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The Glum Reaper?

by Rick Lewis

Spring has sprung and little birdies are singing merrily in the trees, so we thought, what better time to have an issue of Philosophy Now focusing on Death and Morality? It’s not quite as daft as it sounds, for the contention of one of our contributors – and of an increasing number of other scientists and philosophers – is that the calendar of our lives can and should be halted in a kind of perpetual glorious summer. Medicine’s understanding of the aging process is advancing quickly. With growing understanding comes the growing prospect that we could tinker with that process. There have already been some very long-lived mice. Some (though by no means all) gerontologists think it will eventually be possible to stop or even reverse human aging. If that ever happens, then the Grim Reaper could stop looking so grim and become merely glum instead; another worker thrown on the scrap-pile by technological advances.

If such an achievement is possible at all, then clearly it is still decades away; clearly too, the speed at which medical knowledge reached that point would depend on the amount of effort and money put into the job. This brings us to the debate at the heart of this issue, which is about whether or not this abolition of aging would actually be a Good Thing. Professor Nick Bostrom of Oxford University argues through his powerful parable ‘The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant’ that it has now become an urgent moral imperative to spend the money to hasten this research – even if it is expensive, and even if success will bring its own problems. On the other side of the debate, Dr Mary Midgley counters robustly that beating aging would be a serious mistake. She invites us to consider what a world with very few natural deaths would really be like; not just the overcrowding, the necessity to stop having children, and the stagnation but the psychological effects on individuals and societies as well.

Midgley and Bostrom in their outstanding articles take positions that are diametrically opposed, but both – like so many philosophers before them – focus on the intimate connection between death and the meaning of life. According to Plato, Socrates said that doing philosophy is practicing for dying. Perhaps he meant that the true philosopher will have reached such a level of moral understanding and placed death in its true context so completely, that he or she will have no difficulty accepting death when the moment comes. Socrates certainly practiced what he preached. When he was in jail awaiting execution, his friends apparently bribed the guards and prepared an escape plan for him, but Socs refused to flee, preferring to accept Athenian law however unjustly it had been applied in his case. But however gracefully some people come to accept the inevitable, things may look different if our conviction that it is inevitable begins to slip.

Even the most bullish of the ‘immortalists’ aren’t talking about vanquishing death completely, only about halting the aging process. Even if we learn how to do this, people will still eventually die of accidents, or disease, or by their own hands, so questions about death and morality are unlikely to ever go far away. To examine just two such questions, Dr Walter Ott looks at whether we have obligations to people who have died and Alex Carley looks at the logic of arguments about euthanasia. Both articles touch on a logical problem with arguments about death; as Epicurus elegantly put it, “When we exist death is not, and when death exists we are not.” He saw that as one of two reasons not to fear death. Though none of us should fear being dead, we all so intensely want the people closest to us to stay alive and healthy, that for this reason alone I think humanity will one day learn to control the aging process.

It might be best to aspire not for immortality (which does seem selfish, as if we are stopping the whole clock of biological time forever to benefit just one lucky generation, our own) but to live healthy lives for a good long time: 150 or 200 years. To make the most of our complex civilization you need a good education and years of experience, and those take a while to acquire. A couple of centuries would allow us to use our energies and talents to the full and then leave the stage knowing we’d had a chance to explore the world’s many possibilities. Or is this hope just greed and hubris? Would some individuals feel that no amount of life was ever enough, and yearn for another century, and another…?

It is like one of the classic philosophical quests – the quest not for the philosophers’ stone, but for the fountain of youth. A short story called ‘The Immortal’ by Jorge Luis Borges (in his collection Labyrinths) suggests that even for the most imaginative people true immortality might be a mixed blessing. In the story a Roman soldier leads an expedition into the Egyptian desert to search for a fabled river whose waters will grant immortality. Beside a muddy stream he discovers a village of primitive and squalid cave-dwellers, seemingly ignorant even of speech. One of them becomes vaguely attached to him, following him around, and the Roman decides to call him Argos, after the faithful, worn-out hound in the Odyssey. “Argos, Ulysses’s dog.” stammers the troglodyte, wonderingly. “This dog lying in the manure.” “What do you know of the Odyssey?” asks the startled Roman. “Less than the poorest rhapsodist,” comes the reply. “It must be a thousand and one hundred years since I invented it.”

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