Open Lifespan via conservatism: a defence of human life as existing value, part 1


Open Lifespan (OL) is the philosophy of biomedical longevity thinking itself and its limits. Its central part seems to be rooted in political philosophy, but not in the sense of applied ethics, so the task is to re-apply existing concepts in this discipline in order to illuminate its own problematics and in order to seek potential answers to t he problems of those pre-OL political philosophies. The original formulation of OL philosophy started referring to and in the context of the central and centrist liberal tradition, but now it’s time to look to the left and to the right for further considerations and new angles. At the time of this writing, this means looking into Marxian formulations on the left, and libertarian and perhaps conservative conceptualisations on the right. Generally, political philosophy as a political tradition, as well as an academic discipline ignored health and life expectancy issues actively and down-prioritised the central role these issues play in the life of individuals and institutions, so this tradition has a lot to compensate for.

For a starter let’s cite from Open Future: Open Life(span) as a foundation to reinvent liberalism:

Strange as it sounds but Open Lifespan is about conserving life if viewed from an unbiased angle. It is about conserving, maintaining human life using what we are familiar with as human life as its starting point. Open Lifespan is life conservatism at its most revolutionary, as I said it earlier when immersing this thought into liberal thinking.

G.A.Cohen’s Resucing Conservatism essay

The philosophically deepest formulation of conservatism I’ve found so far was G.A. Cohen’s unfinished Rescuing Conservatism: A Defense of Existing  Value, Chapter 8 of Finding Oneself in the Other

Cohen says his conservatism is of a Hegelian type, by which he means exploring ‘modes of finding oneself in the other’, where ‘the subject is at peace with the object’.

In our current essay, we use his deep conceptual advances and apply it to a mode of finding and re-finding oneself in oneself, in the longer term. This is eminently doable, as Cohen himself does not say, his small c conservatism only applies in a Hegelian, ‘other’ setting and as it actually requires intellectual effort to realise the value of human longevity. What we loose though, apparently, is the Hegelian ‘subject-object’ type-of conservatism, which is not that big of a sacrifice to make in our context. 

The meat of Cohen’s assay is distinguishing between the following 3 kinds of conservative dispositions or attitudes.

3 cases:

  1. Valuing the valuable -> Particular Valuing
  2. Valuing the valued -> Personal Valuing
  3. Accepting the given

In what follows we introduce all 3 of them.

I. Valuing the valuable -> Particular Valuing

This valuing is the preservation of the (intrinsically) valuable. The valuable is not value itself in abstracto, but what has value. This ‘value in general’/’what has value’ distinction gives conservative attitudes a particular practical orientation, to conserve what has value, not just to conserve value. To conserve what instantiates value, this entails not to destroy, not to replace with something more valuable. I would also call this type of valuing global valuing, as we can value here entities we are not directly acquainted with and where intrinsic value is recognised by others in the first place, say items belonging to art and literature.

2 of Cohen’s examples.

Example #1: Statue 

Valuing a particular statue means not just preserving it as it is, but also a commitment to conserve, even if the same material could be used counterfactually to generate a statue of even bigger intrinsic value. 

Example #2: All Souls College

Cohen was a member of the All Souls College in Oxford.

He argued, that such a self-funding, independent institution, focusing solely on research is a valuable creation and this means not just the members of this institution, but others as well have their particular desires to preserve it, ‘with its distinctive value intact’.

II. Valuing the valued -> Personal Valuing

This attitude focuses on wanting to conserve the valued entity itself, with its history, independently of its intrinsic value but depending on the narrative role it played for the valuer. There’s an epistemological aspect here I’d like to mention but not to unfold: these are the entities, the things we are well acquainted with. Familiarity, locality abound.

3 Cohen examples:

Example #1: All Souls College

Cohen as a lifelong member of All Souls College is personally valuing his College and desires to ‘preserve their particular corporate identity’.

Example #2: Pencil eraser

Cohen had a pencil eraser for 46 years ever since he became a lecturer, looked like a cube originally, turned into a sphere and much smaller, and not valued due to its functionality. There is no outstanding feature belonging to this particular pencil eraser, ‘apart from its history’ that makes Cohen wants to keep this eraser.

Example #3: Local shops

We personally value local shops, say our favourite artisan, hipster coffee shop, even if it is heavily overpriced, and serves coffee not as good as one of the big brands out there, but still locally present.

III. Accepting the given

For most people, particularly this is the attitude that defines conservatism in general. Cohen introduces this principle as the third notable one, that is different from Particular and Personal Valuing. He says:

‘that something must be accepted as given, that not everything can, or should, be shaped to our aims and requirements; the attitude that goes with seeking to shape everything to our requirements both violates intrinsic value and contradicts our own spiritual requirements’

and I think the best framing of this principle by him:

‘It is essential that some things should be taken as given: the attitude of universal mastery over everything is repugnant, and, at the limit, insane.’

This is the main premise of the ‘don’t play God argument’ played out so many many times in the history of technology. 

Please note that out of the 3 attitudes mentioned, this is the most negatively framed one; whereas the first 2 were directed to existing value, this one sounds more like a warning, rather than an actual positive command or recipe.

In part 2 of this study we are going to discuss different arguments to be made for indefinite healthy longevity a.k.a Open Lifespan in the context of Particular Valuing.