Many people are at the very least iffy about the idea of extending human healthy lifespan through medical biotechnologies that prevent age-related diseases essentially by rejuvenating the body. Even people who accept the possibility that such therapies can be developed are not convinced that developing them is a good idea, and there are only a few arguments that most people use. These arguments can actually be easily adapted to make a case against the medicine that already exists, which the vast majority of people on the planet currently benefit from—and the consensus is virtually universal that people who do not yet benefit from it should be given this opportunity as soon as possible.
The question is: would people who accept these arguments as valid objections to rejuvenation accept them also as valid objections against “normal” medicine? For example, how many present-day people would agree with what these two people from the 1600s are talking about?
A – Did you hear about John’s son?
B – Yes, he came down with a fever and never recovered. What a tragedy.
A – Indeed. He and his wife had lost three other children to a fever before.
B – Oh, that’s terrible. Did they try to ask for a doctor’s help?
A – They couldn’t afford it for the other children, but when a fourth one became ill, they were so desperate about it that they did all they could to find the money. Anyway, not even the doctor could save the child’s life, even with all the leeches and poultices at his disposal.
B – Of course, I know nothing about medicine, but sometimes I think doctors don’t either. Their practices are a bit… scary, and as far as I have heard, most people they treat die anyway.
A – That may be, but doctors still have the best wisdom and techniques, at least for those who can afford them.
B – Who knows, maybe one day, doctors will actually know how to cure us for real. It could be as simple as drinking a potion or eating some sort of biscuit containing specific medicinal herbs, and in a few days, you’re back on your feet, no matter the disease.
A – That seems like fantasy to me. Doctors have existed for centuries, and they never managed to perform such miracles. If this were at all possible with knowledge and technique alone, wouldn’t one of them have managed to do so by now? Besides, perhaps it is for the best to leave things the way they are; doctors have gone far enough into God’s domain, and I don’t even want to imagine what would happen if they went even farther.
B – That is true. Surely, there must be a reason for all the diseases that plague us. Common folks are more affected, true, but they also take nobles on occasion. It’s difficult to say if this is because commoners sin more than nobles and that this is God’s way of punishing them or because they are more pious and God wants to call them to Himself sooner, but it is obvious that the will of Providence is at play.
A – Exactly. But I think there is more than this to it. Maybe the reason why diseases exist is to make our lives less miserable. Maybe they are blessings in disguise.
B – I don’t understand. They do cause a lot of suffering, not only to the diseased but also their families.
A – That is true, but how much more suffering would they endure if they went on living, especially among us commoners? It might explain why diseases affect common people more than the nobility. They live better lives, so it makes sense for them to live longer and enjoy it; but what about us? Our lives are harder and deprived of all the comforts and luxuries that rich people can afford. Is it worth living longer for us?
B – You speak truth, and I also think that if, one day, doctors will really be able to cure everyone of certain ailments, this will only make poor people’s lives worse. Very few people can afford the services of doctors even though they aren’t of much use; imagine how expensive it would be if they actually could cure you! Rich people would be healthy, and the rest of us would simply have to die knowing that they could be saved if only they had the money.
A – You are right, it is definitely better if there is no cure for anyone rather than a cure that is only for some. But, still, I dream of a day when medicine eventually becomes cheaper, or maybe the commoners won’t be so poor.
B – A day when even the likes of you and me could live in a fairly comfortable house, with our basic necessities covered, without having to work so hard every day to bring just a little food to the table, and while being able to afford the services of a doctor whenever we need one? You dream of Heaven on Earth, friend; it won’t happen until Judgment Day.
A – We won’t be able to achieve this ourselves, even centuries from now?
B – Again, it hasn’t happened until now, I don’t see why it should happen later. Even if it did, the consequences would be even more dire. It’s hard enough as it is to produce enough food for everyone, and if doctors could cure all diseases and everyone was able to afford these cures, there would be far too many mouths to feed. Therefore, in His infinite wisdom, the good God has decided that some of us must fall prey to disease.
A – I see your point, but in such a world where doctors can treat all ailments with their own knowledge, maybe we would be able to produce more food with less work, so that hundreds of millions, maybe even billions, could eat every day, while farming would not be as laborious.
B – You sure have a wild imagination! And how could that be accomplished, pray tell?
A – Perhaps there might be more machines that do work in place of animals, faster and better. Possibly even in place of people.
B – Machines that work the fields without a person maneuvering them? Walking water mills? Clockwork horses? Oh! How about a sewing machine to go with our spinning wheel? My wife would love such a thing, if it could ever exist.
A – We have some machines for some tasks. Why could we not have more?
B – Because they could never work, that’s why. I sure hope you’re never going to talk such nonsense with others, because not everyone has my sense of humor.
A – Maybe you are right. It was a bit of a stretch; windmills and water mills must sit where they are, after all. Diseases may be a necessary evil, as well. I’ve seen people who survived ailments like the one that killed John’s son, and as they grew older, their lives became more and more miserable. Old age was killing them more slowly and with far more cruelty than fever or plague. A poor old man dies on the street if he has no family to care for him or if his family cannot afford it. I would rather die the way John’s son did, surrounded by my loved ones, than as a crippled old man begging under a bridge.
B – Now you’re talking sense, and this is probably one of the most compelling reasons why we should leave diseases alone. Again, maybe it makes sense for the royalty to live that long, because they will not end up dying like old beggars, but for the rest of us, that would be a curse.
A – True. Besides, I suppose that at some point, one would get tired of living and would rather go. I guess this must be why even people who don’t die early in life eventually die of old age; even if you are part of the upper class, what can you possibly look forward to after you’ve seen your children and grandchildren grow up? Even if you know how to read and have a taste for music and the theatre, there are only so many books and so many composers and playwrights.
B – Precisely.
A – Yes, while being able to cure diseases might appear to be a good thing at first, when you think about it, you realize that it would not be.
B – Indeed, and this is what we must always remind ourselves of when disease does strike and sorrow makes us lose our objectivity.
The arguments presented by our two friends from the 1600s are fundamentally the same ones that a lot of people bring up when they try to rationalize and justify the diseases of old age, saying that the defeat of aging might, at first, appear to be a good thing, but would actually not be that good after all. However, given the knowledge we have today, it is very easy to counter their arguments; in any event, not too many people would agree that the conversation above would have made a good case against vaccines and modern medicine, which have brought infectious diseases under strict control and save countless lives that would otherwise be lost on a daily basis.
Just like the arguments in the conversation above would not be a valid reason to give up on the medicine we are used to, they are not a reason to give up on the medicine of the future—the rejuvenation biotechnologies that might soon prevent and reverse the course of age-related diseases. Claiming otherwise is nothing but a double standard.