Introduction * Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3 * Part 4 * Part 5
8:00 - 9:30 PM - Our Right to Life and The Big Picture: Enhancement on a Global Scale
This was a series of two talks moderated by Dr. James Hughes. Speakers were Aubrey de Grey, Ph.D., who defended "Our Right To Life", and Walter Truett Anderson, Ph.D. who discussed "The Big Picture: Enhancement on a Global Scale".
Dr. de Grey's presentation bore the alliterative subtitle, "Life Extension, Human Rights, and the Rational Refinement of Repugnance". This presentation was actually published as a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics on February 16, 2005, however, I believe that previously-published papers do have a place in the arena of international gatherings. Some attendees expressed the opinion that when people speak at a conference such as HETHR, they ought to prepare something new and entirely original -- but I disagree on the grounds that there is a big difference between accessing a paper on the Internet (or reading it for a class), and having the author right in front of you presenting it.
For one thing, presenting a paper to an audience of people who paid to be members of that audience assures that everyone listening presumably has an interest in the subject matter. This creates an opportunity for interesting discussion to ensue. For another thing, I do not think it likely that I was the only person in attendance who hadn't read Dr. de Grey's paper prior to attending the HETHR conference; I may have eventually stumbled upon it in my Web readings, but I'm glad to have learned of the concepts discussed herein sooner rather than later. And indeed, one of Dr. de Grey's oft-stated principles is the fact that "sooner rather than later" is something we'd be best not to lose sight of when considering the potential to develop life-extension treatments.
Repugnance is a tricky concept, and probably one that is useless on its own without the framework of ethics to help interpret it. While recognizing that repugnance is quite subjective and relative, Dr. de Grey does not take the absolutist postmodern position that would invalidate the experiential significance of repugnance and its role in shaping viewpoints and decisions. Some individuals and groups may act or speak ignorantly on the basis of their feelings of disgust, however this does not mean that we ought to dismiss feelings of disgust in every case; sometimes these feelings may exist harmoniously with the upholding of rational ethical principles. Hence, Dr. de Grey proposed something of a "return to non-cognitivism, which is a concept I'd never heard of until this presentation.
I've been an advocate for healthy life extension for the past 7 years or so (since realizing that regardless of the mental gymnastics I engaged in, and appeals to "natural order" I attempted to internalize, age-related death consistently came up in my mind as an irredeemable ethical insult), so de Grey's talk was not something I went into with one opinion only to emerge with another. However, I did emerge with a better grasp of various terms that might assist in the discussion of (and justification of) life extension efforts -- indeed, I'd say that one of the wonderful things that came from this conference was that I was exposed to a lot of rather useful terms for things which I'd had somewhat diffuse notions of before, but had difficulty articulating about due to the difficulty of establishing context using known terms. While language is obviously imperfect and an abstraction in and of itself, I do think that there are ways of using language that allow greater acknowledgement of, and more ethical and rational dealing with, reality.
The concept of non-cognitivism might be a means to potentially mitigate the effects of relying too heavily on language and other abstractions -- things that lead to paradox and meaningless circular arguments if not balanced by something else. I will admit an initial sense of repugnance at merely hearing the term "non-cognitivism" because my brain first interpreted this as, "a policy of Not Thinking". However, one thing I've learned in my recent forays into ethics discourse is that there is little place for knee-jerk reactions in such discussions -- I've learned a lot by simply letting people explain what they mean by something, and quite frequently it turns out that any initial impressions I might have had were based on very literal (as in, dictionary-literal) or to a lesser degree, personal associations. In Dr. de Grey's estimation, non-cognitivism could lead to increasingly productive discussion of concepts as life extension with people who are not bioethicists, which is critical if we are to achieve the point where healthy life extension becomes a realistic option. Dr. de Grey suggests that life-extensionists seeking to explain why aging is, in fact, repugnant, would do well to look at what kinds of arguments have been persuasive in the past in convincing members of the general populace of certain things.
This is not to suggest that anyone is advocating an underhanded means of justifying something immoral -- rather, Dr. de Grey realizes that most people in the world are not given to formal study of ethics and logic, and that if life-extensionists continue to rely on purely scientific, logical, and academic-ethical lines of reasoning, progress toward actually addressing the deterioration associated with aging is going to be slower than it needs to be. Dr. de Grey actually quoted prominent (and notorious, in transhumanist circles) bioethicist Leon Kass in his introductory explanation of non-cognitivism, making the observation that Kass is persuasive in part because he knows how to present ideas in a manner that appeals to emotion and does not depend on an audience being well-versed in formal, academic philosophy.
Despite the fact that in Kass's case, the non-cognitivist mindset is used to argue for things which I (and Dr. de Grey, presumably) disagree with, this does not mean that non-cognitivism cannot be used in the dissemination of ideas that are morally valid and soundly ethical. To make an analogy, the fact that some people might use a tool (e.g., a hammer) to injure another person, this is a moral failure on the part of that person and their intentions, not on the part of the hammer itself. There are legitimate uses for hammers, and legitimate uses for non-cognitivism, and Dr. de Grey seeks to explain how this perspective can be used productively in the consideration of radically extending healthy human lifespan.
Leon Kass's notion of repugnance suggests that there is a sort of "core" morality shared by all humans worth the air they breathe that dictates what these worthwhile people do and do not consider repugnant. I would actually agree with this on a few very specific points; for instance, I do not see any possible moral grounds for rape, and I would have serious questions about the character of anyone who approved of this act under any circumstances. However, in the vast majority of cases, repugnance is something that evolves over time to apply to different situations and results more from anxiety over losing established social constructs than from anything inherently abhorrent about the thing prompting disgust. Dr. de Grey offers the example of homosexuality -- at one point widely considered to be repugnant, but now increasingly accepted due to the fact that a lot of people are realizing that maintaining hatred of, and prejudice toward, homosexuals, creates more internal ethical contradictions than it solves. Other examples would be slavery, non-universal suffrage, and mass murder of indigenous peoples. Now, observes de Grey, the fact that we haven't considered such things repugnant all along has become repugnant.
Perhaps the most important principle elucidated in Dr. de Grey's presentation is the fact that over time, the definition of repugnance is changing in the direction of allowing greater internal consistency. Despite the existence of social reactionaries and the lingering effects of years of prejudiced assumptions, there are at least some indications that a more consistent set of ethical principles is emerging for humanity. More and more societies have rejected slavery. Homosexuality is no longer officially listed as a mental disorder (at least, it does not appear in the DSM-IV). People with disabilities are (at least in some cases) becoming willing, and enabled, to defend their right to exist. If de Grey is correct, following this line of reasoning can only lead to an inability to deny the repugnance of involuntary death following age-related deterioration.
There is a considerable degree of cognitive dissonance required to maintain a respect for life and at the same time, an opinion that death and frailty should be forced upon people when there might be a means to prevent these things. This "pro-death trance" was perhaps a necessary social structure even up until the recent past, because there simply wasn't anything we could do about aging. And while we have not yet managed to produce a pharmacological / technological treatment with a demonstrated ability to increase the human lifespan (caloric restriction has been shown to increase lifespan in many animals, including mammals, but human trials are not yet definitive due to the already-longer-than-most-animals average human lifespan), we know more about the process of senescence than ever before. One thing that many people tend not to observe is the fact that biology is not "out to trick us" -- it doesn't become more complicated by virtue of us learning more about it. Humans may still be evolving, biologically, but the rate at which we are learning to understand biological processes and phenomena is happening much faster than this evolution -- so we definitely have the advantage in terms of the potential to reduce aging to a mere engineering problem.
Dr. de Grey makes the case that by not acting with vigilance and haste toward medically addressing human sensescence, we are committing a moral transgression rooted in inaction. In short, Dr. de Grey applies the "bystander effect" hypothesis to issues associated with aging treatments; if it is possible to act, and people die due to the fact that those who could act refuse to do so, then these people are in a sense accountable for the deaths that occur.
Now, I think it is quite possible to take this "bystander effect" observation to a ridiculous and paralyzing extent; I actually have a bit of a problem with this "inaction is negative action" line of reasoning unless one assumes that the circumstance requiring action is the most important circumstance in observable reality. This, of course, is impossible to determine. As far as I am concerned, all involuntary deaths are tragic, regardless of whether these deaths occur when a person is 9 or 90 (or 900)! Even the fact of potential overpopulation doesn't make involuntary death any less horrible -- while I do not deny that overpopulation is a practical issue in need of being seriously and rationally addressed, I think that humans as supposedly rational beings ought to be able to come up with a better solution than condoning the deaths of scores of innocent people.
I am a strong proponent of the notion that in a just society, individuals will be enabled to follow lines of work and study that they are passionate about. People who are doing what they enjoy, and what interests them, will do a far better job at these things than at other things which may be more supposedly practical or "more critical". Hence, I think that people who are highly motivated to seek cures for AIDS should do so. People who are compelled to address breast cancer should fund that research. People who seek to provide good basic health care for poor families should take action to assist with reaching that goal. And people who consider age-related death to be an outrage should take whatever action we can to help identify treatments that will enable people to live longer, healthier lives.
All valid health care activities have common goals: reduction in mortality, reduction in pain, and the enabling of individuals to meet their chosen goals (note that this is different from "goals other people might have for them") and participate in enriching activities. I personally put a high priority on anti-aging research because it seems clear to me that it would be rather ridiculous to speak of curing AIDS, Alzheimer's, cancer, ALS, systemic infections, flesh-eating viruses, and heart disease but then expect that everyone will (and should) just drop dead (from a perfectly healthy state?) after a requisite number of years. I don't think that by addressing any one of these things as one's primary passion, one is guilty of "letting people die" of other things. Dr. de Grey offers that psychologically, action differs from inaction, but the principle of symmetry dictates that whenever you're not doing one thing, you are therefore doing something else. I understand what he means by this, but I do think that there are plenty of worthwhile pursuits in the world, and that if one wants to make the "diversion of resources" argument, one might be able to coherently support the notion that resources devoted to saving lives are equally valuable. It would not do to cure senescence but allow people to die anyway due to heart disease, and vice versa.
So while I may maintain some grounds for disagreement on the question of whether inaction always implicates a witness to tragedy, I definitely agree with Dr. de Grey that trends toward an "increased respect for life" will, possibly inevitably, lead to an eventual realization that senescence is something we ought to consider a major health crisis. Dr. de Grey points to two general examples of a "greater respect for life" that is emerging in the modern world -- the fact that capital punishment is not trendy in developed nations, and that war between develped nations has become similarly unfashionable. Though, of course, war between undeveloped nations (or between nations of divergent economic and military power) has not yet been consigned to the history books, progress is still progress and cannot be ignored simply because it is not perfection.
When the diversion-of-resources argument is expanded to encompass activities that are not related to saving lives, I can agree a bit more with the "guilty bystander" assertion. There are some activities that are probably a waste of time and money (I don't think we need any more studies that "prove" that eating too much and being sedentary will contribute to obesity, or that alcohol impairs judgement while driving, for instance). Funding is being misappropriated horribly in a lot of cases, and Dr. de Grey is right in asserting that societies could be doing a lot more than they are to address the senescence problem, and that to solve this conundrum, life-extensionists need to find ways to convince those with the means to provide and divert resources appropriately to put things where they might result in more lives being saved.
Overall, I applaud Dr. de Grey for his very admirable work in both anti-aging biology and associated ethics -- Dr. James Hughes, who introduced the final session of the evening, noted that if life extension does happen in time for those of us presently alive, we will most likely have Dr. de Grey to thank for it. I am ready to thank Dr. de Grey right now, simply for taking the initiative to speak out against the tyrrany of involuntary death on the basis of maintaining ethical consistency.
Dr. Walter Truett Anderson spoke next, and I admit that by the time Dr. de Grey's presentation was over, I was in a state of near-total information saturation (not to mention, my hand was cramping up from the hours of handwritten note-taking). Hence, my discussion of "The Big Picture: Enhancement on a Global Scale" is woefully scant in comparison to my discussion of Aubrey de Grey's talk. This, however, is a function of (current) human limitations -- if I ever attend a similar conference I'm definitely going to bring a laptop. From what I recall of Dr. Anderson's talk, I can say that he raised some excellent points about maintaining awareness of biotechnological symbiosis.
In a moment reminiscent of a self-study meditation tape, Dr. Anderson told the audience to breathe and focus on the fact that the act of breathing means we are not as separate from our environment as we might think. Indeed, I did experience a weird little "whoah!" moment during this exercise; I do have a tendency to think of myself as a rather discrete entity, but in truthfulness, there are numerous complex systems at work that maintain living humans as something more than diffuse protoplasm. (I got a mental image of one of the Mars scenes in Total Recall as Dr. Anderson explained this symbiosis concept using the example of us needing an atmosphere to survive).
Dr. Anderson urged the attendees to note that humans are not "skin-covered egos" -- that we are totally dependent on a particular environment to survive and function. And as we continue to seek such things as further education, technological advancement, and even enhancement, it is vital to consider the effects that the actions prompted by our conscious volition will have on the system as a whole. All in all, Dr. Anderson's discussion was a fitting end to a whole day of considering the ramifications of technology, though in order to give a fairer treatment in writing I will definitely be looking forward to obtaining the audio of this presentation.
And that was the HETHR conference. I am tremendously glad I attended, and it has been an utter joy writing this report. The information and ideas (which admittedly I am likely to be processing for quite a while longer) presented therein have truly comprised "inspiration".