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?

In the first part of our study we’ve introduced Aubrey de Grey’s utilitarian ‘suffering argument’ for making ‘defeating’ aging a top priority for humanity. 

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 the further highlighted use of this or similar kind of arguments in the hands of healthy longevity supporters to successfully appeal to the mainstream.

The second post showed why the hedonistic utilitarian account behind the argument suffers from several conceptual wounds.

Today we are going to deal with Philosophical Problem 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 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.

The key comment of Aubrey to his Premise 2 is the following: Regarding (2), we must remember that longevity is not the goal of defeating aging but merely a side-benefit.

First, let’s understand a bit more why Aubrey might think he needs to downplay longevity and label it as a ‘mere side-benefit’ in order to lay out his utilitarian reasoning. 

The theatre of ‘suffering’

If one stipulates ‘alleviating suffering’ as the main, we can say exclusive, goal of the project called ‘defeating aging’ then the negative hedonism at the heart of this utilitarian argument will not allow any directly positively formulated goal. And longevity, so living a long life, or better put comparatively, living a longer than expected life, is a positive goal for individuals. ‘Positive’ in the default sense of directly asserting something to be achieved, not to avoid that. For most people I believe, it is also positive in the more frequently used sense of ‘desired’ to be achieved. But that is not the point, all we need here is the default asserting sense. But in the ‘suffering’ argument, according to the utilitarian logic of negative hedonism  focusing on what to avoid, longevity can only be a mere side-benefit, because the value proposition of a longer life and all the goods that it can offer, cannot be put explicitly in the limelight. 

To use a theatrical analogy, if ‘defeating aging’ takes center stage, then ‘alleviating suffering’ is the lead actor, and ‘longevity’ can only aspire to be a ‘supporting actor’ at best, whose role is to be a nodding sidekick and perhaps telling some jokes at very tense moments to lighten up the mood of the lead actor during their Sisyphean job of reducing the total suffering. 

Continuing with the performing art analogy, if ‘alleviating suffering’ dominates, the main plot is to avoid tragedy causing great suffering, but avoiding tragedy is usually a tragedy itself.

However, to stretch the analogy further, if ‘longevity’ dominates, life can be a comedy. 

One thing seems quite sure for everybody, happy ending is not in sight, and I think what we should be looking at here would be a tragicomedy. 

The twin stars of such a conceptual tragicomedy at heart of this issue could be ‘life’ and ‘health’, side by side.

Health and longevity: the conceptual twins behind healthy longevity and their tension

When we talk about achieving ‘healthy longevity’ the 2 components underneath are health-span and life-span, and we talk both about health-span extension and life-span extension. /These concepts get a very different meaning and evaluation in the journalistic coverage and public debate about healthy longevity.

Earlier, realising the tensions and grounding problem between the 2 concepts I wrote about Health and longevity: conceptual twins, separated at birth Let me cite from that to characterise the issue at hand.

The problem is a bit of a chicken-egg one. Life expectancy and longevity are related to the biological life aspect of an individual, the highlight being on the postfix of ‘biological life’, that is ‘life’. Health, also, primarily seems to be related to the ‘biological life’ aspect of an individual, but here the highlight is on the prefix, the ‘biological’, including the physiological and the physical constitution of the bodies of individuals. Yet, life expectancy and longevity assumes a minimal viable level of health and health assumes the presence of a chunk of life. Life comes with health issues, health comes with life pre-packaged. To repeat, there’s only health when there’s a quantity of life and there’s only a quantity of life when there’s a a threshold, viable amount of health present.

Health and longevity: conceptual twins, separated at birth

Re-reading this quote above, perhaps it’s easier to see the difference and tension if one replaces ‘life’ with ‘existence’, so in the term ‘biological life’, the postfix ‘life’ refers to ‘existence’, ‘being alive’, while ‘health’ is related to the structural/physiological/‘biological’ constitution or condition of individual life. I realise that the etymology of the term ‘biology’ comes from the greek concept ‘bios’ so ‘life’ itself. This can be interpreted as the science of biology is the one providing us with a scientific account of what health is. And also it can be interpreted further as the claim that health itself as a concept is grounded in ‘biology’ as in life, a living chunk of matter.

So now the question is how a balanced argumentation around healthy longevity should look like? Do we need to factor into both components with the same weight when we support this cause: life/longevity and health?

Let me ask you this as well: when it comes down to a choice between the 2 would you stick to your health or to your life? Or as I’m conducting a mini survey on Twitter now: What do you think is the difference, if any, between wanting to live a healthier vs wanting to live a longer life?

Three argumentative positions: the healthist, the longevitarian and the missing balanced

Depending on the weighting process, there’s 3 argumentative scenarios to support healthy longevity. Keep in mind that according to the conceptual twin argumentation above, we cannot just give a 100% weight to ‘health’ and 0% weight to ‘longevity’, or a 100% weight to ‘longevity’ and 0% weight to ‘health’.

  1. The ‘healthist’ approach: Giving a bigger weight to ‘health’ and a smaller weight to ‘longevity’. 
  2. The ‘longevitarian’ approach: Giving a bigger weight to ‘longevity’ and a smaller weight to ‘health’.
  3. The balanced view. Same weight. 

In the light of this classification we can take a fresher look at Aubrey’s ‘suffering’ argument as a representative of the ‘healthist’ approach. If the focus is on alleviating suffering to preserve health and healthy functioning and longevity is only a mere side-benefit, then the differential weighing process behind is clear as day.

So what are some longevitarian philosophical positions? 

First, I can tell you which positions are NOT, but what might be thought at first as longevitarian ones for the untrained eye.

Any kind of transhumanist positions focusing on achieving ‘immortality’ (whatever it means for them) are not ‘longevitarian’ in the sense defined here above.

I wrote about extensively on what’s wrong with ‘immortality’, in the context of human lifespan, let me offer you 2 posts here, there and over there.

Why are immortalists pseudo- or fake-longevitarians?

Immortalists are actually trying to give a 100% weight and a 0% complete ignorance to the biological health component. If one is focusing on creating digital selves, ‘mind-uploading’ under the hood of achieving ‘immortality’, the biological component gets sidestepped so health considerations are ignored. 

Hence, immortalists are actually not supporting philosophically both components of healthy longevity and this way they can be considered pseudo- or just fake longevitarians. Let’s not waste more words on this here.

After clearing out the air, I would like to call my Open Lifespan approach a ‘longevitarian’ one, but one that eyes to reach a balanced view since it is acutely aware of the philosophical tension here between the 2 core concepts underneath. The Open Lifespan approach is actually defined through the development of what I call Open Healthspan technologies, so the connection is established from the first point on in setting up this possible world scenario.

I am not aware of any perfectly balanced and fine-tuned philosophical viewpoint on healthy longevity yet.

There’s another way we can look at this balance reaching procedure and possibilities of actually achieving it.

Healthy longevity monism vs pluralism

There are those who might be tempted to think it’s enough to come up with just one ‘master’ argument supporting healthy longevity. Lets’ call this position ‘healthy longevity’ monism. 

This is either a very naive position or a highly sophisticated one.

It can be very naive to think that there’s one argument, that is so strong and immune to counter-arguments in philosophy that it simply gets the job done in a topic that is obviously complex and has lots of different aspects.

Or this monist position is so sophisticated that it thinks it can tie together all arguments to build an actual logically waterproof system around it where every proposition has it’s well-defined place, like a big orchestra playing together under a conductor. 

Now I think nobody has claimed so far to have built such a sophisticated argumentation around healthy longevity, so it’s not worth to consider this now.

But I’m afraid I can safely assume that there are people within the healthy longevity camp who think we already have one such argument that is strong enough to carry the load. And I think many of those can look at Aubrey’s proposed suffering argument as the ‘master’ supporting force for this cause. Due to the logic of the argument I tried to show Aubrey is forced to downgrade the ‘longevity’ component to be considered only as a mere side-benefit, something that can be hidden in the cellar. And that makes no space for numerous further arguments.  

The good news is that Aubrey himself is well aware of the non-monist, plural nature of important arguments supporting healthy longevity from different angles.

In 2006 I was running a blogterview series on my blog interviewing some life extension supporters. One question of mine was: ‘What is your favourite argument supporting human life extension?’

And here’s Aubrey’s own answer that contains the clear recognition of the limit of his own argument:

‘Well, there are so many that it’s hard to choose! – but I think the one that’s strongest of all is the alleviation of suffering. However, any argument based on the alleviation of suffering cannot stand on its own, because we evidently value the lives of people who are permanently sick as well as people who are healthy.’

Blogterview with Aubrey de Grey: life extension stories

What happens in the second sentence above, introduced with ‘However’ is the recognition that the grounding of healthy longevity should be based on the existence/life/longevity component, as the ‘individual lives of people’, even if in an unhealthy state, limits the strength of the ‘healthist’ goal ‘alleviation of suffering’. 

This is just to show that throughout this series my problem is really with the utilitarian argumen, while I actually think Aubrey and me have many more common points.

And there’s the viewpoint that thinks several arguments are needed to support healthy longevity and these arguments do not necessarily form a hierarchical structure and cannot be derived back to one top argument. This would be the pluralist position concerning healthy longevity. 

I am a wholehearted pluralist. Will try to show this below by listing 10+, mostly original arguments I developed here in the last 2 years as part of the Open Lifespan project.

A minimum pluralist position is a dualist one developing 2 main arguments. This position is an opportunity to reach a balanced view right away, if one argument deals with the ‘health’, the other with the ‘longevity’ component. But there’s still the job to connect the two. 

Please note that the weighting dimension with the 3 positions above and the monist/pluralist spectrum are orthogonal to each other and form a matrix. One can be a ‘healthist’ or a ‘longevitarian’ with one, two or several arguments in their philosophical toolset. Or one can develop a balanced view with 2, 4 or increasing even number of arguments split across the 2 components. Eventually the nature of philosophical argumentation does not lend itself easily and completely to a specified math procedure in which the number of arguments and their ‘objectively’ evaluated weight decides who is the winner, if any. Some arguments are recognised to be more decisive than others after further analysis, depending on several factors for instance background theories they rely upon or the expressive power, and novelty, scope of the concepts used in them. This is just to say, that while it is good to rely on the procedures of analytical philosophy as a rule of thumb, it’s better to know the scope and limits of such procedures.

Against ‘healthism’: 2 arguments

Here’s 2 more arguments against an overwhelmingly ‘healthist’ approach concerning healthy longevity. I think they are 2 different phrasings of the same idea behind.

The dilution argument 

If one is only focusing on the health restoration/improvement that is due to tackling the root causes of biological aging via slowing/stopping/reversing it, and ignores or downplays the longevity component, then they completely dilute out the novelty of this approach to show it as a conventional medicine or an approach that makes it smoothly fit into the current architecture of medicine. In brief, they dilute healthy longevity into simple health management. Not providing an integrative account on the advantages of the ‘longevity’ component is not doing justice to the novelty of this scientific/technological enterprise, yielding serious new insights into the human condition. 

To use a legal analogy, it is like to have a big contract document, with big font size, where there’s a footnote to one clause, hidden on page 97, with a font size of 8, that says, oh by the way, as a side-effect you might break the maximum longevity barrier with this and that kind of combo treatment if you continue doing so long enough.  

The anti-comprehensibility argument

Another way to formulate what’s missing from the ‘healthist’ arguments for healthy longevity is through not making the whole potential comprehensible through the argument that says for instance that in order to reduce suffering we need to ‘defeat’ the biological aging process, and that’s it. The explanation, the insight into the opened up longevity trajectory is closed this way. 

GA Cohen talks about the reason Hegel had a problem with mathematics as put forward to a model for philosophy: many mathematical proofs

‘demonstrates that something is true without displaying why it is true.’

p58 Hegel in Marx in If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? by GA Cohen

An indirect proof or a long, non-constructive one that does not provide sufficient intuition on the target theorem leaves us without feeling provided the actual explanation on the truth of the theorem.

Similarly, ‘healthist arguments’ are missing to illuminate the whole package of healthy longevity.

Healthists arguments can show the reform that is about to happen, the shift from accepting biological aging to treating it, but are missing on the revolution it will yield, that is unprecedented longevity, additional life.

Health as moderate, longevity as radical

This gives us another way to characterise the tension between the 2 components in a more political manner: while the ‘healthist’ phrasing tries to show the process as something to be on verge of becoming mainstream already and as such moderate and well-behaving enough to blend in in every which way, the ‘longevity’ component is as radical, as uncompromising as it gets by opening up human lifespan, indefinitely, even just as an upper limit. Not extreme, radical. What is extreme is immortality, and it is also impossible. It’s good to make that distinction here, I dealt with several times.

I used the word ‘revolution’ above, but I did not really meant that in its loaded political sense, I was thinking more like ‘revolutionary’ in a sense of a ‘revolutionary’ idea, so basically as an idea that puts a lots of things into a radically new or different context. And that’s exactly the concept of Open Lifespan, that is potentially indefinite longevity. Open Lifespan (OL) is the philosophy of biomedical longevity thinking itself and its limits. In a politico-historical sense I see little reason to think that healthy longevity will be championed as a ‘revolution’ in the sense of the big, violent revolutions of world history, forcing something onto the human condition. It will be the opposite I suppose, and a main reason for this is the moderate and default ‘health’ component I’ve put under a bit of a pressure here. /This is going to be the topic of another post/

Another, more mathematical, way to show the difference here is to think of healthy longevity as a continuous mathematical function and ‘health’ is the minimum political expression and ‘longevity’ being the maximum political goal.

Yet another way to characterise this ‘health’ vs ‘longevity’ polarity is to say improving ‘health’ is a certain outcome we can measure and recognise, while the ‘longevity’ component is uncertain, although we can learn from limited and short-lived model animal experiments the median and maximum lifespan benefits, those benefits never be as predictable and palpable in case of actual human interventions. The benefits stay uncertain at their limits.

Longevity is the shining core, health is the necessary outer layer

Let me now state briefly that I think that the radical, shining core around healthy longevity is not ‘healthy’ but ‘longevity’. But ‘healthy’ is and must be the outer layer of this inner longevity nucleus. It is the mandatory shield, the only acceptable vehicle of biomedical longevity.

But this outer layer is itself, all alone, not enough to provide the most decisive, philosophically most convincing arguments to carry on the mission. I think I made this case already in different ways earlier.

So now I can leave this outer, necessary layer behind and mention briefly some positive arguments where the longevity core shines through, catapults us into a possible world where we can do tons of thought experiments questioning bits and pieces of our human condition, from the angle of an open, indefinite and uncertain opportunity. This whole bookblog is the conceptual test tube for this.

Because of this, I chose here to mainly just give hints on the newly developed arguments and provide link to them. Am convinced that whatever philosophical tradition the longevitarian studies it will be able to apply the concepts in them to the topic of healthy longevity in a way that yields new insights and provides further supporting arguments. 

10+ arguments for healthy longevity arguing from longevity component

I came up here with a little, impromptu classification of the different type of arguments. My Open Lifespan work here is far from being done and it is ongoing, loads of arguments are still missing. The first group represents a mixed group of arguments that can be expressed from the First-Person point-of-view.  

Individual – First Person Singular

Metaphysical – Psychological – Agency – Meaning of Life

  1. ‘It’s good simply to be alive.’ This is what call the principle of life’s default positivity and I extracted it from Thomas Nagel’s Death essay. Please see Daily Effort: Thomas Nagel and the principle of life’s default positivity, first take and Is life in a box is better than no life at all? Help and hope, so.
  2. The simple idea of longevity providing for the most of us the biggest chance to realise a life plan, so Self-actualisation in general. Now this idea can be expressed in several different ways and I have not yet formulated my definitive version of it. It is because, although the idea is simple, crafting the actual argument for it is more complex, depending on the concepts used in it.
  3. Open lifespan as a coherent life plan enables super-agency

The second bundle of arguments are mainly claiming something about the collective consequences of significantly extended human lives and the communities embracing those lives. In short, these are political arguments. Here different collective and political values are linked together with healthy longevity as something promoting, enabling, enhancing, amplifying those values. In particular the topic is expressed through the lens of different political philosophies positioned at different parts of the political spectrum. The language, concepts, arguments of those philosophies is used to formulate healthy longevity and adapt it to local usage, so it can shine through the well-guarded confines of all those flavours. 

Open Lifespan turns into the political philosophy of longevity through this sustained investigation into the depth of political thinking.

Lots of arguments can be found already here: The Open Lifespan answer to Jonathan Floyd’s political philosophy organising question: how should we live? Tens of arguments

Collective – First Person Plural

Political philosophy – democracy

The following three arguments grew out of reflecting on the recent book of American political philosopher Elizabeth F. Cohen.

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

  • Open Lifespan enables slow and more complex democracy than Closed Lifespan.
  • Open Lifespan might impose a strong limit on how extensively the state can command the time of its subjects.
  • Open Lifespan is the best fit for non-static, democratic political anthropology.

Equality – equality of opportunity – social component 

Marxian concepts – economy of time

This is an ongoing study, 4 posts have been published so far, quick summary:

Open Healthspan as a Service (Product) completely re-defines production as an activity by re-producing, re-generating indefinitely Open Lifespan bodies, including that of Open Healthspan workers providing these very services. This service leaves no space for alienation anymore. No objectification of labour, no externalisation of work -> no alienation. An Open Life society, with Open Healthspan as the main service product implements the real economy of time by exclusively producing additional healthy human lifetime.

Liberalism – individual freedom – value-pluralism – open societies 


This is an ongoing study as well with separate arguments but similar structure