Making Death Optional

I begin by noting that Daniel Callahan at age 77 admits that old age “is not the best stage of life.” He also suggests—and I agree–that adolescence wasn’t so hot either. Of course, there is a difference—an adolescent can look forward to waxing powers and a future of hope. Being old is certainly “not the best stage of life” because an old person dreads waning vigor and the all-too-speedy approach of oblivion.

Here are a few brief responses of Callahan’s reaction essay. He complains that pro-longevity proponents argue that life extension “would make our lives a kind of heaven on earth.” Talk about a pot calling a kettle black! Callahan and his pro-mortalist cohorts can only see radically longer healthy lives producing dystopias filled with people afflicted with endless ennui. “We might get tired of it all or bored,” he writes.

Or we might not. Let’s proceed with the pro-longevity project and find out. If it turns out that most people find it unbearable to face the prospect of hundreds of healthy years, then they can always stop taking the anti-aging treatments and let nature take its usual appalling course. But as even the President’s Council on Bioethics acknowledged: “If effective age-retardation technologies became available and relatively painless and inexpensive, the vast majority of us would surely opt to use them, and they would quickly become popular and widely employed.”[1]

Obviously then Callahan must regard the hundreds of millions of his fellow human beings who would take advantage of cheap effective age-retardation treatments as being somehow delusional—they don’t know their own best interests. I suppose that’s possible, but it is far more likely that Callahan is especially deep in thrall to what de Grey calls the “pro-aging trance.” Let’s turn on its head the infamous argument by Leon Kass, the former head of the President’s Bioethics Council, that we should rely on our gut feelings to reject biotechnological advances.[2] The fact of near-ubiquitous human yearning for longer healthier lives should serve as a preliminary warrant for pursuing age-retardation as a moral good.

At the end of his essay, Callahan writes: “I really wish we would be told, when the great day arrives and we have dozens, maybe hundreds of years ahead of us, exactly how it would all work.” Well, I wish I knew too, but the plain unvarnished fact of the matter is that humanity advances by trial and error. Even the smartest people cannot figure out how scientific and technological advances will play out over the next few decades, much less centuries. In 1960 the optical laser was described by its inventor as an invention looking for a job. By 2005 ubiquitous lasers routinely cut metal, play CDs, reshape corneas, carry billions of Internet messages, remove tattoos, and guide bombs. It is likely that age-retardation technologies will develop incrementally. So humanity will have lots of opportunities for course corrections as we go along.

The very good news is that the history of the last two centuries has shown that technological progress has been far more beneficial than harmful for humanity. I see no reason why age-retardation will not be another, albeit very big, step along that beneficial trend line. We should all have the right to choose to use or not use new technologies to help us and our families to flourish. If our descendants don’t breed like us, feed like us, or need like us, then that’s because they will have decided that they have better alternatives. Is humanity ready for radically longer lifespans? We’re about as ready as we’ll ever be.In other words, yes.


[1] Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, President’s Council on Bioethics.

[2] Leon Kass, “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” New Republic, June 2, 1997.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s provocative lead essay, Aubrey de Grey, the Chairman and Chief Science Officer of the Methuselah Foundation and a leading proponent of radical life extension, examines the arguments and rhetorical stategies of those who oppose the effort to defeat death. Setting his sights on the “pro-aging trance,” the “Tithonus error,” “biomedical wishful thinking,” and two ways the “geronto-apologists” evade the real question, de Grey argues that reconciliation to death is a kind of discrimination, but that “old people are people too, so aging must be seen for what it is: a scourge that deprives far more people of far more healthy years than any other.”

Response Essays

  • In her reply to de Grey’s lead essay, Diana Schaub, a professor of political science at Loyola College in Maryland and member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, emphasizes our duty to think through all the consequences of much-longer lifespans. Can monogamy survive 1000-year lives? “What would the tally of disappointments, betrayals, and losses be over a millennium?” Schaub asks. If some societies now must wait for tyrants to die, won’t they have to wait a long time in an ageless world? And tyranny aside, “a nation of ageless individuals could well produce a sclerotic society, petrified in its ways and views,” Schaub submits.

  • Ronald Bailey, Reason magazine’s science correspondent and author of Liberation Biology: The Moral and Scientific Case for the Biotech Revolution offers a vigorous and straightforward answer to this month’s question: “Do we need death? No. Next question.” But before turning to the next question, Bailey tackles some of the worries Diana Schaub raised in her reply to de Grey, and even addresses “pro-mortalist” arguments Daniel Callhan, our next commentator, has made elsewhere. “The highest expression of human nature and dignity,” Bailey claims, “is to strive to overcome the limitations imposed on us by our genes, our evolution, and our environment.”

  • Daniel Callahan, co-founder of the bioethics think tank the Hastings Center, digs beneath Aubrey de Grey’s premises and fundamentally challenges the idea that radical life extension would be a good thing. The argument against aging and death, Callahan argues, is “utopian” and depends on speculative “fairy tales” about the nature of very long lives. In a world of radical life extension, we might find people are “forced to continue working unless society and their children were prepared to support them for hundreds of years.” And social mobility may be imperiled if the old do not make way for the young. “Nature knew what it was doing when it arranged, through natural selection, to have all of us get old and die,” Callahan maintains.