Steve Bein continues his series on philosophy and science fiction. Read past articles here.
When I became a real grownup and got a real grownup job, I got my first life insurance policy. I took the test you have to take and my insurance company predicted I’d live to the age of 121. I was speechless, but then I thought about it. Medicine has changed so radically in the last 40 years that it’s fair to say it’s almost a completely new science. When I was a kid, getting your tonsils out involved two days in the hospital. Now they actually shoot them out of your throat with a laser gun. Science fiction has not only become real, it’s become routine.
All estimates indicate that medicine will advance far more radically in the next 40 years than it did in the last 40. And 40 years from now I’ll only be 83.
A common criticism of Western medicine writ large is that it sees mortality as a curable condition. Rest assured, there are thousands of researchers working on immortality right this minute. So in all probability my insurance company underestimated my life expectancy. In fact, it’s fair to say that 80 years from now, no one has the slightest idea what medical technology will be capable of, nor how long the average human life span will be. It’s not unreasonable to predict that we’ll be able to keep a human body alive more or less indefinitely.
To this we must add a caveat: alive and thriving are not the same thing. This is why that estimate of 121 left me speechless: I’m not sure it’s good news. Give me 119 good years and 2 bad ones and I’ll say sign me up. Give me 81 good years and 40 bad ones—which is what our current medical practices would promise me—and I’ll say thanks but no thanks.
And we should add one more observation: while medical technology has drastically expanded the average number of thriving years in a human lifespan, it hasn’t actually extended human lifespan itself all that much. The world’s oldest person today and the world’s oldest person of 100 years ago and 200 years ago are all about the same age. So it’s possible—doubtful, I think, but possible—that we really do cap out as hundred-and-teenagers, and that the only question is whether we can make all of our years good years.
But let’s be optimistic. Let’s say that in the year 2094 I’m the world’s sexiest 121-year-old man. My mountaineering years are long behind me, but I can still write books and hang out with friends and have a basically comfortable, more or less self-sufficient existence.
The question is, is such a world morally good?
There are some reasons to think it might not be. For one thing, just being 100 years old is expensive, so probably only millionaires can be hundred-and-teenagers. That will exacerbate certain kinds of economic inequality and contribute measurably to certain ecological problems. But even if we could somehow make it just as cheap to be 121 as it is to be 21, we’d have other, larger social justice questions.
As people age they tend to get set in their ways, and so an aging but undying demographic would tend to retain its current political beliefs. The unfortunate truth is that much of the political progress in the world only happens when the old guard dies out.
Maybe some conservatives will bristle at that, but consider the following sentence: “I know my grandma is racist, but she’s a really nice person.” That is a completely coherent sentence in modern American society. We tend to forgive older people for old-fashioned beliefs. Why? There are many reasons, but only one is inevitable: even if these geezers never surrender their ideas, in a couple of decades they’ll kick the bucket.
Suppose that stopped being true. Suppose the old guard gets another eighty years before passing the torch. If we all lived to 121, some of the lawmakers to vote against the 19th Amendment—you know, the one that allows women to vote—would still be alive and voting. Some of those guys would have parents old enough to be slave owners. That’s right: we’d only be one generation removed from the Civil War.
We can’t even imagine what the hot-button issues will be in 2094, when I am the world’s sexiest 121-year-old man. If interracial marriage was the big Supreme Court decision in 1960, and if same-sex marriage was the big one in 2015, maybe the one I’ll be upset about is the case way back in 2050 where humans gained the right to marry robots. Maybe my great-great-grandnieces will blush as they make excuses for me: “I know Uncle Steve-o is a human supremacist but he’s a really nice person.”