Monday, December 27, 2010

Year in Review 2010

Puzzles tackled this year include:
Why don't we perceive biological and global aging as the pressing health challenges they actually are? What are the moral arguments in favour of decelerating the rate of human molecular and cellular decline? Why does the world have the pattern of patriarchy it currently possesses? And why do patriarchal practices and institutions evolve and modify the way they have tended to over time in human societies?

Puzzles I started seriously thinking about this year include:
Why do anything? What are the determinants of happiness? What is play, and what role does play play in the "good life"? What are the intellectual virtues and vices? And how is democracy the best epistemic device available?

Summary of research activity in the year 2010:


(1) “Framing the Inborn Aging Process and Longevity Science” Biogerontology 11(3) (2010): 377-85.

The medical sciences are currently dominated by the “disease-model” approach to health extension, an approach that prioritizes the study of pathological mechanisms with the goal of discovering treatment modalities for specific diseases. This approach has marginalized research on the aging process itself, research that could lead to an intervention that retards aging, thus conferring health dividends that would far exceed what could be expected by eliminating any specific disease of aging. This paper offers a diagnosis of how this sub-optimal approach to health extension arose and some general prescriptions concerning how progress could be made in terms of adopting a more rational approach to health extension. Drawing on empirical findings from psychology and economics, “prospect theory” is applied to the challenges of “framing” the inborn aging process given the cognitive capacities of real (rather than rational) decision-makers under conditions of risk and uncertainty. Prospect theory reveals that preferences are in fact dependent on whether particular outcomes of a choice are regarded as “a loss” or “a gain”, relative to a reference point (or “aspiration level for survival”). And this has significant consequences for the way biogerontologists ought to characterise the central aspirations of the field (i.e. to prevent disease versus extend lifespan). Furthermore, it reveals the importance of shifting the existing reference point of the medical sciences to one that is shaped by the findings of evolutionary biology and biodemography.

(2) “Mind the Gap: Senescence and Beneficence” Public Affairs Quarterly 24(2) (2010): 115-30.

Beneficence is a foundational principle in bioethics, and yet it has not been applied to the topics of biological aging and longevity science. This paper explores the connection between the demands of beneficence and the aspiration to retard human aging in the hope of bridging the divide between debates in ethics and research in biomedical gerontology. My ethical argument brings to the fore a number of empirical considerations, including (1) the fact that aging is a major risk factor for morbidity and mortality (domestically and globally); (2) that numerous experiments, in a variety of different species (including mammals) have demonstrated that aging is not immutable; and (3) that a deceleration of the aging process in humans would likely yield significant health benefits.

(3) “Why Aging Research?” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1197 (2010): 1–8.

The American philosopher John Rawls describes a fair system of social cooperation as one that is both rational and reasonable. Is it rational and reasonable for societies that (1) are vulnerable to diverse risks of morbidity (e.g., cancer, heart disease) and mortality and (2) are constrained by limited medical resources, to prioritize aging research? In this paper I make the case for answering “yes” on both accounts. Focusing on a plausible example of an applied gerontological intervention (i.e., an antiaging pharmaceutical), I argue that the goal of decelerating the rate of human aging would be a more effective strategy for extending the human health span than the current strategy of just tackling each specific disease of aging. Furthermore, the aspiration to retard human aging is also a reasonable aspiration, for the principle that underlies it (i.e., the duty to prevent harm) is one that no one could reasonably reject.

(4) “Equality and the Duty to Retard Human Aging” Bioethics

Where does the aspiration to retard human ageing fit in the ‘big picture’ of medical necessities and the requirements of just healthcare? Is there a duty to retard human ageing? And if so, how much should we invest in the basic science that studies the biology of ageing and could lead to interventions that modify the biological processes of human ageing? I consider two prominent accounts of equality and just healthcare – Norman Daniels's application of the principle of fair equality of opportunity and Ronald Dworkin's account of equality of resources – and conclude that, once suitably amended and revised, both actually support the conclusion that anti-ageing research is important and could lead to interventions that ought to be considered "medical necessities".

(5) “Patriarchy and Historical Materialism” Hypatia

Why does the world have the pattern of patriarchy it currently possesses? And why do patriarchal practices and institutions evolve and modify the way they have tended to over time in human societies? This paper explores these general questions by integrating a feminist analysis of patriarchy with the central insights of the functionalist interpretation of historical materialism advanced by G.A. Cohen (1978, 1988). The paper has two central aspirations. Firstly, to help narrow the divide between Analytical Marxism and feminism by redressing the former’s neglect of the important role female labor has played, and continues to play, in shaping human history. Secondly, by developing the functionalist account of historical materialism to take patriarchy seriously, useful insights for diagnosing the emancipatory challenges that women face in the world today can be derived. The degree and form of patriarchy present in any particular society is determined by the productive forces it has had at its disposal. According to historical materialism, technological, material and medical advances that ease the pressures on high fertility rates (such as the sanitation revolution, vaccinations, birth control, etc.) are the real driving force behind the positive modulations to patriarchy witnessed in the twentieth century.

(6) “Global Aging, Well-Ordered Science and Prospection” Rejuvenation Research

Aristotle described the study of politics as an ‘‘architectonic’’ science that aspires to bring together insights from different fields of scientific inquiry to ensure that citizens have the opportunities to flourish. To meet the health and economic challenges of aging populations, we must revive this Aristotelian vision of politics. Prioritizing biogerontology is a requirement of well-ordered science. But a number of cognitive limitations and biases impair our ability to perceive both the harms of the inborn aging process and the magnitude of the likely benefits of age retardation. Thus, well-ordered science also requires us to address the social and cultural, and not merely scientific, obstacles that impede the aspiration to retard human aging.

Ongoing research projects:

(1) The playful life is the good life (Parts 6 and 7)

(2) Virtue epistemology and democracy (Parts 1, 2 and 3)

(3) Sen on justice (Parts 1, 2, and 3


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Season's Greetings

Happy holidays to all!


Friday, December 17, 2010

Virtue Epistemology and Democracy (Part 3)

I just returned from this conference in the UK which focused on the themes in this interesting book (hereafter referred to as DA).

I want to thank the conference organizers at Nottingham for inviting me to the conference, which I really enjoyed. And here I thought I would briefly outline the comments I made in my oral presentation at the conference (blog posts 1 and 2 detail some of the points addressed in the paper itself).

My paper explores an epistemic defence of democracy by employing a virtue epistemological analysis of knowledge and the stakes typically involved in good governance. But for my introductory remarks I thought it would be useful to spend a few minutes highlighting what I take to be the central disagreement between Estlund and myself, for I don't explicitly bring those disagreements to the fore in (at least the current version of) the paper.

Of all the questions and topics a political theorist or philosopher could ponder and reflect upon, why invest our time and energies in the topic of the epistemic virtues and vices of democracy?

I think pondering this question is useful because it makes explicit what we might call our intellectual “pre-commitments”. That is, the beliefs and assumptions that we bring to (and which lead us to engage in) the theoretical exercise. I suspect Estlund and I have different pre-commitments, and this might explain why we tackle different questions.

For Estlund, the key question he wants to answer in DA is: “How can democracy have some epistemic value in a way that could account for the degree of authority we think it should have?”

His answer is that (a) democracy has modest epistemic value (i.e. it is better than a coin flip), and (b) that democratic outcomes are legitimate and authoritarian in a purely procedural way.

I don't want to contest his answers to this central question; instead, what I want to contest is his making this particular question the central question to answer. Now contesting one's question is very different than contesting one's answer to a question. What are the criteria for determining which questions ought to be our central questions? I think this is a very interesting, and important, question to consider.

So what is wrong with making the minimalist epistemic defence of democracy (i.e. that democracy is better than a coin flip) our central concern? I have a few worries. By making this our central concern one frames the stakes of the debate in a problematic way. Firstly, doing this permits the artificial assumptions and constraints of the Condorcent Jury Theorem to shape the debate. So voting, the aggregation of preferences, and majority rule are then equated with democracy.

Secondly, this approach also concedes too much ground (when there is no empirical basis for conceding any ground) to the advocate of epistocracy.

Thirdly, and most importantly, this question does not make the cognitive capacities of intellectual agents the primary focus of evaluation. And I think this is a mistake if we want to examine the epistemic fitness of democracy. That is why I think virtue epistemology is a more useful starting position.

Instead of making the central question one about the minimalist epistemic case for democracy, I believe we should instead start with the more ambitious question: “How is democracy the best epistemic device available?”. Starting with this question will naturally lead us to ask (1) What is knowledge?, (2) What is democracy?, and (3) what is the relation between (1) and (2)?

Doing this will lead us in the direction I think we really need to go, which is to ask: What kinds of culture are most conducive to our realizing the intellectual virtues rather than vices?

That is an empirical question, and we should turn to the best available evidence we have to answer it.

To answer my proposed central question the theorist must attend to a diverse array of secondary questions. If we understand knowledge as “success from virtue or ability”, then we will want to ask:

(a) What is intellectual virtue, and how is it acquired?
(b) What is the relation between the intellectual and moral virtues?
(c) Why are humans so susceptible to intellectual vice?

There is a large volume of empirical data that can help aid us in thinking about the epistemic fitness of democracy. So we also want to ask:

(d) What does the historical evidence tell us about the epistemic benefits of democracy versus non-democratic forms of life?

(e) What does the empirical evidence tell us about the importance of diversity versus ability when it comes to complex problem-solving?

I don’t offer anything like a comprehensive answer to these questions in my paper, but I believe the most plausible answers to these questions all help point in the direction of revealing the epistemic advantages of democracy (understood in the Deweyan sense: as a mode of associated living).

All of these introductory comments then raise a fundamental methodological question for political philosophers and theorists: what is the aim of political theory or philosophy? What constitutes success and failure in normative theory? How do we measure progress in the field or a debate?

In the last chapter of DA Estlund outlines the value of what he calls “hopeless normative theory”. He claims that there can be intrinsic value in philosophical inquiry, if it is done well.

This perhaps touches on the largest disagreement that I with DA. Just to be clear, I don’t doubt that there is *some* value to such an intellectual exercise, but it is a *matter of proportionality* in terms of the how much value we ought to attribute to these activities.

We want many things from a theory of democracy and/or of justice. Where, in the big picture of things we want from a normative theory, ought we to place a theory's intrinsic intellectual value? For me it doesn't make the top 5 (indeed, it might not even make the top 10). I suspect some philosophers would place it in the top 5, perhaps even in the top position.

The critic might claim that the low value I place on the intrinsic value of normative theory is too hasty. They might argue that political philosophy would be much better off if we afforded it more room (not just some) for hopeless normative theory that offers nothing more than helping us sharpen our analytic skills and political concepts.

Perhaps that is so, maybe I am being too hasty [I am certainly open to that possibility].

But I’ll end by asking you to consider the following counterfactual test. Think of the political philosophers whose work we most admire in the canon: For me, this would include most heavy weights in the canon: for example, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Marx.

Now consider what their contributions to the field would have been if they were driven primarily by the intrinsic value of philosophical inquiry rather than a genuine desire to diagnosis the challenges of their times and provide some guidance to help us navigate through these challenges.

I think it is useful to make explicit what the intellectual pre-commitments of exemplar examples of political theorists were, for that might aid us in reflecting on what we think our own intellectual pre-commitments ought to be.

I doubt that few of us, including our students, are drawn to political philosophy and debates about justice and democracy because we are primarily concerned with the intrinsic value of reflecting on abstract political concepts. By making our intellectual pre-commitments more explicit, and open for debate, then I think we can have a fruitful discussion of how we determine which questions are, and are not, the central questions we should spend our time trying to answer in political philosophy (given the infinite list of possible questions we could invest our limited time and energy in trying to answer).


Friday, December 10, 2010

Open Access Article on Global Aging

My paper entitled "Global Aging, Well-Ordered Science, and Prospection"is now out in print in the latest issue of Rejuvenation Research. The paper is actually available for free, as an open access article.

I believe this paper is one of my most important publications to date, so I am very happy it is available on the open access option. The paper aspires to do many distinct things. It makes the case for reviving the Aristotelian conception of political science (namely, that it is the architectonic science). It also makes the case for prioritizing the imperative to tackle the inborn aging process and, most importantly, the obstacles that impede our ability to accurately perceive the importance of tackling aging.

A sample from the introduction and conclusion:

Political science is a methodologically diverse social science that aspires to bring together knowledge from distinct fields of scientific inquiry (e.g., economics, psychology, etc.) with the ultimate goal of elucidating what constitutes good governance. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, who was the first political scientist, described politics as a normative, prescriptive science that is ultimately concerned with the good of humans. As such, Aristotle considered politics as an architectonic science, for it is politics “which ordains which of the sciences should be studied in the state, and which each class of citizen should learn and up to what point they should learn them” (NE 1.1.1094)

Aristotle believed that a student of politics should be most concerned with what preserves and destroys a polis, or city-state. And more than 2,000 years after Aristotle outlined this vision of politics as an architectonic science, the health and economic challenges facing human populations have changed dramatically. A determination of which sciences ought to be studied, and how science could improve the health prospects of the world's aging populations, is imperative, but it is also challenging. It is imperative because an unprecedented number of humans are expected to suffer the chronic diseases of aging this century. And it is challenging because we possess a number of cognitive limitations and biases that impair our ability to perceive both the harms of the inborn aging process, as well as the magnitude of the likely benefits of age retardation.

To ensure the societies of today flourish, we must revive the Aristotelian vision of politics as a normative, practical science. Senescence poses enormous challenges to the health and economic prospects of today's aging populations. Meeting these challenges requires us to advance our knowledge, not only about the biology of aging and how to minimize the harms of senescence, but also about the cultural and social obstacles that impede our ability to tackle aging. These include misperceptions about the threat the inborn aging process poses to those living in both rich and poor countries, misperceptions about the trends of global health inequalities, and misperceptions about what the goal of biogerontology is (e.g., extending the health span versus extending the number of years of frailty).

...There are also misperceptions about what the potential consequences of age retardation might be. Prospection can be skewed by simulations that are unrepresentative and abbreviated. To help individuals overcome these prospection errors, it is important to emphasize the diverse benefits age retardation would confer on individuals in both rich and poor countries. Slowing aging would provide individuals with greater opportunities for health and independence. And this would yield significant economic benefits. As the WHO's 1997 Brasilia Declaration on Ageing emphasized, “healthy older persons are a resource for their families, their communities and the economy."

Our susceptibility to cognitive biases and errors, like our susceptibility to the diseases of aging, has been shaped by our Darwinian past. To meet the challenges facing today's aging populations, we must tackle both the scientific and sociocultural obstacles that impede well-ordered science. Reviving the Aristotelian vision of politics as a science concerned with the good of humans, and one that strives to bring together knowledge from distinct fields of scientific inquiry, can help us ensure that we are better positioned to meet the challenges facing the world's aging populations.


Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Longevity Genes Video (and some thoughts on Equality)

I came across this excellent video today and wanted to post it here as it provides an useful scientific background to the normative arguments I develop in my paper "Equality and the Duty to Retard Human Aging", published in the October issue of Bioethics.

Most egalitarians will not have the intuition that tackling aging is a requirement of equality. Why not? For starters, most egalitarians will assume that, because aging is universal, there is no inequality that warrants mitigating... end of story.

But this assumption is false. While it is true that everyone chronologically ages at the same rate (i.e. we each age 1 year every 12 months), there is a significant variation in the rate of biological aging. That is, the rate at which we experience the molecular and cellular decline that gives rise to morbidity and, ultimately, death.

So there is an inequality at stake here.

But, our egalitarian might retort, this inequality is trivial.

Again, this assumption is false. The stakes are very significant indeed. We are talking about an extra 20-30 years of health for some (rare) fortunate individuals. And what explains their exceptional health and longevity is not their exceptional lifestyles, but rather the fact that they have inherited longevity genes.

A third assumption that many egalitarians might have is that there is nothing we could do to alter the inequality that exists between those born with "longevity genes" and the average person. Again this is unfounded. Incredible advances are being made in the field of biogerontology. Advances that might make the goal of a century of disease-free life a reality for all humans. And I believe that is one of the most important aspirations we could have (given the fact that we live in an aging world).

So, there is (a) an inequality in the rate of biological aging, (b) this inequality involves significant health differentials (in the order of decades of healthy life), and (c) we might be able to mitigate this inequality by "levelling up", if we invest enough resources and talent in understanding the biology of aging.

I think that is the basis of a pretty solid case for supporting the aspiration to retard human aging. Getting to that conclusion requires a lot more work than simply appealing to some basic egalitarian intuitions. But that simply illustrates another important point- egalitarians ought to invest less of their energies fine tuning their egalitarian intuitions and more time and energy in understanding the empirical realities of the world (especially the human species).