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The “Unconditional Surrender” Approach to the War Against Death

Here we find a most lucid talk on the ethics of the uninhibited pursuit of indefinite longevity. 

The speaker (Mr. Stolyarov) criticizes me, David Brooks, and Daniel Callahan for being pro-death, which is immoral.  He does me (the correct) honor of being the most philosophical of the three popularizers of this evil teaching.

I kind of agree with him on what’s wrong with Brooks and Callahan.  I will, of course, summarize in my own way.  Callahan views a world full of too many old people as a social threat.  We can’t afford the expense and social pathologies of a gerontology based on keeping people around as long as technology will allow.  So we need to restore the idea of a natural lifespan.  We should keep people as healthy as possible for, say, eighty years tops, and then not divert scarce resources to extreme measures to keep them ticking. And certainly we need to abandon the modern dream of indefinite longevity (which Callahan rightly traces to the enlightenment thinker Condorcet).  There’s more evidence than ever that nature is fighting back with great success in our efforts to escape her clutches, and so, if we tell the truth, we can see that we may well have pretty much reach the limits of our longevity project.  There are limits!  And personal happiness and social health depend on living well with them. 

David Brooks, having abandoned philosophy for evolutionary psychology and neuroscience (and so having become more confused), thinks of people as hardwired to be not so much rational, calculating, and obsessively self-conscous as for social, cooperative instincts that morph into virtue.  So they’ve gone down the wrong path by fighting against nature by being as death-obsessed as they’ve become.  They can talked into getting in touch with their true natures by thinking of themselves more as social organisms and less as autonomous “Is.”  Death is our natural end, and we can readily embrace it with a spirit of adventure and even a sense of social gratitude.  My death is what’s best for my species, my country, my family, and so forth, and I know instinctively it couldn’t be that bad for me. Death is a price I pay for having lived well as social animal.

According to the speaker, we can’t help but think of ourselves as unique and irreplaceable beings.  So the point of life is to pursue personal significance and avoid personal extinction.   Nature is no standard!  Nature is out to kill each of us.  Not only that, an argument against nature’s intelligent design is the screwed up, suboptimal, ridiculously vulnerable bodies we’ve been given.  We have to improve upon nature with ourselves in mind.  We really know there’s no God who can save us, that we’re on our own.  We want to transform our environment–which includes our bodies–to make our lives as pro-choice in possible.  Any any self-conscious being would choose against death, against the surrender of consciousness.  To surrender to death by choosing not to live indefinitely–or even to be moved by the thought that death will win in the end–is to be come immorally fatalistic, to surrender while you still have weapons to deploy against a cruel and implacable enemy.  This speaker, to his credit, doesn’t talk about immortality, but only of indefinite life extension. 

I’m going to take the perverse approach this Sunday morning of saying that Callahan and Brooks have to take this highly self-conscious approach–and so transhumanist approach–of the speaker more seriously.  Christians, for example, know that biological death is terrible, and they hope to avoid its natural consequences.  And, for beings full of personal love, it’s not as all clear that there’s such a thing as a complete life.  We always want more.  I do think our speaker is wrong in not following the Christians in thinking of each of us as not only personal, but relational, but that’s for another post.


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