These days, war is not really portrayed in a very good light. When we think about war, we think about genocide, mass murder, and slaughter, and we call for an end to it. The popular sentiment is that war is bad and we should just do away with it. However, once upon a time, things were rather different, and soldiers fighting wars were not seen as victims of mindless violence. Losing your life in battle was considered glorious and noble, and your family would be proud of you for fighting in the name of your country, your God, or whatever. People who were afraid of dying and refused to fight were regarded as cowards, most certainly not as pacifists of a strong moral fiber, and were possibly executed; being a conscientious objector was not yet a thing, and human rights weren’t either.
This is sheer madness to us, but back in the day, it was entirely normal. Most of us will probably think people must have been crazy to let themselves be fooled into believing such nonsense, but that’s the power of propaganda for you.
The modern age of pro-death propaganda
However, the story is not completely over even today. This may be because of past glorification of death, stale ideas about the “circle of life”, a widespread coping mechanism, or a combination of the three, but at least in certain circumstances, being afraid of death is still seen as a sign of cowardice and sometimes also inferiority.
In particular, advocates of healthy life extension are sometimes accused of being “just afraid of death.” That’s quite an odd phrasing, as the word “just” is rather trivializing. Fear is nothing but a biological mechanism that pushes individuals to avoid danger, and this mechanism has evolved because individuals without it did not survive. In particular, fear of death is what has pushed a significant portion of all life forms to go through the trouble of avoiding extinction, so it has always been one of the most crucial parts of our existence. Besides, death is the end of everything we are and love, so it’s actually a rather big deal, and the fear of it is an absolutely legitimate one and not to be trivialized.
Of course, fear of death, or more generally of danger, can sometimes get in the way of things. In particular, it gets in the way of rulers who want to conquer another country and need soldiers to do so, which is why losing your life in battle was glorified in the past—it was an incentive, though by no means the only one, to persuade people to put themselves at risk for someone else’s interest. As said, this continues today in a different form, with some people advocating for the alleged necessity of death for more selfless reasons—the good of the environment, the species, society, or what have you.
We have discussed these other reasons in a number of other articles; the point here is that not all death is seen as necessary for their fulfilment, but generally only age-related death, which, much like war-related death in the past, is considered a “just” death, and this is because of a misconception that I discussed here. It would appear that acceptable kinds of death are decreasing in number over time, age-related death being one of the few ones still standing.
Think of it as “life preservation”
“Life extension” is an unfortunate choice of words, because it conveys two wrong ideas. The first is that there is some kind of predetermined life duration beyond which we want to extend our lives. This is most definitely not the case, as an organism’s lifespan is not set in stone and is largely influenced by external factors. Even the limits deriving from genetic makeup are not ironclad and can be manipulated, at least in certain species. The second is that “extension” might feel as some sort of undue appropriation of what is not yours, an attempt to get more than your fair share allotted by nature. This is also not the case, because at no point did nature sit down to decide what was due and what was undue; these are human concepts that are entirely extraneous to nature, which is not in the habit of deciding anything, let alone what is or isn’t fair.
A better choice of words would be “life preservation,” because the whole point of medicine is that of preserving our lives for as long as possible, not simply reducing suffering. If that were the case, rather than battling with cancer, doctors would just inject oncological patients with lethal doses of morphine. However, “life preservation” is pretty much taken by the environmental sciences and could, therefore, be misleading, so “life extension” it is. However, it ought to be defined as the act of preserving healthy lifespan for as long as possible, including beyond traditional limits.
Therefore, life extension can include things that you would hardly consider as life extension technologies. LEAF board member Paul Spiegel was correct when he said that “a toothbrush is a life extension technology.” It’s an everyday item, hardly impressive by modern standards, but it helps you keep your teeth for longer and maintain oral hygiene, thereby allowing you to feed yourself more easily than if you didn’t have teeth and prevent infections that might shorten your days. A motorcyclist’s helmet is a life extension technology in that it may allow you to extend your life past the point when you’re hit by a careless driver while riding your bike. Normally, we think motorcyclists who wear helmets are wise; no one walks up to them and says, “Oh, you’re just afraid of death.” (Try saying that somebody brushing his or her teeth—I bet you’ll get the blankest stare of your life.) Granted, none of these things will allow you to extend your life past the grip of age-related diseases, but that’s just because they’re not the right technology for the job. A helmet extends your life by preventing only a certain kind of death, and so does rejuvenation biotechnology, except the kind of death involved is different.
Are life extensionists afraid of death?
Some life extensionists are afraid of death, and I know I certainly am. Don’t get the wrong idea; this doesn’t mean that I constantly panic about how I might die, as that would be useless and counter-productive. Being afraid of death, or more generally of anything, simply means having a sense of the danger it presents and taking action to prevent that danger. In a similar way, a motorcyclist who wears a helmet during a ride is taking action to prevent injury and death, and this only means that he or she is being cautious, not panicking all the time. Unfortunately, the equivalent of a helmet for life extensionists—rejuvenation biotechnology—does not yet exist, so before we can wear it, we need to push for it to be created.
There is an old saying that only fools know no fear, and this is definitely true in the case of fear of death. Fear of death is what makes us call for bans on nuclear weapons and makes us feel uneasy when world leaders threaten military action. It’s a reminder that we value our lives and that we should protect them, not letting anything or anyone impair their quality or terminate them. Hardly anyone these days would say that refusing war, or taking a malaria shot, mean that one’s “just afraid of death” in a derogatory way. Dying in combat or by an infectious disease is considered a “premature” death, and as such, everyone understands why that sort of death is feared. However, that of “premature death” is a rather bizarre concept; it implies that there is a point when death is timely, although even its advocates don’t seem to have reached a consensus as to when exactly this point is and how death should then occur.
I hold that all deaths are premature and untimely, the only exception being when one actually wants it for him or herself, and they all should be feared in the sense of perceiving the danger and taking action to avoid it. The goal of life extension is, of course, to avoid disease along with death, for there would be no point in living a really long time if most of it was spent being sick and suffering. Not all life extensionists may be afraid of death, but for the reasons above, they should be, and they should be afraid of disease as well. Claiming not to fear death, or worse, anything at all, is more often than not just a way to flaunt one’s own ego, but there is little use for that once disease or death have struck.