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John Harris, Immortal Ethics, generational cleansing


John Harris's paper, "Immortal Ethics," published in Annals of New York Academy of Sciences, 1019, pp.527-534, (2004), is a short essay on the ethics of life extension. He talks about various points concerning this topic, and his discussion is interesting and thought-provoking. Basically, I don't like his extremism and optimism, but this time I enjoyed his philosophical writing.

Harris criticizes the negative views on life extension that Leon Kass and his followers have strongly maintained so far. One thing he shares with the conservatives is the need for the turnover of generations, because if the older generation live for more than a hundred years working actively at the front in their workplace, the younger people would lose their opportunity to act as a leader in their middle age.

Harris writes:

.... and if the generational turnover proved too slow for regeneration of youth and ideas and for the satisfactions of parenting, we might face a future in which the fairest and the most ethical course might be to contemplate a sort of "generational cleansing." (p.532)

Generational cleansing? What does he mean by these words? He explains:

This would involve deciding collectively how long it is reasonable for people to live in each generation and trying to ensure that as many as possible live healthy lives of that length. We then would have to ensure that, having lived a "fair innings," they died at the appropriate time to make way for future generations. (p.532)

What a totalitarian worldview this is! In such a society, those who have lived out their fair innings are expected to voluntarily die or commit suicide. Isn't this a society a conservative philospher would likely imagine? If there is a difference between conservatives and John Harris, it would be that while conservatives hope that this turnover will occur as the result of a natural biological process, Harris (and other liberals) does not. Instead, Harris prefers to attain this turnover by means of an artificial manner, such as suicide or euthanasia.

Reading his argument, I have come to feel that the coming long life society might be filled with an unspoken expectation that older people will voluntarily choose suicide or euthanasia to make way for the young, and this expectation indirectly forces them to actually choose such actions. And similar things should perhaps be observed in today's nursing homes. In this sense, the dark side of life extension already do exist in the society we live in now.

Related post: *Is More Life Always Better? The New Biology of Aging and the Meaning of Life, David Gems
                    *An old man and me and life

Photo: Kyoto Seika University, Kyoto, Japan

  -- M.Morioka www.lifestudies.org

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