Wednesday, November 7, 2012
The morality of immortality.
(Morguefile.) After 17,000 years of poverty, she has every reason to despair.
“Beauty is a gift which is seldom despised, except by those who do not possess it.”
The trouble with immortality is that it’s forever. It's also riddled with moral questions.
In a world where most of us have to work for a living, we would never be able to retire, for how could anyone possibly save up for a retirement that would last forever? Unless the reader is able to live on two bucks a month, the sort of income that you would have to have and the sort of contributions that you would have to make, are astronomical. How do you intend to pay for that immortal early retirement?
In a world where newborns all received some treatment at the genetic or molecular level, thus conferring immunity to aging, or disease, or congenital defect, the working classes would be doomed to perpetual slavery. Now, as things stand, after five or ten years of service, you might get a big raise and finally be on top rate. But in future, that would be the rate for the rest of your life—no employer will up your rate of pay every year for the next five hundred or a thousand years. It would get too expensive for them. Unless people began to look at business differently, the odds of any employer being around in five hundred or a thousand years are very slim. The attitude now is to get your money and get out while the going is good. No one ever thought of a company as somehow meant to provide continuous employment, for as many people as possible, forever.
The trouble with immortality is that our teeth wear down. Our eyes go. Our knees break down. We suffer sport and work-related injury. The cost of keeping a body going, whether with new knees, or hips, or lenses, or teeth, over the long haul, would be considerable. And not to extend this immortality to all human beings is clearly discriminatory. Imagine how people in third world countries would feel about a bunch of immortal ‘westerners’, when they only get to live thirty-five years, and have to spend much of it walking back and forth to a stagnant, muddy water-hole with plastic buckets.
The inequities are too immense to be borne morally. Oh, and if the rights of an unborn fetus trump those of its living, breathing mother, surely the not-yet-conceived have some rights as well, especially as our desire for immortality is mostly based on selfish concerns. We're too special to die. We want to see what happens next. We're afraid we might miss something.
Think of a world where you, a relative newcomer, want to run for election, yet your opponent has had ten thousand years to build up a political machine and a network of diehard supporters in key positions. He has plenty of time to do it. He saw you coming and has time to prepare.
In a world of perfectly stable population, there might not be any deaths and no births. What would happen to the economy, if we concede that the economy is sort of driven by the needs of the human life cycle? Our economic health is predicated on a perpetual cycle of growth, expansion, decay and contraction, one which over time has incremental growth. Surely that much is self-evident.
In a previous blog post, I mentioned the notion of a ‘moral base-line.’ The one I chose was completely arbitrary, but in a future world where we were immortal for all intents and purposes, it’s pretty obvious morality might change. With no need to replenish the species, once the exact optimum number of beings was in place, the price of immortality might be gelding.
In an immortal world, there might still be accidents. Someone with a bad back injury might have it forever, and suffer from it forever. Mental illness might still arise from time to time in the population. There is an environmental component to certain types of mental illness. It’s not all ‘bad genes.’ The sufferers would suffer from it forever. There would still be inequities. The stupid would conceivably remain stupid forever, and the smart would have a perpetual advantage. In a world of fixed population, the right to have a baby would be worth a lot of money. The chance doesn't come up very often. Someone has to die by accident or suicide, or murder...or in a war. There would be all sorts of criminal attempts to manipulate the system, for even the stupid must admit that people have a kind of instinctive need to procreate--or fornicate, if you prefer that term.
What if you were born ugly? You would have to go through all of eternity with that face, or that body, or that blemish. We might begin to see our bodies as something to be improved upon, and even with immortal life, it seems as if we are never satisfied.
The notion that eternal life would somehow guarantee happiness is nonsensical. A person who had been having hard luck over the past 17,000 years might have some legitimate cause for despair.
The idea that she has all of eternity to make good and get it right and finally enjoy some kind of abundance in her life might not be of all that much comfort at the time. If she’s got a hungry belly, she might be looking at a long time before the situation is rectified.
Try telling a bunch of voters in some future world that their poverty will be forever, and see how far that gets you. I think that’s why so many poor people smoke. They don’t want to live forever.
“Not like this, anyway.”
As we get older, time seems to go by faster and faster. If we were immortal, I’m convinced this psychological phenomena would change, and our personal time on this Earth would seem much less precious. There would always be a tomorrow. We could afford to procrastinate.
We would lose any sense of the value of time, and the ultimate expression of that would be to lose any sense of the value of human life.
Clearly, this would affect our moral outlook and the way it manifests itself in our behaviour toward each other.