Welcome to the second Journal of Moral Philosophy discussion here at PEA Soup. This is sure to be another insightful and productive discussion, this time on Preston Greene‘s absolutely fantastic paper “Value in Very Long Lives.” This paper is currently available in the “Advance Articles” section online at the Journal of Moral Philosophy. They have kindly provided free access to the paper, which can be viewed or downloaded here. Michael Cholbi has written a critical précis and commentary, which is included below. Please join the fun!
Michael Cholbi’s critical précis:
Longevity researcher Steven Austad has estimated that the average lifespan of “medically immortal” human beings —individuals invulnerable to aging, infectious disease, or endogenous diseases such as cancer but still vulnerable to death due to accidents, violence, etc. — would be just shy of 6,000 years. Should we welcome the prospect of medical immortality? Many actual human lives are no doubt made worse by death. For death often deprives us of goods that, had we lived longer, would have resulted in our lives being better overall. But some philosophers argue that it does not follow from the fact that many would benefit from living a bit longer that greatly extended lifespans would be better for us.
In “Value in Very Long Lives,” Preston Greene answers two of the most prominent arguments offered by skeptics about the desirability of very long lives, and in so doing, brings a welcome dose of empiricism to these debates. Preston’s responses rest not on thought experiments or on appeals to what we imagine very long lives would be like. Rather, his defense of the value of very long lives draws on plausible empirical claims about (among other matters) memory and temporal bias in decision-making. Very long lives in which individuals’ memories of the past fade, their knowledge of the future is limited in scope, and they reason about what to do in ways that discount events or experiences in the remote future would, Preston concludes, meet the conditions for valuable lives advanced by his skeptical adversaries. Death thus “plays merely a contingent role in our valuing attitudes” (“Value in Very Long Lives,” 2) and a valuable life need not “presuppose death” (VVLL 18).
There are many elements of Preston’s discussion that I will not have the opportunity to address here. Let me first outline how I understand Preston to be responding to the two skeptical arguments before raising my chief worry about what Preston’s discussion accomplishes.
The first skeptical argument is typified by Bernard Williams’ “Makropulos case”. Williams poses his argument as a dilemma: An infinite life would, he argues, eventually become tedious, because even the most pleasant or rewarding activities would become familiar and unappealing. Such tedium could be remedied by large scale changes in our personality or character, changes that introduce new desires into our psychology and thereby increase our attraction to activities to which we were previously indifferent or averse. But such large scale changes in personality or character would render those future selves so different from us that we would have little reason to identify with them or their good. An infinitely long life must therefore be bad from a first-personal perspective, according to Williams, or good but only from a perspective from which we cannot first-personally identify with such a life. Perhaps Williams’ dilemma is less acute with respect to lives that are merely very long rather than infinitely long. Nevertheless, many have been convinced by arguments like Williams’ that greatly extended human lifespans would not only not be better for us, they might well be worse.
In response, Preston notes that Williams assumes that “it is essential to one’s character that one become bored in response to repeated experiences” (VVLL 7) and that a very long life would involve an increase in one’s memory capacities (VVLL 8). Together these assumptions support Williams’ contention that long lives would become tedious: Individuals will recall past experiences, and as result, eventually find themselves unmotivated or disinterested in repeating such experiences. But humans are a forgetful species. Our memories of past events fade. If so, then even repeated experiences can be experienced as good so long as they are not experienced as repetitious. “As long as the variability of experienced events outruns memory capacity,” (a plausible assumption), then a “life of even infinite length may appear to the agent, at each moment in time, to involve no repetition of experience whatsoever” and present no threat to a person’s “constancy of character.” (VVLL 9)
The second skeptical argument Preston addresses asserts that temporal scarcity is a necessary condition for human attitudes, human choice, or their meaningfulness. Samuel Scheffler proposes (Death and the Afterlife, Oxford 2013) that many things we value, such as health, achievement, security, etc., assume that human lives are of limited duration. Richard Wollheim suggests (The Thread of Life, Cambridge 1984) that temporal scarcity is needed in order for there be reasons to choose among the options available to us. If such arguments are sound, then very long lives (even if not infinitely long) might contribute to rendering our attitudes and reasoning incoherent.
To this argument, Preston responds by noting that a limited horizon of future time does not appear necessary for the relevant form of temporal scarcity. All that is necessary is that such horizons be perceived as limited. Humans with very long lifespans would, in all likelihood, share with us our near bias, assigning greater weight to events or experiences in the near future to those in the distant future. Near biased individuals with very long lives would thus likely develop attitudes, make choices, etc., within a temporal framework that would mirror that of beings with shorter lifespans, that is, beings like those humans who exist now. (VVLL 15)
The empirical cast of Preston’s responses to these two skeptical arguments is greatly appreciated. Much of the philosophical literature exaggerates how much we attend to the (remote) past and the (remote) future. We are, as Preston observes, more present-focused in our awareness and decision making than this literature lets on. In general, I am qualifiedly sympathetic to his suggestion that very long lives could be valuable and that their value is enhanced under the conditions of fading memory, near bias, etc. Whether Preston’s thesis advances the historical dialectic is less clear: The skeptical arguments he addresses arose in part as a reaction to the widespread belief that because death is (or can be) bad, then living very long (even infinitely long) lives must therefore be good. In my estimation, Preston gives us persuasive reasons to think that such arguments are unsound. But it may be the case that proponents of such arguments are arguing for a stronger thesis than is necessary for their dialectical purposes: that very long lives are valueless. And I wonder if Preston’s responses to these arguments nevertheless leave a weaker skeptical thesis untouched, namely, there is no positive reason to prefer very long lives to the comparatively brief lives we presently enjoy.
My chief worry in this regard is that Preston evidently has in mind by ‘very long lives’ lives that are biologically very long. Let us suppose that what matters to us in survival is that we be psychologically connected to some sufficiently high degree to our later ‘selves,’ i.e., that we share a large enough body of attitudes, preferences, etc., with them. One may hold this claim as an independent normative thesis about the value of survival or one might hold it as a consequence of holding that what matters in survival is that the person we are survives and we as persons are essentially psychological. Any stage within the very long lives Preston describes does not, in light of the very features that he claims are needed in order to very long lives to have value, have much psychological connection with any other stage. Each stage has limited and fading memory of past stages and is, due to near bias, not richly psychologically connected to future stages. These stages are relatively short but consecutive (or overlapping) lifestages that happen to be realized by a single biological organism, a series of autobiographies loosely linked by memory and other psychological features and attitudes. Preston does well in showing how each of these person stages might be valuable taken in their own right, and it would seem to follow that if each of these stages is valuable, then their sum, realized across the organism’s lifespan, is also valuable. Yet none of these short-lived stages seems to have much reason to prefer that any of the other stages realized by this organism existed or come to exist. That each of these short-lived stages has a valuable life (or finds her life valuable) in large measure due to cognitive shortcomings such as limited memory or apparent irrationalities such as near bias only seems to compound this worry. Their positive disposition toward their lives seems to rest on a lack of full information about what their lives could be like without such shortcomings or irrationalities.
Put more succinctly, Preston shows us that so long as very long lives are not experienced as very long, they can be valuable. This is a noteworthy claim and highlights how different questions are in the air in debates about the value of very long lives. To the questions ‘can very long lives be valuable from a third-personal perspective?’ and ‘can very long lives be experienced as valuable as they unfold?’, Preston persuasively answers in the affirmative. In my opinion though, the more relevant question is ‘do we have first-personal reasons to desire that our biological lives be very long?’ Here Preston’s response to the skeptical arguments actually lend support to a negative response. For living a very long life is valuable only when conditions are met that ensure that this question cannot be entertained ‘from the inside,’ so to speak.
That the very long lives Preston describes sound like lives many people rationally prefer to avoid further corroborates my worry. Here is Preston’s picture:
You know you have lived for a very long time, though you are not certain how long. Your memory is limited as it is in the actual world: you remember your life back to a point, though the details fade as you go further back in time. You know that you have 50 years remaining on your current contract as a philosophy professor, and you expect to do something after that, though you are ignorant of exactly what. It seems possible that one day you will die, though of this you are not certain. (VVLL 2)
This resembles Alzheimer’s-based dementia, a condition that many people understandably do not want to find themselves in. Preston has done a great service in indicating that such lives need not be valueless. I remain less persuaded that he has given us reason to resent the brevity of our lives or to resent the ways in which death and our awareness of our mortality play “an essential role in our valuing attitudes.” (VVLL 1, 18, emphasis added)5