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Longer life, more trouble?

An article in the Times argues that life extension will bring us problems: long-lived people will bankrupt the NHS, pensions would become expensive, the pension age would need to be changed, there would be a pressure for resources and life would become meaningless. It is a surprisingly common criticism that would never be levelled at other attempts of improving the human condition, perhaps because its falsity would be too obvious.

Arguing that longer life should not be pursued because it would mess up pension ages and other current social institutions is like arguing that we should not try to reduce crime – after all, what would the legal system do if there were fewer criminals and victims? The great ills of infirmity, disease and death caused by ageing are significantly greater than the potential social problems their cure would cause. Each of the stated problems can also be overcome if society so wishes – changing the pension system or having to pay a more taxes is a small price to pay for more life and potential happiness.

If the finitude of human life is what makes us happy, how come the generally happiest (as measured by e.g. the World Values Study) countries are the most long-lived? How come countries and populations
with shorter lifespans are not happier? If the actual lifespan does not matter directly, just the finiteness of it, then the Times author can rest easily: no amount of anti-ageing medicine will remove our essential mortality. We are after all finite beings in a random universe, and accidents will eventually get us. But to assume that gives meaning to life is like arguing that the value of love is entirely due to divorce.

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5 Comment on this post

  1. If “genetic therapy would extend the quality of life into deep old age”, as the journalist of The Times says, then why (as the journalist do) worry that the pension age will raise e.g. 30 years? If an average life in the future would be 120 years, and we at that time can work until the age of 100, it would seem obvious that a pension age at 100 would work just as well as a pension age at about 70 in todays world. I mean, would people in the future, who would live much longer than us, prefer the same pension age as we do? Probable not – just as most of us today, would not prefer to retire when we reach the age of 40.

    Furthermore if the quality of life extends into deep old age, then these old people can work at lot longer and pay taxes a lot longer, and thereby not be a burden at all – quite the contrary.

    Long live the arguments for longevity!

  2. Yes, many of the “obvious” practical arguments against life extension disappear when we take into account the secondary effects of longer and healthier lives. A more productive population who have good reasons to be long-term oriented is hardly bad news for society. Adding simple societal responses to the scenario does even more to limit the problems. The overpopulation concern is likely balanced by the already problematic below replacement level fertility in many countries, and could plausibly be solved by linking life extension treatment subventions/taxes to number of children. Subsidizing (or developing cheaper methods) for life extension could overcome inequalities if the public perceived them as troubling, and so on.

    There could be more subtle problems that would be harder to deal with, such as incumbent groups wanting to retain a generous pension system or that young untried people might have a hard time competing against experienced but vital elders. Given past experience, most likely the most substantial problems of life extension to society would not be obvious before they happened.

    But again, from an ethical standpoint it is hard to imagine them being so bad that they outweigh the reduction in suffering a reduction of ageing would imply. Try to imagine a social problem so bad that people would prefer giving everyone a chronic fatal illness over having the problem!

  3. I don’t see an ethical problem with the availability of life-extending devices; ethics is about what persons should do, not what the market makes available. The ethical problem arises when the elderly, now the super-elderly, are asked to pay for their extra years in higher premiums and co-payments for medical treatment, and whether they will be willing to pay extra for the added costs of unemployed youth, perhaps in terms of extra training and unemployment compensation. The evidence from today indicates that they won’t be willing to do anything but take from the collectivity through tax-supported programs.

  4. How come countries and populations with shorter lifespans are not happier?

    I don’t know, but if I’d posed questions in that manner, my crusty old Grade 9 English teacher Mrs. Rulka would have shot back, “I come by car, how you come?”

    I bet she’s terrorises the nurses at the old folks’ home about their English, too.

  5. This post makes me laugh, questioning the life of an individual will give them a problem in paying pensions? I think that article (from Times) is obviously not for pro-life movement. This is the craziest part of the pension plans, in times of pay out.

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