(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 10, 2015.)
Many worry that radical life extension or the elimination of death will lead to overpopulation and ecological destruction. In other words, while it may be best for individuals to live forever, it might be collectively disastrous. Readers may recognize this situation as an instance of the “tragedy of the commons.” Acting in their apparent self-interest, individuals destroy a common good. It may be convenient for individuals to pollute the air, earth, and water, but eventually, this is catastrophic for all. However, I don’t believe that overpopulation and its attendant problems should give researchers in this area pause. Here are some reasons why.
Let’s begin with a few simple things. First of all, fertility rates are currently plummeting around the world. In addition, the carrying capacity of our planet in terms of population depends on our technology, which is constantly progressing. Technology itself may allow us to comfortably feed more people with less environmental impact in the near future. Next consider that if the choice is between using technology to prolong healthy lives or have more children, most of us would choose the latter. Wouldn’t you prefer to have fewer children than having your parents get Alzheimer’s?
But there’s more. If we have conquered death, then we may already be transhumans or post-humans living after a technological singularity. Such beings may not want to propagate, since achieving a kind of immortality is a major motivation for having children. Posthumans would be relatively independent of the physical environment too—their bodies may be impervious to environmental stressors, or they may not have bodies at all. In such cases, concerns about overpopulation would be irrelevant. I’m not saying that they will be irrelevant, but that the tragedy of 150,000 people dying every single day—100,000 of them from age-related causes—is a huge price to pay for speculative hypotheses about the future. We shouldn’t assume that our concerns as biological beings today will be relevant in the future.
Of course, I don’t know how the future will unfold. But preserving the minds that now exist may be a better survival strategy than educating new ones. In the future, we will probably need educated and mature minds—their invaluable knowledge and wisdom. So I argue that we should try to eliminate death, dealing with overpopulation—assuming we even have to—when the time comes. My suggestions may be considered reckless, but remember there is no risk-free way to proceed into the future. Whatever we do, or don’t do, has risks. If we cease developing technology we will not be able to prevent the inevitable asteroid strike that will decimate our planet; if we continue to die young we may not develop the intelligence necessary to design better technology. Given these considerations, we shouldn’t let hypotheticals about the future deter our research into defeating death.
Note too that this objection to life-extending research could have been leveled at work on the germ theory of disease, or other life-extending research and technology in the past. Don’t cure diseases because that will lead to overpopulation! Don’t treat sick children because they might survive and have more children! I think most of us are glad we have a germ theory of disease and treat sick children. Our responsibility is to help people live long, healthy lives, not worry that by doing so other negative consequence might ensue. We are glad that some of our ancestors decided that a twenty-five-year life span was insufficient, instead of worrying that curing diseases and extending life might have negative consequences.
Most importantly, I believe it is immoral for us to reject anti-aging research and the technologies it will produce, thereby forcing future generations to die involuntarily. After anti-aging technologies are developed, the living should be free to choose to live longer, live forever, or even die young if they want to. But it would be immoral for us not to try to make death optional for them. If we made decisions for them, we would be imposing our values on them. At the moment we tolerate a high death rate to compensate for a high birth rate, but our descendants may not share this value.
Moreover, as I have argued previously, death is like a bomb strapped to our chest. The bomb is with us from birth and can detonate at any time. If it is in our power to remove that bomb for future generations, then we should. We should not let hypothetical concerns about negative consequences deter our removing those explosives. I’d bet future generations will thank us for removing such bombs, and even if our descendants do decide that a hundred years of consciousness is enough, they will probably be thankful that we gave them the option to live longer. I’d guess that higher forms of being and consciousness will want to preserve their being. They would want us to disarm the bomb.
The lovers of death don’t want to disarm the bomb because its detonation transports you to a better address—from a slum to a mansion. Even better, in the mansion, your mind and body are eternally bathed in a salve of peace, love, and joy. That is the justification for opposing the bomb’s removal. The problem is this story is fictional. And we know that most people agree because when humans conquer death, when they learn to remove the bomb—they will. Those in the future who have the option to live forever will be eternally grateful that they have the real thing, instead of the empty promises we now pay for each Sunday in church. Consciousness has come a long way from its beginnings in a primordial soup, but there is so much farther to go. Let’s put our childhood behind us, and make something of ourselves.