How Long a Life Is Enough?

I don’t subscribe to a lot of online periodicals, even though the temptation is there, courtesy of Kindle. New York Times Review of Books, a weekly news ezine, and Philosophy Now, to which I have occasionally referred on this blog. It’s the latter which I have found the most enjoyable reading. The editors have done well in their theme selections for issues I’ve received, meaning only that the subjects intrigued me at the time.

Take, for example, the current volume dealing with the subject of death and morality. It’s not so much about what happens after death or about why people die in the first place as it is about whether or not we can or should be successful in defeating it, or at least significantly delaying its intrusion. It asks some rather important questions about life in this world and what we ought to do about what we almost universally perceive as the last enemy. It begins with the optimism of scientific advances toward the goal of slowing or even reversing the aging process.

The thought on one side, championed by Nick Bostrom of Oxford University, is that this is a quality of life issue, one which therefore demands of us that we invest whatever resources are necessary to speed the research. It becomes, for this argument, a moral imperative. Others, however, question whether the abolition of aging is really a good thing at all. The leading voice for those who say “not so fast” is that of Mary Midgley. You may remember (but may be forgiven for not doing so) that Dr. Midgley was named the first recipient of the journal’s new award for fighting against stupidity. In my opinion, her entry in this March/April issue further validates that selection. She asks critical questions about what we may not intend but will have to live with. Would we soon face severe issues of overcrowding, necessitating that we stop having children? What about the stagnation which would almost surely result from the loss of fresh, vibrant voices—not to mention the sense of joy and enthusiasm they inject into our lives? Can we adequately predict and prepare for other psychological effects on individuals and cultures?

I have consistently suggested in theology classes that death is a good thing in spite of the pain it leaves in its wake. It is good, that is, given the fallen nature of humans and the worlds they create. It’s hideous to even begin imagining tyrants with virtually assured longevity; but do we really know ourselves if we are tempted to think that we too would not indulge ourselves in the knowledge that we very likely have much more time to fix things—to repent and mend our ways? I wonder if we really would do better morally. And just how much more life would be enough? Would not the same questions come about?

I also wonder, as does Midgley, whether it is a morally sound idea to invest in extending our own lives (and pleasures) and contributions while much of the world continues to struggle with survival issues, where life expectancy is still in the 30-yr. range? We know what can be done with greater generosity; we don’t know what can or cannot be done or what the results might be if we put all our eggs in the longevity basket. Is it just pride that leads us to say that we should think of how much more we could contribute were we to last much longer? Maybe the desire is simply a way of expressing the longing for eternity without the bother of answering to the God who made us.

What do you think? How long a life should we desire in this world as it now exists? Should we invest in extending it if we can? How long a life would you want to live before you die?

Advertisements