Bioethics Blogs

On eternal life: why an anti-ageing pill might sour the pleasures of existence

Would finding the fountain of youth really be such a great thing? Nicola Sapiens De Mitri/Flickr, CC BY

Centuries ago, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon searched for the Fountain of Youth, a spring that restores youth to whoever drinks from, or bathes in it. Today, some scientists are keeping the dream alive.

These thinkers believe genetic engineering, or the discovery of anti-ageing drugs, could extend human life far beyond its natural course.

Indeed, Australian geneticist David Sinclair believes such a pill could be as close as ten years away. Cambridge researcher Aubrey de Grey thinks there is no reason humans cannot live for at least 1,000 years.

It’s certainly an enticing prospect, which has investors jumping on board. In 2013, Google started Calico, short for the California Life Company. Employing scientists from the fields of medicine, genetics, drug development and molecular biology, Calico’s aim is to “devise interventions that slow ageing and counteract age-related diseases”.

Those who fear death and want to live as long as possible would welcome this kind of research. But many philosophers and ethicists are sceptical about the implications of longer lifespans, both for the individual and society. Their doubts recall the old saying: be careful what you wish for.

Individual discontents

For some, the idea of living longer is a no-brainer. According to bioethicist John Harris, the commitment to extending life indefinitely is justified by the same reasoning that commits us to saving lives. He believes scientists have a moral obligation to do so.

But Leon Kass, a former US presidential advisor on bioethics, takes the concept of eternal life deeper than simply “life is good and death is bad”.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.