Is death bad?

This is a question close to my heart; I've been viscerally horrified by death for as long as I can remember. When I was young I refused to explain this fear to my parents, since I thought that if they really understood it, they'd suffer the same dread as I was undergoing. Now I've become quite good at ignoring it, but there are still certain strands of thought that make my stomach twist every time I contemplate them.

This longstanding emotional instinct has obviously shaped my philosophical views on death; however, it's a rather complex issue about which my opinions are still evolving. To be clear, I interpret the claim that death is bad not to mean that compulsory immortality is good, but rather that it would be good for individuals to be able to choose to postpone death, perhaps indefinitely. Nor do I desire the fate of the Cumaean Sibyl who, being granted by Apollo extended life but not extended youth, eventually shrivelled away until only her voice remained. Rather, radical life extension technologies should increase the length of healthy life at least proportionately to how much they increase total lifespan (for example, by slowing or halting biological ageing). Given all of that, it is most natural to evaluate death by answering two distinct questions: whether individuals' deaths are bad for those individuals who die, and whether their deaths are bad overall. While it's difficult to draw firm conclusions, my best guess is that death is bad for most individuals, and is bad overall in most situations we will encounter, but may be ethically good when we abstract away from practical considerations. In this essay I'll explain the considerations that led me to those beliefs, and explore how to deal with this apparent paradox.

Is death bad for individuals?

The most basic argument in favour of answering yes is simply that there are certain things which make our lives good, and death prevents us from having more of those. It doesn't really matter whether you think that life gains most meaning from relationships, or achievements, or memories, or virtues, or enlightenment - the pursuit of each is cut short by untimely mortality. There's no technical or scientific reason why humans should not eventually be able to live for hundreds or thousands of years, which would allow us many times our current allotment of those joys. If we think that somebody dying very young is a tragedy compared with a 90-year life, then the most logical conclusion is that a 90-year life is also a tragedy compared with the prospect of living ten times as long.

In response to this I've heard some argue that, given more time, we'd be less motivated to work towards those valuable things, and would procrastinate our (extended) lives away. However, I think it's more difficult than that to change human psychology - if we dectuple the human lifespan, people's long-term goals would change, but much of day-to-day life would remain the same. Besides, even if people lose the willpower to pursue more difficult goals, they will still want to seize everyday happiness - and who's to say such a life is not worthwhile?

A second counterargument is the claim that our lives suffer from significant diminishing marginal returns. After all, many of us place great value on seeing new places and experiencing new things; if we ran out of those, wouldn't life become much less worthwhile? I'm skeptical that such reductions are significant enough to make this argument work, but I'll discuss it more later in this essay.

Perhaps the most sophisticated challenge to the badness of death on an individual level comes from Derek Parfit. In Reasons and Persons, he argues persuasively that we should think of personal identity as a matter of degree, not a binary relation. That is, my current self is the "same person" as my 25-year-old self to a certain extent, but only the same as my 40-year-old self to a lesser extent, and as my 80-year-old self to an even lesser extent. If I change greatly over my life then someone else who's currently similar to me might even be more "me" than my 80-year-old self is. In that case, my current attitude towards my death many decades from now should be fairly similar to my attitude towards the deaths of people similar to me - and yet while the thought of someone else dying is sad, it's not personally terrifying.

Notice, though, that this argument doesn't help old people very much; and it helps young people only by taking away any prospect of longevity. Essentially, it claims that you shouldn't be worried about dying in a few decades' time because by that time "you" will mostly have ceased to exist anyway. But even if we accept this conclusion, it's not clear why that should make us less worried about death, instead of more worried about ageing. And of course it may be psychologically impossible, or at the very least cause significant internal conflict, to truly treat your future self as a different person.

Is death bad overall?

When we start to consider more than just individual lives, however, a number of other concerns emerge. Roughly speaking, these fall into two categories: those which are based on population size and welfare; and those which appeal to more standard liberal intuitions about the qualities of just and equitable societies. Starting with the former: it seems very likely that radically increased longevity would also radically decrease the birth rate, for a number of reasons. Firstly, somebody living five times as long probably won't want five times as many children. Secondly, if they did, the population would rise dramatically, to the point where Earth would likely have difficulty sustaining them, quality of life would significantly decrease, and population control would be implemented. Philosophers who accept the Repugnant Conclusion may well hold that the latter scenario would be good. However, it’s difficult to predict how the Earth’s carrying capacity will change over time, and whether its population will stay beneath it without enduring severe hardships such as widespread famine. In particular, if we solve global warming before we get longevity technology, then an increased population could be good; but if not, it would likely be a disaster. For simplicity, let's consider the case where every couple has exactly 2 children no matter how long they live. Then we face the following conundrum: is it better to have x people living for y years each, or increase longevity and have x/n people living for y*n years each? The population at each time is the same either way, it's merely the distribution of those lives which changes.

This puts the argument from diminishing marginal returns in a new light. For death to be good on a population level, it's not necessary that our lives end up with negative value as our lifespans increase. Instead, it simply needs to be the case that our longer lives end up worse, on average, than those of the children who would have replaced us. Is that likely? Anders Sandberg argues that with longer lives we would "waste" less time, proportionately, in early childhood and in ill health during old age. However, less of our lives would be spent on new and exciting experiences. The importance of the latter effect depends on whether what we value is more like life satisfaction or more like hedonic experiences. If the former, then repeating experiences probably won't provide much more satisfaction in the overall picture - winning Olympic gold twice is probably not twice as satisfying as winning once. Perhaps we could even get a rough idea of the drop-off in marginal value by asking people questions like whether they prefer another 25 years of healthy life for certain over a 50% chance of another 60 years of healthy life and a 50% chance of imminent death. (However, it's unclear how much of a bias towards the former would be introduced by risk aversion.) On the other hand, if hedonic experiences are what we care about, then it's very salient that people actually report being happiest around their 70s, and so it seems plausible that we could be equivalently happy for much longer than the normal lifespan.

It's also plausible that many people would be significantly happier than that, because a great deal of sorrow usually accompanies both the deaths of loved ones and the contemplation of one's upcoming death. However, this grief seems to usually be manageable when such deaths come at a "natural age"; also, it seems that most people don't actually worry very much about their mortality. Perhaps that is due to an irrational acceptance of death; but it feels circular to argue that death is bad partly because, if people were rational about how bad death is, they would be very sad.

I will consider three more effects, each linked to standard liberal concerns. The first is that longevity allows for greater concentration of power and wealth, which leads to the harmful sort of inequality. If dictators lived for centuries, there'd be far fewer opportunities to transition out of repressive regimes. Even in democracies, certain dynasties already have very disproportionate influence in politics - see the Gandhis in India, the Kennedys and Bushes in America, chaebols in Korea - and business. However, this has been balanced by regression to the mean - the descendants of a particularly successful individual are usually not as talented or driven as they were, and so end up squandering their opportunities (see, for instance, the dissipated fortunes of America's robber barons). But if the best businesspeople had not only vast capital accumulated over time, but also a wealth of experience and an "old-boys network" developed over centuries, they might well be impossible to displace. Some also argue that elites will get much better access to longevity technology, adding a new dimension of inequality. Overall it seems much more likely to me that longevity technology becomes like laptops or smartphones or pharmaceuticals, which all quickly became widely affordable. However, there's no denying that the people at the very bottom would lose out - in particular, there will likely be significant international inequality in access to longevity technology.

There are, however, advantages to society from similar mechanisms. For example, the best scientists will be around longer, able to learn more and contribute more; the same will be true for great leaders. Meanwhile the average citizen will be significantly more mature and well-informed than they are now. But it doesn't seem like these advantages scale up to the same degree as the disadvantages: scientists generally do their best work while young (to the extent that studies have argued that science advances "one funeral at a time"); we are rightly suspicious of even good leaders who hold on to power too long; and there's no clear trend of older people making better political choices (in fact, by the standards of the young, it's the opposite).

That leads us to the second effect, which is the potential for slowed cultural evolution, or else a vast cultural gap. We tend to think of the cultural and moral developments that have taken place over the last few millennia to be largely a good thing. Obviously we're massively biased in thinking this, since all of this development has led to the societies that produced us. However, there are still plenty of changes in mindset which seem likely to occur eventually, if trends continue, and which we should look forward to. These include increased concern for the moral status of animals (and the end of factory farming), decreased racism, more freedom for individuals to be nonconformist, opener borders and a greater focus on reducing global poverty. With longer lifespans, it'll take more time for these to come about. Of course, there are ongoing negative changes (such as increasing atomisation and political polarisation) which may also be slowed, but on balance slowing change seems harmful. There's also the possibility that younger segments of the population will end up with a significantly different cultural outlook to their elders, which will foster unrest and perhaps even violent conflict (imagine, for instance, the elite eating meat when much of the population sees this as equivalent to slavery).

A third effect which seems likely is a greater focus on long-term issues such as climate change and existential risk. When people are more likely to experience severe effects from these issues first-hand, it seems obvious that they will do more to prevent them. However, I'm not convinced that people currently ignore these issues because of lack of motivation, since many claim that they value the quality of life of their children or grandchildren very highly. I suspect that even if human lifespans drastically increase, people are just so bad at emotionally connecting with the long-term future that their behaviour won't change much.

So what?

The difficulty in weighing the comparative magnitude of these effects is that we cannot reason about a major change to society while assuming that all else remains the same. It's conceivable that in the next few decades, the specific mechanisms behind ageing will be identified and reduced in roughly the same way that we've previously targeted diseases. However, it's far more likely that defeating ageing requires a technological breakthrough which will vastly reshape society independent of its effect on ageing. The main candidates are genetic modification, nanotechnology, brain emulation technology and advanced AI. The arguments above are most relevant if it's the first of those, but even in that case it's difficult to guess how much they will still apply if people can also engineer themselves to be smarter and happier, or engineer the biosphere so that the Earth can support dozens of times the current population.
Yet even hundreds of billions of people pale in comparison to the potential trillions upon trillions who could arise if humanity continues to flourish into the far future. And the same technologies which might allow us to cure ageing would also allow us to destroy ourselves with bioengineered pandemics and unsafe AI, especially if we develop them before measures are in place to mitigate those risks. So even if ending death is an urgent moral priority, it is better to focus on ensuring the safety of these technologies first. On the purely philosophical side of things, I find myself stuck. I cannot displace the intuition that death is the worst thing that will ever happen to me - on an individual level, a moral atrocity - and that I should delay it as long as possible. However, from the standpoint of population ethics it's quite plausibly better that more people live shorter lives than that fewer people live longer lives. This gives us the strange result that we could prefer a world in which many moral atrocities occur to a world in which very few do, even if the total number of years lived is the same, and the average welfare of those years is very similar. More technically, this is a conflict between a population ethics intuition which is person-affecting (roughly, the view that acts should only be evaluated by their effects on people who already exist) and one which is not. I think there are very good reasons not to subscribe to person-affecting moral theories - since, for example, they can relatively easily endorse human extinction. The problem is that our normal lives are so much based on person-affecting beliefs that being consistent is very difficult - for example, it feels like the moral value of having an additional child is almost negligible, even though it's roughly consequentially equivalent to saving a life.

To conclude: I don't really know. I'm going to sign up for cryonics, at least. While I still hate the thought of dying, I don't think that I'll spend much time on longevity-specific topics in the coming years - it's more important to explore ways to safely harness new technology in general. But in the best possible future - if you'll indulge me for a minute - there won't be a trade-off between looking out for our descendants and living longer ourselves. Humanity will multiply and stretch out to encompass the galaxy and beyond. And then? Well, as Donne said: "death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die."


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