Summary of James Lenman’s “Immortality: A Letter”

James Lenman is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. He did his undergraduate work at Oxford University and received his Ph.D. from St. Andrews University.

Lenman’s article, “Immortality: A Letter,” (1995) concerns a letter from a fictional philosopher to her fictitious biological friend in which she presents arguments against taking his immortality drug. She worries that if only some people get the drug, those who don’t will regret it; while if everyone gets the drug, overpopulation will ensue unless people stop having children. But this will lead to more unhappiness, as people want to have children.

Most importantly immortality would undermine our humanity by transforming us into different kinds of beings. Just as an angel who gives up immortality to become human would transform into a human, so too would a human who accepts immortality give up their humanity. To be granted immortality is to become a different kind of being. In addition, an immortal life might become boring. And finally, the value of life derives in large part from its fragility, which would be undermined by immortality. Lenman’s letter concludes:

The problem with your discovery is that … it precisely wouldn’t be a human good that was advanced because so much of what makes us human would then be obsolete. And human good … is the only sort of good we can make much sense of or coherently view as intrinsically worth our wanting. Nothing … is intrinsically worth anybody’s wanting and what is worth our wanting can only be our good. There is no such thing as the good. Our proper concern being rather with … the good for man.[i]

Summary – More value will be lost than gained if we become immortal.


[i] James Lenman, “Immortality: A Letter,” Cogito 9 (1995): 169.

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