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Lifespan Enhancement and Punishment

At a recent Uehiro Centre work-in-progress meeting, Rebecca Roache, Anders Sandberg and Hannah Maslen discussed the potential impacts of transformative technologies on our punishment practices, and the moral significance of some of these impacts (link to the audio here).

It’s a rich area: in this comment I want to consider just one of the many issues raised by Roache, Sandberg and Maslen. The issue is lifespan enhancement. Although lifespan has been gradually increasing for several decades, it may soon be possible to radically enhance lifespan. This possibility raises questions about our sentencing practices, and their moral justification. To mention just one possibility, it may one day be possible to lengthen the life of a convicted criminal, in order to make long prison sentences servable. This would be an example of enhanced punishment – using a transformative technology to more accurately give a criminal her just desserts (or, perhaps, to present would-be criminals a more effective deterrent).

But given that many prisoners choose life in prison over death, we may also come to see lifespan enhancement as a good. In this connection, Roache, Sandberg and Maslen suggested that enhanced lifespan may come to be regarded as mandatory. If so, refusing lifespan enhancement to prisoners may be akin to the denial of medical treatment. If this happens the effects will undoubtedly reverberate through the punishment system. But whether or not this will happen, in my view it is unclear whether it should.

One relevant issue here concerns the nature of harm. Might withholding lifespan enhancement harm a prisoner? Guy Kahane and Julian Savulescu (2012) have recently argued that statistical normality in a population makes a (derivative) moral difference by shaping attitudes towards and expectations about well-being and how it is distributed. It might be that withholding lifespan enhancement technology from a prisoner harms that prisoner only if the length of a non-enhanced life deviates significantly from what is, at the time, normal.

Even so, withholding of lifespan enhancement might not be equivalent to withholding medical treatment. It is arguable that in violating the law, criminals forfeit a significant range of rights (see Wellman 2012). Whether the right to the kinds of transformative technologies that enhance lifespan is among those arguably forfeited might depend on a number of things – among them the type of technology at issue, its general availability to law-abiding citizens, and whether (and how) a distinction between medical treatment and lifespan enhancement can be maintained.

Kahane, G. and Savulescu, J. (2012). The concept of harm and the significance of normality. Journal of Applied Philosophy 29(4): 318-332.

Wellman, C. (2012). The rights forfeiture theory of punishment. Ethics 122(2): 371-393.

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