Utilitarianism is a double-edge sword for healthy longevity: apropos of de Grey’s ‘suffering’ argument, part 2: what’s wrong with negative hedonism?

In the first part of our study we’ve introduced Aubrey de Grey’s ‘suffering argument’ for making ‘defeating aging’ a top priority for humanity. After a brief analysis we’ve identified the philosophical core utilitarian premise of the argument:

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

Then we have briefly mentioned that our study is going to demonstrate 4 problems related to this utilitarian premise in the context of healthy longevity that might be discouraging on the further highlighted use of this or similar kind of arguments in the hands of healthy longevity supporters to successfully appeal to the mainstream.

Today we are going to deal with Philosophical Problem 1:

  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 Utilitarianism is philosophically pretty outdated due to some serious counterarguments concerning the utilitarian framework.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.

The course of the argument today is going to be a mini-class on philosophical utilitarianism to the uninitiated. Our main source: Will Kymlicka: Contemporary Political Philosophy, chapter 2, Utilitarianism  p10-52. This ~40 page essay is something that can be studied over throughout a week of coffee breaks. I recommend doing so.

But before the deep dive into this bleeding theory we need to step back and briefly ask whether we are justified to use the term and concept of healthy longevity in the context to this argument while Aubrey is clearly only mentions ‘defeating aging’ in the framing of his argument? Aubrey himself mentions ‘longevity’ in his comment to Premise 2 as Regarding (2), we must remember that longevity is not the goal of defeating aging but merely a side-benefit.

Most of my next post will be related to this statement but by now it’s suffice to say that according to Aubrey ‘defeating aging’ will involve an extended longevity component. And it seems pretty obvious that the targeted human healthspan extension dubbed as ‘defeating aging’ by Aubrey will yield average lifespan extension too, even just as a side-benefit, this will be a real benefit. The actual geroscience results, mostly in model animals show convincing results that interventions aiming for healthspan extension also lead to average and maximum lifespan extension too in many, but not all the cases. But to discuss this further we would need to leave the domain of philosophy behind, so I stop here concerning the strong connection between ‘defeating aging’ and longevity.

Now let’s do utilitarianism.

Why is utilitarianism catchy?

First of all, why is utilitarianism still important as an ethical and political theory? It is important as it captures a very important, common sense intuition of how people tend to think on the sphere of normative moral, ethical, political (not differentiating it here yet) questions and problems. These questions do also belong to what might be called practical public philosophy because they focus on the actions of people and the patterns of decisions leading to it and most importantly, to the consequences of those actions and their roles in conceptualising the normative domain. In brief, utilitarianism is a flavour of consequentialism, which is focusing on whether candidate explanations of the morally right or morally good actually lead to identifiable good consequences. so consequentialism has a distinctive empirical feel, offering methods to test an ethical theory, that gives it a posh status amongst the empirically oriented mainstream.

Our job here is not to criticise consequentialism as a common sense moral intuition in general, or argue for other approaches. 

Next we try to show why the type of utilitarianism Aubrey is relying on in his ‘suffering’ argument is bleeding from at least one, but possible more several wounds.

The 2 components of utilitarianism

At this stage in our enquiry let’s understand why is it a utilitarian argument and what kind of utilitarian argument it is? 

Any serious statement of utilitarianism must account for 2 components if it wants to rely on utilitarian arguments.

It needs to provide 

  1. a definition, an account of ‘utility’ it wants to maximise, be it human welfare or happiness or whatever else.
  2. an algorithm, a how-to guide, an instruction set on how to maximise that carefully defined ‘utility’ to be able to give equal consideration or weight to individual ‘utilities’. 

The good, economic news is that we don’t need to discuss the algorithm problem here because the criticism only concerns here the definition of ‘utility’ implicit in Aubrey’s argument. If that definition or account is not waterproof, no point discussing the algorithm it relies on maximising a problematic ‘utility’. 

So let’s try to interpret what account of human welfare/utility is being used in Aubrey’s argument.

4 types of utilitarianism

According to Kimlicka there are at least 4 identifiable positions, 2 related to a hedonistic account, and 2 related to preference-satisfactions.

Hedonistic accounts are the most ancient type of utilitarian accounts trying to define ‘utility’ in terms of happiness or to stretch the English language a bit, different happinesses.

  1. Welfare hedonism is focusing on one mental state as the chief human, end-in-itself good, the experience or sensation of pleasure.
  2. Non-hedonistic mental state utility allows a range of valuable mental states being labelled as chief human goods.

According to (3) ‘Preference satisfaction’ ‘utility’ consists of satisfying people’s preferences, whatever they are.

Since mistaken and adaptive preferences present a lot of problems to such an account of welfare to be maximised, the (4) ‘informed preferences’ approach restrict preferences to ‘rational’ or ‘informed’ ones. This last approach being the most advanced and defendable one, albeit too complicated as to lose some of its intuitive appeal. It might be an interesting exercise to (re-)frame healthy longevity utilitarianism according to ‘informed preferences’, where the informed preference to stay healthy gets over-generalised and takes centre stage. But we don’t need to do that here.

It is because I think Aubrey’s position is relatively easily identifiable and it is a variant of a hedonistic account.

Suffering as negative hedonism: the plain reading

So is it plain, one mental state welfare hedonism?

On a plain reading alleviating suffering is a variant of the most influential welfare mental state hedonism. 


Because the term ‘suffering’ usually denotes, picks out mental states, experiences, sensations related to physical or psychological pain.

Under the plain reading ‘alleviating suffering’ automatically translates into more pleasure, yielding more happiness. The math is simple, an inverse relation between suffering and pleasure.

But conceptually this is not so simple:

‘Unfortunately, however, hedonism is not as simple as they assume, because hedonists count both pleasures and pains. Pleasure is distinct from the absence of pain, and pain is distinct from the absence of pleasure, since sometimes people feel neither pleasure nor pain, and sometimes they feel both at once. Nonetheless, hedonism was adopted partly because it seemed simpler than competing views.’


So what does Aubrey mean by ‘suffering’ in his argument?

The sufferings of aging according the argument

He spells out 3 forms of suffering in a comment on his empirical premise 2 in the main text, added the numbers in the quote for easier interpretation:

‘The suffering arising from aging mostly (1) consists of the (1a) decrepitude, (1b) dependence and (1c) disease that the elderly endure before death, the (2) vicarious suffering of their loved ones and (3) the indirect suffering arising from the economic burden that today’s (slight) minimisation of that suffering imposes on society’

Aubrey de Grey

The 3 cases of (1), the 3 D-s, decrepitude, dependence and disease, are being suffered by individual old people inflicted by (or suffering from) accelerated aging processes towards the end of their lives. (2) probably refers to the affectionate individual people, be they family, distant relatives, friends, colleagues, more general local human environments of the individual old people of (1) who might be old people themselves doing all 3 cases of (1) at the same time and (3) where ’indirect’ likely refers to the aggregated economic suffering on society caused by the mishandled suffering of (1) and (2).

Depending on what ’mostly’ refers to in the sentence it can refer to the 3D-s of (1) or all 3 classes of suffering. I think both interpretations of ‘mostly’ are possible and we don’t have a good way to decide which one. If it is the more restricted, covering only the 3 directly suffered D-s then it highlights the individual toll accelerated aging takes on older people. If ‘mostly’ indicates all 3 classes then it offers itself as almost exhaustive lists of sufferings associated with the aging process. Depending on the reading of ‘mostly’ the critic of the utilitarian ‘suffering’ premise can take different forms. 

Here I mainly focus on the first reading, the unambiguous, 3D-s of older people, that they ‘endure before death’, as a temporal quantifier and see how hedonism applies here.

3 problems with the 3D-s

First problem is how complete is this listing of direct, individual accelerated aging sufferings? Why does it only apply to the period ‘before death’? And while we are at it, how long is this period, how is it defined? The phrasing is too loose, is it applicable to the last weeks spent at the ICU with a terminal disease, or the last 3 decades of life?

Second question is related: if the 3 direct D-s are focused solely on older people, as they seem so, then what about all the aging related suffering that happens with middle-aged people already? Aging is a lifelong process, biological and psychological aging certainly starts to show its effects in the middle-aged as well as some of these effects can be described as ‘suffering’, am thinking here for instance the mid-life decline in happiness, peaking in our late 40s according to some studies. I’d argue, that is very much related to aging related unhappiness, even if some would think the term ‘suffering’ should not apply here.  

So aging requires a whole life trajectory view and accelerated aging already affect middle-aged people, as young as people in their thirties already. 

The point is that if we do not include middle-aged ‘suffering’ then it’s hard to make a consistent whole of what Aubrey means by Premise 2 and its comments, as on the one hand he highlights the 3D-s of unambiguous and overwhelming ‘suffering’ affecting the ‘elderly before death’, while he defines ‘defeating aging’ as something that ‘eliminates the decline in physical and mental function associated with getting older.’ And ‘getting older’ is more inclusive and being old, ‘elderly’ as Aubrey is using it, is only the most visible part, the peak of the process, but certainly not the whole deal.

Third comment: Technically age-associated disease itself does not equal suffering, as not all disease means suffering per se. Also age-associated medical conditions like hypertension, they do a lot of damage, so inflict suffering in the longer term, but are not co-extensive with suffering.

Aubrey himself does not define ‘suffering’ further ontologically. I think what he largely has in mind with the 3D-s are objectively measurable processes, that are nevertheless translatable as experiences, sensations of suffering and as such denote one type of mental state, be it decrepitude, dependence or disease-associated pain, variants of physical or psychological pain.

So Aubrey’s version is a utilitarianism with a twist, a negatively formulated one, hence ‘negative hedonism’ in the title, focusing on avoiding suffering and pain, instead of directly increasing positive pleasure and happiness.

The experience machine, the ruthless eliminator of suffering

The main counter-argument against welfare hedonism is Robert Nocizk’s experience machine thought experiment. Or, popularised as the Matrix argument. Running a simulation preprogrammed according to the desire of the clients.

If only experiences of pain, suffering, pleasure or happiness are what morally relevant, if only what people feel ‘from the inside’ matter then we can build, or imagine we can build, experience machines giving us the desired experiences and avoiding unpleasant experiences. 

The thought experiment supposed to show that there’s something more that morally matters besides our experiences as most of us would not choose to live our life, or equate living our lives, plugged into such experience machines, rendering us brains in a tank attached to electrodes.

How could we specify Nozick’s experience machine thought experiment further to apply specifically to aging induced suffering in the spirit of Aubrey? 

Well, here the experience machine would totally reduce our suffering in old age inflicted by accelerated aging, no extra pain due to osteoarthritis, no extra loss due to losing loved ones… Even we wouldn’t recognise our own dementia and declining mental powers as the machines would able to supply us with experiences suggesting the contrary.  

I don’t think this is how Aubrey understands ‘suffering’, as simply a mental state, open to this kind of criticism. But this is how it can be interpreted unfortunately in the lack of a more elaborate conceptualising of this viewpoint.

And however extensively this ‘suffering’ viewpoint is modified it will be still open to a variant of the experience machine counterargument. 

In his presentation of Premise 2 Aubrey adds, as briefly mentioned before above, an actual definition on what he means by ‘defeating aging’:  ‘Here I define “defeating aging” as the development, and availability to most of humanity, of medicine that mostly if not wholly eliminates the decline in physical and mental function associated with getting older.’

Under this definition, and combined with the negative hedonist utilitarian principle, the ‘medicine’, the ‘elimination’ might just be a simple ‘brain in a vat’ solution, so all the 3D-s of ‘suffering’ of older people can be taken away by putting their brains in a vat with electrodes and wiring giving them the necessary desired input to generate the output completely devoid of said ‘suffering’. I’d also add that the probability of such a solution might actually be much higher in the next 20 years, than the full-body comprehensive rejuvenation Aubrey mentions in his Premise 3 and also what I have in mind, when I talk about Open Healthspan Technology and so the perceived probability distribution of this scenario might be much higher as well. (Here would be the place to meditate on cryopreservation as a solution as well, in case the reader feels like it. I don’t.)

And once the 3D-s Case 1 is solved, Case 2 and Case 3 disappears too and so the argument is fulfilled, no suffering due to aging anymore but also …..no real solution guaranteed. Because there’s more to healthy longevity, then to avoid suffering that comes with biological aging.

This means that an argument with a utilitarian main philosophical premise will underdetermine the actual technological solution provided for healthy longevity.

And as long as this is the central argument that is offered as the vehicle to necessitate healthy longevity, it will suffer from this problem due to its hedonist utilitarian main principle. 

I would add that my guess is that any other kind of utilitarian approach to justify ‘defeating aging’ as top priority would suffer from this technological underdetermination too. 

Now am not saying here, that utilitarianism is finished here as something that might play a role in the philosophical pro repertoire for healthy longevity. 

But I’m saying that Aubrey’s current framing of the argument is philosophically inappropriate. So at a minimum, it needs be reframed and ‘suffering’ as a term will likely be dropped from it and re-focused on a different concept. Which means it should be reformed as a more complicated utilitarian argument.

My actual real problem with the ‘suffering argument’ is not that it is a variant of hedonism in itself, but that the price of this is to actively ignore and play down the ‘longevity’ component of ‘healthy longevity’. This will be the topic of the next post though, please see
Utilitarianism is a double-edge sword for healthy longevity: apropos of de Grey’s ‘suffering’ argument, part 3: why is longevity not a mere side-benefit, but the shining core?