Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Slowing Aging as Preventative Medicine

There is a great article out by Olshansky and Carnes on the importance of age retardation in the Autumn 2017 issue of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. Here is the abstract:

The survival of large segments of human populations to advanced ages is a crowning achievement of improvements in public health and medicine, but in the 21st century, our continued desire to extend life brings forth a unique dilemma. The risk of death from chronic fatal diseases has declined, but even if it continues to do so in the future, the resulting longevity benefits are likely to diminish. It is even possible that unhealthy life expectancy could rise in the future as major fatal diseases wane. The reason for this is that the longer we live, the greater the influence of biological aging on the expression of fatal and disabling diseases. Research in gerontology has already demonstrated that aging is inherently modifiable, and that a therapeutic intervention that slows aging in people is a plausible target for science and public health. Given the speed with which population aging is progressing and chronic fatal and disabling conditions are challenging health-care costs across the globe, the case is now being made that delayed aging could be one of the most efficient and promising ways to combat disease, extend healthy life, compress morbidity, and reduce health-care costs.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Moral Enhancement and Pre-Commitment Devices

In ULYSSES UNBOUND the social scientist Jon Elster recalls Homer's tale, in the Odyssey, of Ulysses binding himself to the mask of his ship so that he could not give in to the siren's song (which would have caused the ship to steer into rocks). By binding himself to the mask of the ship, Ulysses was employing what Elster calls a "pre-commitment" device. He explains such as device as follows:

“…to protect themselves against passion, preference change, and . . . time-inconsistency. They do so by removing certain options
from the feasible set, by making them more costly or available only with a delay, and by insulating themselves from knowledge about their existence.”

Other examples of pre-commitment devices are as follows:

(1) you have problems with impulsive spending, so you place your credit card in a bag of water and place it in the freezer, so no decision to use it can be made without waiting a few hours for it to thaw.

(2) you have a gambling addiction and self-identify yourself to the managers of all your local casinos, telling them not to let you in to the casino in the future.

(3) you consistently have bad luck in romantic relationships. The pattern seems to be relationships start quick and intense, but end shortly thereafter, often with drama and hurt feelings. To change this pattern you bind yourself to the rule- do not have sex with a person you are dating before you have build some potential friendship and some compatibility first.

(4) a country is a liberal democracy, that governs by majority rules but has a constitution that limits the will of the majority by ensuring certain rights and freedoms are off the political agenda.

The prospect of our being able, in the not too distant future, to morally "enhance" humans via genetic engineering or some other biomedical intervention raises the fascinating question of whether such interventions should be morally permissible, or even morally obligatory. The genes we are born with certainly play an important role in human behaviour, especially moral behaviour. I have linked a video here to the work of James Fallon which is worth watching and considering.

I think any potential biomedical moral enhancement should be thought of as a novel, potential pre-commitment device. If it could, safely and effectively, alter our potential for morally problematic behaviour (e.g. violence, manipulation, impulsivity, etc.) or morally desirable traits (e.g. empathy, rationality, etc.) I think there is a strong presumption in favour of considering such interventions as not only morally permissible, but perhaps even morally obligatory. At the moment we pursue moral enhancement via parenting, education in school, religion, etc. but do not aspire to directly modify the biology we have inherited from our evolutionary history. So we are using only a small set of the potential tools that may be available to us to improve our potential for virtue. Furthermore, fhe efficacy of some environmental moral enhancements can certainly questioned. AS we learn more about the role genes play in human behaviour I believe some fascinating questions will be posed about how we best move forward in terms of the available means of moral enhancement available to us.