The Duty to Extend the “Biological Warranty Period” (Part 2)
This post continues on from the one yesterday.
I aspire to develop a contextual moral analysis which brings to the fore the importance of the duty to extend the biological warranty period of humans living in an aging world. So first some reflections on the methodological issues at play in this type of exercise.
Moral philosophers are concerned with how we ought to live, both as individuals and collectively as societies. We thus devote considerable attention to the question: what do we owe to each other? By reflecting upon, discussing and debating this general question a wide variety of actions, institutions and societal practices become subject to critical scrutiny. Ethics thus helps provide a foundation upon which we can orient the concerns of related fields of inquiry, such as legal, social and political philosophy. For example, a better understanding of what we owe to each other can help us evaluate and assess the basic rights and freedoms that ought to be accorded constitutional protection, or the principles most appropriate for guiding the design of the political economy, the institution of the family, healthcare and education.
The details of what we owe to others no doubt depends, to a large extent, upon the context of the societies and situations we find ourselves in. What we owe to each other in a perfectly just, affluent, closed society composed of healthy, productive people (as envisioned by Rawls (1971), for example) might be very different from what we owe in a partially compliant, indebted, open and aging society. How much abstraction should the theorist employ if the ultimate goal of tackling ethical issues is to help enhance our capacity for practical reason? Should we aspire, as the most eminent twentieth century neo-Kantian moral philosopher John Rawls proposes, to permit abstract scenarios (e.g. the original position) and our moral intuitions to frame and guide the intellectual exercise, oscillating back-and-forth between moral principles (and priority rules) chosen in a hypothetical thought experiment and our established moral judgements?
The “a priori”, or predominately “a priori” (there are some qualifiers on Rawls, for example, such as his concern for economic incentives in his discussion of pareto optimality), approach to ethics typical of Kantian and neo-Kantian moral theorising can be contrasted with the approach of empirical ethics. Philosophers engaged in the latter believe that “ethical theorizing should be an (in part) a posteriori inquiry richly informed by relevant empirical considerations” (Doris and Stich). Proponents of such an interdisciplinary approach to ethics believe that “intellectually responsible philosophical ethics is one that continuously engages the relevant empirical literature” (Doris and Stich)”. Taking empirical considerations seriously thus means that ethical theorizing will often be provisional, as the circumstances individuals and societies face will inevitably change over time, and so too will our understanding of the relevant empirical considerations at play.
So the argument I intend to develop in this new paper will be an exercise in empirical ethics. It takes seriously the reality that the aging populations of today face novel health challenges (e.g. high prevalence of chronic disease and disability) never experienced before in human history. The moral landscape thus needs to adapt to reflect this novel empirical reality. I begin with a basic moral principle- the duty to aid- and explore the implications empirical considerations from demography, evolutionary biology and biogerontology have for the way we think the duty to aid should be employed in the early 21st century.
What is the context of the human species today? Human populations are aging. Our populations are living longer lives than they ever have in human history, and we are having fewer children. The phenomenon of global aging will have a profound impact on the demands of morality.
Recall from my last post that I intend to utilize Singer's highly successful approach to raising awareness about global justice to the cause of raising awareness about global aging and biogerontology. So permit me to play on the comparison some more.
Here is how Singer began his paper on global poverty over 40 years ago:
As I write this, in November 1971, people are dying in East Bengal from lack of food, shelter, and medical care. The suffering and death that are occurring there now are not inevitable, not unavoidable in any fatalistic sense of the term. Constant poverty, a cyclone, and a civil war have turned at least nine million people into destitute refugees; nevertheless, it is not beyond the capacity of the richer nations to give enough assistance to reduce any further suffering to very small proportions. The decisions and actions of human beings can prevent this kind of suffering. Unfortunately, human beings have not made the necessary decisions. At the individual level, people have, with very few exceptions, not responded to the situation in any significant way. Generally speaking, people have not given large sums to relief funds; they have not written to their parliamentary representatives demanding increased government assistance; they have not demonstrated in the streets, held symbolic fasts, or done anything else directed toward providing the refugees with the means to satisfy their essential needs.
If I could update and modify Singer's introduction for my purposes, I would pen something like the following:
As I write this, in September 2012, people are dying in both developed and developing countries from the chronic diseases (e.g. cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, etc.) of late life. The estimated 220 million people who will die of chronic disease in a decade was not inevitable, not unavoidable in any fatalistic sense of the term. Because natural selection has prioritized reproduction over somatic maintenance, hundreds of millions of once healthy and productive people now suffer chronic pain, disability, and disease. At the individual level, people have, with very few exceptions, not responded to the situation in any significant way. Generally speaking, people have not given large sums to fund scientific research on the biology of aging and experimental interventions to retard the rate of molecular and cellular decline. People have not written to their parliamentary representatives demanding increased government investment in such scientific research; they have not demonstrated in the streets, held symbolic fasts, or done anything else directed toward helping to redress the late-in-life vulnerabilities we have inherited from our evolutionary history.
I believe Singer's contextual moral analysis of global poverty provides a useful starting point from which one could advance a moral analysis of the issues that arise in today's aging world.