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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Radical Life Extension

Brian Green

Brian Green

An ethical analysis

Brian Patrick Green

Biological gerontologist Aubrey de Grey posits that the first human to live to 1,000 is probably already alive.  De Grey was a co-founder of the SENS Research Foundation, which is dedicated to the application of regenerative medicine to age-related illnesses.  In a talk February 11, 2016, for the Ethics Center and the Tech Museum of Innovation, he argued that humans should be able to live indefinitely. What are the ethical implications of that view?  Center Assistant Director of Campus Ethics Brian Green offered this response and analysis: 

The idea of radical life extension and health enhancement is widespread and old, being found in the epic of Gilgamesh, the Book of Genesis in the Bible, esoteric Taoism, Western esotericism and alchemy, the pursuit of the fountain of youth, early scientific goals, and so on. 

Is it an old idea that, up until now, has not borne fruit. Science has indeed managed to extend our lives, but not radically. We can be thankful for the achievements already made and hopeful for the achievements yet to come. 

I am going to start off by arguing one clear thing, and then proceed to muddy everything up. But please remember this one clear thing: 

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with extending healthy human life, even to a very great extent. 

In fact, extending healthy human life is not only not bad, it is very good. Life and health are the fundamental human rights because they are the foundations of all the others, and so not only is radical health extension good for preserving healthy life, but it is also good for preserving every other human right as well. 

But… 

There are several serious potential points of tension between ethics and radical health extension.

I want very briefly to look at seven: 1) overselling a difficult task, 2) justice, access, inequality, 3) mis-prioritization of moral goods, 4) the growth of risk aversion, 5) the risk of stasis, 6) the moral dangers of utopianism and ends-justify-the-means rationalization, and 7) social and environmental limits. 

1) Overselling a Difficult Task 

People have been trying to radically extend human life for a long time and it hasn’t worked. This is not to say it is impossible, only that it is certainly not easy. We may have the tools to do it now, but we also might not. The problem is unimaginably complex. 

And the tiniest bit of knowledge of human nature should make us skeptical too, because this research sells people what they want to hear, and so far has delivered very little. 

While we certainly ought to support health care research, we should not lie to ourselves about the potential benefits or gullibly accept gross improbabilities. 

And the improbabilities are gross. My background in biology makes me very skeptical of anti-aging research. Radical life extension not only means curing aging, it also means curing everything. Every disease, every ailment. Skepticism for the success of this task is still warranted. 

2) Justice, Access, and Inequality 

Who will be able to access radical life extension technologies? The very rich are funding this endeavor, and if anyone stands to benefit at all, they will be the first, if not exclusive, beneficiaries. 

We live in a nation that distributes health care by money rather that need. This is a symptom of a moral disorder. Health care is already incredibly inequitably accessible around the world, and even in nations where access is possible, it is still not practically available for many people. 

This is a critique not only against radical life extension, of course; it is a critique of the entire health care system, though life extension will merely make the inequalities worse by even more directly converting money into healthy lifespan. That is unfair. 

3) Mis-prioritization of Moral Goods 

Related to the previous concern for fairness, life extension is a good, but not the only or even highest good. People are willing to sacrifice their lives to save others or even sacrifice their lives for ideas, for their conception of the truth. In devoting too much attention to health extension, we should consider what we are demoting to a lower priority. What might have higher priority than one’s own life? What do we care about besides ourselves? 

Through social practices like the military draft, we collectively assert that the value of the nation exceeds the value of particular individual lives. Expanding the circle, we can argue that the human race as a whole and the environment also ought to be considered. It can be considered morally meritorious to give one’s life to save other people, to save sacred sites or truths, or to save other great goods such as natural beauty or endangered species. 

The meaning of life is often construed to consist in finding something other than oneself worth living for, and thereby also, in so doing, finding something worth dying for as well. If we forget that and devote too much energy to preserving our own health, we might risk the importance of seeking meaning beyond our own concerns. 

4) The Growth of Risk Aversion 

Radical risk aversion would be a likely side-effect of radical life extension. Over the past few centuries, and particularly the last few decades, Western culture, at least, has become dramatically more risk-averse. 

Safety is good, but miscalculations of safety can be bad because they reflect a distorted perception of reality. If we begin to value our own lives more highly than we should, our perceptions of risk will become distorted, we will become more risk averse, and this will have consequences for the way society behaves, both for better and for worse. People will be less willing to take risks, and society actually needs risk-takers in order to grow. 

As the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once noted “Without adventure, civilization is in full decay.” 

5) The Risk of Stasis 

Related to risk aversion is the potential for a society of long-lived persons to become increasingly static. 

Steve Jobs famously said that “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” 

People who live a radically long time may not like change. Can we imagine what it would be like if people born all the way back to 500 or 1000 years ago were alive today? Slavery, imperialism, and allowing women to vote would still be unsettled debates, and perhaps not settled as they are now. 

Much change happens because newer generations replace the old ones. Therefore life extension, as a way of slowing or stopping generation replacement, is an intrinsically preservative and conservative activity. That is not necessarily bad, but it should be acknowledged. 

Stasis is good for those humans who are happy and like life the way it is, but it is not good for those humans who are in worse circumstances. For them progress is needed, not stasis. 

6) The Moral Dangers of Utopianism and Ends-Justify-the-Means Rationalization 

As an ultimate, infinite value, extended-life Utopia, as an end, risks reducing all other finite goods to nothing. This opens the door to ends-justify-the-means rationalizations, and quickly we turn from doing good now in order to attain a future good, to doing evil now in order to attain a future good. Utopianism distorts moral reasoning because it can justify literally anything. Communism and fascism both showed this clearly in the 20th century. 

Ultimately, the temptations involved in radical life extension play to the deepest fears in human psychology and thus create the deepest temptations for us to act wrongly, and to rationalize grossly immoral actions. 

All utopianism should be questioned very hard and we should all treat its claims with great skepticism and criticism.  

7) Social and Natural Environmental Limits 

If life extension succeeds it will lead to population growth. This, again, is not necessarily bad. People are good. But people also consume resources, and on a finite planet, overconsumption can lead to catastrophe. 

The good news is that excessive population growth is actually no longer a problem in most of the world. World population will likely peak before the end of the century and then start declining. But consumption will not peak on its own – for consumption to peak we will need technological progress to increase efficiency. 

Those are environmental limits, what of the social limits? Even if humans manage to live radically longer and sustainably with the environment, our likelihood of death by natural causes will decrease and our likelihood of death by unnatural causes – homicide and war – will proportionately increase. In fact, it might approach 100%, especially as emerging technologies empower us with destructive capacities far beyond mere nuclear weapons. 

Life extension thus also requires functioning political bodies, worldwide, every single one. No rogue nations, no ISIS or North Korea or anyone else. No rogue individuals with apocalyptic weapons either. The level of social control required would be totalitarian. 

Conclusion 

With these dangers in mind, we can ask if life extension is still a good goal. The answer is yes. None of these dangers make the entire task of radical healthy life extension unworthy. 

What these dangers do is guide us towards our goal with sideways pushes, while the goal of health draws us in with a pull. These dangers keep us away from things which are ultimately bad for us, while still allowing us to pursue longer and healthier lives. 

In conclusion, not only is there nothing intrinsically wrong with extending healthy human lifespan; indeed it is something of an ethical mandate. While there are perils on the course, individual steps towards extending healthy human life are something to be praised, provided they are done with careful consideration of and preparation for the ethical implications.

Feb 17, 2017

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