A True Clash of Fundamental Values - The Debate Over Radical Life Extension Technology:

I have often argued that many political disagreements that seem like differences in fundamental values are really disagreements over the right means to achieve common ends. That is certainly true of many of the issues that divide libertarians from liberals on the one hand and social conservatives on the other. However, there are some exceptions to this generalization. Cato Unbound's recent debate over the desirability of radical life extension technology (which could potentially extend human lifespans for decades or centuries) highlights an especially stark divergence of this type - one that definitely does separate libertarians from at least some social conservatives in a fundamental way. To me, and to most libertarians, it seems pretty obvious that life extension is an extraordinarily good thing in and of itself. Perhaps some negative second-order effects of this technology could outweigh its vast benefits. But those negative effects would have to be truly enormous to outweigh the massive benefits of decades or centuries of extra lifespan. This is especially true, given the fact that life extension research seeks to extend not merely lifespan, but "healthspan" - the length of time during which we will remain reasonably vigorous and healthy (see Aubrey de Grey's lead essay in the Cato debate).

In his contribution to the Cato debate, conservative bioethicist Daniel Callahan clearly takes a different view:

I had a child who died a few months after birth, and I considered that tragic as did everyone else, but when my mother died at 86 of cancer, no one considered it a tragedy or even a great evil. Those who knew her said at her funeral that “we loved your mother and will miss her, but she had a good and full life.” I have never heard anyone say it is a tragedy that Socrates, Shakespeare, George Washington, and Albert Einstein died and are no longer with us. And while I hope in my more self-regarding moments that my friends and families will wail and gnash their teeth at my funeral, I doubt at my age they will do so; and I can, so to speak, live with that.

I couldn't possibly disagree more. To me it seems extremely obvious that it is a tragedy that Socrates, Shakespeare and the rest are no longer with us. Apart from the benefits of longer life to these individuals themselves, the rest of us would gain from the additional great works they might have produced in the extra time. Who knows what masterpieces Shakespeare might have given us had he lived to be 552 rather than 52? As far as personal anecdotes go, my grandfather died a few years ago at the age of 95. Despite his advanced age, his death definitely was "a great evil" and his relatives and friends still miss him. Perhaps death was a lesser evil compared to going on living in the near-vegetative condition he had fallen into near the end. But if de Grey and other experts are correct, the result of radical life-extension technology will not be additional years of a vegetative existence but decades or centuries of added healthspan. It's hard to say whether my family's reaction to death is more typical than Callahan's (though I tend to think it is). But the difference between them is striking.

There are some pragmatic consequentialist arguments against anti-aging technology that don't implicate fundamental values. For example, critics worry that without relatively short lifespans, there will be no generational succession in powerful leadership positions, and therefore important institutions might stagnate under leaders who have become moribund. I think that most such arguments are weak. The generational succession problem is easily addressed by instituting term limits for leadership positions - policies which already exist for many key offices in both the public and private sector, including the presidency. But at least these concerns are based on values that I can understand and sympathize with.

By contrast, Callahan's argument really does represent a deep moral chasm between us. If taken seriously, it implies that little or no good was achieved by extending life expectancy from the "natural" average of 35 or 40 that prevailed before the Industrial Revolution to today's 75-80. Indeed, Callahan himself at one point suggests that life expectancy was "long enough" (quoting the philosopher Seneca) back in the days of the Roman Empire, when "the average life expectancy was 30 and one was considered old at 40." It's hard to tell whether he really means to say that a life expectancy of 30 to 40 is acceptable. But if he does, it further underscores the difference in moral values between his brand of social conservatism and my own views.