Utilitarianism is a double-edge sword for healthy longevity: apropos of de Grey’s ‘suffering’ argument , part 1: 4 problems

Last time I had a chance to have a longer in person chat with Aubrey de Grey was in 2018 in Cambridge in the Panton Arms Pub. Mostly we were talking science, translational geroscience as it is frequently been called lately in the context of foundational research into biological aging with the explicit purpose of translating it back to human to counteract/slow/stop/reverse the negative consequences of biological aging. /Disclosure: Aubrey is an advisor of my aging/healthy longevity startup, and is also a friend I am proud of./

We also exchanged some thoughts on the relevance of the philosophy of healthy longevity in the context of the whole movement and emerging industry. I think I’ve understood Aubrey’s minimalist position while obviously readers of Open Lifespan can observe to me a well articulated philosophy is a crucial ingredient of the success of the whole movement and a super exciting new research topic in itself.

Aubrey, being one of the most visible faces of the longevity movement in the last 15 years or so, had been confronted many times with philosophical issues or counterarguments around this topic and he sort of worked out himself a ‘strongest’ argument during these years. I call this the ‘suffering’ argument. You can already read about this argument in my 2006 blogterview with Aubrey, and am going to comment on that later.

Now this argument has reached its more or less finalised form in a Pairagraph discourse between Aubrey and philosopher John K Davis and was published in August, 2020 under the moniker Should Defeating Aging Be Humanity’s Foremost Priority?

In it Aubrey writes that ‘arguments for or against utilitarianism far exceed my philosophical pay grade’. Although am certainly not paid for doing Open Lifespan, but my philosophical training and specialising on the philosophy of longevity since my MS thesis in 2005 puts me in a comfortable position to work out this very problem in this very context a bit. And am doing this cause working this out has a utility in this field. Honestly, it initially presented itself to me as quite a boring task, since I’ve mostly thought of utilitarianism as an intellectually unchallenging and outdated philosophical position, but my evaluation on this changed as I dug deeper and the process is still ongoing. Such is the nature of actual and active philosophical enquiry. And there’s more to it concerning longevity politics, but more on that later.

In this post I do 3 things. First, I show Aubrey’s argument and second I analyse it a bit further to find the main problem with it, that is its utilitarian first premise. I finish the post with briefly describing 4 different problems with using utilitarianism to champion healthy longevity. The rest of the posts will elaborate on these 4 problems.

Aubrey de Grey’s utilitarian ‘suffering’ argument for healthy longevity 

Should Defeating Aging Be Humanity’s Foremost Priority

Brief analysis of the argument to find its weakest point

A brief glance at the way the argument is stated shows a structure of 3 premises implying jointly the conclusion. 

Premise one is the theoretical one, where most of the actual philosophy lies and Premise 2 and 3 are framed as empirically testable, quantified statements using quantifiable concepts.

But Aubrey does a trick here and establishes a logical connection between Premise 1 and premise 3 in a way, that is a bit unusual. And this has to do with the urgency of the task, it’s timing and temporality. The price is that the structure gets a bit messy. And I don’t think it gives it an extra strength or protects it from the main philosophical issue. 

The second clause in Premise 1: ‘scaled by the currently perceived probability distribution of how soon (if at all) the goal will be achieved if humanity tries really hard.’

is a modulator of the first part, containing the actual philosophical statement, which I call the main ‘utilitarian premise’ from now on.

  1. Humanity’s foremost priority should be the goal that will most greatly reduce the totality of human suffering.

The ‘scaled by’ in the modulator clause is read here as an extra ‘urgency quantifier’ on how picking the top priority depends on the perceived (~ guessed, estimated) temporal probability of the development of the technology that can most greatly reduce sad suffering belonging to the picked top priority. I know it sounds complicated, but it is really not. And Aubrey in Premise 3 gives us a number, which should be our example here. He says it’s 50% that within 20 years we will have that aging-defeating technology, that he actually defines in Premise 2, making the structure of the argument even more complicated. So based on this, and for a fixed period of 20 years, if this probability is 70%, instead of 50% then according to Premise 1 we should be doing this even more, than we already are. However if this probability is 30%, instead of 50%, then we can be a bit less concerned about picking this task, ie. ‘defeating aging’ as a top priority. In case there’s a different reading here, concerning what am about to say and the problems with the philosophical core of this argument, it doesn’t matter. And that’s why I can safely ignore Aubrey’s Premise 3, quantifying this probability, that should be fed back as an input into the ‘scaled by’ urgency quantifier in Premise 1. Curiously Aubrey himself handles Premise 3 rather authoritatively saying ‘Regarding (3), the biomedical research underlying my timeframe estimate would greatly exceed 5000 words let alone 500, so you’ll just have to trust me.’. So let’s just trust Aubrey on this coin toss like probability, he indeed is an authority on this topic, but more importantly it doesn’t matter for the philosophical core of the argument, that is at the table here.

So we can safely get rid of from the urgency quantifier clause in Premise 1 and throw out Premise 3 and take a look what’s left of it.

What’s left of it is going to be I think, a valid argument:

  1. Humanity’s foremost priority should be the goal that will most greatly reduce the totality of human suffering.
  2. Aging causes most of the suffering experienced by humanity at present.

Conclusion: “defeating aging” should be humanity foremost priority. 

A valid argument is something where the conclusion follows from the premises, independently of the truth values of those premises.

But whether it is a sound argument, is very contentious, cause for that to be the case both premises should be true.

I think Premise 2, which is an empirical premise, is true. I’m not here to discuss that further.

But Premise 1, the utilitarian premise is deeply problematic and I can show exactly why.

First of all, it is a so called normative statement as indicated by the prominent usage of the modal verb ‘should’ in it, supposed to express a moral obligation or highest level ethical recommendation. Within ethics and epistemology there’s been a very long debate on whether truth values can be assigned to such normative statements. It’s not my job to introduce the different camps here, suffice is to say that whenever once argues about issues in ethical and normative political philosophy one will be inevitably use normative statements in their premises if going back far enough in the ladder of premises and grounding arguments. 

These upper, upstream top normative statements like Premise 1 in Aubrey’s arguments do rely on an actual background ethical theory. And they are as good as the theory behind them is general and particular enough when it comes about evaluating moral and ethical statements, propositions and arguments. 

And this presents the real problem for Aubrey’s argument, because the background theory behind Premise 1 is utilitarianism and that theory is in deep trouble for a long while now within normative ethical and political philosophy. 

So if we trust Aubrey’s argument as sound and making a strong case for counteracting the biological aging process with scientific and technological means we should accept utilitarianism as a flagship theory of ethics.

And that is just not going to cut it. In the rest of this study am going to introduce 4 bundles of problems (that can be taken as counterarguments at different levels and strength) of using utilitarianism in debates around healthy longevity, 2 being what I call more general philosophical problems and 2 being what I call actual political problems.

4 problems with utilitarianism in the context of healthy longevity

Philosophical problems

  1. Utilitarianism is philosophically pretty outdated due to some serious counterarguments concerning the utilitarian framework. Here we mainly take a look at the particular flavour of utilitarianism Aubrey is using, which is hedonism and a negative variant of it that focuses on ‘avoiding suffering’. Then we show some problems with how these ‘sufferings’ are defined and re-frame the experience machine argument against hedonism.
  2. The deep philosophical insufficiency of the ‘suffering argument’ in the context of ‘defeating aging‘. Briefly, this argument is missing and actively ignores important positive arguments around the ‘longevity’ component of ‘healthy longevity’, so it is not even the half of the philosophical story related to this topic, because it does not acknowledge the existence of those arguments or the need to articulate them. To put it other way, emphasising the ‘suffering argument’ misconstructs the philosophical problem at hand.

Political problems

  1. Negative political framing: Sticking to utilitarianism in the context of healthy longevity, a mostly dead, or at least seriously outdated, (see point above) philosophical and political position, actually poses more harm than good to the mission it tries to achieve.
  2. Utilitarianism is utterly inefficient alone to be used for achieving this goal, it is not going to convince enough people to go mainstream, it can only be a first line of introduction and defence, at most. This bundle of problems are related to Philosophical problem 2.

Let’s get started. Please see second post Utilitarianism is a double-edge sword for healthy longevity: apropos of de Grey’s ‘suffering’ argument, part 2: what’s wrong with negative hedonism?