The immorality of public consolation in the face of ageing
In case you didn’t know: The EU is currently celebrating the “European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations”. The paramount aim of this initiative is to increase the well-being of the elderly by raising awareness that they can still contribute to society by ageing actively, that is, utilising their abilities for their own good and the good of society. In the best case, according to this initiative, not only older people will benefit from ageing actively but also younger ones who do not have the experience and wisdom of earlier generations. Although this is a noble aim, the answer to the question why there should be such a European Year is a gross and seriously immoral distortion of reality: “Because, too often, getting old is perceived as a threat instead of an achievement, both for individuals and for societies. [...] Staying active as we grow older is key to tackling the challenge of ageing.”
For many people, be they gerontologists, sociologists, philosophers, or 90 years of age, this must sound like a joke. One is inclined to ask why we should regard it as an achievement rather than a threat to acquire a condition that is constituted by frailty, physical and sometimes mental shortcomings, wrinkles all over one’s body, losing hair and teeth, losing one’s vision, occasionally developing cancer and arteriosclerosis, and finally lying in bed unable to control one’s bladder. We have every reason to conceive of ageing as a threat because it is one of the main causes in a person’s life that leads to a massive decrease of welfare, perhaps only comparable to severe diseases and extreme poverty in its magnitude. Staying active, as the EU claims, might help to alleviate the symptoms of ageing until some point in a person’s life, but it is certainly not “key to tackling the challenge of ageing”. There will come a time where a person will simply be unable to stay active because of the limitations she will experience, and whereas staying active had been sufficient for alleviating the symptoms of ageing before, these symptoms will then be sufficient for confining this person’s activity. The one and only key to tackling the challenge of ageing is solid biomedical science, not idle talk about some presumed advantages of growing old.
The whole European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations is an instance of what I call ‘public consolation’. This phenomenon might not be easy to detect but it certainly exists and bears the following characteristics (not always all of them):
1. There is no singular event – like a natural catastrophe – that triggers the acts of consolation.
2. The acts of consolations are not directed at individuals – like relatives of some deceased person – but at a group of people that is often rather unspecified.
3. Mass media like newspapers, magazines, or the internet cover the acts of consolation and are often instrumentalised by the originators of these acts.
4. The acts of consolation deal with phenomena that common sense disapproves of.
5. The acts of consolation convey the message that common sense is wrong in its disapproval.
Actually, the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between Generations is an ideal instance of public consolation because it bears all of these characteristics. Ageing is no singular event but a biological process, and the originators of the initiative use the internet for conveying the message that ageing is not as bad as we believe to citizens of Europe.
Public consolation could have its merits that I will not deny. There could be phenomena common sense is unjustified to disapprove of, so that a public consolation campaign could have positive effects if it successfully shows why we should rather cope with these phenomena instead of opposing them. In the face of ageing, however, public consolation is utterly inappropriate because it deludes people and distracts them from the harmful effects of ageing. If the public believes that ageing does not lead to a dramatic decrease in a person’s welfare, that growing old is an achievemen rather than a burden, and that not biomedical science but the hollow attempt to stay active until one is taken away by the Grim Reaper is the best response to ageing – why should politicians feel any pressure to commit themselves to the war on ageing? Why should they feel any pressure to give as much attention to ageing as to cancer, AIDS, or Alzheimer’s disease? And why should anyone of us even care about biomedical strategies to battle ageing if there is nothing wrong with it?
A couple of years or even decades ago, when we had no idea how to combat ageing, this form of public consolation would have been justified. Today, however, since we have evidence that ageing is just another, though particularly nasty and robust, condition that makes our lives go worse but could be mutable through biomedical interventions, we should not support public consolation in the face of ageing anymore but oppose it.