So-called bioethicist would rather see people die than change society

In a New York Times Op/Ed column, Daniel Callahan, co-founder of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institution, questions the wisdom of extending human life.

Callahan rightfully calls aging “a public issue with social consequences” and mentions two of the ramifications of more people living into old age: 1) More medical costs for society; 2) Fewer jobs for the young, as the old extend their working lives.

But instead of seeing health care and the workforce as challenges to overcome as we extend the amount of time people can live, he sees them instead as reasons not to extend life. He doesn’t say it explicitly, but his underlying argument essentially throws people under the bus when their usefulness to the economy appears to end.

The increase in medical costs to treat the elderly should not be seen as society’s burden, but rather as our joyous reward for having created a world in which people can live longer and continue to thrive. That so many people live longer is a sign of success, not a reason to stop the advance of medical research. We expanded educational institutions to meet the large increase in the population of children when the Baby Boomers started popping out. What is so different about expanding medical and social programs for our increasing population of the elderly?

The jobs issue is a little more complicated, primarily because our automated economy does not create enough jobs for everyone willing and able to work. But instead of artificially creating job openings by kicking out people at a certain age, we could fix what’s wrong with our economic system. Here are some thoughts:

  • As more people live to 90, 100 and beyond, they will need more caregivers, which creates jobs for younger people.
  • Local organic farming requires more human labor. If we created an agricultural system that relied on a mix of industrial and older techniques, it would create many more jobs for the young. The key, of course, is to make certain that these jobs pay a decent wage.
  • Unless there is a pressing financial reason, those in their 60’s, 70’s and beyond typically don’t want to work 40-hour weeks. Job-sharing, especially between the old experienced hand and the young go-getter, makes a lot of sense.
  • We are currently not spending enough on many job-creating enterprises, such as fixing our roads and bridges, hiring enough teachers to decrease class sizes, exploring out-of-space and developing renewable energy sources and systems.

To make any of these ideas work requires two actions that give conservatives the willies: 1) More government management of the economy; and 2) A more equitable distribution of the wealth.

When people use economic arguments to justify denying people basics such as nutrition, healthcare or education, I always wonder if they include themselves. Evidently the 83-year-old Callahan does not, as he admits to having received a seven-hour heart operation and to using oxygen at night for his emphysema.  In our current world, the rich—and I include Callahan—can afford to keep themselves alive and have nice cushy jobs from which they can keep drawing income for decades after turning 65.

Callahan’s sole concern is that as currently constructed, our society and economy cannot afford to extend such privileges to everyone.  While he seems to care about the social good, he argues explicitly from the point of view of someone who doesn’t believe or want society to improve or change. He is happy living in a world dominated by the politics of selfishness, the idea that “I got mine, who cares about anyone else.” He sees an increase in the very old as a threat to that world, as opposed to being a sign that we are making progress towards a better one.

We all know people whose lives are so filled with pain and suffering that to the outsider it seems as if they would be better off dead. Focus on these poor souls (and don’t ask if they want to remain alive in their pain) and Callahan’s argument that life extension may not be an absolute good makes a tad of sense.

But instead, try focusing on the many vibrant 80 and 90 year olds around. Even those who are not so active can still enjoy their friends, their favorite foods, music, outings and games, sports teams, reading, the changing of the seasons, the chirping of birds, the affection of pets, the delight in seeing the flowers pop up in the spring, in short the sheer joy of existence.  We should be doing as much as possible to extend that joy for all people.


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