, the cryonically preserved are still likely to be considered dead for pragmatic reasons, albeit with gradually increasing rights as technology makes their reanimation increasingly possible.

I next propose that having the frozen be defined as dead may be acceptable for cryonicists if assisted suicide can be legalized.  Under a liberal assisted suicide policy cryonicists might be allowed to carry out a suspension before a declaration of death, preserving the maximum amount of neural information.

The gradual redefinition of life and personal identity in terms of psychological continuity will also have consequences for the legal status of the reanimated.  If, due to information loss, the reanimated do not meet a threshold of psychological continuity, they may be considered new persons.  Cryonicists may therefore wish to specify whether they are still interested in being reanimated if pre-animation assessment suggests that the result will not meet the threshold. 

Finally, I touch on the truly unpredictable, the bioethical, moral and legal Singularity: the fundamental problematizing of the self.

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James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)

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