There’s a bit of a back and forth going on over at Cato Unbound regarding the wisdom of pursuing radically longer lifespans. So far, not too many people have been paying attention.
On the pro side we have Aubrey De Grey and Ron Bailey. Long time readers will no doubt already know that my sympathies lie with their side of the argument.
On the side of human dignity (and death), we have Daniel Callahan and Diana Schaub. Though I disagree with them, simple honesty forces me to note that both of them are superlative, albeit unwitting, entertainers.
Sadly though, it appears that Mr. Callahan’s heart wasn’t really in it. I found his response perfunctory, unreflective, and more than a little sad. We shall leave him for much later, or perhaps never.
Ms. Schaub however, does not disappoint.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Mr. De Grey made the matter of fact observation that some bioethicists indulge in what amounts to tabloid Socratics…

A venerable rhetorical tactic in the promotion of fragile positions is to raise in the audience’s mind the specter of some terrible consequence of the opposing position without actually spelling it out. Unnerving questions are asked – but then, rather than answers offered, the subject is changed, leaving the concern to fester in the subconscious. The author escapes, however, with the knowledge that if challenges are raised to the validity of these concerns he can resort to the claim that he never actually said that.

Much the same technique is used in those vulgar TV documentaries about UFO abductions, or demonic posession, and I have seen it again and again in the works of Kass, Schaub, Meilaender, et al.
One would think that forewarned is forearmed, but in this instance one would be wrong. Ms. Schaub responded with a textbook example of the type. I have edited it to accentuate the point. You can read the entire piece here

How would one feel at, say, 370 years of age, contemplating pet number 30-something? The physical energy required for a new puppy is nothing compared to the psychic energy. So, I don’t think it’s absurd to worry about the effects of extremely long life on our commitments, aspirations, and receptivity to new life and love….
But how would human relations be affected?
How would monogamy fare? It’s not doing great as it is, but could one even imagine the vow “till death do us part” when death might be nine centuries away?
If monogamy simply disappears as a promise and an expectation, we might be confronted with the human version of the puppy problem: would there be enough psychic energy for ever-renewed love?
Life takes its toll on the spirit as well as the body. What would the tally of disappointments, betrayals, and losses be over a millennium?
Would we love other people more or less than at present?
Would we be better partners, parents, friends, and neighbors?
What would it be like to experience the continued vitality of the body in conjunction with the aging of the spirit?
Would it mean the best of both worlds: the vitality of youth with the wisdom of maturity?
Or the worst of both worlds: the characteristic vices of age with the strength of will to impose them on others?…
Since tyranny is an aspiration coeval with political life, we might wonder what the effects of millennial existence would be on the possibilities of tyranny. Would a 1,000-year lifespan also mean 1,000 years of the likes of Stalin — a Stalin who perhaps uses agelessness (and other biotech discoveries) as a tool of political control?
Even without the threat of vastly extended tyranny, a nation of ageless individuals could well produce a sclerotic society, petrified in its ways and views.
Senescence escorts us, more or less gracefully, off the stage, making room for fresh generations.

Upon reading such a deeply troubling compendium, I sometimes ask myself a deep question of my own. How, in all the wide world, could we possibly get meaningful answers to these questions? I mean, short of going ahead with the program and giving it our best shot? I’ve tried and tried, but I can’t come up with a anything. Can you?
Lacking answerability, just what is it, exactly, that we’re trying to determine? We might just as well ask ourselves what did the Clark’s see that night?And what about that mysterious star map? Was the circular pattern of warts on Barney’s torso just a coincidence? In either case, all you’ll get back is opinion.
Ron Bailey noted this in his response…

So what about the social consequences of radically longer and healthier lives? In that regard, Diana Schaub in her reaction essay raises many questions for reflection about those consequences, but curiously she fails to actually reflect on them.
Schaub isn’t “willing to say that agelessness is undesirable,” but she simultaneously “can’t shake the conviction that the achievement of a 1,000-year lifespan would produce a dystopia.”
She then simply recapitulates the standard issue pro-mortalist rhetorical technique of asking allegedly “unnerving questions” and then allowing them to “fester in the mind.” Sadly, all too many bioethicists think they’ve done real philosophic work by posing “hard” questions, then sitting back with steepled hands and a grave look on their countenances.

That last was somewhat unfair of Mr. Bailey, who tends to be flippant and irreverant. Actually, I always liked flippant and irreverant. But I wouldn’t want any readers to think that Ms. Schaub hasn’t done real philosophic work. She is, after all, the author of Erotic Liberalism: Women and Revolution in Montesquieu’s “Persian Letters” . And surely the world is a finer place for it.
And, too, she serves on the President’s Council on Bioethics, where I am certain she is doing much social good.
If I had more time, I would ask Ms. Schaub some questions of my own.
More on that later.