The Morality of Radical Life Extension

Radical Life Extension (RLE) has taken the world by storm. Gerontology has produced remarkable amounts of research regarding various means by which humans can age better or even less. From genome editing technologies like CRISPR to pursuit of immorality, RLE takes many forms ranging from simply extending the length of the average human life to embedding human brains with computerized technologies. RLE enthusiasts and combatants incessantly debate the core question of the practice: is it morally right to extend life beyond its natural capacity?

What follows is a brief outline of various types and perceptions of RLE. Some RLE proponents advocate extending human life beyond the longest-documented lifespan of 120 years. Others envision an extension of human life to thousands of years. Accordingly, five types of RLE constitute the field. First, Longevity Escape Velocity (LEV) professes that with current trends in anti-aging research, doctors will continually be adding more years to the public’s lives, so by the time we reach a natural age of death, we will instead keep living due to these advances. Death, except by accident, will become extinct. Second, Morbidity Compression (MC) advocates shrinking the Frailspan, which is the period of time in which one’s body and mind become increasingly decrepit due to the aging process. As the real goal is to add life to one’s years rather than add years to one’s life, MC is considered a weak form of RLE. Third, Transhumanism argues that humans should use science and technology to eliminate aging and to enhance human physical and psychological capacities. Transhumanists see anti-aging technologies as part of the quest to create post-humans, as the human species is in a comparatively early stage of development. Fourth, Posthumanism believe that we must create human life that has at least one radically better component than does current human life. Fifth, Immoralists believe in adding years to one’s life to completely overcome aging. Without worry of individual diseases and other common health problems, Immoralists believe we wouldn’t even have to consider the Frailspan because it would simply fall away.

With this spectrum of RLE in mind, several questions surface surrounding the morality of RLE. Need we defend 120 years of age–the currently longest recorded human life–as the modern potential human lifespan? Is having a body an essential part of what it is to be human?Is aging an essential part of life? Is death an essential part of life? What goals should scientists, philanthropists, lawmakers, and the general public adopt when considering use and application of RLE? In light of an increasingly transhumanist world, these questions become less theoretical than one would assume at first glance. Take Elon Musk’s Neuralink, for example. Neuralink is a neurotechnology company which seeks to implant the human brain with computerized technologies. While many would love to have their intellectual capabilities exponentially maximized by use of a computer, some harbor ethical doubts surrounding the morality of doing so. It seems as if transhumanism could exacerbate power disparities, as economic disparity would increase from the rich flocking to purchase transhuman operations and devices, while the poor would remain unable to afford such new and specialized technology. This would leave our poorer national and international populations at risk of dying out altogether, as jobs would become more competitive and tailored to people with computerized brain functioning, and normal humans would no longer be capable of doing increasingly high-skilled, high-intelligence work. RLE could even promote international conflict. In 2016, the U.S. government declared gene editing a threat posed by weapons of mass destruction and proliferation due to its relative ease of use, low cost, and accelerated pace of development, which could pose economic and national security threats if misused. Additionally, potential safety concerns surrounding malfunction and success rates in early development stages may spur legislators and scientists to more heavily regulate the public use of such devices. Further, RLE may leave our species at risk of becoming less evolvable, which perhaps would increase humans’ susceptibility to extinction risks. In light of these relevant, far-reaching concerns surrounding widespread adoption of any forms of RLE, should we, morally, apply this research to the human population? If so, it remains to be seen in what form(s) publicly available RLE will first emerge, for better or for worse.

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Mallory Matheson

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