The Moral Confrontation
Now, it is not as though the world of art and literature has been silent on this issue. Poetry, drama, painting, and music show us that mortality is inextricably woven into the human scheme of things; that our virtues and our loves are the virtues and loves of dying creatures; that everything that leads us to cherish one another, to sacrifice ourselves, to make sublime and heroic gestures, is predicated on the assumption that we are vulnerable and transient, with only a fleeting claim on the things of this world. On such grounds Leon Kass has argued for what he calls the “blessings of finitude”–for the intimate connection between the things that we value and the fleetingness of life.
That is not how Aubrey de Grey sees the matter. He told Nuland that “the right to live as long as you choose is the world’s most fundamental right.” De Grey silences all moral qualms about his mission by affirming his belief that he has a moral duty to proceed with it. What greater benefit can be offered to humanity than the benefit that overcomes the curse of Adam and vanquishes our greatest fear? As for future generations and the love of children, in de Grey’s view reproduction has until now been simply the “done thing,” the result of indoctrination into values that will have no place among the immortals.
De Grey argues that we have a moral duty to provide people with the choice as to how long they will live. Sherwin Nuland rightly protests that “as with every other of his formulations, this one–the concept of untrammeled freedom of choice for the individual–is taken out of the context of its biological and societal surroundings. Like everything else, it is treated in vitrorather than in vivo.” But then, isn’t that the direction in which we are going? The inhabitants of Huxley’s brave new world are produced in vitro and never really emerge from the bottle. They too have “untrammeled freedom of choice,” but it is an illusory freedom, since their controlled encounter with reality presents them only with the experiences and the ambitions that their makers allow. There is no room in their world for virtue, love, or self-sacrifice, since they are accountable for nothing that happens to them and nothing that they do. The lonely “savage,” grieving for his mother and nurturing his spirit on Shakespeare, reacts to the spectacle of that world by committing suicide. For it is a world without meaning, a world in which the categories that endow things with moral significance no longer apply.