Thursday, October 29, 2009

21st Century Humanism


As a humanist I believe in the equal worth of all human beings. My humanist sentiments open my eyes to the problem of global poverty, the pervasiveness of patriarchy and the dangers of extremism.

My humanist sentiments also open my eyes to the shortcomings of evolution (evident by the prevalence of chronic disease in late life) and the prevalence of "ageism". In this post I will address these latter concerns.

If humanists reflected critically and consistently upon their basic moral convictions, I believe they would become strong advocates of aging research and the aspiration to decelerate human aging. However, most humanists are not (at least yet) strong advocates of this scientific research; indeed many probably oppose this research or at the least do not think it an important priority. In this post I will explain why this is a mistake given the foundational moral premises of humanism.

What separates me from those humanists who ignore or eschew aging research is that I am a 21st century humanist, while they are 20th century humanists. A 21st century humanist endorses the aspirations of 20th century humanists (e.g. racial equality, the elimination of gender, the elimination of world poverty, etc.), but we go one step further by incorporating the challenges of an aging world and the rapid advances in biomedical science into our purview of the demands of justice (see this excellent article which played a major role in bringing me around to thinking more rationally about these issues).

A 21st century humanist recognizes the fact that no person, regardless of race, gender, nationality or *age*, deserves to suffer morbidity and mortality. And thus we ought to aspire to reduce these risks when it is feasible to do so, whether it be by providing access to clear drinking water, bed nets to protect against malaria or developing new drugs that re-programme our metabolism and help protect against chronic diseases.

For the first time in human history, most disease and death this century will occur in late life. Aging will cause hundreds of millions of cancer deaths, strokes, bone fractures, infections, etc. Furthermore, these chronic diseases are extremely costly. The Centre for Disease control estimates that chronic diseases account for 70% of all deaths in the United States and the medical care for people with chronic diseases account for more than 75% of the nation’s $2 trillion medical care costs. (source)

20th century humanists seek to mitigate socially created harm and oppression, whereas 21st century humanism extends the concern for the equal worth of all beyond the harms created by social institutions. 21st century humanism also seeks to mitigate the adverse consequences of natural selection- in particular, the evolutionary neglect that leaves humans vulnerable to late-life morbidity and mortality.

The average age of life expectancy, at birth, in the world today is 67. This means that most people born today will live long enough to suffer one of the chronic diseases of aging, like cancer or heart disease. This is a fate suffered by millions every year now, especially in the developing world (contrary to what most people in the developed world think).

21st humanists ought to be among the strongest and loudest advocates of biogerontology. For the goal of "healthy aging" is one that follows from the core humanist sentiment that the worth of all human life, regardless of chronological age, is equal. Once humanists open their eyes to the reality of today's aging world, appreciate the incredible advances that are being made in the biomedical sciences, and discard their ageism, perhaps they will embrace a public philosophy well suited for meeting the full range of challenges we face in the "here and now" (and in the years to come).

Cheers,
Colin