Monday, October 24, 2005

Against Death No Simple Grows

I read with some interest this argument by Nick Bostrom that searching for a cure for aging is "an urgent, screaming moral imperative" (HT: Philosophy, etc.) He doesn't ever really give us a clear idea of whose moral imperative this is supposed to be; it isn't possible to have a moral imperative that isn't a moral imperative for somebody. Who is violating their responsibility by not searching for a cure for aging? It also seems to me to exaggerate massively the dangers of aging -- it is "the principal cause of an unfathomable amount of human suffering and death"; research on diseases is ignoring aging as "the underlying cause." The metaphor of the dragon is a violent metaphor; whereas aging is not itself a violent cause of death. One of Bostrom's bits of advice is to challenge shortsighted and snide remarks about aging; but there is at least some case that his own argument, which requires us to see aging as a monstrous and terrible condition, is precisely that. He also criticizes the use of fine words and rhetoric to hide the fact that aging is a bad thing; he himself could very well be criticized for using scare words and rhetoric to hide the fact that aging is a natural thing. It is one thing to argue that expanding our 'health-span' is a good thing; it obviously would be, and I think it is right to advocate it. But it is another thing entirely to argue that we have an "urgent, screaming moral imperative" to eliminate aging. (And again, whose moral imperative?) Argument for the first just isn't a sufficient argument for the second.

What I find particularly interesting about the argument is in fact that it seems to depend for much of its force on the assumption that aging is not natural to us, which implies that death is not natural to us, either. Bostrom, for instance, says, that aging "has become a mere 'fact of life'", which is a phrase that only makes sense if we suppose that it once was not a fact of life. He says that our society has been "deformed" by the presence of aging; this makes no sense unless there is a natural non-deformed state for society. The case of the dragon is only isomorphic (as Bostrom claims it is) if aging is as foreign and uniformly terrible as a dragon. Since my own view is that aging and death are natural to us, I would like to see more of the argument for this not-so-hidden assumption.

There's also the serious question, which Bostrom glosses over, of whether the elimination of aging is actually a practicable proposal, particularly in the face of the fact that there are so many much more clearly practicable things that we are botching miserably -- stamping out malarial epidemics in Africa, which should take scarcely more than a few million dollars of mosquito nets and insecticide sent to the right places, or curbing the AIDS epidemic, or dealing with floods, or dealing with famine (which is only rarely caused by drought and the like, and more often caused by maldistribution of food that is actually available). How expensive will anti-aging treatment be? And how will it be distributed? Bostrom speaks as if the really difficult thing were the research. We have no idea how difficult that will be, but the really difficult thing is less likely to be the research than the proper distribution of its results. Who will be paying to give the whole multi-billion population of the world anti-aging treatment? What money will be diverted? How will we manage to give them all the treatment more or less at once? And if we do the treatment in stages, how do we decide who gets the first rounds? Will it be a treatment available only to the rich and powerful? But if not, how will we guarantee equitable distribution? Eliminating aging won't ever be as simple as pointing a missile at a dragon; and it is simply irresponsible to advocate something without taking a moment to figure out how you'll actually manage to bring about what you're advocating. Somehow our best intentions always go haywire when we are irresponsible in this way. And given the point on which Bostrom's whole argument is based -- namely, that there are all those people dying from age in the meantime -- he can't afford to gloss over this problem. This is particularly true given that his reasons for advocating anti-aging research are also reasons for fixing maldistribution of health care first, rather than haring off immediately after some Elixir of Life that might not turn out to be practicable, and which will still be foiled by a bad distribution of health care, and which will still have to contend with the fact that we haven't even managed the relatively easy tasks of preventing people from dying from malaria, AIDS, and famine, even if we do eventually find it.

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