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It's not immoral to want to be immortal

Fears of a world of geezers who hog up all the resources are overblown, writes bioethicist Arthur Caplan.
Image: Living Longer
Kim Carney /
/ Source: contributor

Is it right to want to try to live forever? This ethical question is being kicked around quite a bit these days.

As the science of regenerative medicine using stem cells inches forward, as more is understood about how lifestyle influences longevity, as organ and tissue transplants become routine and as geneticists begin to unravel the secrets of why we age, the prospect of living forever — or at least until the Cubs win a pennant — makes the question something more than an exercise in science fiction.

What is particularly interesting is that many of those raising the question of the ethics of immortality do so with an answer already in mind — “No, it’s not right!” Both conservative and liberal writers alike are expressing a lot of moral angst in recent books, articles and opinion pieces about the prospect of people hanging around long, long after the last broadcast of "The Price Is Right" has aired, which could be an eternity.

Why is the prospect of immortality viewed in such a negative light? A bunch of different reasons can be found in the writings of the growing ranks of anti-agers. An often-invoked argument is that using science to create a world of geezers would not only cost a ton of money, it would not be a lot of fun for anyone, especially the geezers. Living longer and longer only means more arthritis, more osteoporosis, more gum disease and more dementia — and who needs or wants that?

Another concern is that it is not right for humans to strive for immortality because it violates the natural order of things. We were meant to live roughly to a maximum of 100 years. Anything longer is way outside what God or evolution had in mind for us.

And those who fret about a world of immortals also worry that not only will it be stuffy and dull since the young will never get a chance to do anything, but it will also be a world full of the vain and self-centered who think themselves worthy of more and more life ad infinitum.

Do any of these arguments make sense? Is it really wrong to want to see more money spent by the government and industry to find technologies that would help us all live a lot longer?

Debate over living longer, not forever
To start, the issue of immortality needs to come off the table. No technology is available or even forseeable that will make immortality possible anytime in the lives of anyone reading this, or their kids, or their kids' kids. Live a lot longer? Maybe. Live forever? Not a chance anytime soon. The debate is really about living a lot longer than we now do, not living forever.

That said, arguments that we should not live a lot longer because we will grow decrepit are simply silly. No one proposes that we spend a lot of money on biomedical research to pursue a longer life of decrepitude and suffering. The idea behind radical life extension is that we live a decent quality of life for a lot longer. If all that is in store is frailty and mental decline, then the debate is over before it starts. But that is not what the debate is really about.

As for violating some natural limit if we live a lot longer — what limit? We have already doubled our lifespan since the days of the Hittites, Israelites, Greeks, Babylonians and Egyptians, all of whom were lucky to make it to 35. Are we already living unnatural, and thus immoral, lifespans?

And if you look at a Bible, there is no shortage of folks living hundreds and hundreds of years. And if you don’t care to look at a Bible, it is pretty clear that evolution has no real interest in how long any species lives. The blowfly is here a mere few weeks while some bacteria, sea grass, creosote bushes and fungi live thousands of years. Evolution cares not a whit how long you or I live, only that we survive to reproduce. There is no such thing as a "natural" lifespan — only what we can do with agriculture, engineering, medicine and public health.

It is true, as some critics of living longer point out, that it will be hard for the young to displace the old if the old don’t get out of the way. But that simply means the need to change social customs and laws to ensure that if lifespans expand, the old don’t hog up all the resources. Such changes might include upping the age for retirement but only allowing people to hold a particular job for a fixed period of time so that younger people have the opportunity to move up the ranks. Or we could implement forms of affirmative action for younger people to ensure they have a shot at top leadership positions. Alternately, employers might offer attractive incentive packages for early retirement. And people may have to wait longer to get those "senior" discounts.

Nor it is vain or indulgent to want to live longer. Ask your spouse, children, friends or grandchildren if they wish you could live longer. Vanity can drive the dream of immortality, but more often than not it is the desire to live for others that fuels the dream.

Despite a lot of hand-wringing and finger-pointing, it is not obvious that wanting to live a lot longer is evil or immoral. The case against trying is not convincing.

So keep exercising, support more funding for regenerative medicine and get on your Cubs gear — you might yet live to see a pennant.

Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.