Death has been an ever-present fact of life since the dawn of humanity. Large parts of human culture have been shaped by the knowledge that one day we will cease to be. In the past our species has had no choice but to come to terms with it. But technological progress is now accelerating so rapidly that a cure for aging is conceivable. Some even argue it’s inevitable.
The idea of curing death makes many of us uncomfortable, at least initially. It’s hard to imagine a society where aging and death no longer pose a threat. So much about our culture would have to change. And yet Nick Bostrom argues not only is curing death preferable, it’s a moral imperative we should strive to achieve as soon as possible. He goes so far as to argue that “deathist” ideologies, ideologies that endorse or encourage complacency with death as a part of life, while useful in the past for consoling people, today pose “fatal barriers to urgently needed action”. Anyone with an interest in philosophy should read his fable about death.
The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant
My own view of death is informed by how I see morality. To give you a taste of it, I’ll start by saying this: Your intrinsic values can never be wrong. Another way of expressing that is: If there are things you value above everything else, those things cannot be mistaken. They may be highly abstract. They may not fit into words. They may even change over time. But it’s incoherent to say you are wrong about your intrinsic values.
In reference to what can your intrinsic values be said to be wrong? For example if you value happiness above all else and you think money (the things you can do with it) makes you happy, money is an instrumental value. You value money because you value happiness. If you hit the lottery tomorrow and you’re no happier than before, then perhaps you’re wrong to value money. But you can’t be wrong to value happiness. If it ever seems that you are that just means happiness isn’t an intrinsic value for you.
So if someone asked me “Should we cure death?”, my response would be “Well what do you value?”. If your eventual demise is one of your intrinsic values then I can’t really tell you you’re wrong to value death. I can, but if you’re a rational agent, it won’t convince you. What Bostrom is saying in his fable to “deathists” is “You only think you value death. You don’t really want to die”. The purpose of his fable is to correct your intuition about death. It’s the same as my earlier example where you value money because you value happiness, but then hitting the lottery corrects the intuition that money brings happiness. Bostrom is saying, like money, you only think you value death, but you don’t really.
That sums up my perspective on his fable. After reading his fable and his argument I’m more sympathetic than before to the cause of curing death. Perhaps he’s right that most of us won’t realize how much we actually value a cure for aging and death until we’re already on the brink of a cure. And by that point we will wish we prioritized a cure much sooner.