How Open Lifespan changes the political value of time; reading Elizabeth F. Cohen

When I started to study philosophy at the ELTE University in Budapest my first social/intellectual action was to compile a list of classical, modern and contemporary writings about the philosophy of time and then look for other undergrads being interested to seminarise these works. Think about Aristotle’s Physics IV. 10-14, St. Augustine’s Book XI of the Confessions and … the wonderful essay collection on The Philosophy of Time edited by Poidevin/McBeath. Eventually I think it was too nerdy an offering even amongst philosophy students but I stuck with studying these writings a lot. To me  studying the philosophy of time was a huge part of my personal motivation as after studying aging in the years before as a biology student I realised I have a problem understanding what is this ‘time thing’ with respect to biological aging is defined, what are we measuring here …

Philosophy of time and analysis of temporality by conceptual means is a great field and Elisabeth F. CohenAssociate Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University, managed to open a new chapter within this field by writing The Political Value of Time, that was published this very year by Cambridge University Press and I was lucky enough to see it amongst the new offerins at the CUP Bookshop.

I studied this book repeatedly this year, here’s a photo on my annotated copy.

Cohen’s analytical starting point is the tendency to ignore durational time in politics by the social sciences. Hence, most of the study is focusing on the temporal aspects of establishing sovereignty, mostly assumed hidden behind spatial boundaries and then how temporalities like schedules, waiting periods, deadlines are constitutive in the procedures of modern democracies. The main, deliberate subset of examples (‘temporal formulae’) are the age of maturity delimiting children from full citizenship, the probationary period needed for the naturalisation of non-citizens and prison sentences.

The Analysis section (p53-60) of Chapter 2 uncovers 3 main type of temporal boundaries:

1., fixed single-moment boundaries eg. the registry date of 1972 are lacking strong democratic credits and have limited normative potential

2., period restrictive countdown deadlines eg. non-immigration visa or statue of limitations accommodate more complex democratic norms than single-moment boundaries but still lack flexibility due to providing only one period

3., Periodically repeating boundaries like census, reapportionment or elections I might add, are the most democratic ones as Cohen writes (and am glad to highlight it here):

Of the 3 types of temporal boundaries repeating boundaries disperse over the largest number of points in time. In so doing … By contrast, repeating temporal boundaries can keep up with time.

In Chapter 4, Time’s Political Value Cohen describes 4 features how durational time, as a political good, can act as an excellent and democratic proxy for democratic processes and other values. These features make time an ‘extremely common abstract exchange value’ and make temporal commensuration, the translation of different abstract, incomparable goods into temporal terms that can be compared and even exchanged, the best choice in several liberal democratic practices.

The descriptive analysis of these so far unreflected temporal constituents of polities and the examples lead to normative insights into the sources of possible injustice and political exploitation hidden in these terms, p163:

Each new deadline, waiting period, and temporary extension of a temporary measure creates boundaries within which people must exercise their sovereignty and a means for extending, denying, or retracting rights associated with citizenship.

In what follows I will mention some results of the analysis of durational time in a political context and some temporal examples used affecting the time of individuals imposed by state governments. Cohen obviously conducted the analysis by assuming the current, closed lifespan of humans. And our main method is to abandon current, closed lifespan and assume, open-ended indefinite lifespans and see what changes. So let’s start with the thought experiment of assuming that Open Healthspan technologies counteracting the biological aging processes have been developed and mature enough to grant individuals Open Lifespans, that is people have open-ended, indefinite lifespans and a fixed low mortality rate.

Now let’s see the particular claims, points, examples with a  closed lifespan parameter, followed by questions and evaluation attempts under Open Lifespans. If the reader thinks that assuming Open Lifespan is not a particularly relevant thought experiment to evaluate important philosophical and political concepts then just replace it with ever-growing life expectancy a.k.a extended healthy longevity and then think again. Increasing life expectancy eventually breaking the maximum lifespan barrier is Open Lifespan at its limit.

First of all 2 general points.

1. Open Lifespan enables slow and more complex democracy than Closed Lifespan

Open Lifespan provides better guarantees for simple and more complex, ‘slow’ democracy than Closed Lifespan, which is less democratic in comparison.

This is a simple argument as I think almost all political theorists would agree that given enough or ample time for commensuration to resolve normative disagreements over values and goods and principles and/or having ample time for reaching consent, Open Lifespan takes the teeth out of anti-democratic temporal pressures by overcoming temporal scarcity.[1]

A methodological consequence of this insight that democratic thinkers should eye Open Lifespan as the limiting ideal case scenario when considering the best instances of implementing democratic norms under Closed Lifespan.

A political consequence is for this is to lobby for Open Healthspan technologies in order to get us closer to Open Lifespan by arguing that it enables slow democracy accommodating the highest level of complexity and flexibility. See how I am making similar points in Open Lifespan and knowing our age in Rawls’s Original Position.

Another consideration or analogy is how the actual technological implementation of Open Healthspan will realistically look like and here the analogy is with open-ended and periodically recurring intervention regimes as discussed in Open lifespan as a coherent life plan enables super-agencyThese interventions will hardly consist of a one time popping a magical polypill ora one time treatment in a clinic between well defined temporal boundaries. My point is that there might be a methodological principle dug out here that can guide the democratic implementation of Open Healthspan technologies yielding full consent.

2. Open Lifespan might impose a strong limit on how extensively the state can command the time of its subjects

Cohen repeatedly claims that (p163) ‘temporal boundaries can be both legitimate and entirely consistent with the underpinnings of liberalism and democratic theory.’ and assumes that (p156)

Most liberal theories and theorists implicitly accept that the state can command the time of its subjects…A range of reasonable schedules generally comports with democratic norms.

Open Lifespan will have some surprises in stock in this respect. Without mentioning explicit examples here (see point 3. for instance below) I would go as far as to ask whether state government might possibly lose control over its citizens with indefinite lifespans? One is tempted to think here an ad absurdum libertarian approach supporting and arguing for extreme longevity by demanding full control only for individuals.[2]

Now let’s continue with 3 specific points discussed by the book.

3. Less rights: Minimum and life sentences: there are no proportionally longer or life-long sentences when lifespan is open-ended

One recurring example of how the state commands the time of its citizens in The Political Value of Time is prison sentencing practices. Cohen also examines how these can be sources of injustice. Let’s consider here 2 types: mandatory minimum sentences and life sentences.

Mandatory Minimum Sentences

For example, people subject to mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines that impose extremely harsh penalties on the basis of race, spend long time in prison. …Mandatory minimum sentencing rules are widely regarded as a failure because they attempted to reduce all possible inputs into sentencing.

Assuming Open Lifespan sentences cannot be justified being longer because we do live longer as there’s no ‘proportionately longer’ if lifespan is open-ended.

Life Sentences

Cohen writes:

A society generally enacts lifelong imprisonment for crimes so heinous that it is almost certain that the perpetrator can never again be recognised as the moral equal of a citizen.

Assuming Open Lifespan the concept of life long sentences is devoid of consistent meaning as open lives are not essentially bounded.[3]

So it seems to me that as a minimal position in an Open Lifespan society, the state cannot ground extra justifications to devalue more time of its citizens with prison sentences than under Closed Lifespan.

Also, the way I see it, Open Lifespan is more coherent with the view of prison sentences that are used only for restorative but not punitive purposes, but I need to think on the argument behind more.

4. More rights: immigrants, probationary periods, naturalisation, citizenship

So far we generally and specifically considered cases of what might happen with citizens of states assuming Open Lifespan.

Now we take a look at the status of non-citizens applying for citizenship or going through naturalisation process in a particular state.

Earlier in a more political post, apropos of The Economist’s Open Future essay competition I light-argued as

Open Borders – immigration. Here am only going to offer a hint in the form of an analogy to show the compatibility of Open Lifespan with Open Borders and factor in the thoughts on Open Society above. If you subscribe to the concept of Open Lifespan and anticipate diverse life trajectories what can you expect in terms of staying in the same place or even same country for hundreds of years? Chances are people living open lifespans are going to become literal immigrants more than once leaving their country of residence for new and greener pastures. They can be considered life migrants then.

To rephrase: People living much much longer will become temporal immigrants due to the logic of their own time spent.

Here I’m going to adjust this view in the light of the analysis offered in The Political Value of Time.

First, let’s note that in our counterfactual Open Lifespan scenario it seems reasonable to assume that the main drive behind immigration will be the motivation of people challenging themselves to start a new stage of their life, a new stage where they can still benefit from all the earlier professional episodes of their malleable lives, yet they want to reset many other variables by opening a new spatial chapter too. What’s important here is that these kind of people are going to be highly desirable, experienced workforces at peak economic performance attractive to other states. So immigration policies will most probably favour them.[4]

Then consider the question of a probationary period needed for full naturalisation and citizenship, how would that change compared to current practice if (healthy) life expectancy is sky-high?

It is not the same situation as in case of prison sentences above, when proportionately longer compared to life expectancy cannot be applied to restricting rights of citizens of a state. What stays the same is that ‘proportionately’ still cannot be used mathematically to argue for how much longer probationary periods could/should be extended assuming Open Lifespan. But prison sentences deprive people from rights while citizenship rights add additional rights for people with already existing citizenship rights elsewhere and at the same time. So in one case it is negative (as in negating rights) argumentation and in another case it is positive argumentation, adding more rights. And I think this asymmetry can be used to argue at least that assuming Open Lifespan there can be no good arguments made why probationary periods should be shorter or why they could not be even longer, if not proportionally but arbitrarily longer.[5] This is a puzzling situation then.

Let’s move to another puzzling point, this time within the text and under Closed Lifespan.

5. ‘ever later ages of retirement’ as injustice?

p156 Cohen summarises political exploitations, source of injustice through temporal commensuration and notes

It is through comparative lens that we can identify the injustices inherent in excessively long prison sentences, dead-end semi-citizenship political statuses, ever later ages of retirement, the trial of children as adults, and any unduly long period in which a person or group waits for political status or rights that other similarly situated persons obtains readily

I must admit I could not fully reconstruct (or rather say, have no real clue?) why Cohen handles ‘ever later ages of retirement’ as a political exploitation similar to long prison sentences, say. But I tried, so checked the other 4 occurrences of ‘retirement age’ in the book and p123 might offer a clue, namely that perhaps retirement age extension only counts as political exploitation in case of particular professions?

eligibility of retirement in an array of professions (police, military, teaching)

So the idea is perhaps that these professions wear out people earlier so even increasing life expectancy cannot be used to justify ever later ages of retirement since a couple of decades spent in these jobs makes people deserve the important rights inclusive in retirement? This does not sound too convincing to me.

Otherwise I’m hoping that the author will offer the missing insights here to be able to reconstruct or correct this view, so not elaborating it further then.

Let’s finish with a general remark.

6. Open Lifespan as the best fit for non-static, democratic political anthropology

The closing point of our first (probably not last) investigation of the thoughts opened up by The Political Value of Time relates to philosophical anthropology dressed up as political in p160

Democracy is predicated on a belief in a non-static conception of human character.


If we can never assume the current state of a person’s character to be permanent, then the idea that a state could impose a permanent disability that denies the possibility of transformation, such as an inalterable restriction on rights, is based on a fundamentally flawed view of human nature.

Final quote on p162:

Permanence and finality run contra to the temporal premises upon which democracy is predicated.[6]

I feel that in these thoughts Cohen actually describes the ‘essence’ of Open Lifespan, emphasis being on open, transformative, dynamic, changing. An Open Life following an Open Narrative is not unlike a TV series. Here political anthropology and philosophical psychology actually converges and I’m happy to report that I’ve participated in an actual empirical psychological study that is under peer review now see some details here

With this point 6. we have actually come to a full circle back to point 1: Open Lifespan enables, slow, complex and ever more complete democracy. Democracy is based upon non-static, ever changing human character. Open Lifespan is the best, most realistic and perhaps only possible shot to achieve Protean characters and Protean democracy[7].


[1] A big pointer in Cohen’s historical references in Chapter 3 is Condorcet who incorporated time into the theory of democratic processes in details. Seems like Condorcet’s corresponding political ideas are best suited assuming Open Lifespan, but he was couple of centuries early for that.

[2] To raise a more political, rather than strictly philosophical point here: earlier and in concert with my efforts to position Open Lifespan within a more centrist liberal approach I talked about the seeds of a Longevity World Community and how to cautiously relate that to nation states. Let me cite:

Nation states are the default form of particular political communities and sources of political authority. They present the ultimate challenge for any concept and practice of boundless political world communities. Longevity as the organising principle behind a world community is fully neutral concerning nation states: different dimensions, zero interference. Every nation has longevity advocates (see next point), so no nation is devoid from members subscribing to longevity.

[3] Please do not confuse indefinite lifespans with infinite lifespans aka immortality. Please see here arguments to strictly separate the 2 concepts.

[4] Please note that here ‘favour’ is used in an absolute, not in relative sense, compared to others. We don’t (need to) specify here that possible world in details.

[5] Although ‘arbitrarily’ is easy target but those arguments should come from something else but not from the Open Lifespan assumption.

[6] To which I also add that randomness in political decision makers is also not what democracy is predicated upon.

[7] I’m using the term Protean here to put it in direct contrast and competition with how Mark Johnston is using the term Protean in his tightly argumented but meta-Protean way in Surviving Death.