Ethical reflections on immortality

Do you want to live longer? You can, in 2030 or 2040. Tomorrow, then. Today, science is trying to answer that wish. If you think about it longer, wanting to live longer might seem unhealthy. Why is it unhealthy? Why are we not comfortable with this idea of not dying? Do we really have to wish for this? We are indeed talking about eradicating death. There are 3 ways to die: accidents, diseases and old age. For accidents, technology tries to reduce the death rate thanks to the autonomous car for example. For diseases, science fights them by inventing methods and solutions (surgery and vaccines for example). However, for death in natural old age, science can hardly do anything about it. This is where the idea of increasing life expectancy comes into play. It focuses mainly on detecting a disease earlier thanks to technology. For example, in the case of cancer, we could in a few years’ time determine a future cancer that will appear at the age of 50, to a 20-year-old patient. To do this, the methods consist roughly of taking pieces of genes in order to obtain the patient’s coding. These are very complex and expensive techniques, financed by large investors and companies. Because they are expensive, it is likely that some people will have access to them and some people won’t. This will, of course, increase inequalities. This major debate involves many actors and underlying issues. Beyond the questions concerning money, companies and the interest of the project, we would like to focus on its ethical aspect. Is it ethical to increase life? Is it biologically healthy? Can we extend life in a religious point of view? In order to enlighten us, we met two people with very different lives; a doctor, Pauline Zelli, and a rabbi, Nissim Sultan.

Who are the protagonists?

One of the companies that are more engaged in researches related to life expectancy is Google. In recent years, Google has become one of the main sponsors of the transhumanist movement, notably through the massive financial support of companies involved in nanotechnology, biotechnology, computer and cognitive sciences (NBIC). Google’s president (Bill Maris), has also created a company, Calico (Californian Life Corporation), whose goal is to fight against aging and increase human life expectancy. Calico is headed by Arthur Levinson, a biologist who also sits on the Board of Directors of Apple and the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche, which runs the US biotech company Genentech. When Calico was founded in 2012, it hired Raymond Kurzweil, a specialist in artificial intelligence, theorist of transhumanism and co-founder of Singularity University, which is also financially sponsored by Google. This university advocates the concept of technological singularity, i.e. the advent of an artificial intelligence that will « exceed » the capacities of the human brain. But Google is not the only one interested in the subject. For more than ten years, multiple companies and billionaires are investing in startups and research centers. Start-ups are embarking on blood transfusions from young patients to older people in an effort to prolong life. Large fortunes or multinationals (like Google-Alphabet) are investing in biotechnologies to identify longevity genes and slow aging. Others are conducting experiments to duplicate the brain in machines. The cryopreservation industry, freezing an organism while waiting for a hypothetical cure for death, is also enjoying a growing success. All share the transhumanist ambition: to create a human being with tenfold longevity, even immortal. Beyond financial interests, there is a real desire to improve the human condition. This is what drives all these companies and entrepreneurs. However, they are not the only players involved. Other spheres mingle with the subject, such as medicine, for example, where doctors have contrary opinions, or men of religion trying to provide answers. 

A complex approach for science

On one side, this subject is very biased in a medical and so more technical point of view. As doctor Pauline Zelli says, “it is a hot topic in our progressive society thanks to improved living conditions and science. However, it should not contribute to increase or create inequalities”. The doctor tells us that advances in science must always be ethically acceptable to the population. The process should not be in detriment of people’s quality of life. She thinks that controlling life expectancy can be acceptable if it does not interfere with individual freedom and if the quality of life is assured. She is aware that increasing life expectancy might imply to make some human body changes. Modifying a human body is never natural but the modification is not always bad, it all depends on the finality of acceptability for the patient (benefit/risk ratio) as she previously said. The ethicality of the process depends on the ultimate purpose of the amendment. If it is to improve living conditions and the transmission or treatment of a serious disease, for example, it may be ethical. It is the responsibility of governments to avoid this (access to care for all, etc…).

A difficult relationship with death

On the other side, the extension of life is also a sensitive subject in religion perspective. In fact, in every religion the death is an important matter for the believers. The monotheistic religions have a paradoxical relationship to immortality. On the one hand there are the founding stories, which tell how death came about. “It is about Adam and Eve being driven out of Eden, the access to the tree of life being blocked on purpose. From now on, the mortal man is the one who knows a deadline, an end and he reflects.” says the rabbi Nissim Sultan who tells us about his vision of death in religion. Philosophy also provides answers on the ethical aspect of death. It is a fundamental determinant; to succeed in life or more exactly to succeed in death (for example with Socrates). The founding stories of the Bible have therefore worked a lot on how death came and what it means. So believers became « comfortable » with the idea of dying. It participates in the energy deployed to make one’s life a success. For Nissim Sultan, immortality is therefore not a research. Paradoxically, on the other hand, these same spiritualities sell the afterlife to believers, the postmortal life. It goes through narratives, through Kabbalah, mysticism, the journeys of the soul, the idea that there is life after death, or the resurrection of the dead. According to Nissim Sultan, the Platonic component as got two principles: the body and the soul: the body disappears the soul always remains. One is then in a search for immortality. So what relation does believers have with the concept of death? According to Nissim Sultan, it is not good for jewish people to say that it is not good not to want to die because it is something that all Jews should seek, and this is much proposed to them in their religion. It may be to console ourselves from death, to transcend it or to overcome it. So the paradox is that either people are comfortable with death, they want to achieve it properly, or death is nothing and not feared, and they want immortality. The idea of death, its concepts and origin, have always interested mankind. It is obviously not moral to wish to die, but it is not necessarily more moral not to want to die. « Life is sacred to all religion, » the rabbi reminds us. Thus, the relationship to death is personal. The rabbi therefore reminds us here that the relationship with death is not obvious to everyone. It has been at the center of preoccupation since the beginning of humanity.

Morals to reflect on life

From a certain angle, increasing life expectancy would help to resolve fears related to death. However, this prolongation of life requires a modification of the body (removal of genes in particular).  Is this going against the natural order? Is it forbidden to modify our body? Can we decide ourselves to extend our life? When we asked the rabbi, he said that there are both schools in Judaism. It is either continuity or sacrilege. The latter school is a minority one and is based on the following foundation: the unnatural. It takes the example of medicine; just because it’s not in nature doesn’t mean it’s not used. The same God who created us, made us with intelligence to produce these technologies to live better and well. As far as the body is concerned, this falls within the scope of everyone’s freedoms. It all depends on whether or not we consider aging to be a disease. If this is the case, then all we do is treat ourselves by increasing our life. This point is very important. Considering aging as a disease and not something natural would make all the debate more ethical. Yes, we are treating ourselves against the disease of aging, as we treat cancer for example. For the lengthening decided of his own free will, he answers that it is a stake of all power, it is necessary that each one has an ethical surveillance on himself. He reminds us that the will to live is not equivalent to omnipotence. So there would be no prohibition in the Jewish religion. Does not prohibiting something make it ethically acceptable? The assertion that there is no religious ban stops here at the fact that there is no text to prohibit it. According to the rabbi, God creates us with a wisdom that allows us to push back certain limits. It will therefore be a relationship to time and to humanity that is different. Indeed, the argument to prevent this improvement would be the equivalent of « it was better before », but it is too light to be a real argument. These issues of transhumanism can be seen in two ways in Jewish religion : “Either we change man in his fundamental structure and as a believer that shocks me because God made me in one way and I am changing God’s plan, or we can think that it is a continuity, we have evolved in a random way and now we are evolving in a planned way. Man induces his own structural changes.” He refers to Darwin’s notions of adaptability and mutations. Under this latter approach, one might then think that it is ethically acceptable to want to live longer. When we said that to the rabbi, he rephrases our question and asks whether it is good or bad to live longer. He refers to Jewish law, the halaha, and asks whether it is a mitzvah (good deed) to live longer. The answer is no, natural time is enough. It is not a duty. So, no ethical problems, but no encouragement either. For him, the ultimate ethical question will be the business plan and the monetization of this desire to live. He reflects on inequalities, those who can afford to live longer and those who cannot. Monetizing life is a dangerous aspect to consider. The well-off would not be sure to live better, because what is the point of living two centuries if everyone dies? Ethical prohibitions may have to be imposed, especially on resources. It is complex to feed our current planet, is it relevant to live longer? There will therefore be a major macroeconomic problem.

The rabbi is probably right. Perhaps we should detach ourselves from the personal and financial aspects to reflect on the common and global interest. What do we want and not what do I want. By including this we, we include all the actors, including those forgotten in these debates. These are the same actors who often fall victim to the limits and excesses caused by those who decide. By taking his points into consideration, we can ask about the limits. We hope not to see the development of black markets for youth with the trade of doses of blood from adolescents, as we already have those for organs. Some statements may also cause concern: Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, is said to be “very interested” in this type of transfusion (but swears that he is not yet “practicing”). Passionate about the subject – and obsessed with his own death – the billionaire invests considerable sums in longevity research and in biotechnology start-ups active in the field of prolonging life. Thus, the beauty of human intelligence could help us defeat diseases and fight many problems in the world. To live longer is not a dream, but something that will soon be accessible. Not rushing blindly and taking into account all aspects seems important. After all, the final decision is yours. Well, to us.


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