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Optimal Deaths

April 10th, 2003 · No Comments

Reason‘s Ron Bailey is always great to read on biotech issues, but I sometimes feel as though his forays into bioethics go wide of the mark. This piece on the pro-aging views of Leon Kass (a philosopher libertarians would have to invent, as a foil, if he didn’t exist) is a case in point. Kass’s argument is that drastically longer lifespans may make us all less engaged or committed,lead to social stagnation, etc., etc. Bailey scores some decent points here, but then skips to the all-purpose rejoinder: doesn’t that mean we should wish the average lifespan were, say, 30 or 40? I’m sure I’ve raised that point myself, but here I think Bailey puts too much weight on it. There is, afer all, an obvious answer, to wit: “no, it doesn’t mean that at all.”

It is a bad response to someone who warns you to be careful of sunburn to object that we wouldn’t want to live all our lives underground. We don’t have to choose either anorexia or morbid obesity as unqualified goods. There might, at least in principle, be some “optimum lifespan” most conducive to all the virtues Kass is concerned about. He might argue, not entirely implausibly, that there are diminishing returns to lifespan, wherein a few more years when most of us live to 20 or 40 would allow a great deal of personal development and growth, whereas at 450, the effect was less pronounced, and the effect on motivation brought about by such a long life dwarfed those benefits. Or he might argue that even if “engagement” (or these other good things) did always vary inversely with lifespan, that the worth of a life was given by (say) the product of the two, and that the point was to find the peak on the curve of that function, not to maximize one or the other.

Now, of course, I do think Kass is wrong, and I’m not even terribly worried about him. No democratic body is ever going to ban a life-saving or extending technology for these rather abstract reasons. Still, I think it’s better to take the claims head on rather than attempt a fast-and-loose reductio. I think that here, Bailey is basically on the right track: many of the problems Kass raises only seem like problems from the perspective to which we’re accustomed. For example, might people live differently, with less urgency, if they didn’t hear time’s winged chariot at their backs? Well, we’ve a strong intuitive bias for the short term, but surely we might. Surely many would. But would they be wrong to do so? If I live a certain way because I believe I will die within (at most) a century, isn’t it both natural and, from my perspective, correct to adjust that life if I learn I may be active and healthy for 400 or 500 years instead? Well, sure! Instead of going to graduate school now, I might decide to study law and accumulate some savings for, say, a couple of decades before going on to study philosophy. Or I might dive into philosophy all the more eagerly, consoled that if I proved unhappy or unsuccessful as an academic, I would not have squandered a full 5% of my time on earth. At any rate, it is certainly odd to hear a conservative philosopher worried that we are on the verge of our thinking becoming dangerously long term.

How about the fear of a “glut of the able”—the worry that young workers will find all the good positions taken by spry, healthy quincenenarians with a formidable store of experience under their belts Surely this is just the same error opponents of free trade make when they assume that commerce is zero-sum, that if the developed world gets more productive, the other half goes jobless. That notion is, as Paul Krugman described it when William Greider advanced it in One World, Ready or Not, a transparent fallacy. The young will still have a comparative advantage in some jobs. Well, fine, but you might still object that this leaves a lot of people at the low end of the job market for a century or two, to the detriment (one imagines) of their self esteem. Imagine how long I might have to wait for an academic post to open up… This argument, whatever it’s worth, is in tension with another of Kass’s though. On the one hand, we’re supposed to believe that a population much older (on average) than our own will necessarily be less innovative and dynamic than our own. On the other, we’re expected to think that, under the circumsances, the relative flexibility and neophilia of youth will serve no useful function. Those seem unlikely to both be true.

To some extent, I expect that the “glut” argument will be partway right, with the same effect that rising life expectancy has had so far. That is, as societies grow both longer lived and more prosperous, the time we’re encouraged to spend educating ourselves and figuring out what we want to do with our lives increases. A few centuries ago, I’d have been out working the farm with maw and paw by the time I reached double digits. Now, at 24, I’m in the workforce, but it will scarcely be exceptional if at 25 I decide to travel for a while and then return to school. It seems likely that either that period will just extend in proportion to our longevity, or that it will find a mirror in a less sedentary retirement on the other end of life. With 400 years of saving under my belt, I might well decide that it was time to take a few decades out of the workforce to travel, or paint, or learn about set theory.

Look at it this way: every time someone dies or retires, we lose all their accumulated social capital. The fading of their expertise, know-how, and judgment is just a raw deadweight loss to the society. The returns on the social investment in their training and education have just stopped flowing. If the time horizon on those returns could be dramatically increased at relatively low cost, how prosperous would we be? I’m no economist, but I see the growth curve breaking into the “pretty goddamn rich” range. And the richer people are, generally speaking, the greater the greater the marginal value of leisure time, as opposed to income.

Anyway, those objections aside, some of Kass’s worries may be at least partially justified. It might well be that people anticipating 500 year lifespans may fail to prepare themselves as well for death as we who know it looms much larger on the horizon. But my reaction to this is basically the same as my reaction to those whose biggest worry about cloning technology is that dads may feel sexually conflicted upon seeing young carbon copies of their wives. In other words: is that your best apocalypse? Where’s the sense of proportion and tradeoffs here? If someone observes that the technology of “writing” makes people tend to rely less on their own memories and ideas, and that this may not be entirely good, I’ll reply that this is a fair point, and something we’d all do well to bear in mind. If someone tells me this is a reason to ban writing, or wish it hadn’t developed, I start looking for the hidden camera.

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