Immortality Institute's director, Bruce Klein, was quoted recently by Betterhumans writer Simon Smith in a rebuttal to Leon Kass's stringent stance against immortality
Bush bioethicist Leon Kass wants an end to life extension efforts. But he has yet to offer a good reason.
by: Simon Smith
[Tuesday, December 03, 2002] Leon Kass wants me to die. And you too. In fact, he thinks it's good for us.
If you don't know who Kass is, you should. Born in Chicago, Illinois in February 1939, this conservative thinker chairs the US President's Council on Bioethics -- an organization that advises on biomedical science and technology issues, and ultimately steers related US legislation and policy.
According to Crisis magazine, Kass has criticized society's movement toward feminism, gay rights, divorce, single parenthood and premarital sex. He has also vocally opposed abortion, euthanasia, therapeutic cloning and stem cell research. And he has made his position on such matters unchallengeable. "He has crafted and promulgated, as a core aspect of his philosophy, an entire pseudo-intellectual defence of 'yuck' reactions, which he terms 'the wisdom of repugnance,'" notes The American Prospect.
Not a great start if you're a Transhumanist -- or any other type of rational humanist, for that matter. And it gets worse. Kass's Chairman's Vision hints at what influences his beliefs. "We must avoid runaway scientism and the utopian project to remake humankind in our own image," Kass writes.
"In our own image" obviously contrasts "in God's image," and shows that Kass's bioethical thinking is religiously influenced. Lee Silver, a Princeton molecular biologist and the author of Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World, believes that Kass is a theologian in a secular philosopher's clothing. Bush couldn't have appointed a Catholic bishop to head his bioethics council, says Silver, but gets essentially the same thing with Kass along with an MD and PhD to provide a veneer of secularity (Kass is Jewish, but is often identified with the Christian right).
Which brings me to Kass's latest project: battling against life extension. Lately, it's occupying more and more of his attention -- this month, for example, he gave a talk in my home town of Toronto called "Why not Immortality?"
Your dreams of living a long, healthy life are his nightmares. Kass promotes conservative, religiously influenced opinions on life extension rather than rational arguments. And he has a major influence on US biomedical policy. Beware if you hold progressive, liberal views about extending life. And heaven help you if you're striving for immortality.
Radical life extension
In Kass's praise, however, I will say this: Unlike many top public figures, he is at least aware of important scientific and technological advances. "Laboratory-assisted reproduction, artificial organs, genetic manipulation, psychoactive drugs, computer implants in the brain, and techniques to conquer aging -- these and other present and projected techniques for altering our bodies and minds pose challenges to the very meaning of our humanity," Kass said in a May 2000 talk called "L'Chaim and Its Limits: Why Not Immortality?"
Specifically related to life extension, Kass has addressed three approaches: Hormone replacement, stem cell technology and genetic engineering. He points to the use of human growth hormone to restore and enhance youth, the use of stem cells to replace worn out organs and tissues and the use of genetic engineering to manipulate switches that control aging. Alone or in combination, these could radically extend lifespan -- and relatively soon.
But unlike many people, Kass doesn't see hope in such developments. He is concerned with the entire endeavour. "It is most worthwhile to re-examine the assumption upon which we have been operating: that everything should be done to preserve health and prolong life as much as possible, and that all other values must bow before the biomedical gods of better health, greater vigor, and longer life," he says.
Kass believes that life extension will have bad social consequences and impair distributive justice. Extending everyone's lifespan, he suggests, could be a Tragedy of Commons in which, say, demographic changes lead to massive environmental degradation. Alternatively, radical life extension -- or even immortality -- will be unfairly granted only to the wealthy, he believes.
On both counts, says Bruce Klein, director of a membership-based longevity-promoting organization called the Immortality Institute, Kass is misguided. "Alarmists have been warning for decades that the world's population is growing too large. Yet, as populations have increased, so have the technologies that improve crop yield and increase efficiency. And as technological advancements spill over into developing countries, people's lives are improved," says Klein. "Kass yearns for a politically correct future while at the same time advocating death."
Kass is unabashedly calling for stricter state ownership over its citizens' bodies. The reality is that everyone is entitled to make their own informed choices. As Klein states, "People will rebel against any government attempting to dictate maximal levels of happiness, intelligence and lifespan. Parents will continue to want the best for their children. Individuals will continue to improve and extend their lives. The 'tragedy' would be in trying to deny people this opportunity."
And even if left only to market forces, notes Klein, radical life extension would become widely available. "In the short term, Kass is right. Wealthier people will live longer. But can the rich really bottle up immortality? It's likely they'd not succeed, nor would they even try. Quite the opposite, wealthy individuals will invest their money to promote anti-aging products in the hopes of making even more money. And because of well understood market forces and economies of scale, people will benefit accordingly."
And if not, Kass shouldn't fight life extension to increase equality. He should advocate for public health care.
No death, no meaning
But, of course, countering Kass's opinions isn't that easy: He is dead-set against life extension. "This is a question in which our very humanity is at stake, not only in the consequences but also in the very meaning of the choice," he says. "For to argue that human life would be better without death is, I submit, to argue that human life would be better being something other than human." (A pile of rotting flesh is also something other than human, I believe, but we'll put that aside for now.)
Kass thinks death is both good and necessary. He offers four key benefits:
Interest and engagement: The pleasures of life wouldn't increase proportionately to years, Kass believes. "Would professional tennis players really enjoy playing 25% more games of tennis?" he asks
Seriousness and aspiration: We can't aspire or be serious without (ahem) a deadline, he says
Beauty and love: Like a sunset, Kass suggests, life is beautiful because it has an ending
Virtue and moral excellence: Mortality means that we can give our lives to higher causes, says Kass
None of these benefits stands up to scrutiny.
Take interest and engagement. Kass has distorted the issue by suggesting that people would extend their lifespan just to keep doing things that they've done before -- even if they no longer make them happy. Would they? Of course not. They'd stay interested and engaged by challenging themselves and seeking new experiences. I met a life-extensionist named Robin Helweg-Larsen a few months back and asked what he would do with more time. "I want to live for a few years in every culture," he said. Lacking interest and engagement? Laughable.
"There will never be a shortage of new activities, new understanding, and new experiences," writes philosopher Max More in an essay called "Meaningfulness and Mortality." "Perhaps we might one day come to know a completed physics and chemistry, though even this is denied by some theorists. But we cannot exhaust the technological applications of those physical laws. There will always be innovative art -- music, graphic art, writing, dance, and forms as yet unconceived. There are no limits to the personal relationships we can create and develop. There is no limit to the social forms we can develop, and no limit to the games we can invent."
What about seriousness, aspiration, virtue and moral excellence? Kass is wrong here as well. People become more serious about life with the wisdom of age, not less. The longer they live, the more they can aspire to do. And the greater their abilities, the greater their realm of ethical actions. "How can a dead person help anyone?" asks Klein. "Is it more noble to die and only help a few, or live forever and help an infinite number of people?"
And life would still be beautiful without death. Flowers and sunsets are beautiful because they are varied, unique and evolving, not because they die. Nobody's promoting stagnation, only life extension. "I believe Kass echoes a common misconception about the immortality," says Klein. "He envisions a rocking chair lifestyle for seniors while overlooking the writing on the wall. People are not just living longer, they're living healthier. Scientists are not just in the process of stopping aging, they're working to turn back the clock."
Science versus religion
There's one more opinion Kass puts forward that deserves attention: He believes that humans long for something eternal that they're trying to fill with a quest for immortality, while they should really strive for God. "The promise of immortality and eternity answers rather to a deep truth about the human soul: the human soul yearns for, longs for, aspires to some condition, some state, some goal toward which our earthly activities are directed but which cannot be attained in earthly life," says Kass. "The human taste for immortality, for the imperishable and the eternal, is not a taste that the biomedical conquest of death could satisfy. We would still be incomplete; we would still lack wisdom; we would still lack God's presence and redemption."
Finally, Kass comes clean. It's not life extension that appears to bother him, but our turning away from relying on supernatural forces toward taking responsibility for our future.
Kass sees our quest for longevity as destroying what makes us human. But that's based on his opinion of what it means to be part of the species. Our current quest for longer life is a continuation of our maturity, from a brutish Stone Age existence with 18-year lifespans to a future of expanded health, vitality, wisdom and knowledge.
Kass is entitled to his opinions. But he's not entitled to inhibit the continuation of hundreds of thousands of years of human progress.
Simon Smith is the founder and editor-in-chief of Betterhumans. You can reach him at email@example.com.