70, 80, or 90 could be the new 64; but is living longer necessarily a good thing?
It may sound like science fiction, but with innovations in medical nanotechnology, human beings could be looking at a life extension of years or even decades. Nanotech involves microsystems that work on a microscopic scale to potentially alter our physiology and drastically improve our immune systems through improved diagnostic and surgery techniques, gene therapy, cell repair, and more. In the future, we may even be able to use implanted devices to physiologically monitor our bodies – a breakthrough in disease prevention and treatment.
Just how long nanotech could allow us to extend our lives remains unknown, but rather than scramble to consider the implications of technology we already have, we must carefully consider the ethical questions raised – questions about mortality and the very nature of being human. Will extreme life extension be a gift or curse to future generations?
Life extension is not new. In ancient Rome, the average lifespan was around 23 years; today, the average global life expectancy is 64 years. Demographers tell us there has been an average gain in life expectancy of about three months a year for the last 160 years and that this is steadily increasing. To date, life extension has not necessarily been intentional, often the by-product of our efforts to improve medicine or quality of the life of the elderly.
Ethical questions about life extension are not new either. The increase in life expectancy is nowhere near equal around the world, and with the average Canadian living approximately twice as long as many Africans, this discrepancy creates one of the greatest bioethical questions of our time. If we look to trends in the distribution of emerging medical innovation to date, life extension is not at all likely to lessen this injustice. Market forces shape the application of most medical advances, and the most disadvantaged people make for the poorest consumers.
Extreme life extension raises other interesting, yet troubling questions. Significant life extension could have serious implications for individual identity; what if we change too much over the course of a highly extended life? Will we eventually lose psychological continuity with our earlier lives, thereby becoming different people and in turn defeating the purpose of life extension? Will identity and narrative have coherence? Or perhaps we humans are sufficiently adaptive to deal with a greatly extended life. At this point, there’s really no way of knowing.
If we can’t make life extension available to everyone, is it unjust to make it available to those who can afford it? To maintain a moral foundation, justice must always remain central to medical considerations. If life extension simply creates further inequality and social stratification, the effect will be a negative one. Consider all the problems in the modern world: disease, war, social injustice, poverty, environmental degradation. It seems highly unlikely that life extension will improve any of these. In fact, its contribution may be negative.
Many people feel that aging and death sharpen, define, and deepen life. The foundational belief is that the “natural” life cycle is a profound and meaningful experience that brings us finitude and wisdom. By contrast, some see life extension as an unnatural, dehumanizing usurpation of the natural order. Is it wrong to manipulate the fundamental nature of human existence through technology? The hallmark of humanity has been to use our intellect to adapt to our changing environment. These adaptations are deeply rooted in our nature. Many would say that to resist scientific advancement is to deny the true essence and spirit of being human. Some of the greatest philosophers and theologians, including [Plato](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plato) and [Thomas Aquinas](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Aquinas), view the human good as “an end to be pursued, not as a present.” In essence, the good is what we aim for, not what we have inherited.
What we’d do with extended life and who it would be available to begs the question, “Would it be a good thing?” There may well be merit in life extension if it helps us maximize our potential as humans and make a greater social contribution. In a democratic society such as ours, the real challenge will be to determine not just how we weigh the debits and credits against each other but also what we call a debit or credit. In primordial days, the harnessing of fire led to immediate improvements in the quality of human life – it gave us warmth and safety. Yet it also had destructive consequences in warfare. And so our struggle continues.