Against Involuntary Death
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 5 Jun 2023
29 May 2023 – I recently celebrated my 85th birthday, an event that clearly lands me in “the valley of the shadow of death,” as King David or his scribe so neatly put it. Friends of mine are falling ill and dying at a rate rapid enough to justify Philip Roth’s grim reference to “the holocaust of my generation.” For a self-donated birthday present I gave myself permission to talk publicly about the more general implications of this situation in a way that some people may consider irritating or tasteless.
You may have noticed that death – especially one’s own relatively imminent demise – is not considered a suitable topic for polite discussion. It’s not exactly taboo, since there is a certain way of talking about it that is not only accepted but encouraged. Call this the discourse of acceptance. If I say, “Certainly, I’m going to die, but that’s ok because . . .” (fill in the blank: “I’ve had a full life,” “we all have to go eventually,” “it’s God’s plan,” whatever), that sort of speech is permissible even at the dinner table.
What is not considered OK is the discourse of non-acceptance exemplified by the title of this essay. Many readers will think the title absurd. “Against Involuntary Death”? Why not “Against the Involuntary Sunrise,” or “Against Involuntary Breathing”? Most people consider dying to be natural and inevitable – an event even more universal and certain than taxes. We may be able to tinker with this reality by adopting medical or social improvements that increase the average life span by a few years, they contend, but there’s really nothing much one can do about the Big Sleep. “The days of our years are threescore years and ten,” says the Psalmist. “And if by reason of strength they be fourscore years/ Yet is their pride travail and vanity/ For it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”
Those who accept this inevitability are said to be realists; those untroubled by it are called brave or serene. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change . . . ” But life expectancies are nothing if not changeable! It is not our natural fate to die at 77 (the current average life expectancy in the U.S.A.) or at 73 (the current global life expectancy) any more than it was the fate of a medieval peasant to die at 45 or 50. The relevant question isn’t whether involuntary death is inevitable at some point, but how long a life is long enough.
Based on current medical information, scientists estimate that the maximum human lifespan is about 150 years.[i] Over time, this figure could be extended, perhaps even indefinitely, by medical advances,[ii] but even now there is no reason other than current social and political priorities to accept an average lifespan of less than a century, if not a decade or two longer.
Absolute Immortality is not the issue here. (I will have more to say in a bit about beliefs in eternal life). What we might call “relative immortality” is.
Relative immortality means that most of us can live much longer lives not in pain, or as old people suffering some terminal illness, but as mature adults enjoying an extended healthy life expectancy. What the World Health Organization calls HALE means, in effect, extending one’s middle age rather than one’s senescence. The medical potential to do this already exists, but to realize it in the realm of social policy will clearly take work: political action by ordinary people demanding longer life as a human right, and imaginative social programming by public servants determined to satisfy that demand.
I would imagine – wouldn’t you? – that the availability of methods to increase our healthy lifespans by decades would generate a large-scale movement aimed at realizing this goal. It’s natural, is it not, to want to live a relatively healthy and happy life for as long as possible? Since self-preservation, like liberty, is a basic human need, the possibility of living significantly longer lives than we do now should be as politically explosive as, say, the Enlightenment discovery that common people long considered too stupid or irrational to rule themselves had the potential to create democratic states. One can imagine huge demonstrations by old people and their young allies replete with slogans like “DEATH IS OVERRATED,” “LIFE BEGINS AT 100,” and “RELATIVE IMMORTALITY NOW!” A movement of this sort, appealing to people of varied political persuasions, has the potential to reorder the priorities and alter the flavor of politics, but – mysteriously – most people, including the aged, seem more inclined to defend the demographic status quo than to challenge it.
We will analyze this conservatism in a moment. First, though, let’s talk about why living longer is a good idea.
Death and Basic Human Needs
It goes almost without saying that our most powerful instinct is the desire to survive – a product of not only of biology but also of well-developed cognition and emotion. Some people will say that death is just the other side of life – can’t have one without the other – but this seems to me both abstract and complacent. Let’s talk turkey about this rather than striking Zen poses. If you love people or are curious about them, you don’t want to leave them. You want to continue caring for them, being cared about in return, being present in their lives, and watching them grow. Our needs for human connection are fundamental. If anything, they become stronger and more demanding as we age, not less important.
Or consider another imperative human need: the need for meaning. You don’t want to die if you’re interested in the world and want to know what happens next. Human curiosity is as powerful a reason for extending life as any other reason. What new experiences will I have? What new people will I meet? Life is enjoyable because it continues to be novel – not merely repetitive. What can be more exciting and satisfying than watching things change and being part of the change?
In fact, if one has any desire to make sense of the world – and almost everyone does – this means living longer. People never reach the point of saying, “Now I know it all.” Death aborts the search for answers to interesting questions. It ends the quest for understandings that make sense of the world’s rumble and jumble. Not only that, it also forces us to abandon the fight to realize the personal and social values that give our lives meaning.
To put this more generally, death puts an end to our creativity. Creativity, after all, is not some special gift reserved for an elite. It’s another basic human need. Whether planning a trip, weeding a garden, or working out some family problem, we do something every day to make the world a little different than it was the day before. Death stops us from developing and exercising this everyday creativity.
Which basic needs does involuntary death not deny? We spend decades developing and maintaining a sense of identity – but one’s personal identity ends with the end of life. We virtually never stop seeking pleasure, but death puts an end to the quest for sensual, intellectual, and spiritual joys. In fact, it puts an end to our story – not with some satisfying concluding chapter, but the way a book ends when someone throws it into a fire.
A Brief Note on the Afterlife
In saying this, I assume that there is no heavenly or hellish life after death. You may disagree, of course, but IMHO, the most interesting thing about dreams of immortality is that they testify to the high price – the supreme price in some ways – that we place on life. Why have humans imagined for millennia that life in some form continues? Because we want love, surprise, creativity, understanding, the pursuit of value, and sheer pleasure to continue! Involuntary death dissatisfies every profound want and every pressing need that make us human. Existentialist philosophers are quite right to call it “absurd.”
But it’s not only secular philosophers who feel this way; the Abrahamic religions also recognize that death is an evil rather than a feature of God’s good Creation. After all, Adam and Eve were not created to die. When expelled from the Garden for their misdeeds, their punishment consisted of the three great evils: toil, pain, and death. Religious thinkers consider all these penalties temporary and reversible, since God has promised to liberate humanity (indeed, the whole cosmos) from oppression, sickness, and mortality. Even In the fallen society that we inhabit, social and medical innovators have learned to challenge the inevitability of toil and pain. As a result, two of the three great punishments have already been mitigated to some extent. So why do modernists of various sorts spend so much time and energy justifying the third?
Lethal Conservatism: WTF?
As I said, most people consider death at our current average life expectancy natural and inevitable. Modern society is so sold on this, in fact, that news of the possibility of greatly increasing our healthy lifespans hardly ever appears on news media channels or journals – not even in the social media, where all sorts of subversive ideas are allegedly given free rein. Furthermore, when people assert that something is natural and inevitable, this is almost the same thing as saying that it is good. Dying in your seventies or eighties – or if you’re unusually fit or lucky, in your nineties – accords with what many religious folks would call Natural Law or God’s will, and what many secularists consider ecological necessity.
So, what’s right with death? Even if one thinks that dying is inevitable at some point, what can possibly justify shortening life by failing to mobilize society’s resources to keep everyone alive for as long as possible?
One obvious answer is that if people are ill and in pain, death ends their suffering. This is surely part of the reason why the poet John Keats, afflicted by a then incurable tuberculosis, wrote that he was “half in love with easeful Death . . .” Choosing to die is easier today than it was in Keats’s time – a good thing, many people would agree, since this means expanding the realm of human agency and reducing the sway of necessity. But – to repeat the question – why impose a death sentence on those in reasonably good health?
An ecologically oriented friend offers this response: she says that dying is a good thing for our species because it gets rid of some people to make room for others. According to a line of argument laid down three centuries ago by Thomas Malthus, the already crowded earth will become unlivable if too many of us live on it for too long a time. Modern Malthusians add that the advent of global warming and other climatological disasters makes the need to limit population even more pressing.
But hold on! Birth control is one thing, but do we really want to maintain or increase the death rate for purposes of population control? This smells a good deal like what used to be called eugenics – a discredited form of population engineering to “improve the race.” In any event, Malthus was wrong on two crucial counts: the human population did not grow as rapidly as he thought, and food production did not increase as slowly as he expected. The gloomy economist had no idea what human inventiveness could accomplish in agriculture or any other area of production – a pessimism adopted by modern Malthusians who deny our ability to combat climate change by transforming the way we do business and politics.
“A small minority of wealthy people produce the majority of global greenhouse gas emissions,” says one expert, summarizing a large pile of evidence. “Their consumption habits have a much greater impact than overall population numbers.”[iii] But some Green advocates would rather pin the despoliation of the planet on overbreeding than on profiteering. Interesting, isn’t it, how so many who consider death natural and inevitable feel the same way about capitalist profit seeking? Their common attitude is political defeatism, at least when it comes to changing existing systems. According to them, you can’t fight the Grim Reaper – or Wall Street!
One scientist answers the ecological argument for maintaining current life expectancies like this:
One argument against extending human life beyond the norm is that it would lead to overpopulation, requiring more resources, while creating more waste, carbon emissions and pollution on a planet we’ve already stressed to breaking point. That’s not usually what happens when people start living longer, though. Instead, birth rates tend to drop as people have fewer children and have them later in life. We know this because it’s already been happening for several decades as healthcare has improved.[iv]
True! But the same writer goes on to argue that “we shouldn’t be greedy,” because increasing life expectancies in the richer nations would increase the already great disparity in lifespans between rich and poor people. [v]
This point is certainly worth thinking about. The average life expectancy in Africa is 64 years – 54 in the poorest African nations – while the Japanese enjoy an average lifespan of 83 years. In the United States, the well to do outlive the poor by an average of about twelve years. Clearly, if we are talking about extending life further, this benefit should be available to everyone, not just the top dogs in the high-income nations.
But who says that those whose lives are already privileged should monopolize the advantages of modern medicine? A number of bioethicists apparently assume that it would be unrealistic to make the entitlement to a longer life universal. This reveals, once again, the profound conservativism of many self-declared liberals. The only reason to limit an extended lifespan to a lucky few is the unwillingness of some “experts” (also members of the global elite) to consider the economic and political changes needed to extend the same benefit to the many.
The same implicit conservatism seems to me to underly much of the opposition to a major extension of lifespans in the rich nations. To do this on a large scale even in the U.S., Europe, or Japan would require a major shift in resources from defense and other non-welfare expenditures to life-enhancing programs and would require economic planning. Relative immortality, that is, might require some sort of socialism! Horrors! Or, as the right-wingers used to say, “Better dead than Red.”
Death and Politics
If the philosophy of modernism could be summarized in one phrase, it would be something like Sigmund Freud’s motto, “Where there was id, there shall be ego.” Or, more generally, “Where there were mysterious, uncontrollable forces that dictated our thoughts and actions, there shall be causes that we understand and control.” Or, more simply still, “Where there was blind determination, there shall be conscious choice.” Involuntary death, of course, is the ultimate blind determination. For modernists, a campaign to eliminate it – or at least delay it significantly – seems as just and as reasonable as a campaign to eliminate hunger or disease.
But no. The fascinating and (to me) infuriating fact is that the issue of a significant increase in life expectancies has been placed beyond politics not by religious fundamentalists, but by those styling themselves progressives. A basic drive of the modernist program (whether secular or religious) is to abandon the idea of immortality secured by supernatural means. “No hell below us,” as John Lennon sings, “Above us only sky.” Without a radical vision that replaces heavenly immortality with what I’ve called relative immortality, this leaves us with nature as we know it, including incurable diseases and death in our seventies or eighties from “natural causes.”
Major extensions of the average lifespan may be technically possible, I hear left-leaning folks argue, but it’s unrealistic to expect a radical change in the foreseeable future. Why not? The answer, I am afraid, is that the progressives aren’t all that progressive to begin with. Whether left- or right-leaning, those who propose a seriously “pro-life” agenda will need to reevaluate and reorder current priorities, such as the need for U.S. global supremacy and the size of the military budget, the ability of a profit-driven market to satisfy our basic needs, and the allegedly evil consequences of social and economic planning. I don’t believe that we can greatly extend the average life span and maintain the current status quo. But, confronted by radical right- wing movements like MAGA in the U.S. and elsewhere, many progressives have become defenders of traditional norms.
Here is an antidote to this neo-traditionalism: historically, what makes progressivism progressive is the idea of shared abundance. Understanding the forces that maintain scarcity and limit the range of feasible choices empowers us to produce goods and services of all kinds (material, spiritual, artistic) that greatly extend that range. As a result, we get to make decisions for ourselves that were previously made for us by our “superiors” or by circumstances. Many conservatives also believe that abundance is a key to reducing the power of necessity and expanding the realm of free choice. Moreover, increasing the size of the pie makes many social conflicts that formerly seemed intractable capable of peaceful resolution, at least if the goodies are equitably shared.
Shared abundance is a key to freedom and to peace. If so, this surely this includes an abundance of life. Common sense tells us that the scarcity of life generates a ruthless struggle to survive among otherwise sociable humans. In competitive societies like the U.S., this translates into a struggle for economic advantage; the richest American men live 15 years longer than the poorest men, and the richest women live ten years longer than the poorest women.[vi] But we can imagine a future in which one’s chance to live a long life does not depend on one’s market value – a world in which life spans are extended to the extent that continuing to survive or not becomes a matter of choice.
After living well beyond a century, those who have done everything that they want to do, or whose health has deteriorated despite techno-medical advances, may well say “Enough is enough” and make the choice to die. Others not afflicted by suffering or by fatal boredom may want to remain alive to see what happens next to the world they love. For the present, however, we continue to live under the dictatorship of the Reaper. Odd, isn’t it, how those who can’t stop talking about their love of liberty think it is sensible, even virtuous, to justify this gross imposition on their freedom – to apologize for and even to glorify their oppressor as a god. This bowing before Death makes me wish that everyone would dial up Ingmar Bergman’s 1958 film masterpiece, “The Seventh Seal,” and watch the hero (a knight, of course) defy the Dark Lord’s orders and gain time – and dignity – by challenging him to a game of chess.
Coda: Going Gentle – and Not so Gentle — into That Good Night
It’s time, isn’t it, for us to stop making death at an unnecessarily early age seem a regrettable but unavoidable spanking from Mother Nature. We do not need a lethal dose of ultra-tough love to keep us from despoiling the planet. And, please, can’t we finally stop philosophizing mindlessly about mortality being a corollary of life? “You can’t have life without death” is something that lords and priests used to tell peasants and workers whose life expectancy was between 30 and 50 years. Then, as now, it was a con intended to get people to consider death a part of life instead of its negation and to accept their current life expectancy as natural and inevitable.
Living a lot longer has always been a radical yet practical idea. You can’t always get what you want, as the song says, but you may – after a while – get what you need. We need to go on loving the people we want to love, laughing at the things that make us laugh, working to right the wrongs that we know need righting. We need to live longer. So, if political leaders want a program for change capable of generating passionate support, they should propose lengthening the lives of their constituents by some reasonable figure – say 30 years. Most people should live to be 110, not 70 or 80, with many living a good deal longer than that. Their descendants will no doubt use that figure as a springboard for further advances in healthy life expectancy. Why shouldn’t they?
In the meantime, all of us now alive are going to die whether we want to or not, and that, as they say, is what it is. If we don’t accept death’s inevitability for ourselves and try to come to terms with it, we will be angry and miserable – “diehards” in every sense – as well as untethered to reality. But, if we do accept it for our descendants and for people yet unborn, we will be defenders of the current status quo, complicit in one form or another of death-worship.
In this connection I often think about the poet Dylan Thomas’s famous advice to his dying father:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
I admire the sentiment, but now fairly deep into old age, I think that I will rage on behalf of future others, but not for my present self. Faced with an implacable destiny, I’d like to make myself as comfortable as possible, emotionally as well as physically, and go down swinging rather than swearing. For my own peace of mind and my family’s, I will consent to the inevitable with as much grace as I can muster.
But this sort of consent is individual and temporary, a matter of accommodation to the present unjust situation, not to its perpetual maintenance. Needless scarcity and its corollary, unnecessary suffering, are always unjust, even if one has to live with them while praying for their abolition. In the long run, the attitude that seems most admirable to me is that of the Swedish knight’s squire, Jons, in “The Seventh Seal.” While the knight, finally in Death’s power, prays desperately for God’s mercy, his squire, equally doomed, speaks to his dark clad conqueror directly. “I will be quiet,” he declares, “but under protest.” [vii]
[i] See, for example, Alex Fox, “Study suggests 150 years may be the human lifespan’s upper limit,” Smithsonian Magazine, June 7, 2021.
[ii] See, e.g., “New molecule may prevent age-related diseases and increase life expectancy and wellness, study suggests,” Science News, August 1, 2022.
[iii] Princeton environmental engineer Anu Ramaswami, quoted in Sarah Kaplan, “It’s Wrong to Blame Overpopulation for Climate Change.” Washington Post, 5/25/21, accessed at https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2021/05/25/slowing-population-growth-environment/
[iv] Hayley Bennett, in BBC Science Focus Magazine, 11/5/21, https://www.sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/extend-human-lifespan/
[v] The same case is made at greater length, with academic flourishes, in “Who Wants to Live Forever: Three Arguments Against Extending the Human Lifespan,” by Martien Pijnenburg and Carlo Leget. J Med Ethics. 2007 Oct; 33(10): 585–587. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2652797/
[vi] See Equality of Opportunity Project, http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/health/#:~:text=The%20richest%20American%20men%20live,are%20growing%20rapidly%20over%20time.
Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution. A graduate of Harvard College, Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar), and Harvard Law School, Rubenstein is the author of nine books on analyzing and resolving violent social conflicts. His most recent book is Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed (Routledge, 2017).
Tags: Autobiography, Death, Humanism
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 5 Jun 2023.
Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Against Involuntary Death, is included. Thank you.
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