Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, recently invested US$180 million in Retro Biosciences – a company that seeks to extend the human lifespan by 10 years healthy.
One of the ways he plans to do this is to “rejuvenate” the blood. This idea is based on studies that found old mice showed signs of reverse aging when given blood from young mice.
Altman isn’t the only Silicon Valley entrepreneur backing life extension efforts. PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Google co-founder Larry Page have paid millions in projects that could profoundly affect the way we live our lives.
The first question posed is scientific: could these technologies work? On this front, the jury is still out, and there are reasons for both optimism and skepticism.
The second question is equally important: even if extending lifespan is feasible, would it be ethical?
We explain why some common ethical arguments against extending lifespans aren’t as strong as they might seem – and offer another, somewhat overlooked explanation for why trying to live forever may not be worth it. be not worth it.
Is it worth it if you die anyway?
You could say that increasing lifespan only postpones the inevitable: that we will die. However, the problem with this view is that any the life saved will only be saved temporarily.
A 10-year life extension is the equivalent of saving a drowning swimmer, only to have them die in a traffic accident 10 years later. Although we may be sad about their eventual death, we would still be happy to have saved them.
The same is true of conventional medicine. If a doctor cures my pneumoniaI will eventually die of something else, but that doesn’t mean the doctor or I will regret being saved.
It’s also worth considering in the longer term where research on extending lifespan might take us.
In the most optimistic scenarios Experts argue that even modest short-term gains could help people add centuries to their lives, since the benefits of each intervention could trickle down. For example, each additional year of life would increase the probability of surviving until the next big breakthrough.
Is it worth it if immortality could get boring?
A lot argued against extending life for ethical reasons, saying they would not use these technologies. Why would anyone object to it?
One concern is that a very long lifespan might be undesirable. Philosopher Bernard Williams said life is valued by the satisfaction of what he calls “categorical desires”: desires that give us reason to want to live.
Williams expects those desires to be tied to big life goals, like raising a child or writing a novel. He fears that, given a sufficiently long lifespan, we will miss out on such projects. If so, immortality would become tedious.
It is unclear whether Williams is correct. Some philosophers point out that human memories are fallible and that certain desires might resurface as we forget past experiences.
Others emphasize that our categorical desires evolve as our life experiences reshape our interests – and may continue to do so for a very long life.
In either case, our categorical desires, and therefore our reason for living, would not be exhausted over a very long life.
Even if immortality became tedious, it wouldn’t count against modest lifespan extensions. Many will say that 80-something years is not enough to explore its potential. Personally, we would wait another 20 or even 50 years to write a novel, or start a career as a DJ.
Is it worth it if the poor miss out?
Another concern with life-extending technologies is equality.
These technologies will be expensive; it seems unfair that Silicon Valley billionaires are celebrating their 150th birthdays while the rest of us mostly die in our 70s and 80s.
This objection seems convincing. Most people welcome interventions that promote health equalitywhich is reflected in broader societal demands for universal health care.
But there is an important nuance to consider here. Consider that universal health systems promote equality in improve the situation of those who are not well off. On the other hand, preventing the development of life-extending technologies to get worse the situation of the wealthiest.
The ethical desirability of equality based on “leveling down” is unclear. The poorest Australians are twice as likely die before age 75 than the richest. Yet few people would argue that we should stop developing technologies to improve the health of people over 75.
Additionally, the price of life-extending technologies would likely come down eventually.
The real problem
However, we believe there is a serious ethical objection that applies to extreme cases of life extension. If humans lived regularly very long lives, it could reduce the adaptability of our populations and lead to social stagnation.
Even modest increases in life expectancy would dramatically increase population size. To avoid overcrowding, we should reduce birth rateswhich would considerably slow down the generational renewal.
As one of us (Chris) has explored in previous researchthis could be incredibly detrimental to societal progress, as it could:
- increase our vulnerability to extinction threats
- jeopardize individual well-being, and
- hinder moral advancement.
Many fields benefit from a steady influx of young minds who come in and build on the work of their predecessors.
Even if the brains of older scientists remain sharp, their “confirmation bias” – a tendency to seek out and interpret information in ways that confirm one’s prior beliefs – could slow the adoption of new scientific theories.
Moral beliefs are also subject to confirmation bias. In a world of extended lifespans, individuals whose moral views were established in their youth (perhaps over 100 years ago) will remain in positions of power.
It seems likely that the moral code of our society is badly deceived in at least some respects. After all, we believe that past societies got theirs catastrophically wrong, like when they endorsed slavery or made homosexuality illegal.
The slowing of generational turnover could delay the time when we recognize and repair our own moral catastrophes, especially those we cannot yet see.
Julien CoplinLecturer in Bioethics, Monash University and Honorary Fellow, Melbourne Law School, Monash University And Christopher Gygelresearcher in biomedical ethics, The University of Melbourne
This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.