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Death & Morality

Death and the Human Animal

Mary Midgley questions the superficial allure of endless life.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things all fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is important… No-one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No-one has ever escaped it. And that’s as it should be, because death is very likely the best invention of life. It is life’s change-agent.”

Steve Jobs, commencement address at Stanford University, 2005

Till lately, people discussing death didn’t have to consider the idea of actually abolishing it. Now they do. The ‘new immortalist’ movement campaigns, as it says, to ‘conquer the blight of involuntary death’. It holds that, as one of its leading lights Aubrey de Grey puts it, “humans have a right to live as long as they wish.” And it claims that they will indeed soon be able to do so. At a certain point in time – perhaps sooner than most people think – the increase in the human lifespan will begin to accelerate faster than people age. When the human race achieves this ‘longevity escape velocity’ we will essentially be immortal.

This gospel is being spread rapidly by the Immortality Institute in the United States and to some extent in Britain too. Seeing the way in which lifespan has lately lengthened in Western countries, its prophets argue that this increase both can and must be taken to its logical terminus, when natural dying stops altogether. They say they want to ‘end the scandal of involuntary death’. Except for occasional murders and accidents, we shall all live in perfect health for ever.

Matters of Life & Death

That this is now being seriously put forward surely shows us something of real interest about the way the ideas of life and death are beginning to strike people today. Is this absolute preservation of the self simply the logical conclusion of the kind of individualism that is now in fashion, combined with a devout faith in medical technology which wasn’t present in past ages? Are egos being deified? Anyway, these people now call upon us to ask, in a rather more realistic way than Hume and Epicurus once did, whether this proposed abolition of death is desirable. The immortalists are sure that it is. What are the arguments?

At the scientific level, immortalists bring forward serious reasons for supposing that, physically, this change towards immortality is not unthinkable, although more orthodox scientists oppose the claim with equal fervour. There is actually more room for debate here than one might expect because the causes of aging and death have always been obscure. There is some reason to think that no specially-wired mechanism to produce death and aging exists because it has never been needed. Outside causes of death always cleared away the passing generations. So these questions about physical possibility remain on the table.

If, however, we turn to the moral and political angle, we quickly see some rather grave difficulties. First, of course, there are demographic troubles. Who gets their immortality first? If the rich get it much faster than the poor – which as things stand they would surely be bound to – this would set up a quite new kind of inequality which people might well simply refuse to tolerate.

But suppose that some extraordinary device did manage to synchronise the process, immortalising a whole community at once, what would then happen to the population question? Resources, including space, can’t be stretched indefinitely to accommodate ever-increasing crowds, as even those most optimistic on this subject would have to agree. Very soon, if not at once, it would surely be necessary to stop having children altogether. This is a pretty dramatic change. Is it actually a change for the better? No doubt children are often annoying but people still seem fairly sure that they want to have them. How would life change if they were no longer there? And how would it be if no new people ever arrived in society?

At the other end of life we see equal difficulties if, for instance, we think about pensions. Recent proposals to raise the pensionable age so as to accommodate that very increase in lifespan that immortalists are celebrating have raised cries of outrage. But if nobody aged or died any longer, what would be the proper age for pensions? Would pensions exist any longer? Would there be such a thing as retirement? Newspaper headlines now often ask us such questions as, “Who pays for longevity?” It’s a fair question.

All this is not, of course, just a local question of revising our present arrangements. Old age is, along with childhood, a feature of life’s shape which pervades all human cultures – part of a fixed life-cycle, a crescendo and a diminuendo that frames human efforts everywhere, a cycle which links us to the natural world in which we live. It marks us as a living part of nature, something akin to the rest of the world, rather than supernatural outsiders who have crashed in to conquer it. We have no idea how we would get on without this kind of context. As Tennyson’s Tithonus says in the poem of the same name:

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall.
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath…
Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men,
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?

Though this isn’t an everyday thought it isn’t an eccentric notion either. It resonates very widely. After all, the only thing that makes it possible for any of us to be here now is that our countless ancestors all had the good manners not to live for ever but to die when their time came, after gradually developing for us the way of life that we now enjoy. As we shall see, it seems plausible that this thought is sound biology and plenty of humans have expressed acceptance of it. As Edmund Spencer put it:

Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas,
Peace after war, death after life doth greatly please.

But it is the polar opposite of the temper that inspires the New Immortalists.

Follies and Freezers

This brings us to the social and psychological side of the matter. How does death affect our society and shape what that society means to us? How would a world where normally no-one died be different? This is the aspect of the topic that I find most intriguing, but it scarcely seems to interest immortalists at all. They only touch on these large-scale issues when they are forced to defend themselves against political objections, and even then they clearly don’t think much of them. Thus Robert Ettinger, the high priest of cryonics, explains that he hopes great multitudes will take advantage of the new opportunity to get themselves deep-frozen so as to last until this blessed future arrives. When people object that this sudden influx of thawed-out citizens might produce population-difficulties when they are all revived, Ettinger is not alarmed –

“The frozen population would increase by four billion every thirty years. If it takes 300 years for civilization to reach the immortality level, there would then be some forty billion people to revive and relocate – if we assume, for simplicity, that it all happens at once…. There is ample room on our planet for forty billion people.”

(Quoted by Bryan Appleyard, How To Live Forever Or Die Trying, p.199, emphasis mine)

(Incidentally, the number who have actually been frozen to date is apparently just sixty-seven, but up to a thousand more, including de Grey, are signed up for possible future treatment.)

De Grey himself usually responds to these wider objections by saying that immortalists will deal with them as and when the particular difficulty arises. He explains that he does not see himself as a general theorist in search of the whole truth but as an engineer whose work is to find solutions to particular practical problems. He thinks this is best done by handling only one practical problem at a time, and he sees the extension of human life as just one such problem. The trouble with this is, of course, that problems don’t always come neatly and separately packed. For instance, population pressure and savage inequality aren’t just possible complications which may arise for immortalists some day in the future. They are rampant evils which already invade us today and which can’t possibly be kept separate from problems about an increased lifespan.

Apart from brief debates like these, immortalists seem only to be interested in the private position of individuals who, today, face the prospect of death and don’t want to accept it. This narrowly personal approach is interestingly different from the wider, political reasoning which led Bernard Shaw to call for a similar lengthening of human life in his play Back to Methuselah. What bothered Shaw was not the distress of the people who had to face death but the general folly of mankind – the confused, destructive arrangements by which humans are constantly wrecking their world. He thought that these follies were simply due to people’s immaturity, to their not living long enough to learn how to manage life responsibly. This belief that merely living longer would cure our childishness may show a certain credulity, a tunnel-vision which perhaps he shares with the immortalists. Like other Utopians, he was better at seeing what was wrong than what to do about it. But immortalists really aren’t in a position to ignore his wider questions about society as a whole just because they are planning to put the individual predicament of facing death out-of-date altogether. They need to consider what sort of a society individuals will find themselves in if they succeed.

Eternal Hell

So what would it be like for everybody to look forward to an endless death-free future? It is not a new thought that this prospect is actually quite alarming. Long before the New Immortalism arose people had suggested that we need death in order to give a shape to life and that, without that shape, life could become meaningless. Thus in Back to Methuselah Adam and Eve appear when they have just discovered that animals die. At first they are appalled to think that the same thing might happen to them. But then they wonder about the prospect of going on for ever without any possible end and they start to suspect that this would be even worse. Adam cries out that he can’t face “the horror of having to be with myself for ever… I do not like myself. I am tired of myself. And yet I must endure myself, not for a day or many days but for ever. That is a dreadful thought.” Similarly Milan Kundera, in his novel Immortality, remarks, “What is unbearable in life is not being but being oneself.”

Shaw’s Adam and Eve decide to settle instead for a lifetime of three hundred years. As it happens, a woman who has just lived for three hundred years is the central figure in Karel Capek’s play The Makropoulos Affair, which provided the script for Janacek’s opera. This woman, Elina Makropoulos, once took an immortality potion and has come to the point where she will need another dose of it in order to go on. At first she makes desperate efforts to get hold of the recipe. But when she gets it, she gradually decides that, after all, she won’t take it. She really has nothing more to live for. Her successive lives have been good but she has had enough of them and she doesn’t want to repeat them. She no longer cares enough for anybody or anything to find it worthwhile to continue.

Critics have suggested that this must be because of accidental features in her life. But the late Bernard Williams, in a fascinating essay on the story, rejected this. He believed “that the supposed contingencies are not really contingencies, that an endless life would be a meaningless one and that we could have no reason for living eternally a human life. There is no desirable or significant property which life would have more of or have more unqualifiedly if we lasted for ever … [As Aristotle said about Plato’s Form of the Good] ‘nor will it be any more good for being eternal; that which lasts long is no whiter than that which perishes in a day’” (Problems of the Self; pp.89-100)

Williams was surely right to notice here how the value-associations which have always coloured words like immortal and eternal can’t stay with them once we begin to talk literally. Just going on and on without stopping is not what people have always meant by immortality or eternity. Medical immortality is not the religious concept. Richard Dawkins tried to exploit those value-associations when he wrote that “the genes are the immortals”, but genes aren’t divine. There is nothing paradoxical about Williams’s conclusion that, for humans, a life that is eternal in a strictly human sense would be unlivable. It would become too repetitive. The notorious difficulty of spelling out how an endless blissful life would be lived in Heaven shows the force of this obstacle.

La Dolce Morte

Many immortalists recognise that there is indeed a problem about what to do with one’s immortality, or even with one’s extended life. Nick Bostrom, who is an Oxford philosopher, suggests that people’s brains may need to be enlarged so as to cope with maintaining interest in an almost limitlessly extended life, a solution which shows the usual devout faith in technology that pervades this whole project. He adds, however, that not everybody may need this expansion; some people may not mind simply doing the same things repeatedly for ever.

Williams and others sometimes describe this whole difficulty as a form of boredom. Aubrey de Grey briskly replies that the matter can be dealt with educationally. “There will be a greater necessity for education and training… nobody with a good education gets bored, only those people who have never been given the skill to make a lot out of life.” Whatever may be thought of this generalization, de Grey is surely right to ask for a rather less casual, more penetrating name for this trouble than boredom. Boredom can cover all sorts of failure of motivation. Meaninglessness, however, conveys something much more specific. It indicates a particular kind of trouble – the absence of a ruling pattern, a shape, a pervasive rhythm to unite the various elements of life, bringing them together as essential parts of the whole.

In the human case, and in that of other social creatures, this pattern of meaning normally extends far beyond the borders of an individual life. It involves communal enterprises in which others are engaged. And notoriously people who have been living with no clear sense of such a background pattern are often made aware of it by sudden danger of death, whether to themselves or to other people. Part of Elina Makropoulos’s trouble is that, having moved on so many times, she no longer cares much for anybody. This might be partly because she is isolated by her position as a unique immortal among others who die. But perhaps there is also an important point here about human nature – about the inborn emotional constitution that guides us through life. Can that constitution expand its scope indefinitely so as (for instance) to go far beyond great-grandchildren – to take in an indefinite succession of descendants? Or alternatively, if all child-bearing stops and there are no new people, can it go on finding enough to occupy it by interacting with the circle of those who are already here?

Immortalists clearly don’t think that human beings have any fixed, given nature that might block their prescriptions. They see people either, in behaviourist terms, as infinitely malleable, or as being driven always by a single negative motive – the wish not to die. Of course that wish is real. But it is only one strand in human motivation. We see, all the time, how this fear of death keeps being over-ridden by other motives. We have only to think about war, or about sports like hang-gliding and motor-cycling and rock-climbing. That fear is just one part of a whole forest of wishes that are natural to us, wishes which continually jostle together as we try to decide how to live our crowded lives. Immortalists, like other Utopians, focus so exclusively on the one evil that they are trying to root out that they forget to provide for the rest of life.

This complexity of motives is so obvious that I have often been puzzled to see philosophers, from Epicurus on, spilling so much ink in abstract debates about whether death is or is not ‘an evil’. They seem to forget that, where many motives conflict, the question is usually just, which choice is worse? There are a great many things, such as pain and grief, which are bad and frightening in themselves but are essential parts of our existence. Pain and grief are not just necessary means to life’s good things, they are in many ways necessary aspects of life as a whole. The importance of these things accounts for a great deal of our taste in stories, from the deepest tragedies to the most superficial thrillers. People such as hereditary princes who are carefully shielded from pain and grief certainly don’t end up with better lives than the rest of us. Sympathy and sensibility, discouragement and disappointment expose us to a lot of pain, but we would probably still rather keep them than be vaccinated with a permanent emotional analgesic. And we don’t have to prove separately that apathy is an evil in order to justify this preference.

End Insight

In fact, we are not pure minds or abstract entities. We are mammals, members of a particular primate species, so our natural motives are ones that suit its characteristic way of life. For instance, we hate being totally isolated, we are highly inquisitive, and most of us are strongly disposed to care for our children – a trait which has surely been firmly rooted in our nature by evolutionary pressures. If we were codfish, none of these things would be true. Because the differences between our cultures interest us so much more than what they have in common we often forget this shared heritage and persuade ourselves we that are infinitely adaptable. That is why reformers have so often proposed to get rid of apparently unchangeable features of our lives.

Sometimes, of course, they succeed. For instance, we in Europe have now largely given up slavery, polygamy and capital punishment. So is dying perhaps just one more of these bad habits that we need to be cured of? Immortalists think so, but this path isn’t straightforward. For one thing, we clearly still have a lot of trouble in finding satisfactory substitutes for those vanished institutions, and so do other cultures which try to get rid of them. Slavery, for instance, may not have been so much abolished as exported to other countries, and we all know there are complications about polygamy. The attempt to prohibit alcoholic drinks has been a striking case of a rather more thorough failure.

It’s true that our customs are variable, but they indicate shapes into which our species-specific ways of life do naturally tend to fall. The case of death, however, is in a quite different class from these because dying isn’t just a local custom or even a trait confined to our species. It’s the life-pattern of all complex creatures. The only animals that don’t die as individuals are very simple ones such as amoebas, which reproduce by dividing. In a sense these creatures are indeed death-free. The first, original amoeba is, in a way, still with us. Its examples haven’t changed, and that lack of change is exactly the price that they pay for their immortality.

What made possible the whole rich forest of later speciation, on whose twigs we are now living, was simply the invention of real, final, individual death. This emerged when animals took to the more complicated sexual modes of reproduction which allowed variety and provided for innovation. Each individual creature lived briefly, but the huge range of biological possibilities constantly branched out further. In fact, death was the price of this whole development – the price of real life. It was what made possible that fruitful individuality which we now so much prize. But it is just that kind of individuality that some people now want to freeze and ossify, thus ending the creative process for ever. This desperate attempt to keep the profits of human evolution without paying for them is surely one more case of tunnel vision – of reformers so hypnotized by a single cause that they lose sight of its human context altogether.

© Dr Mary Midgley 2012

Mary Midgley lectured at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne until 1980. Her best known books include Beast and Man; Wickedness; The Ethical Primate; Science and Poetry and a memoir, The Owl of Minerva. She was given Philosophy Now’s 2011 Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity.

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