a terrible reason to oppose life extension

A popular philosophical objection to life extension is that it would allow terrible people to live longer. The problem is that there will always be terrible people.

playing for soul

In the transhumanist lexicon, the word bioconservative is used to describe those who argue that humans will need to accept death as an eternal inevitability and experiments meant to extend human life are folly. While a lot of our current life extension technology is in its early experimental stages and dead ends aren’t unusual, it is important to get people used to the idea that if we work really hard at it, we could prolong our lives and the endeavor is actually worthy. Unlike the critics charge, the end result of radically prolonging life spans wouldn’t be a zero sum game in which the poor are exploited as guinea pigs, and there are valid reasons for wanting to continue to live for much longer periods of time than we do now.

We can accomplish more. We can open a new horizon for exploration, medicine, and society, The spinoffs could alleviate suffering for billions and allow us to reach for new frontiers. But what if, the critics continue, you had a dictator who could live more or less for thousands of years? Wouldn’t it be a good thing if he was guaranteed to die at some point and the people he oppressed had a chance to start anew? Wouldn’t the sacrifice be worth it? No, it wouldn’t, and here’s why.

Basically, we’re being asked to give a potential means of extending our life spans so we can be sure that just a small handful of people and their cronies would be dead at some point in time. We can’t always kill them or depose them, so we’ll be outsourcing the assassination to nature. Anyone see the problem here? Of the over seven billion people who aren’t dictators, who do we think is expendable enough to die alongside our targets for the sake of the anti-dictator cause?

If I may reach for a little hyperbole, how different is the logic that all the billions who will die in the process are fair game because their death helps the cause from that of all terrorist groups who believe that civilians of the countries they hate can be on the hit list because killing them hurts an enemy and may force him to retreat? This is a rather crass way of saying that the ends justify the means and I doubt that they really do in this case. We could take this logic further and cast all modern medicine as being a dictator enabling technology. Maybe last week Assad would’ve tripped, fallen, hurt himself, then got his wound infected and was soon dead from septic shock, helping to end the civil war in Syria. Does this mean we must now give up our disinfectants and advanced medical treatments to make sure bad people die easier?

And there’s another thing. Dictators do not command a nation without an infrastructure of enablers and aides to do their dirty work. Rather than chopping off the head of a snake, killing a dictator is like slicing off the head of the Hydra. Another three will grow and continue whatever the severed head was doing. Likewise, the SCAF easily survived the deposition of Mubarak and his death, reinstating the old guard though political maneuvers that ensured their stranglehold on the political process, and creating a regime not too different than the one a month of protest forced to collapse. Even the names aren’t all that new.

So imagine if we asked a billion or so people to forgo life extension treatments to let nature take its course with Mubarak? For what did they die? An autocratic regime raised from the ashes of Mubarak’s networks of cronies, toadies, and spies? This certainly wasn’t much of an improvement, was it? Would a dictator who could live for thousands of years be bad news for the world? Yes, definitely. But when we’re talking about extending human life, we’re talking about a change that can affect the entire species, not just those who meet our moral standards, and the billions of people for whom we have no good reason to deny more years of life are too high of a price to pay to get rid of a few really bad apples, who, let’s face it, will always be with us and who we’ll always want gone one way or another.

# tech // ethics / life extension / morality / realpolitik


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