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Life Extension, Human Rights, and the Rational Refinement of Repugnance, de Grey

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A D N J de Grey criticizes the conservative arguments on life extension in the paper, "Life Extension, Human Rights, and the Rational Refinement of Repugnance," published two years ago, in Journal of Medical Ethics 2005;31:659-663. He stresses that our hesitant attitude towards life extension and age retardation has been deeply influenced by a sort of irrationality, which has been forged by conservative ethicists such as Leon Kass.

He asks whether there are any differences between saving the life of someone and extending one's life span, for example, between curing a young man's leukaemia and postponing the ageing process of an old man, and he concludes that there is no difference between them in terms of ethics. He says as follows:

I must show that it is impossible to argue that we have done anything meaningfully different when curing leukaemia and when postponing ageing. ..... In each circunstance we are giving the beneficiary a greater remaining healthy potential lifespan than they would have if we held back, which is the beginning and end of what we mean when we say we have saved their lives, and also of what we mean when we say we have extended their lives. (p.662)

De grey would be right if we consider it absurd to suppose that there is a "natural process of rise and decline of human development." Even if there is such a natural process, we must say we have already destroyed it ever since we invented medicine and other health promoting activities at the dawn of our civilization. However, at the same time, I would like to add that clinging to age retardation when we get old might look uglier than curing leukaemia when we are young. This might be a similar kind of ugliness we would feel when we saw an old man chasing after young girls. One thing de Grey does not talk about is how to think about our obsession with young and healthy and everlasting life. In other words, he does not ask a question whether adhering to this kind of desire will truly lead us to happiness in the age of materialism and comercialization.

But de Grey rejects this kind of reasoning as self-deception, because it is no more than our unconsciouss strategy to cope with our false belief that our lifespan is theoretically limited. He writes as follows:

It is easy to see why we engage in this breathtaking self-deception: we find it the only effective coping strategy in the face of the ghastliness of ageing, since we remain convinced that ageing is inevitable. Now that ageing is within sight of not being inevitable, our collective hypnosis is no longer a solution but has become part of the problem; it is costing lives. (p.662)

De Grey calls our attention to the fact that he does not say ageing is worse than postponing ageing, however, I must say that the tone of his argument is clearly in favor of age retardation and life extension. He writes, at the end of the paper, that "the cure of ageing will be the greatest achievement of science since it was founded" (p.663).

Conquering ageing and mortality would be an important achievement of science, however, no matter how long we live we must die someday. As the day comes closer, the acceptance of our own death will become a big problem that cannot be solved by science and technology. My frustration with the argument of de Grey and other scholars, who are eager to emphasize the positive aspect of life extention and age retardation, is that they rarely try to talk about the subject of the acceptance of our own death and ageing, which we are going to be faced with sooner or later no matter how far science may progress in the future. What do you think?

Related post: An old man and me and life

Photo: Kyoto Seika University, Kyoto

  -- M.Morioka www.lifestudies.org

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