Just who are the winners and losers when biomedical advances eliminate death?

woman taking a breath in front of a spectacular view
woman taking a breath in front of a spectacular view

Professor Regina Rini, Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Moral and Social Cognition and core member of Vision: Science to Applications (VISTA), has a way of raising previously unimaginable moral questions that cut to the heart of things. She has done it again, this time in the esteemed Times Literary Supplement. Her article, “The Last Mortals,” was released to a global audience in May 2019.

Rini starts with the supposition that biomedical advances could mean eternal life in 100 years’ time. She then delves into the most troubling moral dilemma in this scenario: What happens to the generation prior to the lucky cohort with eternal life? What happens when these folks, the last mortals, come face-to-face with the immortals and fully realize the gravity of their loss? Their anguish, she imagines, would be acute.

Rini essentially asks: What happens when the last mortals come face to face with immortals and fully realize the gravity of their loss?
Rini essentially asks: What happens when the last mortals come face-to-face with immortals and fully realize the gravity of their loss?

“My aim is to show that dying is worse for the last mortals than for earlier generations. The advent of immortality actually worsens the lives of those who fall closest in never reaching it,” Rini explains.

Rini is the perfect person to dive deeply into this issue. Her work analyzes research from the social sciences, especially cognitive science and sociology, and through this lens, she determines then investigates key philosophical questions. She believes we cannot understand our individual moral decisions without also understanding how we relate to those of others.

Biomedical breakthroughs have got us this far

In the article, Rini first reminds us of the ever-expanding lifespan of Western civilization: If you were born in 1900, your lifespan was, on average, 47 years; if you were born in 1950, it was 68; if you were born today, you could possibly expect to see your 100th birthday. The human lifespan has so expanded that if you are currently under the age of 40, then you can plan to meet young people who will live to see the year 2157, Rini says.

Rini suggests that biomedical advancements could, theoretically, extend human life to infinity
Rini suggests that biomedical advancements could, theoretically, extend human life to infinity

This would be, of course, the result of consistent biomedical advancements, including vaccinations, new cancer treatment, transplants and much more. Medical research is also shifting from acute conditions, such as the flu, to chronic conditions including heart disease and diabetes – getting to the root of some of today’s most common causes of death. Furthermore, aging is largely determined by genes, which can be manipulated, Rini points out. This opens another avenue for a limitless lifespan.

Rini ferrets out the most disturbing moral question

Regina Rini
Regina Rini

Now comes the hard part. Rini considers the situation, the possibility of mortality, and ferrets out the most disturbing moral question within it. She asks: “What if this [eternal life] all happened sooner rather than later?” She throws out a date – 100 years from now – and suggests that anyone alive in 2119 is likely to live for centuries, even millennia, possibly forever. (One caveat of immortality is that, given statistics about deathly accidents, sooner or later all “immortals” would eventually die in some form of an accident.)

But what about those who just about make it to this hypothetical date of 2119, when immortality is possible? Rini elaborates on this conundrum: “What would it mean to realize that you very nearly got to live forever, but didn’t? What would it mean if we were increasingly forced to share social space with young people whose anticipated allotment of time massively dwarfs our own?”

The agony of nearly making it to eternity, when surrounded by those who’ve effortlessly achieved this simply by the date they were born, is profound. She elaborates: “It’s one thing to imagine whippersnappers coasting into the next century. It’s another to know many will see the next millennium. The proportions are terribly imbalanced, and their distribution arbitrary. This is a sure recipe for jealousy. The last mortals may be ghosts before their time, destined to look on in growing envy at the enormous stretches of life left to their near-contemporaries. In one sense, it will be the greatest inequity experienced in all human history.”

What does immortality mean, and do we really want it?

Switching gears to consider the life of the immortals, Rini next considers if an endless life is something that people would genuinely want. In most fiction works, this is shown to be boring, tedious and meaningless. The film Groundhog Day with Bill Murray is a good example of this, as the lead character repeatedly wakes up to the same, inescapable day.

Is eternal life really a blessing? Rini considers
Is eternal life really a blessing? Rini considers

Rini also points out that if no one died, rampant overpopulation would certainly affect quality of life in a catastrophic way. Here, she unearths the fundamental human predicament: We may want to live forever, and do things to extend our lives, like eating right and not smoking, but the question of whether eternal life would be a blessing is unclear.

Rini’s article in the Times Literary Supplement is an accessible and hugely compelling read. She pushes through to the nucleus of moral questions, effortlessly drawing from a repertoire of thinkers from Greek philosophers Epicurus and Diogenes to the Roman Stoic Seneca, from feminist existentialist Simone de Beauvoir to J. R. R. Tolkien [Lord of the Rings], with an interesting fictional tangent about Sigmund Freud and an iPhone. Rini is an exceptional philosopher and thinker who, with everything she writes, takes readers on a veritable roller coaster ride of highly charged moral dilemmas.

To read the article “The Last Mortals,” visit the Times Literary Supplement website. To learn more about Rini, visit her Faculty profile page.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch; watch our new animated video, which profiles current research strengths and areas of opportunity, such as Artificial Intelligence and Indigenous futurities; and see the snapshot infographic, a glimpse of the year’s successes.

By Megan Mueller, senior manager, Research Communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca