UMUC – ASIA
PHIL 140 – CONTEMPORARY MORAL ISSUES
FALL SESSION I, 2009
Monday and Wednesday, 1645-1930
Instructor: Christopher Melley
Student Name: J. Durden
Title: Immortality and the Meaning of Life
Since the beginning of human history, one of the most basic and best understood facts about human existence is that it eventually ends. However, advancements in technology may, within our lifetime, overcome death and allow humans to live essentially forever. In my paper, Immortality and its Implications, I outlined briefly the technologies involved in making immortality happen and whether or not immortality could be theoretically justified under various ethical and moral theories. The focus of this paper will be on how immortality would change our very conceptions about life and perhaps even personhood – ideas such as what it means to be alive, what it means to lead a good life, how to be a good person, and more. Temkin (2008) outlines how this topic is necessarily difficult to encapsulate: “…If we lived forever our psychologies would probably evolve, and we might find whole new life plans available to us that we can’t currently conceptualize…”
2. Background, Relevant Facts and Definition of Terms
The kind of immortality being examined in this essay is the kind that could keep our physical existence living indefinitely, through a combination of nanomedicine, artificial organ replacement (or cybernetics) and methods of storing our neural networks as data to later be superimposed on another brain. I outlined this sort of immortality in another paper, but it is important to define immortality as such – other thinkers would talk about an intangible sort of immortality, an immortality for the “soul” or “spirit” that transcends time (is an atemporal existence). Such a discussion is outside the purview of this essay.
An entire book could be written on the practical implications (and limitations) of immortality. There are many potential problems with getting immortality to work – overpopulation and sustainability (could the world support an immortal population, especially one that grew?), distributive justice (making sure everyone had equal access to immortality), social impacts and more. I’d like to sketch out some of these problems before moving forward with the examination of immortality.
Temkin (2008) succinctly sums up the main worries of overpopulation: “…if we succeed in extending lifespans indefinitely, where would everyone live, and from where would the resources come to support them?” The two primary concerns would be living space and living necessities (food, water, etc). Preston & Dixon (2007) elaborate (with the help of another work by Nussbaum):
Imagining a world of limited resources, if none ever dies, the resources will eventually run out. In a world where none dies, but some continue to be born, the burden will fall most heavily on the young, “for the people already around, who already command resources, will cling to them tenaciously. Life will be like a university faculty with no retirements, in which the old, tenaciously clinging to their tenured posts, will prevent the entry of an entire generation of young people” (Nussbaum, 1994, p. 223)
This has strange utilitarian implications – death, while perhaps a harm for the individual, may be of benefit to the needs of the larger population. The authors then outline how ceasing new births could potentially be an answer – that is, if one could find a workable solution to ensure immortal humans were not reproducing – but also provide a counterpoint to their own argument, in that the prevention of new births also represents a loss (of new ideas, perspectives, energy and so on).
While immortality may sound appealing at first, one worries about whether or not it would further entrench a class system that has already developed across most of the world – the rich versus the poor. Temkin (2008) outlines this concern:
…we live in a horribly unequal world. It has been claimed, for example, that a mere one half of 1% of the income of the top 20% of income earners would be more than sufficient to double the income of everyone in the bottom 20%. Given this, and given that millions of innocent children ‘die [each year] from easy to beat disease, from malnutrition, and from bad drinking water’, is there not a moral imperative to address the plight of the world’s needy, and try to give them something of a normal human life span, before we engage in longevity research? Surely, the benefits of longevity, if successful, would almost certainly go first to the world’s best off, who would willingly pay handsomely for them, and would only ‘trickle down’ to the world’s less fortunate, if it later became easy and cheap to do so. Are there not strong considerations of justice, equality, humanitarianism, and prioritarianism to worry about this predictable result?
It is easy to hope for an ideal system, and indeed, the thinkers in the fields that may ultimately bring us immortality seem to think they can do so affordably and distribute this boon to all. However, things rarely work out inventors and scientists intend – a recent and potent example would be the way the inventors of the atomic bomb petitioned the White House to never use their device (and, if memory serves, some of the research involved in the bomb’s creation was co-opted from ‘harmless’ research into then alternative energy sources).
Temkin (2008) would warn us of the potential social impacts of immortality. He outlines how currently, there is a large difference between ourselves and our grandparents but how in an immortal world a difference of only 60 years may cause us to regard our grandparents as peers. Given that, he writes:
But, speaking for myself, I think it would be terrible if I came to regard my mother or daughter, not so much as a mother or daughter, but as a peer. Likewise, as lifespans have increased the desirability of lifelong monogamy has been increasingly challenged, and many have started second families in their 50s. If we lived indefinitely, mightn’t we naturally have many spouses over the years? And then, depending on the rules of procreation in play, many children or stepchildren? What impact would this have on our notions of familial loyalty and duty?
Perhaps these represent valid concerns about the impact immortality would have on society and its values. However, as Temkin pointed out elsewhere in his paper, it is hard to know exactly how immortal life would go – as he said, we might evolve new ways of living that could be superior to our current way of life in such a way that is incomprehensible to us now. Perhaps we would come to regard all life as within our family, rather than being only concerned with those people we immediately know – and wouldn’t this cause us to live more responsibly with respect to the environment and the way we treat others?
The problem with many of these practical considerations is that immortality represents such a fundamental shift in thinking (and existing) that we can’t know all the answers. We are applying our reasoning, which has its basis in a mortal world, to a hypothetical immortal world. The way that we perceive time, for instance, would almost necessarily change if we were to become immortal – presently, humans are inclined not to worry so much about the long range impact of their activities, especially impacts that extend beyond their own life. And why should they, these people might argue? I can imagine a hypothetical argument: “After all, let someone else worry about it. The future will always be more advanced and maybe they’ll just invent a solution for me.” If we were immortal, such thinking wouldn’t suffice – we would come to worry about impacts one hundred, one thousand, ten thousand years down the line, because we would be around to experience them.
Additionally, regardless of how much we might worry about the practical implications of immortality, our worrying has little to no effect on whether or not the technologies that will grant us immortality are going to continue to develop. This may sound like an argument in the vein of technological imperative – that is, because we can achieve immortality, we must. But this is not the case. I am arguing instead that immortality appears to be inevitable (barring the apocalypse or a cataclysm like a massive energy crisis that alters the face of civilization and technological progress as we know it), therefore, we shouldn’t be concerned with whether we should stop it, but how best to utilize (and in some cases, distribute) it.
Therefore, for the sake of argument, I’m going to suggest that we assume a somewhat idealized conception of immortality – one where we aren’t concerned with the practical considerations, as they’ve already been solved. (Yes, the miracles of technology and social engineering have solved problems of overpopulation, distributive justice and familial concerns.)
3. Practical Problem and Ethical Questions
As stated above, while the practical considerations are important, they aren’t the main thrust. In an idealized world like the one I’ve posited for the sake of argument, one wonders – would one really want to be immortal? Will being immortal improve the value of one’s own life? How will being immortal alter the meaning of one’s life? Is being immortal right? Below, I hope to examine these issues and provide a solution to problems that may arise.
4. Ethical Argument and Counter-argument
One author that seems to appear consistently in the literature of immortality is Bernard Williams, whose thoughts are summarized by Temkin (2008):
Williams notes that if our lives persisted unendingly through time, then there would either be significant alterations in a person’s deepest projects, commitments, and character, or there would not. Either alternative, Williams argues, would be deeply problematic for the value of immortality for us.
To summarize in brief, Williams claims that if our concerns and character changed, why would we care about our future selves? Essentially, if one’s concerns and character cannot remain constant throughout one’s immortal life, Williams argues that one would find no reason at all to find immortality desirable. On the other hand, if our concerns and character do remain constant throughout all life, Williams posits that we will become bored and view suicide as an attractive option. Either way, the immortal life does not seem desirable to Williams. Williams’ argument suffers because it seems to be a false dilemma – a logical fallacy where the issue is simplified to only two choices. What if the appeal of immortality was precisely that you could change your concerns and character and explore life to the fullest, for example? There seems to be little warrant to the claim that an eternal life dedicated to purely one cause would become boring, also – especially in light of how immortality may change our conceptions and allow us to find new values or reinterpret existing ones. In short, Williams seems to be stuck thinking about immortality in a mortal way, and doesn’t give enough thought to the way life would change.
Some argue against immortality on the basis that it goes against nature. Horrobin (2006) is instructive on this point:
…There is an apparent conflation of the notion of the ‘ordained’ in a religious sense–the idea that the world and nature was designed by an all-powerful creator – and the idea of nature as being that which is governed by the laws of physics, and has evolved through blind natural selection and morally neutral stochastic events. However, the two concepts are absolutely distinct. Biological nature, as evolved and purely physical has no apparent component of the ‘ordained’ whatsoever. To suggest otherwise is to illegitimately conflate the physical aspect of nature with an entirely separate notion of supernatural ordination, in an attempt to perform an ‘end run’ around the glaring problem of the naturalistic fallacy.
Horrobin suggests that arguments that appeal to natural laws, for instance, are either knowingly or unknowingly relying on an underlying assumption about the existence of a creator. In contrast, Horrobin seems to suggest then that what is “natural” is merely what can happen – if immortality can happen, then it is natural. In simpler and more poignant terms, nature is reality, or even, nature is existence. To go against nature would be to go against reality, which is impossible. As humans, we do not rewrite the rules of reality – we merely understand them better and use them more to our benefit. We do not worry now about whether or not it is unnatural to drive a car, ride in a bus, fly in an airplane – though I am certain that as these technologies were coming about, people argued that they went against the laws of nature and should thus be abandoned as folly. The idea here is that a thing is natural if it exists, because if it exists, it clearly follows all of the rules of nature – otherwise it would not exist.
In my research, I came across an interesting paradox – religious thinkers tend to think immortality is fine in the context of an eternal afterlife (and in fact necessary for a meaningful life, as Thaddeus Metz goes to great pains to illustrate – he calls this the “immortality requirement” or IR). However, they rally against immortality in the current life as it goes against God’s plan. Let me first expound upon the immortality requirement by presenting Metz’s (2003) words:
Many religious thinkers maintain that for anyone to be oriented toward something higher in the relevant sense, one must possess a soul that will forever survive the death of one’s body. This is an instance of a more general view that is here called the ‘immortality requirement’ (IR). According to the IR, a person’s life is meaningless if she is not immortal.
And yet, these are the very same thinkers who argue that we should not pursue immortality because it goes against God’s plan! This not only smacks of inconsistency, but also of folly. There is an old joke that goes something like this: A man is on his roof in the middle of a flood, praying to God to save him. A person on a raft comes by and offers the man help, but the man refuses, claiming that he is sure God will save him. Another person in a kayak comes, only to be rebuffed by the man in the same manner. A helicopter arrives on the scene and drops a rope ladder down to the man, who politely insists that God will save him from his plight and refuses to make use of the helicopter. The man drowns, dies, and upon arriving in heaven, frustratedly asks God why God did not save him. God replies: “What do you think the raft, the kayak, and the helicopter were for?” The point here is that it is supremely arrogant to assume (given that God exists and is all powerful) we know what God’s plan is. It could just as easily be argued that it is God’s plan to grant us immortality at this moment in time, and that all along he meant for heaven to be on earth!
Let us examine Metz (2003) in more depth. He makes several arguments about the immortality requirement, but I’d like to focus on one in particular. He argues that immortality would be necessary to achieve perfect justice:
…Eternal life in heaven is necessary to reward the highly virtuous (given that they would strongly desire it). And supposing it is true that life’s meaning depends on being highly virtuous and receiving reward for it, we have an argument that entails the immortality requirement.
For Metz, the only way to achieve perfect justice would be with a perfect reward for virtuous living, but this seems to fly in the face of many moral theories – while it is easier to do the right thing if you are motivated to do so because of a reward, one could argue that having a reward is not a necessary precondition for right behavior. Right behavior should be pursued because it is right, period. This is also a limited interpretation of justice, on the view that justice is a system of punishments and rewards for behavior, rather than the view that justice is fairness for instance. Under a justice as fairness framework, immortality may be necessary in that it may be the only way to guarantee that everyone could receive fair treatment (as many are denied fair treatment as a result of time constraints or because they died before their case could be proven – in an immortal life, 20 years would not be so long to wait for justice).
Still other authors are worried about the meaning of life in light of immortality. As Horrobin (2006) points out:
…Suppose that, once free of our presently absolute life span constraints, then lives as lived would have no shape, no drama, no form, no meaning! It seems that what is worried about is not that there will be no variation, drama, form, or meaning, but rather that absent this particular structure, the present meaning of ‘human nature’ will be fundamentally changed or lost. It appears clear that beyond the particular structure alluded to, the author finds it difficult to see that there are or may be other worthwhile interpretations of ‘human nature’ that presently exist, or else will spontaneously arise. It is true that their form may appear alien to the worrier, or else be difficult to foresee, but is a claim that such different life structures are not, or would not be ‘human’ warranted?
The worry that life will become meaningless after immortality seems to be an argument from ignorance, then, which is a fallacy. Just because we cannot perceive the ways in which life will become meaningful does not mean that we must conclude an immortal life will be meaningless.
5. Personal Position and Justification
Truly, this paper only scratches at the surface of immortality. However, I think enough has been discussed to provide answers to the questions raised earlier. It does not seem apparent, first of all, that immortality would be wrong to pursue. After all, nothing in the moral realm seems to be absolutely “right” or absolutely “wrong,” that is, good or bad without context. We cannot reject immortality by merely saying “it is wrong to live forever,” for instance. We might reject it on the basis of practical considerations, but for the sake of argument, I am maintaining that these considerations will be taken care of. Secondly, as to how immortality may alter the meaning of one’s life, it seems impossible to arrive at a conclusive answer. Worry about this question, however, may be misplaced – if anything, immortality seems to suggest that humans will find a deeper and more satisfying meaning to life by living forever. The other two questions – would being immortal improve the value of one’s life and would one want to be immortal – deserve a little more time to answer. Being that this is a personal position paper, I will answer them personally.
I answer positively to both questions. My personal philosophy has always been to seek self-improvement, and if death is removed as an obstacle, it would be possible to continue this journey of growth and development indefinitely. Life, as we know it, often forces one to make one choice which is mutually exclusive with another (or many other) choices for various reasons – aging makes it harder to learn new skills and pursue different interests. Music, for example, is something I’ve always enjoyed listening to, but practical considerations (like having a job, getting an education, and so on) prevented me from taking the time to learn how to play and compose music. The mechanics of aging make it harder and harder for me to learn music the longer I wait. With immortality, however, I could take theoretically take up music (or any other interest/skill/hobby) and pursue it to the fullest. Some (like Temkin) argue that constantly learning and starting over in new fields would not appeal to them, and that they may grow bored with things they already love because once they’d found the best in that field (their favorite songs, works of art, and so on) they wouldn’t be able to tolerate anything less. Immortality, I would think, would have just as much an impact on the arts as it would anything else. Music is very time dependent, for example, but in an immortal world where we experience time much differently, who is to say what form music would ultimately take? I am sure that language would evolve, as it would no longer be necessary to “get to the point” all the time, and that would have an impact on any field that depends upon language. Furthermore, perhaps in an immortal world, humanity could come to a universal language (or several universal languages with different purposes) to better understand each other. There is a caveat to my acceptance and enthusiasm for immortality, however.
I think it would be important to respect the autonomy of those who wished to commit suicide. After all, many have fought long and hard for the right to die, and many thinkers have written about the importance of dignity in death (and being able to choose a proper time to die). Immortality would allow for people to decide when the most fitting end for their life should be, and allowing people to commit suicide would be an answer to considerations about an immortal life becoming too boring – once a person had done all they had wanted in life, they shouldn’t be forced to remain alive if they don’t wish to. Even if I don’t personally see any reason why I would want to kill myself, I should not be able to force life on people who do not wish to be alive – much like I should not be able to force death (murder) on people who do wish to be alive.
This paper is brief and my research only scratches at the surface of thought regarding immortality – it is a rather thick concept. I find it hard not to get excited about the idea, which seems to be in stark contrast with the literature on the subject. For example, there’s a lot of arguments about how we would all become bored or lives would be unrecognizable and uninteresting, or without death we would not be sufficiently motivated to do good things. Yet counterarguments are hard to come by. How great would it be if revolutionary minds, minds that helped humanity understand reality that much more, were still alive today and operating at peak capacity? I do not think Einstein, for example, was motivated by the fear of death – I think he was motivated by the desire to understand the nature of reality. What if Einstein were still around today to pursue that curiosity? How much better would we all be for it? Immortality represents such a drastic change in what it means to be human, it has the potential to be either the best or the worst thing to happen to us. Let’s not forget about the ways it could be best even while we try to prepare for the ways it could be the worst.
Metz, T. (2003). The immortality requirement for life’s meaning. Ratio: An International Journal of Analytic Philosophy, 16(2), 161-177.
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.