The New York Times opinion page seems to be on a full-bore campaign against radical extension of human life.
For the second time in less than a month, the Times has decided that the voices in favor of not pursuing life extending technologies and therapies need to be heard. Three weeks ago it was so-called bioethicist Daniel Callahan who questioned the value of extending human life much beyond the 78 years that the average American now enjoys. . Now the Times has found room for a column by Roger Cohen—a supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and defender of Rupert Murdoch—to make exactly the same argument that Callahan made.
Like Callahan, Cohen depicts radical life extension not as a blessing and a sign of success as a species, but as a burden on society because of current limitations on both natural and medical resources and a lack of jobs in society. Cohen is unable to exercise even an iota of imagination to conjure a world run by renewable resources in which there is fairer distribution of the rewards of work, people have fewer children and everyone regardless of age has access to education, food, medical care and adequate shelter. All he sees are the problems of taking care of the elderly instead of the great joy that life can provide at any age.
Cohen cites statistics that suggest that the 56% of Americans don’t want to undergo medical treatments to live to 120 or more. Of course the question is theoretical. I know a lot of very active people in their 80’s and 90’s—some with pain or illness, some without, but not one of them is sitting around waiting for or longing for death.
At the end his article, Cohen waxes philosophical about the relationship between death and meaning. Like many before him, he claims that human life has no meaning without death. His exact words: “This resistance to the super-centenarian dream demonstrates good sense. Immortality — how tempting, how appalling! What a suffocating trick on the young! Death is feared, but it is death that makes time a living thing. Without it life becomes a featureless expanse. I fear death, up to a point, but would fear life without end far more.”
That’s fine for him, and I also know that many long for death because they believe in an afterlife that will be a better, happier place.
But for me, human life is the ultimate value and extending it and making it more comfortable is the greatest good. I for one would not be bored with a longer life, even with eternal life: I could study more about human history, human society, evolution and science. I could learn more languages. I could visit more of the world—at a more leisurely pace than current junkets abroad since I would have more time. I might even travel in space. I love playing games and watching sports, but even more, I get a great sensual pleasure out of preparing food and eating. As for sex—even if I ever became unable to achieve an erection, I would still take immense joy in the many other pleasures we label as sexual. Cohen says that death gives our lives meaning. I disagree: I think the knowledge we are going to die imbues all pleasure with melancholy or sadness. I’m not the first to express this belief—it was part of the philosophy of the ancient Roman and Greek Epicureans.
I love life and I don’t want anyone to take even a minute away from me. The thought that humans keep extending our lives through the pursuit of knowledge keeps me from despair. The idea that the human species could survive the destruction of the earth when the sun burns out by transporting large numbers of people to another planet in another solar system sustains my hope.
But I also realize that we have to change our ways for humans to survive as a species and for us to attain radical life extension for all. It will take a more equitable distribution of wealth, a focus on renewable resources, replacement of the accumulation of material things as the ultimate goal of life, an end to expensive and destructive wars, the basing of community decisions on science and not on convenience or the best interests of a few—in short it will take a repudiation of our wasteful, materialistic, war-mongering society. That’s something that those advocating against life extension don’t seem willing to contemplate.