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David Brooks on Our Unaffordable War Against Death

David Brooks has a very thoughtful column on the fact that a lot of soaring health care costs have to do using all means available to keep very sick people alive just a little bit longer. Maybe the main reason health care has become unaffordable and our debt problem intractable is that we’re too intense about employing all possible means in a futile and degrading effort to force death–personal mortality–to surrender unconditionally.

Let me begin by being clear that I’m not for “euthanizing” or “rationing” people to death, and I don’t think David is either.  (His example is of a man who freely chooses not to employ extreme means for life prolongation.) And only if you take a much broader view than David appears to do can some connection between our war against death and our out-of-control debt become plausible.

Following Daniel Callahan, Brooks notices that the progress toward indefinite longevity encouraged particularly by our transhumanists and some of our libertarians has stalled. There’s no cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s on the horizon, although Brooks may minimize a bit the progress that has been made and is on the horizon when it comes to heart disease.

Modern technology, our great Lockean/Cartesian project, is a war against nature and for personal significance and so, among other things, a war against the personal extinction that we often believe comes with death. We see the war against death, as I’ve said before, in our increasingly meticulous attention to risk factors that threaten our very being and in our increasing reluctance to generate replacements (kids–that we don’t really need, after all, if we’re all staying around indefinitely).  We notice that our observant religious believers, who usually don’t believe that death means personal extinction, are  those among us who are generating more than an adequate number of replacements (children).  We can ever say that our Darwin-deniers are actually behaving like the social, species-perpetuating animals Darwin describes. 

It could surely be better for each of us if we could become more accepting when it comes death, and so not deploy every high-tech weapon available in every case.

The ancient “learning how to die” (in the absence of personal salvation by a personal Creator) is about coming to terms with the inevitable. But the successes of modern science have cast into doubt that conclusion that death is inevitable any particular time. Death seems less a necessity to accepted with courage and serenity and more an accident to be avoided through incessant effort.  But the truth is death remains a necessity for each of us, and we’re still stuck with the wisdom of St. Augustine:  What’s a couple more years or decades or centuries in the light of eternity?

And to the extent that we’re Lockeans (or, as Walker Percy says, pop Cartesians), we tend to identify the end of one’s own self-consciousness with the extinction of being itself. So the war against MY death has extreme cosmic significance. I’M the one who endows meaning and purpose on existence.  Nothing more important than keeping ME alive, especially as the singularity approaches.  Our transhumanists promise that we will morph from being biological beings stuck with vulnerable and decaying bodies into conscious robots with readily replaceable parts.  We hope to take control away from nature and put it in our own hands.  We hope we’re replacing cruel and random (from a personal view) IMPERSONAL EVOLUTION with CONSCIOUS AND VOLITIONAL (or highly personal) EVOLUTION.

Gil Meilaender, a wise man cited by Brooks, actually adds that our fight against death isn’t just narcissistic. If I love and am lovable, it’s good that I stay around, and so I have a sort of duty to do what I can not to die. I even have duty, Gil once wrote, to be a burden on my child (or children), so that she has the opportunity to do what she can for me out of love.  Personal death might be an indispensable for personal love in this world, but it’s also true that we fight against death out of love.  Each of us would surely die to preserve the lives of those we love, but we would rather live in love.

Brooks’ thought has become, of course, more neo-Darwinian and neuroscientific. And so he’s concluding that obsessing over one’s own being is both unnatural and contrary to the happiness we social beings are given by nature.  That’s why he says, quite nobly, that we should think of our lives in terms of doing what we we’re put here to do, and not in terms of merely fending off the destruction natural intends for each of us. 

The problem is, of course, that we free persons just aren’t satisfied with beings insignificant parts of evolutionary nature. And we also have the same high personal opinion, of course, of the signficance of those we love.  Even with that problem in mind, we have to agree that our techno-war against personal death has already been at the expense of the happiness we’re meant to enjoy as social animals.  Our self-obsession, in other words, has been hard on families, children, friends, citizens, and creatures.

There does seem to be something really unnatural about our techno-desire to personalize all of nature or being. That’s one reason why it seems deeply futile. Our mistake must be in believing that our personal existence is dependent on what we can do for ourselves.


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