One of the marvels of modern science is the prolongation of life. Based on the EncBritannica, Upper Paleolithic life expectancy was 33 but in classical greece it was only at 28. Medieval Britain was only 30. The early 2oth Century was only 31. One hundred years ago the avg was well under half of what life expectancy is now — 67.2 for the whole world. Mix into this the privileged of the West or compare men and women and we’ve got a modern marvel, for which many of us are profoundly grateful.
But living longer isn’t the whole picture. Gilbert Meilaender, one of the more intelligent and articulate writers on Christian ethics, and clearly one of our finest stylists — he’s got the touch of an essayist, and for me that’s the ticket, has a new book – Should We Live Forever? The Ethical Ambiguities of Aging (from Eerdmans).
In this opening flourish of ideas Meilaender explores four options in the modern world when it comes to the prolongation of life. If life is a gift from God, we think, we want more of it. But Meilaender’s concern is that the hope of life after death has become faith that death can be defeated. That seems to be one of the intents in modern science. So he asks why we think of aging as a problem in need of solving. Is it? Is it about adding life to years or years to life?
Fundamental to modern science is that disease and aging are intertwined, so if we eliminate diseases we enhance our aging — or we prolong life. Meilaender’s question: Why do we age? Can we know? (What do you think?)
He offers four considerations:
1. The disposable soma (body) theory: the evolutionary biology theory. Since the body houses DNA that is passed on, evolution has most preserved those bodies that populate. Following our reproductive capacities evolution we are not as needed so evolution hasn’t concerned itself with maintenance or with prolongation; if focuses on replacement and reproduction. But Meilaender probes whether or not (he thinks not) biological evolutionary theories can answer “Why?” or give purpose. One might contend, from this theory, that humans should not have children and they’ll live longer; or that the more children the better since more DNA of the person is handed off. This theory cannot account for human aging as a good. Is this adequate reason to live longer?
2. The national nursing home scenario — the downside of the remarkable progress of disease control. We can prolong life but it often means prolonged aging or senescence. Thus, “prolongation that is not also age-retardation is unlikely to offer what we really want” (11). Does this make you want to live longer?
3. Compressed morbidity: if we can prolong good days and compress bad days then we have made genuine progress. We can then live longer at the peak of our powers. Meilaender is unconvinced this theory makes sense of realities. How does this theory work into your desire to live longer?
4. Meilaender’s theories work toward purpose and teleology. Is there a purpose that makes most sense? He thinks so — he thinks a complete life, flourishing, the good life leads to a better theory: love. Love reshapes life into the desire to live longer because this is the kind of expression seen in lovers: “Oh but a little longer.” Our freedom to step beyond our limits is connected to love — the desire for love to last forever. Is love the ultimate rationale for the desire to live longer?