But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.
By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. My children will be grown and in the midst of their own rich lives. I will have seen my grandchildren born and beginning their lives. I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make. And hopefully, I will not have too many mental and physical limitations. Dying at 75 will not be a tragedy. Indeed, I plan to have my memorial service before I die. And I don’t want any crying or wailing, but a warm gathering filled with fun reminiscences, stories of my awkwardness, and celebrations of a good life. After I die, my survivors can have their own memorial service if they want—that is not my business.
My Osler-inspired philosophy is this: At 75 and beyond, I will need a good reason to even visit the doctor and take any medical test or treatment, no matter how routine and painless. And that good reason is not “It will prolong your life.” I will stop getting any regular preventive tests, screenings, or interventions. I will accept only palliative—not curative—treatments if I am suffering pain or other disability.
Tyler Cowen counters over at Marginal Revolution.
Still, it strikes me as a somewhat strange approach to understanding the value of a life or estimating when that value ends. The value of an individual life is to be sure somewhat ineffable, but for that same reason it is difficult for a life to lose so much of its value.
Or visit the list of words in Emanuel’s paragraph, cited above. Many people are “disabled” to begin with, and many other lives are “deprived” to begin with, for one thing most of the lives in the world’s poorer countries. But they are still, on the whole, extremely valuable lives. I don’t just mean that external parties should respect the rights and lives of those persons, but rather internally and individually those lives are of great value.
And to sound petty for a moment, I don’t want to pass away during the opening moments of a Carlsen-Caruana match, or before an NBA season has finished (well, it depends on the season), or before the final volumes of Knausgaard are translated into English. And this is a never-ending supply. The world is a fascinating place and I fully expect to appreciate it at the age of eighty, albeit with some faculties less sharp. What if the Fermi Paradox is resolved, or a good theory of quantum gravity developed? What else might be worth waiting for?
I cannot help but feel that Emanuel is overrating some key aspects of what are supposed to be making his current life valuable, and thus undervaluing his future life past age seventy-five. (See David Henderson too on that point.)
No doubt there are diminishing returns on health spending the older a person gets. That's a thorny issue, especially in the U.S. where we spend a ton on people near the end of their lives with little to show for it in health outcomes.
Still, it frightens me to value people's lives purely on their creative contributions to society. If someone is born with a serious handicap...I don't want to even go there. Also, it strikes me as deeply human (that is, deeply irrational) to be so concerned about one's posthumous legacy.
A much more difficult problem to me is what happens if we come up with some way for humans to live indefinitely. If, through some advance in medicine, or perhaps some variant of the singularity, our minds could live on in perpetuity, should we offer that to everyone? If it were just our minds, and we left behind our bodies, that might solve the overpopulation problem, no?
The philosophical conundrums of such a development are so vast I don't know where to even begin.
If humans could live forever, it would transform our civilization in ways more profound than just about any other technological breakthrough. Lifelong marriage—already on the ropes in the age of ever-lengthening lifespans—would cease to make sense. Overpopulation could become an even more significant issue than it is now. The cost of war might have to be re-evaluated. We could live long enough for humans to reach other stars. Young people might find themselves unable to compete in an ossified job market, full of people with centuries of experience.
Has Peter Thiel ever expounded on his desire to be immortal? Did anyone see The Immortalists at SXSW this year?