In an earlier post I distinguished between strong and weak immortalism, where the former says one long life is better than many short lives and the latter merely says one long life is better than one short life.

A population ethics paper called “Life Extension versus Replacement” by Gustaf Arrhenius considers and rejects two bad arguments for the strong-immortalist position (three bad arguments if you count “average utilitarianism”). All of these bad arguments modify “standard” total-utilitarian population ethics.

I think there are some better arguments for strong immortalism within standard utilitarianism. Maybe:

  1. …having a greater amount of existing structure to build on (memories and the like) allows for more valuable future experiences
  2. …old minds are living monuments that make the lives of others more interesting, like the seven wonders of the world
  3. …leading a more or less unique life is a part of welfare, and 100-year lives will repeat to an extent because there are so many more of them
  4. …any mind gets “tangled up” with others and with its own preferences, so that its destruction creates anti-valuable grief and thwarted aspirations
  5. …older minds attain more virtue and competence so they are more extrinsically useful

Arguments could go the other way, too. Maybe there’s a limited number of especially valuable life events you can experience — this question is related to what Eliezer Yudkowsky calls fun theory.

But even if those arguments are stronger than the ones I listed, that may not mean we shouldn’t research life extension in practice. Here are a few reasons:

  1. Option value. If living is a mistake you can still die later, if dying is a mistake you can’t come back.
  2. We aren’t actually at Earth’s population limits, so it’s not the case that by living for 1000 years you deny ten other potential people a 100-year life. Arguing for life extension currently requires only what I called “weak immortalism”, not “strong immortalism”.
  3. None of the arguments for death (other than bad ones, like “nature knows best”) would seem to single out 100 years as the right lifespan.
  4. None of the arguments for death would seem to argue for the complete destruction of minds, rather than for starting over only partially.

In sum, I would be shocked if a complete understanding of population ethics caused us to favor unextended human lives into the indefinite future.

Death and Sex at the Cato Institute

Overcoming Bias links to a debate at Cato Unbound on radical life extension. What strikes me most about the anti-longevity contributions is how they seem not to have any notion that, in the thousand years it takes to live a thousand-year life, the world might change. Why would the year 3000 look like the year 2000 any more than the year 2000 looks like the year 1000? For example, Diana Schaub writes:

But how would human relations be affected? How would monogamy fare? It’s not doing great as it is, but could one even imagine the vow “till death do us part” when death might be nine centuries away? If monogamy simply disappears as a promise and an expectation, we might be confronted with the human version of the puppy problem: would there be enough psychic energy for ever-renewed love?

This does not take into account that new technologies may allow us to get better at hacking our own motivations.

Schaub further writes:

Civilization depends on the uniqueness of human sexuality—and much of that uniqueness may derive from our awareness of and experience of mortality.

I would argue that any kind of sexuality whose uniqueness derives from your awareness of and experience of mortality is needlessly kinky.

Predictable Mistakes

Some argue that radical life extension would be a bad thing because, not fearing death, immortals would choose to delay any major accomplishments. This is a common class of argument, and there’s something very strange about it.

It’s paradoxical for most people to believe that most people will predictably make some specific mistake — not just that they’ll behave selfishly in a collective action problem, but that they’ll fail badly and foreseeably at pursuing their own interests. To make this sort of argument, you not only need to believe you’re in a special class of people who happen to have some insight. You need to believe that your insight will keep failing to change people’s behavior, again and again — even though you expect it to convince the listener that there’s a problem.

If you’re given thousands upon thousands of years to make a simple point, in a world of increasing knowledge and perhaps increasing intelligence, then, if you were really right, why would you expect to keep failing? Sure, people make dumb mistakes with their lives today. But they don’t have hundreds of years of life experience, they’ve grown up in a human-unfriendly and rapidly changing world, and mostly, they simply haven’t had the chance yet to think very deeply about things and hear all relevant viewpoints. Our civilization is very young. Give it time.

(You could maybe repair the “people need fear of death” argument by saying that regardless of what people’s conscious beliefs say they ought to be doing, it won’t work if they don’t feel the motivation in their bones. You could also argue that there is a collective action problem. But that’s just this particular example. The point I’m making is more general.)

Immortalism: Strong and Weak

When we say it’s a good thing for death to be abolished, we could mean two different things:

  1. A single million-year life is better than a single hundred-year life
  2. A single million-year life is better than a sequence of ten thousand hundred-year lives

I happen to agree with both these positions, but I think 1 is much more obviously true than 2. I propose to call them “weak immortalism” and “strong immortalism”, respectively. (Some bad precedents: no one knows the exact difference between strong and weak AI, strong and weak atheism, or the strong and weak anthropic principle.)

Whether people should die when humanity is at its population limits depends on whether we should accept strong immortalism. Whether people should die when humanity is not at its population limits depends only on whether we should accept weak immortalism. As I see things, humanity is not currently at its population limits, and it will not be for a long time, but it probably will be some day.

Why do people not draw this distinction more often?


Here’s a quote from W.A. Mozart, who, like all great composers and other folks who are no longer alive, died an untimely death:

After serious reflection, death seems to me to be the purpose of our life, therefore I have for some years familiarized myself with this truest and best friend of man, so that the contemplation of the inevitable has no longer any terror for me, but produces a state of beatified peace and consolation. For this I daily thank my Creator, and pray that it may so be meted out to all men.

Roko at Transhuman Goodness has a post up comparing pro-death attitudes to the Battered Person Syndrome. I’ve seen comparisons to the Stockholm Syndrome before, and I’ve always thought there was something to them. I’m not sure who came up with the idea first, but (continuing the Sweden theme) here’s Nick Bostrom’s explanation:

This common attitude towards aging has been compared to the Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages develop an emotional attachment to their captors. The victim comes to see the captor as a “good guy,” a savior. Freed hostages are even known to have participated in the legal defense of their former captors and to have raised money for a legal defense fund. Perhaps in an analogous way, apologism for human senescence might be viewed as a psychological defense mechanism that many people deploy as a way of coping with their own inescapable “capture” by the aging process. But just as the emotional bonding observed in the Stockholm syndrome can become counterproductive when it leads hostages to actively assist their captors in thwarting rescue efforts by the police, so too our adaptive acceptance of aging may become a problem when it prevents us from implementing the most promising research programs for improving healthy life expectancy.