Is Life Extension Altruistic?
When discussing the topic of life extension, a critique is sometimes raised that increasing healthy lifespans is selfish. Does this arguement really hold up? As a matter of fact, life extension is actually a very altruistic endeavor, though this depends on how the definition is interpreted. Let’s dig deeper.
What is altruism?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, altruism is disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. Thus, one is altruistic when his or her actions are done for the benefit of others, without placing any importance on his or her own benefit.
Even though the quintessential example of an altruistic action is one that benefits someone else while harming yourself as a side effect, the definition of altruism contains no such requirement. All it takes for an action to be altruistic is that you do it with the benefit of others in mind, not your own; the definition says nothing about any benefits that you might gain from your own action. As long as you do it with the good of others as your primary concern, it’s an altruistic action.
Does it matter if life extension is alttruistic or not?
No, it doesn’t. It’s rather pedantic to check whether a given action is altruistic or not by definition. Quite frankly, whatever the definition of altruism may be, I don’t see what’s wrong in an action that benefits the recipient as well as who is acting.
Imagine a typical movie climax scene in which the hero doesn’t hesitate to risk his or her own life to save someone else; we can all agree that this is an altruistic action. Whether or not the hero happens to die in the process, his or her action was still noble and altruistic; if the hero survives, then you get what is known as a “happy ending”—which is much more desirable than a tragic ending in which the hero dies to save someone else.
Now, let’s consider a case a touch less epic: a researcher painstakingly working to defeat cancer. Our hero works really hard day and night to find a way to cure this terrible disease that afflicts and kills millions; however, being a researcher is often stressful and imposes a really tight schedule. Even though our hero isn’t quite putting his or her own life at risk, he or she is making sacrifices to help save innumerable lives. Granted, our hero is also paid to do this (in some countries, the salary of researchers is low enough that the job is effectively a heroic endeavor), and he or she probably has a certain intellectual satisfaction from the job. There’s even a chance that the researcher may get cancer one day, thereby possibly receiving a personal benefit from any progress that he or she makes.
Depending on how you interpret the definition of altruism—that is, whether or not you think the actor necessarily needs to lose something as a consequence of the action undertaken for someone else’s benefit—this scenario may or may not be altruistic. Regardless, it’s undeniable that what the researcher is doing may prove useful—even life-saving—for countless people, and if the researcher happens to benefit from this as well, that’s even better, because in this case, countless + 1 people benefit from the researcher’s action. The more people benefit from a single action, the better.
Why life extension is altruistic
Now, let’s consider life extension. Life extension is about eliminating all age-related diseases; as everyone who reaches old age will experience at least some age-related diseases and will eventually be killed by one, it’s clear that life extension will benefit every single human being.
Of course, for this to be true in practice, everyone must have equal access to life extension; however, people who are concerned about the accessibility of anti-cancer treatments lobby for equal access, not to abolish cancer research. It’s the same with life extension—if you’re concerned that it might not be equally distributed, then you should lobby to help make it widely available. Raging against it when it’s not even here yet won’t really help make it more accessible.
Life extension technologies have the potential to save everyone’s life, because everyone has aging. Either you die young, or you will die of aging unless we develop life extension before that happens. Developing, researching, supporting, or advocating for life extension may or may not be altruistic, depending on how much of a pedant you want to be about the definition of altruism, but the global benefits of life extension are many and undeniable:
- no more age-related diseases that lead to suffering and death, ever, for anyone
- no more watching powerlessly as your parents and grandparents are slowly and painfully consumed by aging
- no more becoming an emotional and economic burden on your loved ones
- no more money spent on helping older people to merely cope with their ailments
- no more worrying about how to pay the pensions for an increasingly aging population; the population would be always biologically youthful and able to support themselves, so retirement would boil down to a short holiday of a few years at most
- the money saved as a result of the previous two points could be put to much better uses
- potentially much longer lives to see the future, watch your great-grandchildren grow, and accomplish all the things that, in a normal lifespan, you’d have to give up on for lack of time
The bottom line
It really doesn’t matter whether life extension is altruistic according to a dictionary definition. Life extension technologies can better the lives of everyone: researchers working on it, advocates, sponsors, and people who have never lifted a finger to support it. We’re all used to the romantic definition of altruism, according to which you must harm yourself in the attempt of helping others, but maybe this idea has overstayed its welcome.
However, if you’re too attached to it to let it go, think of it this way: the young people of today who are helping life extension become a reality don’t yet need life extension for themselves, but their efforts might make a difference in terms of saving the lives of people who are a few decades older; on the other hand, older people who assist life extension efforts are less likely to live long enough to benefit from these therapies, so they are aiding a cause that is much more likely to benefit others than themselves. Whether you’re young or old, helping life extension is a way you can be altruistic, if you so wish.