Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Are (Very) Old People a Threat to Society?

That’s the view of Daniel Callahan, who urges us to make no special effort to keep them alive beyond their "natural" lifespan. The view of ME, which is part of the linked SOCIETY symposium, is that such a pro-death policy is both contrary to our culture of rights and an offense against human dignity and human love. (The older I get, the more convinced I am of this view.) Even the Bible is in favor of people living a very long time, if they can figure out how to do it. The culture of life includes both an openness to the possibility of extreme prolongevity and acting on the awareness that the point of human life is not merely staying alive. Here’s the title of my contribution: "Stuck with Virtue in Our Pro-Life Future."

Discussions - 24 Comments

My Biblical scholarship has waned since I graduated from Christian high school, but doesn't God give us the 120-year cut off eventually in the "Old" Testament? Or am I missing something? Certainly, figuring out how to prolong one's life in the Bible has more to do with "walking" alongside God than it does learning how to manipulate biology. Or is that an unfair reading? Again, I claim a bit of ignorance on this issue - just wondered whether you saw 120 as a Biblically endorsed "long time" (which I definitely do), or if you were talking about something else . . .

Yep - let's go ahead and kill old people - we could be like the liberals and just call it a late-term abortion. That way we can still call it a choice.

Is that number proscribed in the Bible, Matt? I know Methusala (sp?) lived for 900 and some odd years; what are you refering to?

Genesis 6:3. Now, maybe that is just before the flood. I realize there were people who lived beyond that afterward (I guess not "a lot" relatively speaking - a few key theists), but I was always taught that was sort of the limit for we average Joes . . .

The so-called scholar who capitalizes the "ME" with which he constantly refers to himself characterizes his opponent's position as 'pro-death'. Hardly a fair and balanced characterization. Prepare to be stuck with virtue-cliches.

The problem is that we are "stuck with tenderness" rather than virtue. “In the absence of faith, we,"Flannery O'Connor once noted, "govern by tenderness. And tenderness leads to the gas chamber.”

Peter, why put "natural" in quotes? The Old Testament's four score years may now be four score and ten, but that doesn't make the lifespan any less natural.

Lawler is secretly very "pro-death" and is merely presenting an ironic post. I think that the desire to prolong death (beyond our "natural" limitiations - see here ) is the manifestation of individualism gone so far awry. Where does our responsibility lie in relationship to keeping people alive when they are in pain? Lawler is surely not asserting through irony that when people become non productive that we should kill them thats just cruelty (mach might endorse).

Well my first thought is that old people might be a threat if they are allowed to drive. My second thought is that I should reread The Stranger by Camus. My third thought is that determining what is harmfull to society strikes of socialism and gets us talking about policy and thinking about letting and giving government a greater scope for intervention. All sorts of things might not be good for society...like the automobile, it is probably bad for society and not just because it polutes, but more importantly because it allows us to move around, vote with our feet and escape from the moral condemnation that existed in more rooted times when a you had to travel by horse. Of course when you had to travel by horse you had more excuse to stay away from old people if you lived many states away. Now you can drive, but you can also puddle jump, or fly across the country. The problem is taking care of old people and ballancing a career/life.

You notice that old people when spoken of in this way have to be relatives, people you have at least some responsibility to take care of, and probably don't mind helping out.

Of course from an economic standpoint old people cause all sorts of problems for a society that pays out social security and medicare and other various entitlements. You could argue that having a date when the state no longer foots the bill for old folks is the equivalent of letting them die...I don't really know what happens to old people if they run out of money and live in a nursing home, I suspect the government picks up the tab.

No one is seriously suggesting killing old people(except those who have to drive in Florida...JJ in FL you are getting senile that isn't a gas chamber it is a gas tank)

I can play games in ambiguity all day long, but this is a serious enough issue, can we clarify? (I would read your article past the first page, but $34 is a bit steep)

Old people are good when they are treated with dignity and allowed to live out their lives with families. I think most old people prefer this. The thing is about living longer....what is the point of being a vegetable in some home. I really think the old are cast out by a society that while it has more items now it has to work harder to get by. Grandpa can't stay with mom all day becuase she is working 60 hours a week along with dad. At least we have flat screens and technological gadets. When put in a nursing home setting old people are put into a system that is like a death camp. The entire industry is based on squeezing the maximum out of the taxpayer so the people are kept alive just long enough for the nursing home to make profits. The reasoning always is well they need constant care and what if they fell, I say better to fall then live in filth with bed sores and flesh eating bacteria.

The transhumanist overtones in this just lead back to eugenics and the creation of a reality where the rich will literaly become biologicly superior to the poor through the manipulation of nature.

I just had another early morning thought. I accept that one dominant view of Locke is that he replaces virtue/God with Money. This is not true to the text(see Some Thoughts Concerning Education)

"He that gives his son apples, or sugarplumbs, or what else of this kind he is most delighted with, to make him learn his book, does but authorize his love of pleasure and cocker up that dangerous propensity which he ought by all means to subdue and stifle in him. You can never hope to teach him to master it whilst you compound the check you give his inclinations in one place by the satisfaction you propose it in another. To make a good, a wise, and a virtuous man, it is fit he should learn to cross his appetite and deny his inclination to riches, finery, or pleasing his palate etc.(sounds like Ben Franklin) whenever his reason advises the contrary and his duty requires it. But when you draw him to do anything that is it by the offer of money or reward the pains of learning his book by the pleasure of the luscious morsel; when you promise him a lace-cravat or a fine new suit upon the performance of some of his tasks; what do you by proposing these as rewards but allow them to be the good things he should aim at, and thereby encourage his longing for them and accustom him to place his happiness in them? Thus people, to prevail with children to be industrious about their grammar, dancing, or some other such matter of no great moment to the happiness or usefulness of their lives, by misapplied rewards and punishments sacrifice their virtue, invert the order of their education, and teach them luxury, pride, or covetousness etc."

Of course all accuracy to the text be dammed, if we want to talk about Locke in modern america we are talking about a nation with automobiles, less God, and a whole lot of wealth/bells and whistles. We are also talking about an america where the easiest way of drumming up support for the Republican party is to talk about cutting taxes, getting to keep your wealth and keeping gov. out of decisions, not to mention fears about socialism...and that is why the "Lockeian" folks are going to the tea parties.

It is the Democrats who are generally more policy wonkish and who are always looking out for the little guy, and the elderly...but everytime a politician starts talking you hear the cash register, and if loosely speaking it is the small town "rooted"/protestant/Lockean then the answer is familly takes care of old folks and keep government out of it...it is those career hungry(people that majored in economics and had to go to a large city, leaving behind familly to find work) that now want to tax and provide for the elderly(albeit the richer people do live in cities...no simple off the cuff sociology will work(for academics, but it might not be far from the truth(since a lot of regular folk don't have time to be super reflective...and also resent "liberals" for this fact...thus exasperating the leisure/work dynamic)

In any case if the Lockeians resent those "liberals" who are always talking about more to life than staying alive, it might be because life is more hobbesian in some places, and because where they are in smaller farm communities, life is about work and survival...it is also because the democratic and republican party largely shape sociology more than they know(due to time constraints in leisure)

The republicans make every new government program about confiscating wealth thus exasperating what Locke himself says will ruin liberality...."As to having and possessing things, teach them to part with what they have easily and freely to their friends; and let them find by experience that the most liberal has always most plenty, with esteem and commendation to boot, and they will quickly learn to practice it." And certainly to this day most parents follow Locke's advice and still teach kids to share... But liberality can't last long in the hard knock life, and folks know intuitively that there is truth to big government robbing peter to pay paul (as Mises among others said...but of course this is replacing God with economics...I understand your point...the bible allusions gets mixed together/along with everything else, but if it is mixed together and by virtue of working and lacking leisure to seperate everything how is anything ever precise/analytic except in academics?)

Ironic that I criticize your textual Locke and agree with you...Locke kills liberality and makes even old people a threat to society...but it isn't Locke...and the small town folk will take care of the elderly(not that there aren't democrats in small towns...nothing can here be said that isn't a generalization...or as I think of it a simple question of the number of rational spectators you are able to conceive...the fewer rational spectators the less these things are seen as generalizations and the more absolute as truth statements they appear to be...but if you point this out...you will simply breed resentment, among those who work and don't have time for fancy leisure/speculation/reflection, of course even this is an oversold(economic term I know) distinction, and the more academic you get the less you are still talking about the generic democrat or generic republican and more about refined versions of arguements, correspondence to persons itself highly dependent on the type of work the person does, and in this particular case/topic on his relation to his familly, or the people he knows personally not as old people but as grandparents and parents.

All in all I wouldn't complain if we had more Lockeians in America(albeit you might have a problem with this very old person, but I am not accusing you of begging the question.)

I think you are too alarmist Brutus, that is a whole other problem with old people, they complain so much about life that they fill our heads with ideas that detract us from being sensible and having worries that correspond to our age and situation. I am not saying that the transhumanist scenario isn't logically possible, I am just saying you would go broke quickly trading on such thoughts in a market situation. That is why I love the stock market, it forces you to be objective and rational. You have to have a way to test your fears, and if you are always on the lookout for the worst case scenario, then you will probably find it.

"Death camp" and "gas chamber" need to be added to "hitler" comparisons as terms used with greater care...then again I am not out to stomp on artistic/poetic phrases and Flannery O'Connor is a good author(no offense to JJ in FL)...I can't complain about flamboyance, but don't mistake me for someone who buys even my own exagerations.

Here is what Locke says: "...such other names as carry with them the ideas of some thing terrible and hurtful which they have reason to be afraid of when alone, especially in the dark. This must be carefully prevented. For thought by this foolish way they may keep them from little faults, yet the remedy is much worse than the disease, and there is stamped upon their imaginations ideas that follow them with terror and affrightment...if children were let alone, they would be no more afraid in the dark than in broad sunshine: they would in their turns as much welcome the one for sleep as the other to play in."

ken, the fact is that we may be able to live longer than nature (understood sciobiologically, more or less) intends. or we may not. we just don't know what our biotechnological, regenerative possibilities are. nature, of course, still wins in the end.

This thread needs a joke. (Besides ren.)

When I die I want to go peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather.

Not screaming in terror like the passengers in his car.

Daniel Callahan, who urges us to make no special effort to keep them alive beyond their "natural" lifespan ... such a pro-death policy ...

It seems like a stretch to call this a "pro-death" policy. If it is, we already have a pro-death policy today.

There are a finite number of health care dollars available, and they are already rationed in some fashion, and must always be.

I'd like to, first, thank all you previous commenters opining on what my life span should be, Biblical or not, screw you!
I'm 67, work full-time, collect social security/pay social security, my health plan is better than medi-care.
I'm a prostate cancer survivor, emphysema sufferer, arthritis in most joints & walk my dog on 3+ mile trips three or more times a week.
The day I have to give up my independence, is the day I'll no longer burden any of you! What a selfish bunch of assholes!

Thanks, Peter, for clarification, and thanks to others for the Swiftian tip. We really are in Rousseau's sights, still then.

It might not be a matter so much of being "pro-death" vs "pro-life"---of course, there are just helpful shorthands that Peter uses to make his points. A truly "pro-life" position in this regard means embracing the unique importance fo each human person and understanding death, and all our other mortal limitations, as part of what makes life valuable...the pro-death position seems brazenly dismissive of the value of human life and the advocates of infinite longevity cling to life so desperately that they often overlook the consequences, political nd moral, of radically transforming not just our life spans but view of human life as a whole.

Ken is right to point out that Swift weighs in on this--remember that his immortals are miserable, actually pine after death, because they still experience a degeneration of the body and the destruction of eros--if they could infinitely extend their erotic lives (in the broad sense) its not clear they would still reject immortality. This is an indication of the limits of virtual immortality--Descartes gestures towards this in the Discourse when he says we'll invent an infinite catalogue of remedies for an infinite class of maladies---we never entirely conquer our embodiment but we might learn to detest it. Is there anyone in the 20th century who personally and philosophically embodies a proper thanocentrism than Solzshenitsyn?

Understood in certain ways, there's nothing wrong with being pro-death. Death, after all, is certainly the ineradicable condition of a purposeful human life. But because life is good, it's also natural to want to prolong it as long as possible. The Swiftian thing isn't necessarily that relevant, because we're not talking immortality here, but a less definite period of longevity. And regenerative medicine opens us to the possibility that the old won't necessarily be all that frail. The challenge of our time is to figure out what old people are for in a high-tech, untraditional society which exercises in many ways a preferential option for the young.

Well Swift's treatment is not really about immortality per se either but the possibility that the Cartesian lionization of the health of the body as the highest good actually has the perverse consequence of fostering contempt for the body: the body, understood as the persistent reminder of the natural given, is inescapable and so we come to view it as a kind of prison (and old age as a punishment). So whatever our bodies' regenerative powers are when harnessed by medical science there will always be old age and the decrepitude of the body--at best we can simply postpone not only death but also physical deterioration. But I agree, Peter, with your assessment of what the fundamental challenge is...

I report this as something of an inside joke, but Delsol's very good on contemporary society and its paradoxical attitudes of ignoring our mortality and trying to put death to death; also I'm going to mention the Struldbrugs day after tomorrow. Great minds ... .

Two words: Logan's Run.

We live in a time where, more than ever, the death of ME seems like the extinction of being itself. That's why we had our bodies more than ever. And that's why we think so UNEROTICALLY, although I would guess that, just beneath the surface, we're as EROTIC as ever.

Proof that some people should never be allowed to see "Soylent Green"

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