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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Transhumanism F.A.Q. : Is Aging A Moral Good?

Kyle Munkittrick

Pop Transhumanism

July 02, 2009

Transhumanism’s niche (some would say “cult”) status causes those of us who support it to answer a lot of the same questions over and over. Those questions were asked in droves on Marginal Revolution in response to my three-landmarks of transhumanism effort. I’m going to do my best to answer them here. Cowen himself actually asked one I hadn’t heard before, so I’m going to let that one ruminate the longest. Let’s start with the classic: aging.

There were lots and lots and lots of comments that critiqued transhumanism’s rejection of aging and death as natural, necessary, and good. When all the comments are distilled, we get the following arguments:

1. Death and aging is why we value children. Think of the children!:

As longevity increases, so does the disrespect for the most vulnerable, silent minority–the unborn. Indeed, so does disrespect for all unborn generations to come, and the younger age cohorts alive today.

2. Death sweeps away the old, allowing the new:

a) We have already seen the sociological implications of longevity in our society: a pervasive aversion to risk, a desire to freeze the status quo in place…as trivial as the ever-present tones in all public and semi-public places of One Hundred Boomer Hits You’ve Heard A Thousand Times Before (imagine a child of the sixties growing up to omnipresent swing and big-band music!).

b) Generation gaps would harden into bitter class warfare. Throughout history, older people who spend a lifetime accumulating wealth and control over resources have had the common courtesy to eventually die and get out of the way. Wealth and power passes on down because you can’t take it with you. Breaking that implicit contract would spell real trouble: terrorist groups consisting of 150 year olds would wage jihad against the hegemonic 170 year olds who had the coincidental good fortune to be in the right place at the right time when aging was “cured”.

Worse, the progress of new ideas (in science and elsewhere) has always depended, to a surprising extent, on proponents of old ideas dying off and being replaced by a newer generation. To a discouraging extent, people rarely change their minds and their habits. Think of all the cranky older folks who refused to use ATMs when they were first invented, insisting on only using human tellers. Now imagine a whole society of cranky people set in their ways.

3) We already have too many people! Hello! Malthus!:

a) There are the 6.7 billion like a swarm of ants and ants are very small. Humans are large and ever-hungry and all want SUV’s and flat screens and will do whatever it takes to man or beast to get them …

… and are stripping the earth.

b) There are other problems with just maintaining the current level of development that I’m not even mentioning. Really, when I read about transhumanism I think of a word that starts with “m”.

4) Life extension would result in a nursing home society:

Should medical science be able to extend the average human life to 150 years, is this necessarily in and of itself a good thing? I ask because if this were to become the case, then humans would then be living MORE of their life in old age than in their physical prime. I understand that my argument does not necessarily include the presupposition that one would hope that living to 150 would entail a longer physical/mental apex, but even now, with the average age starting to hover near 80 for some groups, people are spending more and more time in deteriorating health and weakness with medicine only seeming to prolong the game. And please understand, death should be treated as an enemy, but I wonder at the appeal of a 150 year life span if a great chunk of that time would only be surviving instead of thriving.

5) Can’t do it, aging is too complicated:

I think there are a number of neurological issues regarding aging that we understand poorly. I’m thinking of how radically we change as people as we age; this is especially pronounced in those who are excessively talented when they are young. Think of Einstein, Michael Jackson, Eddie Murphy, Paul McCartney. Extraordinary talents at 20, who were greatly diminished by the time they were 50, if not 30.

That is a pretty good sampling of common arguments against curing aging. Besides Aubrey de Grey’s entire corpus of work, the best counter-arguments are simply applying these ideas to basic medical technology and/or logical extension. So here we go.

As a general response to critiques 1-4, my answer is that by this logic no medical intervention or care should be allowed after the age of 30 (approx. human physical peak), resulting in a de facto Logan’s Run scenario: people aren’t killed, but they aren’t given medical care after the end of youth.

If aging and death present more value existing than not, we should be promoting them, or at least not tinkering with them once they begin. Of course, that is an offensive thought to even the most callous of people. Aging and death are such awful aspects of existence that we have taken the few good things and spun them into essential values of humanity. Transhumanists are trying to escape aging – and its inevitable symptom, death – because we actually acknowledge it for what it is: a horror.

1. The logic here is a double-bind. Children are (primarily) valuable because of aging and death, so curing aging and death would be terrible because it would reduce the value of children. But children are valuable for lots of other reasons, so reducing their value is bad! You can’t have it both ways: either children are only valuable because of aging and death, so curing aging and death removes the need for children OR children are valuable independent of aging and death, meaning curing aging and death will have not have a totalizing impact on how society views children. Of course, I subscribe to the latter and, furthermore, once the survivalist value of children is diminished, then their other values will be brought to attention and heightened.

2. Both a) and b) make arguments that have no evidence related to our lived experience. Argument a) that progress requires youth, seem to forget the age of people who lead movements and revolutions. Kant didn’t publish till he was in his late 60’s and all of philosophy is bifurcated by his contribution. Gandhi wasn’t exactly a youth when he began his campaign of peaceful protest. The fear is of mental calcification, which I’ve seen in high schoolers as often as I’ve seen flexibility and curiosity among the elderly; both of which are far more common than we are lead to believe. Argument b) is just insane. Name one instance, ever, in the history of humanity, where there was a war with age as the defining trait between the combatants.

3. The great part about Malthus references is people forget how wrong Malthus was and why he was so wrong. Malthus didn’t understand that technology improves at an exponential rate, so even though unaided food production is arithmetic, the second Agricultural Revolution allowed us to feed more people by an order of magnitude. The same works for population growth and density. One of the key goals of transhumanism is to get the most advanced and useful technology to developing countries, allowing them to skip industrialization (and the pollution/waste associated) and go straight into late capitalist, post-industrial society, where population growth is negative and mortality rates extremely low. That’s right, the more advanced technologically a society, the longer people live and the more slowly the population grows. Technological advance is the solution to population growth, not the cause.

4. That’s a fairly common critique and a good one. The presupposition is that any technology that would extend life beyond the current average of 70-100 would do so by retarding aging as a whole, that is, the degradation that begins to occur after about age 27. Maturation would occur at the same rate, peaking between 22 and 26 depending on the person, but after that preventative medicine and repair techniques would slow aging, resulting in a much longer “prime” age, say extending youthful adult hood (what we think of now as 20’s and 30’s) well into the 50’s and perhaps 60’s. Because these techniques will be far from perfect, aging will still occur to some degree. Like youthful adulthood, middle-age would presumably begin much later and last much longer. So lets say a person reaches genuine old age at 100, with all the problems that reduce one from “thriving” to surviving, leaving them 50 years of old age instead of 20 or 10.

Additionally, they say “age is in the mind.” Perhaps if people knew they had a lot of life left, even in old age, sedentary and moribund lifestyles among the elderly would begin to fade.

5. Yes, it might be impossible. But how can we not try?


Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.

Nicole Sallak Anderson is a Computer Science graduate from Purdue University. She developed encryption and network security software, which inspired the eHuman Trilogy—both eHuman Dawn and eHuman Deception are available at Amazon, the third installment is expected in early 2016. She is a member of the advisory board for the Lifeboat Foundation and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.


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