Emma Heikkinen

This conversation is closed.

Is is ethical to try to lengthen the human lifespan?

My concerns about the ethics of trying to lengthen the human lifespan are partly related to overpopulation, poverty and famine and also the demographic changes it would cause. We've just hit 7 billion people on this planet and continue to reproduce.

My other aspect on the ethical side of this is that isn't is a bit selfish to try to live longer and longer? Are the medical and genetic engineering projects to lengthen the human lifespan the modern search for Philosopher's stone and the ultimate sign of our fear of death?

Please share your thoughts and knowledge and ask more questions!

Closing Statement from Emma Heikkinen

Thanks for everyone for contributing to this conversation! I could not be happier that my first TED conversation got replies and actually gave me some very fruitful thoughts also. Happy holidays everyone!

  • Dec 18 2011: I think it is unethical to try to dictate to others how long they should live. Overpopulation might not really be the main issue here (see http://www.ted.com/conversations/39/why_do_so_many_think_that_popu.html).

    Instead of looking at how long people live should we aim at changing our lives so we consume in environmentally friendly way, with sustainability and reuse in mind and be less materialistic?
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      Dec 18 2011: Hi, thanks for your comment! It raised a couple of questions... If it's unethical to try to dictate to others how long they should live, is it unethical to be a part of a system that helps promote inequality, for example a religion that denies people of contraceptives (can get HIV/AIDS, die in childbirth because is too young etc.).

      I agree on sustainability being the key word here. I also think the question of overpopulation is interesting, and I have seen that talk: it's very intriguing. Check out my latest comment if you're interested in my opinion on the issue(: Thanks!
      • Dec 18 2011: Hi Emma, yes I agree that any system or belief that promotes inequality is not ethical. cheers
  • Dylan F

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    Dec 17 2011: I do not think it's unethical and I also believe that it does not matter whether or not it is ethical. Without life, ethical conduct does not exist. It's quite inevitable for us to strive towards living longer given how influential death avoidance has evolved to be.

    So I believe we should ask different questions in regards to aging and a growing world population. Do we have the resources and technology to sustain a healthy standard of living (however defined) for the world population as a whole? If so, what are the required steps to reach this? If not, why not? What technologies may need to be further developed to ensure this? And what can we do to minimize suffering in the mean time (i.e. contraceptives, dampening the desire for wanting many children through creating more opportunities and enhancing the standard of living in areas of poverty as much as possible, etc.)?

    Our planet is huge, our technology is advanced (and exponentially increasing) but our willingness to strive towards global equality is lacking.
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      Dec 18 2011: Hey Dylan,

      Thanks for your comment! I agree that without life (human life) ethics don't exist, because "ethics" is a man-made concept and a socio-historically and culturally constructed complex set of believes of how we should behave and what we should base our decisions on. Nevertheless, human life exists at least for now, so ethics in my opinion is a relevant issue to bring on the table. I wanted to ask, why is it that you think it's inevitable we strive towards living longer? Couldn't it be also inevitable for us to except the fact that we're mortal and will die at one point, and instead of trying to live longer just try to pursue a better standard and quality of living (hence death avoidance in a form of modern medicine for example)?

      What do you think are the biggest factors that are stopping us from increasing global equality and wellbeing? How could we make the new technologies and information available for everyone and not just for a small group of people on this planet?

      Thanks again(:
      • Dec 18 2011: Hey,
        Thanks for the response. I read your other post you've made clarifying your stance. I really do think it's a very interesting and relevant question. If living a longer life directly contributed to a shorter life of someone else, I could foresee a strong moral argument for such a balancing act. However, such limitations do not exist.

        From my understanding, a long, healthy life requires only a reasonable amount of resources. Unless you're genetically predisposed to diseases or have unhealthy habitual tendencies, you'll be quite fine statistically if you have access to general healthcare, healthy food and water and find yourself in a social community. These basic necessities could easily be brought to everyone, right now.

        The root issues to why these basic necessities are not universal lay in policies and economics: Policies because the world is not quite yet globalized and thus we have societies with totalitarian rule and very misguided social beliefs as a consequence; Economics because many nations have been unable to compete internationally for reasons in and outside of their control.
      • Dec 18 2011: But I believe in the next decade or two, the lifespan gap you mention will narrow greatly. Impact investing will become an increasing popular method for conducting business. There are enormous economic incentives to provide basic necessities (food/water, energy, healthcare, education, etc.) to all peoples because these communities will then be able to contribute back to the global network, just as any community does today. Solar power continues to increase in efficiency and decrease in cost at an increasing rate. This means that it will eventually intersect with fossil fuels in terms of cost and efficiency. Once this trend continues from there, it is hard to imagine not having limitless, virtually free energy throughout the globe. This will greatly enhance the standard of living in remote and poor communities. The medical industry is seeing the rise of a computer science revolution that has enormous promise. In addition to these (and many, many other emerging technologies), the falling cost of technologies will allow poor nations to actually compete in the global market, which would lead eventually to an 'age of abundance'.
        It has been happening already. Although the gap is large now, the global life expectancy in the 1800s was 37. So even those at the low end of the spectrum are enjoying lives much better than the average person 200 years ago! But it gets better because in this information age we find ourselves in, there is exponential change. We think in linear terms so it’s very hard to imagine what the next few decades will look like. With biotechnology, robotics and (eventually) nanotechnology, some believe we could even be immortal by ~2050. By then we will be much more intelligent than we are now that all ethical dilemmas we predict now will be obsolete. I suppose all we can do is continue to develop technologies, value well-being as the most important thing in life and structure our communities promoting that fact.
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    Dec 18 2011: Hi Emma,

    Your question makes me think of one I've pondered. At what age range is life "most" valuable? We always go to great lengths to save babies and children. They're cute, they're helpless, and as a parent, I feel that primordial prime directive to protect them. I would probably jump in front of a train to save a stranger's baby. I would have broken most any code of "ethics" to save one of my babies from illness or injury. Maybe even sacrifice my own life.

    But, from a societal point of view, we haven't put as many resources into a two-year-old as, say, an 18-year-old. Food, shelter and education aren't cheap. At 18, a person is just getting ready to pay back that investment through work, procreation, providing resources for the next generation, etc. At 35, functional working parents are indispensible. At 55, experience and knowledge can be extremely valuable. How much do we lose when we lose a 70-year-old who is a dedicated climate scientist? Or a superior educator? Or a wise and ethical lawyer or judge?

    The problem with ethics questions is that there's no one-size-fits-all answer. But when I try to tailor your question to the individual case, I run into the biggest ethics question of all... who has the right to decide which life is most valuable? Is there any one person or committee I would trust in that role? I believe that every person has the right to end their own life, but no other.

    And that takes me to my answer to your question: ethically, a hospital staff has to treat all life as equally valuable. Even a brain-damaged 90-year-old on a respirator. Doctors will always have to make some quiet decisions, but they aim to balance their use of resources as best they can and save as many lives as possible. The young will be favored above the old because of the bias I described. Still, IMO, a civilized society has to come from a starting point that every life is worth saving... and extending... wherever the resources (yes, even money) exist.
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      Dec 18 2011: Hey Karen,
      This is a very interesting topic. You introduced the ethical problem behind age and the value of human life in different ages very well. I also think the societal point of view is very interesting. Just the other day I sat in a lecture with a researcher talking about how age and education are being valued in working life and how this affects people's personal sense of value and worthiness. It is a very hot topic also, at least here in Finland we have a big issue with elderly people conducting suicides (well ,we have high suicide rates in every age group...) and I think one of the things affecting this issue along with loneliness etc. is the sense of feeling like your life doesn't have a value anymore now that you're old. You've become a burden instead of being a valuable human being. In my opinion effectiveness and the competitiveness of our economies have put the stress on our mid-life (which can basically be anywhere between 25-55 nowadays) on being the most time-money-efficient time of a human life and that's when the person can most "contribute" (make money for the society/ government, economy etc.) and therefore this is the highest value-point in our life from societal point of view. Work is a key word here: a value of a person who remains uneducated and unemployed is from this point of view much lower than a working person's value. I personally think it's quite sad and narrow minded to see life from the time-money-efficient point of view and use those "lenses" to look at the value of people. Of course this is only one way of looking at this issue, but I just wanted to share that thought. It's a complicated question which doesn't really have one answer and bringing in religion and philosophy to this conversation just makes it even more complex - yet interesting.

      Thank you for your comment!
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    Dec 18 2011: As soon as we leave the core of a concept like "ethical", and start exploring the borderland between that concept and another (like "unethical"), the first thing we should do is put those two concepts away, and look at the facts entirely separately from the words.

    The aging process is there for a reason. The goal of sexual reproduction is diversity. Eternal life is the negation of diversity. Each generation needs to grow up, reproduce, and then GET OUT OF THE WAY. Human beings are programmed to age die at the point in time where they're at risk for outcompeting their descendants in the fight for resources. So, first we become frail, and then - when our frailness makes us a burden for our descendants, we die. Women live longer because they're more useful for their grandkids.

    If it hadn't been for modern medicine, I would have died at birth. Was it ethical to keep me alive? I guess it was, since it helped me fulfil my biological "destiny". Was it ethical to save me from appedicitis at 40, and again from complicatons from hernias at 55? I'm not the best judge of this, but my excuse for staying alive is that I'm still pretty useful. My continued existence is probably so useful for the next generation, in a long-term perspective, that it outweighs the short-term benefit they would get if I left the scene now (so they could divide up my land and my possessions).

    Will it be ethical to keep me alive at 85 or 90? My pension, at that point, will come from my own savings, but that's a silly point to make: My descendants would be better off if they could get those savings straight away, without having to work hard for them and channel the resourcese / income away from their own children. The same goes for the rest of society, if I didn't have descendants.

    I could go on and on. My point is that we should wait till the end of the discussion before we take out the words "ethical" and "unethical", and decide on the semantic issue of where and how to use them.
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      Dec 18 2011: Hi and thanks for your comment,

      I very much liked your GET OUT OF THE WAY explanation and I agree with you on that. This is exactly the root of my questions and the reason this whole issue feels so complex and intriguing to me. After all, we are a bag of flesh, blood, bones and some organs and not meant to live for ever. One specific organ, the brain, just makes us forget about that fact sometimes and believe that we're trapped in our mortal bodies with "immortal souls". Do you think the fact that we're able to reason, conduct complex knowledge, ask questions about life and death etc. gives us the right to (try to) escape our evolutionary and biological state of humanness?

      As I said in one of my previous replies to someone, I think "ethics" is a socio-historically and culturally conducted complex set of believes of good and bad and how we should think and behave etc. and is therefore a very tricky concept to discuss. I also think we construct our knowledge of the world and our opinions based on the scientific facts but also socially, historically and culturally transmitted information and believes. Emotions also play a role in this game.

      Thanks again for your comment!
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    Dec 18 2011: Is it even ethical to live in an industrialized society? None of where the world is headed is sustainable and living longer is but one part of that. Ethical or not people will strive for a longer life, it will not be stopped.
    Population can be controlled, however: Provide every female on the planet with the means to prevent pregnancy and the population will even out in 9 months, and then actually start to gradually decline as it does in countries where pregnancy prevention products are free or inexpensive and readily available.
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      Dec 18 2011: Hi, thanks for your comment! I believe contraceptives, especially condoms, are very important if we want to decrease the global inequality and also the inequality between men and women. Women all over the world should have the possibility to choose a healthy life without STDs, HIV/AIDS and unwanted or even life-threatening pregnancy.

      The word sustainability really is a key here. It seems to come up in many comments and you're definitely right, in my opinion, with the notion of how unsustainable the way we're living right now is.

      Thanks again!
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      Dec 17 2011: Thank you for your comment, I read it with the utter most interest.

      There is one fundamental thing I don't share with you, which is the existence of God, the creator or however one wants to address this kind of a "being". Nevertheless, I could ask a couple of new questions:
      1) If you believe a human being is without a beginning or end, why would someone want to try to lengthen their material existence?
      2) Does the material existence even matter, if we're just creative energy flowing through time and space?
      3) Also, if we're creations ourselves and meant therefore to create, is it ok for us to create ways to lengthen our (material existence) life spans on this planet?
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    Dec 19 2011: I think it is un-ethical to not to try to increase lifespan...in all 7,000,000,000 people! This particular life experience we all share should be long and joyful for all people, with no unnecessary suffering. The Earth can easily hold 50 billion, if we set things up differently.

    All of Humanity should have the opportunity to live well into their 300's. Longer, the more we understand how energy and DNA work together.
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      Dec 19 2011: Hi and thanks for your comment! It's a beautiful and quite idealistic idea that we could all live in "peace and harmony", well you didn't exactly say that but that's basically what it would mean for us to be able to divide the food and resources on this planet evenly and fill the requirements to survive for everyone. Even now, with 7 billion people we can count that there is approx. 3,500 cal of grain per person per day to be consumed... but we all know how the s*** goes down... Sorry for the expression, but I feel strongly about this issue.

      I'd like to hear your thoughts about the possible outcomes and positive/ negative side-effect significantly lengthening human lifespan all around the globe would have. In my opinion, it will be only a few people with money and the right geographical location who will be able to benefit from the new technologies and medicine for a quite a long time. The world is very divided and unequal as I have stated many times before and therefore lengthening one's lifespan might create new "classes" and make bigger gaps between people of the world. If someone invents "the cure for death and aging" I'm sure they won't be giving it away for free.

      So I'm quoting myself and asking you:
      1) What are the social, economical, political, global, religious etc concerns behind trying to lengthen human lifespan?
      2) In your opinion, are there more positive or negative possible outcomes for developing biological and genetic engineering, medicine etc. to lengthen the human lifespan significantly? Why is that?
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    Dec 19 2011: Don't be offended by what I said in my previous comment Krisztian, what I was merely trying to convey to you was how human beings have begun to perceive death as being a significant issue with their lives. In the end, we must all try and understand what the world is, right? I hope you agree with that. Some of our purposes here may be different, we seek many different things in this world, but in the end, be it immoral or moral actions, we seek to understand who we are through those very actions. I'm not talking from a global perspective, I'm talking from the point of view that some people are ignorant to many things in this life and they need to change. And when you said that it was irrelevant fearing death in this conversation, please Krisztian enlighten me as to why people would even try to lengthen their lifespan if they didn't fear death at all? What I was trying to convey to you was this mass hysteria that people have concerning death. It is a natural part of life, as Emma has stated. It is part of a natural process of nature. We die and we let go. I won't question other people's beliefs in this regard, but I would like to question them, ask them why they are so afraid. Is it the social atmosphere, the constant religious upbringing that speaks of Hell and Heaven or is it some other inherent psychological issue concerning materialism. All I'm trying to say is that, people should learn to let go than accumulating anxiety, money, thought, discussion and unnecessary health issues into lengthening one's lifespan.
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      Dec 19 2011: i was not offended, but now i am. you intentionally ignore what i'm saying? this conversation is NOT about death and its perception. this topic is about consequences of lengthening it. motivations simply does not matter. we have quite a lot religious topics around, so it won't hurt if you open your own, and discuss why death is a good thing. you can link the aubrey de grey talk as related. i won't participate in that conversation, because i don't have a hard opinion on the matter. but others might be interested. here, it is simply irrelevant. you have the right to put your opinion here of course, but please don't pretend that it is connected to my views in any meaningful way. it is not.
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    Dec 19 2011: Kristian and Emma,

    Thank you for responding to my outburst about autism prevention, as an alternative way to keep health care costs down. I'm sorry to sidetrack the main conversastion, so I'll try to be very brief when I answer Kristian's question:

    >> "The most likely cause is cumulative low-grade poisoning, with things like mercury, lead, copper and aluminium"
    according to who?
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      Dec 19 2011: indeed, it was brief :)
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        Dec 19 2011: That was strange. I guess the system clipped my message at the point where I put in the END-QUOTE.

        The poisoning theory is more a concern than a full-blown belief, i.e. a question about what risks we can allow ourselves to take while we develop our understanding of the problem. I've lived with this problem in my family for 25 years, have read everything I've come across about the causes and gone to countless conferences, and believe we hae ample reason for concern. Very simply put, lead is over 50 times more poisonous in the presence of mercury and vice versa, and the toxicity of both increases in the presence of testosterone. If you want to read more, start with the work done by professor Boyd Haley.

        There's already some evidence. The lab results are clear, but we don't have enough of them yet. Amalgam fillings, for example, don't seem to give off enough mercury to harm most people, but we know that it's concentrated across the placenta, and the rise in autism happened to the first generation to be born after such fillings became widespread. The epidemiological evidence is ambiguous. The rise in violent crime, for example, mirrors our exposure to tetraethyllead with a 22-year time lag, but both of them also mirror other factors as well. It's a mess - but one we I think we can't afford to ignore.

        In haste,
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          Dec 19 2011: in some way, this falls very much into the topic of this discussion. we don't want to treat people in a way they don't want. offer a vaccine with mercury for one dollar, and without mercury for 15 dollars if this is the extra production cost. let people decide. those who don't believe in the adverse effects of small amount of mercury, can chose that. those who want to be cautious (and who would not be?), give the mercury free version, and charge some more money.

          giving mercury to someone has no ethical aspects, as long as everything is voluntary and honest.
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    Dec 19 2011: Zdenek, you wrote that "I think the real problem with the good use of resources are not necessarily individuals but rather governments that spend trillions of dollars on wars, false security measures and laws that aid big corporations rather than the public".

    You are right, of course - except that it's not the one or the other. Governments make their own mistakes, particularly when they don't have democratic feedback. When they do get that feedback, however, you very often see politicians get into power on the strength of their short-term promises. That is one of the main reasons why countries run up debt.

    The biggest US problem right now is not the wars, or the debt as such, but the way the debt is increasing mainly because health care spending is out of control. Health care is nice. Everyone loves it, and wants to spare no expense when they feel they "need" it (or their loved ones). The problem is that all those costs add up. To say it (over)simply: We are bankrupting our kids and grandkids, in order to keep ourselves and our parents alive. And in order to save money, we're not even giving our kids the kinds of education that might have enabled them to pay the debt off.

    Atul Gawande wrote a brilliant article about the mechanics and psychology of health care spending a couple of years back, called "The Cost Conundrum". It depicts a medical system that has gone half the way towards where Law is now (I'm a lawyer). The only way out of this mess is to spend more sparingly and wisely. Europe manages to run health care systems that are much cheaper, and not that much worse.

    We also need to start reconciling ourselves with death.
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    Dec 18 2011: Thank you all for contributing to this conversation! I need to tell you that my thoughts have already been flipped over and around a few times and you have made me notice at least one naturalistic fallacy in my own arguments (claiming death and aging to be natural and therefore something we should just accept).

    Also one other point is that the question setting of the original question here is not really what I even meant. Actually the only ethical problem behind the actual lengthening of a human lifespan is if we want to lengthen the life of someone who would most probably suffer from it more than just to die away. The real ethical questions are elsewhere and rise of the social, economical, political, global and even religious viewpoints behind the actual issue.

    Perhaps what I should've been asking in the first place is:
    1) What are the social, economical, political, global, religious etc concerns behind trying to lengthen human lifespan?
    2) In your opinion, are there more positive or negative possible outcomes for developing biological and genetic engineering, medicine etc. to lengthen the human lifespan significantly? Why is that?

    This is a very intriguing topic and I'm blown away by all of your brilliant and thorough comments! How does my new setting of questions look like?
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      Dec 18 2011: that's kind of an unexpected turn. i rarely see arguments actually working and finding their ways to people's minds. so kudos to you for it.

      to the questions.

      1. as you pointed out, if the lifespan is lengthened considerably, population could go up. i believe it has an ethical aspect, which is: every couple must ask whether they will be able to raise their children on a level of wellbeing they find appropriate. as the expected longevity increases, that question becomes more and more difficult to answer. all sort of political and economical consequences follow as well. as soon as significant life extending will be possible, the desire for such treatments will skyrocket. there will be a lot of turmoil about fairness and equality, and we might hear the wish to establish some "longevity cap". i can't want to hear what major religions have to say about this. suppose we can live practically forever. will such treatment allowed to a christian? will they ban it?

      2. considering how terrible aging is, the net result has to be massively positive.
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        Dec 19 2011: To me the whole purpose of sharing thoughts and having conversations is to grow and learn and realize some false assumptions one might have, gain new perspectives etc. If one wants to have a "conversation" just to proof their own point and is not ready to open one's mind up to new ideas, I don't really consider it a real conversation. In my opinion it shows character and a level of maturity if one is able to admit one's mistakes, misconceptions or limited knowledge and therefore gain new knowledge and understanding of the world and life itself. Stubbornness to hold on to one's original hypothesis or views is one of the things that I think is very often hindering our possibilities to develop.
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    Dec 18 2011: PS, Yes, I think it's selfish to try to live longer and longer. But we're only human.
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    Dec 18 2011: Krisztian, I wouldn't regard death and aging as problems, do you?

    I will tell you something Krisztian, have you ever thought about why a human is 'doomed' to die in the end? Neither have I, because I wouldn't know unless I died too, hoping that our minds aren't completely destroyed by that time. I have read the Upanishads, Vedas, hardly even touched the Bible because it isn't really relevant in this issue, and I came across a stunning realization. We try to avoid death due to a fear of the unknown, due to the fear that we may be forgotten, more importantly due to the fear that all our materialistic possessions and our bodies would just disintegrate. What an extremely human view of death that is. No, I've realized that with all of our science and medicine what we've done is create more problems for ourselves rather than solve anything. No, I've realized that death is our way to living forever. This may sound like it's straight from out of a movie, but I strongly believe in this fact. I do not fear death. You can take it from a scientific point of view. Have you ever heard of the Law of Conservation of Energy and Mass? I don't think so, but I'll tell you what it is...The law states that energy and mass can neither be created nor destroyed only transformed from one form to another. That is what is happening to us. Our mass is a manifestation of pure energy, when we die, this mass will transform into energy and will ascend. Don't think I'm some sort of religious fanatic, but this is what I strongly believe. In the end Krisztian, I can't really argue with you and you can't really argue with me, because both of us have no idea what death is at this point.......unless your a zombie of course.....
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      Dec 18 2011: i do.


      it is irrelevant why we fear death for this conversation. having stupid reasons is not immoral. in fact, most of our reasons are silly to some degree. stealing someone's wallet with or without a good reason is immoral. the act itself is immoral. not using a cellphone to avoid brain cancer is probably silly, but not immoral, since the act itself is not immoral.

      moral questions always aimed to change the behavior of other people. if something is immoral, we go out to great distances to stop that behavior. that is why it is very important to clearly define what is false, silly, questionable or immoral. we don't have to persecute false and silly things. it is enough to just argue them. but we do want to fight immorality with an iron fist. if overpopulation is an immoral act, it has serious consequences to our personal rights.
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    Dec 18 2011: in order to scare you even more, i drop this in:


    it is mostly scientific, but he makes the point that yes, overpopulation can be a problem, but aging and death already is a problem, and quite severe at that. basically he asks whether it is moral not to try to save people from that suffering.
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      Dec 18 2011: I find it very interesting that someone thinks death and aging are "problems" that we could or should somehow fix. Biologically thinking death is just a part of our life, and it's part of the natural circle of life that goes on and enables for our human species to regenerate and evolve. I think death has become a "problem" for those who have forgotten about or are in complete denial our human nature and started to think our highly developed brain and the things that we have created (societies, cultures, technology, religions, medicine etc.) makes us some kind of "higher beings" that are just trapped in decaying bodies.

      I think human mind is the most extraordinary thing there is, but it doesn't change the fact that we are biological, material beings. I think it's great that we can enhance the quality of life and save people from dying before they have lived full lives. Sometimes I do think it's cruel to try to keep someone alive, for example a baby that's been born way before it's time and is not developed enough and will suffer for the rest of it's life if it will be "saved" or a person suffering from a terminal illness etc. In my opinion it is more humane to let them die than make them live.

      Here we actually come to another counter-topic: Is euthanasia acceptable? In my opinion it is acceptable. In many cases it's the people who remain that don't want to let go, not the person who will die.
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        Dec 18 2011: well, it is rather easy to see why aging is a problem. ask anyone who is old. it comes with pain, reduced mental and physical powers and all sort of illnesses. the fact that it is natural changes nothing. disease is natural too, but we still combat it. cold is natural, but we use heating and insulation. it is a false view to separate things to natural and unnatural. it is natural for an animal to change its surroundings, and seek better conditions. we, humans, are the best in this, but not the only one. ants' nest? is it natural? imagine an ant worker saying "we should not dig these wholes in the ground. we should live in harmony with nature."

        i don't think there are any ethical consequences in any medical treatments that can make life longer. this is simply not an ethical question. it opens up a lot of ethical questions though, for example who will pay for it, and who will pay for the research of such treatments. these are interesting questions. but making someone healthier for longer time is not questionable.
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          Dec 18 2011: Of couse. And let's keep in mind that agriculture has been a far more un-natural revolution than curing aging or death will ever be.
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          Dec 18 2011: Thank you for your comment! Very well put and this comment with a bunch of others really helps me realize my original question and it's setting is not very interesting any more. The whole idea and topic has grown leaps and bounds in my head thanks to all of you that have contributed to the conversation!

          I notice my "argument" about death and aging being natural is a naturalistic fallacy, and I'm quite amazed I didn't notice it myself - this is why conversation is so important! I have one question for you though: do you think it still isn't an ethical question to make someone healthier for a longer time if it's about making someone for example terminally ill relatively healthier for a longer time but thereby lengthening one's lifespan?
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        Dec 18 2011: emma, i don't exactly see your point here with the terminal illness. i think the litmus test here is informed decision. if someone chooses death over ten years of disability, it is a valid choice that nobody else can make but the person himself. but of course the opposite decision is just as good. however, if the person is deprived from that decision, and forced to choose either way, it is a serious problem.
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    Dec 18 2011: Some discussion is going on here if expensive medical care has to be given to people over 80 years of age.
    This to limit the costs of insurance.
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    Dec 18 2011: As a lawyer, I'm thoroughly disillusioned about the idea of "rights". A "right" is an elastic concept. It has at least seven different types of meaning. People will try to escape their evolutionary and biological limitations, whether they can or not, and they will invent all kinds of justifications, some of them will be called "rights" and some "wrongs", depending on perpspective. Wnen push comes to shove, and people starve, the rich will keep their elderly alive much longer than poor can do - and they will see it as their "inalienable right" to do so.
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      Dec 18 2011: I was very interested in hearing your point of view on this particular concept of "rights" so I'm glad you picked up on that. I hear you and I understand what you mean, but what still leaves me hanging here is so you think it's better to just say "it's neither good nor bad, it is what it is" and thereby let the world be divided and unequal and just accept it? I understand the semantics of the words are complex and I don't take them as something given and universal, but I am curious if you have any personal opinions on weather or not it's acceptable to try to significantly lengthen human lifespan? We can always say, that we can't be sure and that there are many ways to look at things, but we usually also have our own opinion about what is right and what is not, and now I'm asking your personal opinion if you wish to share it(: Just curious because you clearly understand the framework of these questions very well. Thank you!
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        Dec 18 2011: I think our Western Societies are spending too much on keeping old people alive. However, since our societies are built on a premise that people should have as much freedom as possible to allocate their resources wherever they want to, it's hard to do anything politically to scale back this effort. It may be "low utility" from the government's point of view, but it can have very high utility from the point of view of the individual elderly person or his/her family. That brings us straight back to the core of the matter: The way that private ownership of resources leads to outcomes that may be good for the individual, but less good for the group. How free should we be to spend our money on beef, which causes more grain to be fed to cows, which causes grain prices to go up, which causes people to starve to death?

        I'm all for political action, but see other problems as more pressing than to limit the number of octogenarians. Autism has increased by a factor of 20 over the last 25 years. Autism hits boys 4 times more often than girls, which means that whatever is causing autism to go up, is probably acting synergistically with testosterone. I'm afraid that it's not a coincidence that the ratio of boys to girls in our colleges has gone down to 40/60 over the same time span. The most likely cause is cumulative low-grade poisoning, with things like mercury, lead, copper and aluminium, that are relatively harmless in very small doses when acting alone, but which are dramatically more poisonous when allowed to act together. Testosterone is known to increase the toxicity. Estrogen protects. This ongoing problem is something we very definitely can't afford as a society, and yet NOBODY is doing a thing about it.
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          Dec 18 2011: I never knew those things about autism, thank you for filling me in with this very important information. It's a very disturbing thing to hear that it could be caused by a cumulative low-grade poisoning, I've never even thought this kind of a thing would be possible.

          As we see, increasing knowledge is crucial. This piece of information I just received, makes me want to look into it more.

          Also thank you for sharing your opinion!
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          Dec 18 2011: "The most likely cause is cumulative low-grade poisoning, with things like mercury, lead, copper and aluminium"

          according to who?
        • Dec 18 2011: Perhaps the issue is not that individuals spend their earned money to live longer but rather how expensive pills and medical services became, particularly in the US when compared to the rest of the world for no other reason than due to bureaucracy, pharma companies and profit of insurers.

          I think the real problem with the good use of resources are not necessarily individuals but rather governments that spend trillions of dollars on wars, false security measures and laws that aid big corporations rather than the public.
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    Dec 18 2011: - When it comes to overpopulation, it is true that the facts have showed us this is not the real problem right now. What I meant with overpopulation in this case, is that if we increase our lifespans significantly, we upset the biological “circle of life” and are still hanging around when we naturally would already been six feet under. Would that possibly lead to overpopulation of the planet and really exceeding the limits of sustainability for good?

    I think lack of education and religion are the root of all evil. when it comes to overpopulation in certain areas of the world. More contraceptives, better medical care, even a right to have an abortion would lessen the suffering significantly. There are, in my opinion, some very dangerous religious rules and teachings that are making it very hard to fix certain things, as contraceptives and therefore also the spreading of HIV/AIDS etc. As Dylan F said in his post, we really have all the potential but we're terribly lacking of the will to strive towards global equality. I think global inequality and political selfishness are the biggest causes of famine and lack of required means for survival and global wellbeing. There is theoretically enough of food and land on this planet for all people, but they're so unequally divided, it's not even a valid argument anymore. It’s politics all the way.

    What about the motives behind trying to live longer? Is it that we've forgotten about the fact that we're animals with a frail and degrading corpses and become so arrogant in our intellectual and spiritual understanding, that we are starting to play with our genes and try to find a quick-fix to our little problem of mortality?
    • Dec 18 2011: " ...when we naturally would already been six feet under. "

      I wonder what is natural? Is it natural that unlike animals we started to use fire? Is it natural that we sit in front of a computer and communicate through the thing called the Internet? Or is it natural that through evolution we developed ability to think and used it to our advantage as other animals use different traits as well?

      We do not really can predict the future so while people will live longer and longer our technology might solve problems that are associated with this phenomena. The trend is that technology is allowing us to be more efficient, use renewable resources like sun and wind, use less natural resources such as paper (with the Internet people buy less books, magazines and receive less mail, for example) and venture into space to mine diminishing metals etc.

      However I do agree we need to ensure our way of life is indeed sustainable and it will not affect future generations. I also agree with lack of education and cultural/religious dogmas constraining our ability to act. In US greed and influence of powerful corporations and politicians dictates how government spends money without considering much environment and educational needs.

      "What about the motives behind trying to live longer?"
      I think for some people trying to live longer can open great possibilities to learn and experience the world. Similarly technology will continue to allow us to do things we could never do before. I see likely that eventually we will merge technology with our bodies and becoming even less similar to animals. Why should that be wrong thing to do?

      One potential problem I do see with people living much longer. In the past older generations kept their religious and ethical beliefs while the next generation pushes forward more liberal views and practices. Hopefully as we start living much longer we learn to never stop learning and adjusting to new ideas and better way of creating equality and morality?
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        Dec 18 2011: Please see my comment to Kristzián! I realized also my naturalistic fallacy is not taking me anywhere and is not interesting to a point of being irrelevant.

        I just read John Dewey's book "Quest for Certainty" and I thought he discussed the conflict between ancient philosophy and the quest of human mind to find the absolute certainty and "truth" behind everything and how religion and this kind of ancient believes have and still are hindering our ability to utilise all the new information and knowledge. It is a very interesting topic also and I really hope that the human kind will develop slowly and by that I here mean letting go all religious and other dogmatic believes.
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    Dec 18 2011: Thank you all for very interesting points and great comments! It is true that the word "ethical" is very tricky and I was hesitant to use it, but I thought it might trigger emotions as well as opinions so I used it after all. Ethics of modern medicine have been discussed a lot and (as Jorgen gave us examples of it) is not an easy question either, if you look at from a point of our biological frailty and the fact that we're here to die after all, not to live forever.

    I would like to address another se of questions. If we hypothetically would think it's ok to lengthen our lifespans (technology, medical and gene engineering etc.)these solutions would (most probably) for a very long time be available for only certain people with a lot of money, the right geographical location, socio-economical background, cultural heritage etc. factors. People's life expectancies in different parts of the world are already very different (from around 40 to over 100 y expectancies) and the medical care and basic requirements for survival are not meeting people's needs. What do you think, does the request of trying to lengthen human lifespan create an even bigger gap between the ones that can access this new information and inventions and those who are less fortunate and are struggling to stay alive in so many parts of the world. Are we creating just another level of inequality into this world? Would it be better to accept out limited lifespans and then try to make the most out of it for everyone. In my opinion we can’t tag along forever, we need to turn into dust at one point so the next generations can fill in from were we left off.
  • Dec 18 2011: I think it would be unethical to ignore the possibility of improving lives. We should do everything we can to learn and support cutting edge technology. I am amaze at this site. I just found it.
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      Dec 18 2011: Thanks for your comment!

      I agree with you that we should try to constantly learn and develop knew knowledge. In my opinion it is also very important to discuss the possible outcomes and side effects some of our new technologies and innovations might have. After all, if you innovate something brilliant that would for example improve significantly the lives of 10,000 people, but deprive other people on the planet of basic requirements for life, would it be ethical? I think everything is connected because we share this planet and it's limited assets all together and we should try to think of ourselves as a part of the entity and not just ourselves or our country etc. It's a very complex world we live in.

      I'm glad you found TED! I've been watching the talks for a long time, but just registered and joined the conversation myself(: Welcome!