By Fr Joseph Tham
Recently, I read a book by Gilbert Meilaender, called Should We Live Forever? The Ethical Ambiguities of Aging. The question of aging and immortality does not seem, at first glance, to be a bioethical topic. This little book by the Methodist theologian offers profound insights to the oft-ignored questions underlying many bioethical debates today—from euthanasia and the right to die, to regenerative medicine which attempts to extend life using stem cells and cloning, to enhancement and transhumanism. All these pressing issues lead, in one way or another, to the deeper question of why we want to control our lifespan, and why the idea of life-extension is so full of ambiguities.
In this work the author approaches the ethics of aging from philosophical, medical and theological perspectives. Skillfully written and full of literary references, Meilaender succeeds in weaving a compelling analysis with references ranging from Greek philosophers to modern thinkers, from classical works and poetry to theological insights, together with a suitable input of psychology and biology. He has a spectacular command of authors as diverse as Aristotle, Barth, Kierkegaard, Goethe, Dante, Kant, MacIntrye and Huxley.
As the subtitle indicates, the question of aging is filled with ethical ambiguities. Life is a good, but should we hang on to life at all cost? As technology allows us to live longer, is immortality necessarily desirable? What are we to do if we can live indefinitely, wouldn’t we be bored? How would human virtues, especially the virtue of patience, help us to understand this? If we can conquer death, would our humanity be at risk? Would we still need or want to generate and propagate? These queries inevitably lead us to theology. What does it mean to lead a good life, a life that is complete? What would a life of being forever young consist in? How does the belief of eternal life factor into this equation?
The book reviews three possible views on the ethics of indefinite life extension. The first view is naturalistic, characteristically embraced by the scientific community and most enthusiastically by the transhumanists. According to this understanding, earthly life is good and so to extend our existence as long as we can would also be good. They hope to achieve this by healthy diet, exercise and using all technologies at our disposal. Life would be good, however, only in a state of perpetual health and capacity.
There are those, such as proponents of the “immortality project”, who foresee the possibility of a “virtual” existence without our bodies through interface with computers, cybernetics and artificial intelligence. Critics of this position see the unrealistic prospect of this endeavour. In fact, as Meilaender observes, their goal may not be immortality per se, but the need to eliminate the mystery of death and contingency that is built into any biological organism. Besides, indefinite existence would strip us of our humanity because we would become narcissistic, without the drive growth in virtue, to share and to pass the baton on to future generations.
A second position sees life in terms of different stages of development. Youth is a time of preparation and projection often characterized by curiosity and rashness. On the other spectrum, old age is a time of reminiscence, evaluation of our accomplishments and is characterized by prudence and relative inaction. Lying inbetween is adulthood, where we are at our prime to carry out our life’s project. In this vision, life is complete when we manage to live out the different stages satisfactorily, achieving the goals we set for ourselves. Thus, truncated life, for example caused by early death, would be a tragedy. Accordingly, prolonging our lifespan unnecessarily would also destroy the meaningfulness of life’s trajectory, since an “ending“ is also part of the story. We need to accept the nature of our life cycles, and a good life consists in growing virtuously in this life and passing on what we learnt to our progenies.
A third vision is religiously oriented. Life is good, and the desire for life without end is innate in us. But this form of existence can be satisfying only if it lies beyond this earthly life. That is, we are made to transcend ourselves, which in Christian theology means we are custom-made for eternity. Unlike the previous position, our life has meaning not so much in fulfilling a series of preset tasks, but in the journey itself which can take on different and often unexpected turns. Hope is necessary to keep us going, and every moment of this trajectory is meaningful because each is equidistant from our destiny which is found in God.
With the vertiginous advance of medical technology which allows us to extend human lifespan, these questions are becoming ever more relevant and acute. This interesting volume is therefore valuable in addressing the underlying issues that are often left unexplored. Perhaps, what is a bit surprising is the lack of mention of Heidegger and Gabriel Marcel who have thought deeply about these questions, albeit as philosophers. Nonetheless, the author is commended for including abundant theological perspectives which is unfortunately a rarity in contemporary bioethical discussions.