UMUC – ASIA
PHIL 342 – Moral Problems in Medicine
Foster Education Center, Room 13
FALL SESSION I, 2009
Instructor: Christopher Melley
Student Name: J. Durden
Title: Immortality and its Implications
The concept of mortality is one that dominates human thinking. Many worry about how to have a “good life,” for instance, before passing from the mortal coil. Because death is inevitable and – to a certain degree – unpredictable, most long range thinking seems to rectify itself with the inevitability of death. Much has been written of death. Don Marquis (1989) describes death as the ultimate loss: “The loss of one’s life is one of the greatest losses one can suffer. The loss of one’s life deprives one of all the experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future.” Temkin (2008) writes: “Death is surely one of the greatest evils that men face.” Robert Freitas (2003), an expert in the field of nanotechnology and nanomedicine, conceptualizes death as a terrific loss for all of humanity:
34 billion people have ever walked the Earth, and 28 billion of us have already died. The equivalent total information waste is more than 28 billion books, enough to fill almost 2000 Libraries of Congress. The equivalent total economic waste about $60 thousand trillion dollars, enough to rebuild our current tangible civilization 600 times over.
He, along with other experts in relevant life-extension fields, believe that immortality may be within our grasp.
2. Background, Relevant Facts and Definition of Terms
Immortality of the type promised through the research conducted for this paper seems to be rather comprehensive – it claims to both stop (and even undo) the effects of aging, and purports to offer solutions in the case of organ failure or premature death. Mortality, as defined by most online dictionaries, means “the state or condition of being subject to death.”
There are essentially two immortality strategies on the technological horizon. The first of these involves completely eradicating aging at the cellular level. The secret lies in telomere, “repeating code at the end of each DNA strand, which are made shorter each time a cell divides, thereby placing a limit on the number of times a cell can replicate” (Kurzweil 2002). Essentially, once the telomere runs out, the cell is programmed for death (Kurzweil 2002). Ray Kurzweil (2002), an important figure in nanotechnology and attendant of the Alcor Convention on Extreme Life Extension, reports Michael West’s findings:
The immortal germ line cells avoid this destruction through the use of a single enzyme called telomerase, which rebuilds the telomere chain after each cell division. This single enzyme makes the germ line cells immortal, and indeed these cells have survived from the beginning of life on Earth billions of years ago.
Ironically, the secret to immortality has existed since the dawn of life on Earth. To best utilize this knowledge, Kurzweil (2002) reports that West suggests “…future gene therapies that would return cells to their youthful, telomerase-extended state.” Additionally:
West expressed confidence that new techniques would provide the ability to transfer the telomerase into the nuclei, and to overcome the cancer issue. Telomerase gene therapy holds the promise of indefinitely rejuvenating human somatic (non-germ line) cells i.e., all human cells.
While gene therapy utilizing telomerase may seem to hold the answer to indefinitely prolonging the life of our cells, the thought of such techniques taking mankind all the way to immortality loses its feasibility when you consider that telomerase gene therapy offers no solution to foreign threats (for example, pathogens) to keep us healthy. However, this is not the only weapon in science’s arsenal in the battle to achieve immortality.
The second strategy involves an eclectic synthesis of several technologies. Chief among these are nanomedicine, improvements in the field of artificial organs, and cybernetics. While a much longer paper could outline these technologies in depth (and explore the most recent developments in these fields), this one will attempt only to provide a brief sketch. Essentially, Freitas (2002), one of nanomedicines foremost experts, argues that molecular technologies combined with traditional (and ever improving) knowledge of medicine will be able to reverse the effects of aging on the body. He claims that the use of nanomachines (literally, machines built on the nano-scale – sometimes referred to as nanobots) will be able to keep our bodies alive for thousands of years. Should any part of our body become damaged beyond the point of repair through nanomedicine, Kurzweil (2002) lays out a vision of the future where improvements in the process of artificial body part replacement will not only be solvent, but affordable for everyone. Kurzweil (2003) further argues that nanobots could be utilized to interface directly with a human brain, increasing cognition and possibly even allowing for the specific neural networks of a particular brain to be stored as “data” and later interposed into another organic brain (to combat biological brain failure that would result in the death of one’s personality).
3. Practical Problem and Ethical Questions
It is apparent, then, that immortality may be within our grasp. Therefore, it becomes necessary to consider the ethical implications of immortality – what sort of impact would immortality have on life? As silly as such a question may sound at first, it may be instructive to ask: are there any negative impacts to immortality? Most people have a natural tendency to want to live forever (as even Temkin admits in his article), but does that mean that we should live forever? Immortality is an answer to death, so it becomes important to consider whether or not death is a bad thing. These questions have more than one answer and it is worth tackling them from multiple perspectives.
4. Ethical Argument and Counter-argument
Death need not necessarily be conceptualized as a bad thing – and such thinking is ancient. Epictetus (135), for example, argued as much nearly 2000 years ago:
Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible.
This argument seems to postulate that nothing is ‘disturbing’ in nature – the only reason men are disturbed is because they have conceptualized things as being disturbing. More recent philosophers have chimed in on a similar theme. Preston and Dixon (2007) quote Epicurus in their examination of the issue, who wrote the following in 1927:
Get used to believing that death is nothing to us. For all good and bad consists in sense-experience, and death is the privation of sense-experience. Hence, a correct knowledge of the fact that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life a matter for contentment, not by adding a limitless time [to life] but by removing the longing for immortality. For there is nothing fearful in life for one who has grasped that there is nothing fearful in the absence of life. Thus he is a fool who says that he fears death not because it will be painful when present but because it is painful when it is still to come. For that which while present causes no distress causes unnecessary pain when merely anticipated. So death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist. Therefore, it is relevant neither to the living nor to the dead, since it does not affect the former, and the latter do not exist.
The argument here, in other terms, is that death should not concern us, because it does not affect us while living and it cannot affect us after it occurs as we do not exist. (To Epicurus, the agony of death arises from its anticipation – this is similar to the way Epictetus argues that death is terrible only in man’s conception of death as being terrible.) According to Preston & Dixon’s (2007) analysis, the logic underlying Epicurus’ argument was hedonistic – he viewed pain as the only intrinsic (as the authors say – “bad in itself”) bad, and since death did not directly cause pain for its victim nor for anyone living, it follows that death is not bad. Furthermore, Preston & Dixon extend the argument:
Assuming that all of the premises are true, it would appear that being dead really is nothing extrinsically bad for the dead. When we weep for them, we are really weeping for ourselves. When we lament their passing, we are really acknowledging that we, not they, have been somehow diminished. In other words, being dead is nothing subjectively to the one dead; yet, objectively it influences those around the deceased in varying ways. Nevertheless, one must wonder why humanity has struggled, psychologically, philosophically, and religiously, with death for the subject….
It seems, then, that death is not be bad for those it afflicts directly, but it still seems ill for those left behind. Epictetus (135), however, has an answer. Stoicism is concerned with what an individual can control, and death is certainly outside of one’s control. Regarding the loss of one’s loved ones, he writes:
If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live for ever, you are stupid; for you wish to be in control of things which you cannot, you wish for things that belong to others to be your own.
He urges a perspective that recognizes the impact of external and uncontrollable influences without being entirely fatalistic, and without giving up:
Never say of anything, “I have lost it”; but, “I have returned it.” Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned…. “But he who took it away is a bad man.” What difference is it to you who the giver assigns to take it back? While he gives it to you to possess, take care of it; but don’t view it as your own, just as travelers view a hotel…. Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.
Such arguments and ways of thinking contrast sharply with conventional notions that death is bad (or that life is sacred, as seen in sanctity of life arguments or pro-life ethics).
Thinkers like Epicurus and Epictetus seem not to say that death is good; merely that it is not necessarily bad. Perhaps because they were never confronted with the tangible possibility of immortality, they never had a need to examine the issue further. Temkin (2008), however, presents the views of more recent thinkers who have had to confront immortality. Temkin seems to agree with Leon Kass that death is a good motivator:
…Many of our greatest creations resulted from the recognition of our own mortality. Kass believes that many people who fear death — understood, here, as the end of their earthly existence, and perhaps utter annihilation — have been spurred by that fear to great accomplishments. The idea, roughly, is that, consciously or not, many have hoped to achieve a kind of immortality, in the form of lasting recognition here on Earth, through great achievements. Moreover, many of these achievements are amongst humankind’s most lasting, inspiring, and ennobling feats. Thus, Kass suggests that some of the components that make our lives and our civilization most valuable would never have existed but for our mortality. Additionally, Kass suggests, our very recognition and appreciation of beauty, and life itself, may to some extent be conditioned by, and hence depend on, our awareness of our finitude.
Accepting such logic, it is not unreasonable to assume that human productivity might sink. Without the fear of death to motivate people, what reason would there be to achieve anything? Later, Temkin considers whether or not all people will have enough money to benefit from immortality, which brings to mind considerations of justice (specifically distributive justice) and contrast with Kurzweil’s contentions that technologies will be cheap and affordable. Still other authors, like Horrobin (2006) have explored other practical considerations like overpopulation, “the nature and value of intergenerational interchange,” and even the issue of boredom. The literature on the subject is immense and to conduct a full analysis could well result in a work the length of a book and is beyond the scope of this paper – which seeks only to flesh out some of the basics.
5. Personal Position and Justification
I am in favor of immortality and believe it can be justified using many of the ethical theories mentioned above. Immortality could end up as the single greatest and most important human achievement in history. The following arguments appear here rather than above as they represent my personal thinking based on my understanding of the underpinning ethical/moral theories and arguments/counter-arguments, rather than a rigorously researched examination of these positions.
Stoicism maintains, as Epictetus wrote, that things (such as immortality, or death) are not bad in and of themselves – the only thing that makes them appear bad to us are the notions we have regarding those specific things. If, therefore, one were apprehensive about immortality because one feared becoming bored in an eternal life, one would be inclined to feel that immortality was bad or immoral. Stoicism, in my understanding, would resolutely argue that this is not the case – and therefore, under a framework of stoicism, immortality would be justifiable.
It is hard to know exactly what Kant would think about immortality. Based on my limited understanding of Kant, I would argue that he too would find nothing inherently wrong about immortality – so long as one maintained a good will in its application. He would not be in favor of a rich elite, for example, utilizing immortality with the intention of becoming an entrenched class of rulers; but I do not think he would find fault in immortality with for every person, so long as people maintained their good wills. The length of one’s life never seemed to concern Kant much, and I am uncertain how he felt about death – but such concepts don’t seem to be Kant’s main thrust anyway. He was more concerned about how we should live our lives, regardless of the length.
I believe immortality is easily justifiable under a utilitarian ethic. The technologies outlined in this paper would greatly reduce the amount of suffering and pain in the world caused by illness, age, and death. Furthermore, should nanotechnology come to fruition in the way its proponents envision, we might also reduce our depedence on animals for things like product testing (especially in the field of pharmaceuticals). This would also greatly reduce suffering. Again, the only case where immortality would seem to cause trouble to utilitarian thinkers is if it were used by an elite few in order to gain an advantage over the disenfranchised many.
This brings us to the area of pragmatics and practical considerations. There seems to be a tension among practical thinkers who are in favor and practical thinkers who are not in favor of immortality. This, I believe, belies the fact that a certain sort of context-sensitive ethic is necessary to truly evaluate whether or not immortality could be justfiable. However, I think it is informative to look at other examples of practical thinking – I don’t believe pragmatic philosophers would resolutely argue that killing innocents is always wrong. There are certain examples where it makes pragmatic sense – in self defense, in the line of duty as an officer of the law or soldier of the military, and so on. Pragmatic thinking seems to dovetail with stoicism, then, in that actions/things are not inherently bad, but only become bad through poor use. Therefore, there is no reason to roundly reject immortality for pragmatic considerations alone – only immoral use of immortality. (This means things like distributive justice and overpopulation would need to be handled, but discussing such things in depth is outside the scope of this paper. I am merely trying to give an overview of whether or not immortality is a sound idea in theory, not how to practically employ it.)
Natural law theorists might argue – as they often do with new technologies – that we are tinkering with nature and should therefore abstain from immortality. However, as is the problem with most natural law arguments, there is no clear way to define what is natural and what isn’t. Definitions of the word vary wildly, from “of or pertaining to the universe” to “growing spontaneously, without being planted or tended by human hand, as vegetation.” The first definition could be interpreted quite easily to justify immortality – obviously, if the universe didn’t intend for it to happen, it wouldn’t be possible. The second definition does not allow for a justification of immortality, however – and these wildly different defintions belie the difficulty in trying to argue from a natural law point of view. Who rightly defines what is natural and what is not? If something can happen, does that not make it natural? Human beings exist in nature, so how can we act unnaturally? Natural law doesn’t present a strong enough objection to immortality to convince me.
Still others might argue that we should not tinker with immortality, as this would interfere with God’s plans for us. This position seems to commit the same error in reasoning that natural law arguments do, as how can we truly know what God’s plan is for us? For all we know, it could be God’s plan for us to achieve immortality through technologies like nanomedicine – perhaps this is how we will come to know heaven and the eternal life? The word of God, after all, is open to wide interpretation. This scenario reminds me of a joke I once heard that basically goes like this: A man is on his roof in the middle of a flood. First, another person in a raft comes by and asks the man if he would like to get in and be saved, and the man says “No, thank you, I have been praying for God to save me.” Later, a second person with a kayak comes by and offers another rescue, but still the man refuses, believing God will save him. A helicopter comes by and offers the man a ladder, but still the man refuses, believing firmly that God will save him. The man eventually drowns, and when he gets to heaven, he frustratedly asks God why God did not save him. God replies “What do you think I sent the rowboat, kayak, and helicopter for?” This paper makes no claims about whether or not God exists, but if he did (for the sake of argument), it seems supremely arrogant to assume we could understand what his plan is or is not. If we reject immortality on the basis that it is not in God’s plan for us, we could easily wind up like the man in the joke.
Immortality is obviously justifiable using the sanctity of life ethic, which places the value of life as above all other values. Another quote might be instructive here, this time from Doerflinger (1989):
Life, a human being’s very earthly existence, is the most fundamental right because it is the necessary condition for all other worldly goods including freedom; freedom in turn makes it possible to pursue (without guaranteeing that one will attain) happiness.
Even the quality of life stands to improve and justify immortality – with an infinite amount of time to improve one’s life, there is no more worry whether or not life will become unbearable. (Assumedly, nanomedicine and the other technologies outlined could also be used to cure disabilities, though this is not the focus of the paper.) Death is the ultimate opponent to thinkers who value sanctity of life, and so I imagine they would unanimously be in favor of immortality.
This brings me to the final point I would like to make regarding this issue. Given that the technologies discussed would seem to be able to compensate for any possible illness or injury one could imagine, the biggest potential harm immortality could cause would seem to be boredom and apathy, which may even lead to despair. Therefore, I think it is important that if we became immortal, we allow for the ability for humans to choose when and how their life will end through suicide. After all, some people don’t want to live forever, and a routinely “wrong” thing to do in any ethical or moral system of thinking is to force something on someone else (murder is forced death, rape is forced sex, assault is forced injury, and so on). Autonomy and personal choice, then, must also be respected. Death and suicide would be justifiable in the sense that they really do not cause pain to the person choosing them (as argued by Epicurus), and any sadness felt by those left behind would reflect incorrect thinking (as argued by Epictetus). This being said, immortality is an exciting prospect that would revolutionize much about life; perhaps least of which would be philosophical thought.
Marquis, D. (1989). Why abortion is immoral. The Journal of Philosophy.
Temkin, L.S. (2008). Is living longer living better?. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 25(3), 193- 210.
Preston, T.M., & Dixon, Scott. (2007). Who wants to live forever? Immortality, authenticity, and living forever in the present. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 61(2), 99- 117.
Horrobin, S. (2006). Immortality, human nature, the value of life and the value of life extension. Bioethics, 20(6), 279-292.
Doerflinger, R. (1989). Assisted suicide: Pro-choice or anti-life. Hastings Center Report.