People come to the longevity field from all walks of life, bringing their unique expertise along. An activist engages in advocacy and fundraising. A physicist applies theories from a specific domain of knowledge. What happens when a philosopher joins in? Naturally, that person writes a book.
Patrick Ingemar Linden was born in Sweden but has spent a lot of time on the other side of the Atlantic. He got his PhD in philosophy from the City University of New York and proceeded to teach and research at NYU. At some point, he got interested in longevity and quickly bumped into all the usual objections to the self-evident (for us) idea that making people live longer and healthier is a good thing. So, Patrick sat down to dismantle those objections one by one and present arguments of his own. The result was the book “The Case Against Death”, which was published in 2022 by MIT Press.
The first question that came to my mind, maybe even before I began reading your book, just from looking at the cover, was “Why do we even need to argue that death is bad?” The fact that many people disagree with this simple statement baffles me.
I did have people make fun of me when I started writing it and explaining my ideas. They said, what’s your next title, “Kittens Are Cute”? But as you know, and as I show in the book, people out there are truly defending the status quo of aging and death. It’s real.
I agree, they started it. It’s not us who suddenly decided to argue the self-obvious – that death is bad, it’s them who try to argue that death is okay.
Yes, absolutely. And, if we dig deeper, this contradicts evolution itself (talking about “natural”). There’s an evolutionary story behind our morals, behind calling something “bad”. There must be some kind of overlap with what tends to kill us, or our tribe, or those close to us.
I would say that our moral evaluation is only explicable if we have a negative evaluation of death because otherwise, why do we value things that keep us alive? Ultimately, if you don’t care about dying, why do you care about having a safe home? Why do you care about food? Why care about anything? Why try to stay alive and wish for other people to stay alive?
What I’m saying is that if you don’t value death negatively, it’s a logically weird position. But people have come up with all kinds of tricks to defend this position, and this is what my book deals with.
The unwise view
Patrick says that he tried to make the book less academic and more suitable for a wider audience. While I think he succeeded, the book’s philosophical origins are unmistakable. It starts with describing what Patrick calls the “Wise View”: named so because “all the most important philosophers and teachers of mankind have taught that we should not fear death”.
The “Wise View” posits that death should be accepted humbly and honorably and even embraced. Fearing and loathing death, revolting against it is silly and ungainly. Death is the natural finale that crowns our earthly journey, and the question philosophy should mostly entertain is how to shape this journey in the most moral way possible.
This probably was the best humankind could come up with for most of its existence. Since acquiring consciousness, we began fearing death, and we needed to alleviate this fear in order to simply go on. However, the enormous strides that science has made have changed things. Conquering aging has become theoretically possible, and first steps in that direction have already been made. We might never be able to go the whole way, but we can do the best we can, prolonging human lifespan and eradicating diseases and suffering in the process. However, to mount a proper offensive on death, we need a lot of support.
This is where the “Wise View” barges in with its apology of death. “I call it the ‘Wise View’”, Patrick says, “because it is exactly what you expect every wise person to say. People don’t go to the wise person, the guru, and hear from them, ‘Be very afraid of dying.’”
Obviously, a lot of death-normalizing thinking comes from religion, but Patrick thinks it’s not even the worst kind. “Apologist thinking”, he says, “can be of the religious kind, and of the non-religious, or naturalist kind. In some sense, I have more sympathy for the religious kind because it says death is not what you think it is. Death is just a continuation of life. For me, that’s better because there’s at least an awareness that it would be bad if death was the end, which is exactly what I’m arguing. So, my main trouble is with scientific or secular-minded people who concede that life is finite but then come up with various justifications for the status quo of aging and death.”
Many intellectuals “have fallen into that trap of wanting to avoid a tragedy”, Patrick says, “because it’s a tragedy that we want to have more life, but we can’t. And then we tend to intellectualize, rationalize the situation.”
So, not dying is our sour grapes?
Yes, the sour grapes fallacy. We pretend that we don’t want it because until now, we haven’t been able to get it. People don’t believe that there’s hope, so they don’t allow themselves to have hope. This is why I had to sit down and write that book, which is so far, I think, the only full-length philosophical defense of the incredibly common-sensical idea that death is bad.
In his book, Patrick provides many examples of big names, such as Francis Fukuyama, offering what looks like nonsensical, bizarre, and inhumane apologies of death. Fukuyama, for instance, is quoted predicting multiple calamities that “population greying” will soon unleash on us and arguing that the government has the right to prevent people from living too long. Old people, according to Fukuyama, “just refuse to get out of the way”.
Leon Kass, a famous physicist and former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, apparently called death “a blessing for every human individual, whether he knows it or not,” and complained that “the desire to prolong youthfulness [is] an expression of a childish and narcissistic wish incompatible with devotion to posterity.”
Process or project?
Patrick keenly captures this paradox of seemingly normal people, prominent intellectuals, engaging in logically and ethically dubious rhetoric when it comes to the question of aging and death. One of the fallacies he points to is the attempt to force a singular definition of “good life lived to a full extent” on everyone.
In this paradigm, life is a project, not unlike a video game, where you have to complete a sequence of stages. You grow up, make social connections, get an education, meet your future spouse, then have kids, a house, a career, and, finally, a well-earned retirement. After that, it’s goal achieved, mission accomplished, game over, you did good, now embrace your death. Yet, our idea of a “full life” is mostly shaped by our biology, i.e., by aging. To me, it’s a clear case of availability bias, when we confuse what’s available with what’s adequate or desirable.
Patrick, conversely, views life as a process rather than a project. For instance, he argues, we forge bonds of love or friendship not to complete this particular task, but to enjoy those relationships for as long as we can. We learn a foreign language so we can use it, not just to celebrate the accomplishment of having learnt it. Why would we ever get bored with that? Why would we ever be done exploring the world, reading books, listening to music, enjoying the company of other humans? If we get bored with our careers, what keeps us from starting anew – except, you guessed it, aging?
“The case against death”, Partick writes, “is, in brief, the following: It is bad to die because it robs a person of all the goods one would have enjoyed if one had continued to live. Among these goods are the mental skills, valued experiences, and personal relationships built up over the course of a life. Moreover, it is bad to die because it causes grief to those left behind.”
“It is not argued that there is anything intrinsically bad about the state of being dead (a corpse does not suffer),” the text goes. “The badness of death is explained in terms of what the dead person misses out on by not being alive. This is known as the deprivation account of the badness of death for the person who dies. The badness also follows from our liberal commitment to autonomy. Nothing is a greater infringement on our ability to do what we want than ceasing to exist. Death is a form of unfreedom.”
The indignity of aging
Apart from death itself, there’s also the undeniably excruciating and depressing process of aging that Patrick calls “an indignity”. In his book, he gives a soul-crushing account of his father being disabled by aging. “I once worked periodically in Swedish elder care and saw sadness and humiliation that I wish I had never seen,” he writes.
Interestingly, the idea of a perfectly lived life that leaves nothing to be desired is as much contradicted by our culture as it is supported by it. People have always lamented aging coming too soon, destroying our ability to enjoy, experience, and explore life. “We are on a cruel path when we gain knowledge of how to live as we lose our ability to live,” Patrick observes in his book.
Some people may still wish to die at some point, feeling they have exhausted life’s potential, but Patrick’s bet, which I agree with, is that much more often, people feel they don’t have enough time to do the things they love. Shouldn’t people be given a choice then? Why would Francis Fukuyama, or anyone else for that matter, decide for everyone what a “normal” and desirable lifespan is?
In the 21st century, more than two hundred years after the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s death, many philosophical debates still converge on his famous ethical imperative. Patrick argues that expecting people “to get out of the way” to make room for new generations or avoid a climate catastrophe or an economic slowdown clearly violates Kant’s prohibition on treating humans as a means rather than an end.
I wonder why all those people who want to die at 80, which is their right, won’t leave me alone with my desire to live as long as possible? Why can’t they accept it? As you note in the book, in our liberal society, if people want something that doesn’t hurt other people, pursuing this has positive moral value.
Exactly. Liberalism at its heart is the enterprise of removing what we see as arbitrary constraints. And it’s surprising, as you point out, that people who see themselves as liberals don’t see that life extension is also emancipation, the removal of arbitrary constraints. It’s only through a very conservative or religious perspective that you could say that they’re not arbitrary. But sometimes, secular people replace God with Nature even though in other parts of their writing or thinking they don’t make this mistake.
Shouldn’t you be free to choose how long you want to live? It logically follows from their commitments as liberals, but they don’t see it because they’re in this as, Aubrey de Grey calls it ‘pro-death trance’ (and what I call the “Wise View”). It’s presented to us everywhere in stories and philosophy, and it’s normative.
I agree that it’s quite surprising to see bioethicists talking about this communal meaning of how long a human should live. It’s also very frightening because it’s exactly this kind of communal view of medicine that we got a really bad example of in World War II, where the doctors in Nazi Germany were primarily interested not in the well-being of the patient in front of them, but in the well-being of the nation.
I see the same principle when I look at people pointing at various imagined social problems that supposedly arise from people living longer. So, the solution, they say, must be that people die. They somehow become completely totalitarian in this particular area. It’s extreme communitarianism, where if you’re bad for the GDP, or something else, it’s better that you die.
Obviously, people are different. Some, if offered a much longer lifespan, would “procrastinate more, but some would just do more”. That’s fine! In our society, we embrace the vast variety of lifestyles, we don’t seek uniformity, and people are allowed to do as they please. Why would we then seek this uniformity in lifespan? One of Patrick’s most powerful, yet most self-evident, ideas is that additional lifespan is a gift no matter how people decide to use it. Hypothesizing that they will do this or that is, hence, both senseless and immoral. People will do with their extra years whatever they want to, and they shouldn’t be deprived of the opportunity to live those extra years.
Future problems will not be caused by life extension
After establishing that it’s not ethical to require people to succumb to death even to prevent social calamities, Patrick proceeds to argue that the prophecy of those calamities is far-fetched. Although this part is less philosophical and touches on much more material subjects, such as politics and economics, Patrick shines here too by offering original thoughts and new angles in the area I thought I knew like the back of my hand.
One of the most striking, yet most self-evident ideas is that population growth, the anti-longevity crowd’s favorite scarecrow, has almost everything to do with fertility and very little to do with longevity. Even if people will live infinitely longer than they do today, but will keep having around two children per woman, we will only see an initial bump in population numbers, when the first “immortal” cohort doesn’t die. There will be no overpopulation. But even if we are forced to start controlling population growth at some point in the future, wouldn’t it be infinitely more humane to prohibit people from having more than two or three children than letting them die?
Another compelling point is that considerable lifespan extension is not something we might see in the future, but, for now, can only hypothesize about. Life extension is already happening, big time! Developed countries and the world as a whole have seen life expectancy grow by decades. The population is already living much longer than was considered “natural” for most people in the past. We should already be experiencing the dire consequences of that, but are we?
Does a greying society necessarily become more conservative, less productive, more dysfunctional, overpopulated? Of course, not, Patrick says – just compare Japan or Germany, two of the “oldest” countries, to Afghanistan or Somalia, two of the “youngest.”
I think it was a brilliant idea on your part to consider our oldest societies. Our opponents constantly prophesy that longer-lived societies will become overpopulated, calcified, less productive, and otherwise dysfunctional. And then you say, you know what, why hypothesize? Let’s look at Japan.
Yes, Japan is actually at risk of being underpopulated, and it hasn’t become a catastrophe of a society because people live so long in it. It looks better than most places in America. It’s still the world’s third biggest economy and one of the more innovative. Their demographic problem is that they’re not having enough children, not that they’re choking from overpopulation.
Reasons for optimism
Even if some consequences of life extension might be problematic, it is obviously not a reason to deprive people of the opportunity to live longer and healthier lives. However, as Patrick argues, those consequences we’re being threatened with are merely hypothetical at this point. They are not a done deal, far from it.
For instance, will life extension result in a slower rate of societal change and scientific progress? The data we have doesn’t seem to support it. People do not necessarily become more conservative, or less creative as they get older. Just like with overpopulation, Patrick writes, “if generational hegemony at the top turns out to be a serious concern, we could insist on a policy of generational diversity” instead of killing people.
“The aging of society has so far not hampered intellectual vigor and progress,” he continues. “Progress is not predicated on having a young population. Instead, it is predicated on having a functioning society and a commitment to freedom of inquiry and the scientific method… There has never been a greater proportion of old people, yet society has never changed as fast, not only technologically but also value-wise.”
Like me, Patrick is also a techno-optimist. He argues that anti-longevists tend to underappreciate the pace of humanity’s progress, which will eventually help to eradicate many of today’s problems and limitations. Yet again, this optimism is rooted in humanity’s recent history: just look at all the apocalyptic predictions that gave people nightmares half a century ago. Has the world become overcrowded? No. Hungry? No. Polluted to the point of unlivability? No.
Quite the opposite has happened: the air is cleaner today, the food supply more abundant, and yet we use almost the same amount of land to grow food as we did 60 years ago, due to advances in agriculture. Climate change presents a serious problem, but we will have to solve it soon, life extension or not. If we find ways to do it using technology, we will be fine. If not, keeping people from living longer will not help the situation. While we shouldn’t ignore possible problems, we shouldn’t blow them out of proportion either.
When longevity advocates are confronted with the argument that future life-prolonging treatments might not be available to everyone, they usually try to debunk it by pointing out that today, new treatments do become widely available soon after they’re out on the market, thanks to the prices declining as the demand and production capacity grow, and to the modern universal or near-universal healthcare systems.
It’s a strong point, but Patrick adds another one, which might put him in the hot water with the left-leaning part of the audience. He notes that here, too, the apologist view resorts to illiberalism. In our liberal society, we don’t deny people access to goods simply because not everyone can have them. “So much in life is not available to everyone who wants it, which is perhaps unfair,” Patrick writes, “but it is still much better that some have it than that no one has it.” That’s not to diminish the importance of making longevity interventions available to all, but rather to highlight the emotional, irrational, and self-contradictory nature of the anti-longevity lore.
Food for thought
Patrick’s book got me excited and intellectually engaged, and I might have made a couple of small contributions to the debate. First, I kept thinking about a particular problem that has long been on my mind, something I was unable to discard like I did most of the other anti-longevists’ arguments. What if after conquering aging, society will indeed become calcified in its views, ways, and hierarchies? What would happen, for instance, to scientific exploration? After all, as the famous saying goes, “science advances one funeral at a time.”
The book, as we have seen, offers some decent counterarguments, but I still wasn’t completely convinced. Then, I thought: what if people cling to their beliefs because they have too little time? Time, after all, is a limited resource. It’s hard to admit that your scientific theory is wrong when you have just wasted a large chunk of your life on it. But what if you had enough time to start over? Maybe if people lived longer, they would be more amenable to changing their minds.
My other thought, however, was less optimistic, and it concerned overpopulation. What if the advance of AI changes the equation by rendering many or even most humans irrelevant? When they have enough time on their hands, and no interesting, fulfilling projects in sight (because all the interesting stuff will be better done by AI), they might resort to bringing more children into the world. After all, raising children is one of those lifelong projects that give life meaning.
Such is the power of a good book: it makes you think. What I am sure of, though, is that none of those reservations is enough to dismiss Patrick’s splendidly presented case against death. After listening to the sides’ arguments and thorough deliberating, the jury of one person, me, has decided that death is guilty of hamstringing human desires and ambitions, and of causing immense suffering and grief, and thus must be wiped off the face of the earth. The gavel has fallen.