Is it Worth Living Longer?

Research recently published in Nature suggests that the drug rapamycin may have the potential to extend human life span by decades: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/8139816.stm

If the life is of ‘positive’ value, it might seem obvious that the drug is worth taking. But not everyone would agree. The Hellenistic philosopher Epicurus famously argued that, since it marks the end of conscious life, ‘death nothing to us’. Fearing death makes as much sense as regretting you weren’t around for all that time before your birth.

Epicurus thought that what made life worth living was pleasure, so one might have thought that it would be rational to delay death as long as possible in order to maximize the pleasure in one’s life as a whole. But Epicurus thought this view was also a mistake, since there’s no reason to accept that a finite life is less pleasant even than an infinitely long one.

Perhaps that’s right, as far as one’s experience at any time goes. But it seems more plausible to think that the more good things one can pack into one’s life, the better it is. It needn’t be *morally* better, of course. Nor need it be a ‘better (example of a) human life’. Perhaps the paradigmatic human lifetime is around three score and ten. What’s at stake is how good the life is *for* the person living it – that is, as philosophers tend to put it, their ‘well-being’.

But still – is more always better? Some philosophers believe that a person’s well-being depends only on certain goal-related aspects of life – accomplishment, project-fulfilment, and so on – and that mere pleasure is irrelevant. So if the extra lifetime obtained through rapamycin gave one merely extra years of relative passivity (e.g. the pleasures of eating or sitting in the sunshine), they wouldn’t be worth having. But this seems counter-intuitive. First, such pleasures do seem worth having for their own sake (these philosophers themselves usually appear to go for them like everyone else). Second, there are times when we might be willing to trade off a certain amount of accomplishment for some gain in the balance of pleasure over pain in our lives.

But perhaps we shouldn’t think of life in this episodic way. Let me adapt an analogy of Tom Hurka's. Imagine a collection of very fine Rembrandt paintings. Because of what it contains, this collection is itself very fine. Is it clear that it is going to be improved if one adds a number of pretty good, but relatively second-rate, Dutch paintings to it? Perhaps life is like that: mere addition of years, even positive ones, needn’t make it better.

This analogy strikes me as misleading. Perhaps, from the aesthetic point of view, the pure Rembrandt collection – considered in the abstract –  is more pleasing, through its focus, coherence, and unity. But now put yourself in the position of someone who says she loves Dutch paintings and is given a tour of the expanded collection. If at the end of the Rembrandts, she refuses to go on, that suggests to me that she doesn’t love Dutch paintings as much as someone who eagerly went on to lap up the rest.

The common sense view, then, seems right. If one’s life is good for one, then the more of it the better.

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2 Responses to Is it Worth Living Longer?

  • nikki says:

    this is a fascinating post, raising such interesting questions: i am thinking through a response in terms of shaking notions like sustainability… sustainably speaking population growth (including modes via extension) is a train wreck. i am working through similar ideas via Zizek’s work and others at http://prosthetics.wordpress.com/2009/06/17/censorship-today-violence-or-ecology-as-a-new-opium-for-the-masses/
    and
    http://prosthetics.wordpress.com/2009/06/17/sustainability/
    i’d love to get your feedback.

  • Dennis Tuchler says:

    Your last statement assumes that there is enough money around to support the ever-living person. I expect longer life requires a longer time at work and more work for and money from others (US Social Security). After all, prices do rise and we are not always prudent in our determination of what we put aside or where we put it.

    As to passively lying in the sun and enjoying food and drink, and, let me add, good music that assumes that the person remains capable of eating and drinking and tasting the goodness of good food and drink, and hearing enough of the music to enjoy it. So, what is needed is a drug that stops aging at around 40.

    What about eternal life? Heaven, for example? After savoring all possible variations of all pleasant things over and over again throughout eternity, even after the end of the world, how does continue to be pleasant? I think I (or my spirit or whatever is left over) would have to change substantially to handle that. The change may have to be so radical as to amount to “my” eternal death.

    So, I gave up the hope of heaven and felt greatly relieved.

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