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Value of life extension and immortality


Today I read the paper, "Immortality, Human Nature, the Value of Life and the Value of Life Extension" by Steven Horrobin, in Bioethics vol.20,no.6, 2006, pp.279-292. Horrobin discusses whether the future life extension technology is morally acceptable. The conservatives tend to deny extreme life extension because it is against human nature and the will of God (Christian God). The liberals are not so clear about such technology. Some are hesitant but others are in favor of it. Leon Kass discussed it in his Beyond Therapy (2003). In his book he rejected the optimistic view about extreme life extension, and persuaded us to taste the meaning of life within one's limited life span.

This is a very interesting topic because it makes us think deeply about philosophy of life questions, such as what is the meaning of life, what is the goal of life, what is life without regret, and so on. These are just the questions I have been tackling in the field of "life studies" or "philosophy of life".

Horrobin, too, tries to give an answer to this difficult question. He criticizes the conservative view, and defends the liberal view, especially the view of life based on the "personhood argument." He expands the standard personhood argument to include one's wishes, hopes, emotions, etc. as necessary elements of the concept of "person." Then he states as follows:

In this way, it would appear that there can be no arbitrary upper limit on the good of the extension of life to a person. (p.291)

And he stresses that a person always desires to continue to be a person.

We cannot effectively will ourselves not to be a person, since that will itself requires us to be a person. Try to imagine a person setting a particular date beyond which she will be free of all desires. Such a picture strikes one as absurd. (p.291)

His conclusion is:

So it does not seem reasonable that a person may even set a limit to the good of their own future extension in time. So long as we are persons, therefore, life extension will be a value without limitation. (pp.291-292)

Well, his argument is really interesting, but I don't think his argument is successful. It is logically possible for a person to desire not to be a person, and it is also possible for a person to desire to set a limit beyond which she will be free of all desires. In ancient Japan, some Buddhist monks tried to reduce their desires to reach the state of enlightenment (satori) by giving up eating food under the ground, and finally died and became mummies (sokushin butsu). They were believed to get into the state of enlightment, and highly respected. Weren't these monks persons when they decided?

My point is that a person can desire to leave the desire to live longer, and this is just what modern people forget in our materialistic society. I am not Christian, or Buddhist, or conservative, but I think like this. What do you think?

Related Posts:
 *Eternity, immortality, and desire to live longer
 *Retardation of aging and fear of death

PS: Some staff members of the Center for Genetics and Society have establied their blog, Biopolitical Times. Why don't you visit and check out?

Photo: Tokyo Tower and Zojoji temple

  -- M.Morioka www.lifestudies.org

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Dear Professor Morioka,

Thank you for your mention of my paper.

However, I should like to clarify a few points. Firstly, I do not simply defend a Liberal view of the value of life. I criticise the classic view fairly strongly, and seek to amend it in ways which have, in some ways, very different implications than does the standard liberal view of the value of life to persons.

Also, it should be noted that the expansion of the view of personhood I offer importantly describes persons as time-extended processes, with indivisible forward-directed elements.

Further, I absolutely do not stress that "a person always desires to continue to be a person". This is a misrepresentation of the position, which is that a person always continues to have forward-directed desires, underwritten by a categoric desire which is a constitutive and indivisible component of their personhood. Absent this desire, the theory runs, they simply would not be a person.

Further, you appear to think that I have somehow asserted that a person cannot cease to be a person. This is not so, a person can, and does, so cease, in numerous circumstances. For example, they often die. But this is irrelevant to the theory. As is your example of Buddhist mummies, since what has occurred in this situation is that a being, unequivocally a person, has desired not to be a person, and has starved themselves to death. But we don't need examples of Japanese mummies to find this. It is commonplace, suicide by self-starvation is far from unheard of, and in ways relevant to this paper is very much the same as suicide by bullet. The only difference is level of self-control and resolve to die, and fortitude. But at every moment such a person is alive, they are BOTH a person, and clearly desiring- in this case, to die, or to cease to be. But this does not, and cannot remove the fact of this particular desire, and the categoric desire which underwrites it from the picture. Setting a limit beyond which one will be free of all desires, and then enforcing it by suicide is not a solution to my proposal, nor any kind of effective counterexample. It is simply irrelevant. So long as the suicide is a person, they have desires. Killing themselves does not alter basic facts about the constitution of their personhood. It simply extinguishes them altogether, at the same time as extinguishing their desires!

A person who remains healthy, and does not die, but nonetheless ceases to be a person is at least conceivable, but would be extremely rare. Extreme shock or grief may have this effect, perhaps. Extreme boredom perhaps likewise, as in the case of Elina Makropulous. However, very close to inconceivable is a person who ceases to have desires ALTOGETHER by an act of will alone, for (and at the very least, since there are other reasons, as outlined in the paper) that act of will itself represents a desire.

None of this, however and in any case, impinges in any way on my theory, or its implications.

Dear Professor Morioka,

To slightly amend my own comments posted earlier, in line with the findings of further research, to be published as part of "The Enhance Project", I would like to point out that Boredom is itself an affect, and one which exists necessarily in relation to desires. It is not possible to be wholly unmotivated, and also to have no desires whatever, and at the same time to be bored. Boredom is a state dependent upon reference to such further desires. I may not be bored simpliciter, but I may be bored in relation to something I would rather be doing, or experiencing. If there is no such thing, then I would not be bored, I would ex hypothesi, not even be a person. I would have passed from personhood, and therefore would have no conation, no drive, no desire, no affect. In such a case I could not be bored. I would not be. In this way I deny wholeheartedly the fictional wailings of Elina Makropulos as precisely that: fictional, and not possible.

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