Saturday, July 20, 2019

Aging and Freedom (Further Reflections)

Last week the Queen’s Political Philosophy Reading Group met to discuss my recent paper on aging and freedom. Lots of good questions and criticisms were raised there. I wanted to write down a few reflections on this issue here for future reference.
In the paper I argue for the following (this is the abstract):

In this article, I argue that senescence (biological aging) is one of the greatest threats to human freedom in the 21st century. The two most prominent conceptions of freedom are ‘‘negative’’ and ‘‘positive’’ liberty. The negative conception of liberty equates freedom with the absence of interference, whereas the positive conception equates freedom with having the capacity to be self-determining. By critically examining both the negative and positive conceptions of liberty, I make the case that senescence does violate our liberty, on both accounts of freedom. Also, if this is correct, then the development of an applied gerontological intervention ought to be considered an integral commitment of a society dedicated to freedom. An aging intervention holds great emancipatory potential for the world’s aging populations.

In the reading group I started the session by noting that the conclusion I argue for is both:

(1) something so intuitive and obvious it almost seems trivial to have to argue (namely, that aging constrains our freedom).

And yet it is also a conclusion that (2) seems preposterous given that aging is “natural”, and thus one might retort that it imposes no more objectionable limitations on our freedom than does the fact that we can’t fly or survive without having to consume sufficient calories.

Navigating through these issues is a significant part of the attraction I have to grappling with this topic. I like a good challenge!

With respect to (1) I think that, regardless of the conception of freedom one starts with (e.g. negative or positive liberty), there is no denying that humans in the “post-reproductive stage” of the human lifespan have diminished liberty compared to what that person’s freedom would be in the “reproductive” stage of life.

The menu of options available to the average person during the reproductive stage of life (age < 70) is much more vast (all else being equal of course, as other factors (like wealth) can influence this as well- though the average person’s income peaks by their early 50’s and is significantly diminished during retirement) than those available to us in the post-reproductive phase of life.

The negative conception of liberty is the harder conception to square with my central thesis. In the paper I identify 3 key elements of this conception of liberty:

1. The paradigmatic threat to freedom is coercion.
2. Threats to freedom must come from human-created
3. The interference is a violation of freedom when it limits a moral right we have as humans.

With respect to (1) I argue that coercion is not the only objectionable form of governmental interference. Inaction can also constitute a objectionable constraint on our menu of options. Failing to take action against climate change, for example, reduces the freedom of future generations. So too would the failure to implement public health measures like sanitation or immunizations. And I believe the same can be said about intervening in the aging process itself.

With respect to the human-created limitations, I argue that humans are in fact responsible for global aging (as the noble laureate Peter Medawar noted over half a century ago, senescence is something ‘‘revealed and made manifest by the most unnatural experiment of prolonging human life by sheltering it from the hazards of its natural existence.’’ (An Unsolved Problem of Biology). There is also a forward-looking basis for attributing some human responsibility given that the science has progressed far enough that we can say with confidence that the current rate of biological aging need not be the fate of humans born in the 21st century if we make a concerted effort to develop a safe and effective aging intervention.

And finally, the right that senescence violates is the right to health. Aging diminishes our health, which diminishes our liberty. Thus we should aspire to retard the aging process to preserve the greater range of opportunities that we can enjoy when senescence has been mitigated.

The positive conception of liberty is the more natural, and compelling, account of liberty to endorse for this kind of argument as it construes liberty as the capacity to be self-determining.

From my perspective of the moral landscape, aging is the single biggest threat to the liberty of humans living today and for all future generations. The probability of aging imposing constraints on our liberty is 100%. The prospects that we might be able to alter this state of affairs via an applied gerontological intervention have gone from “conceivable” to “highly likely” in just the past 2 decades.

Emancipating human populations from the harms of senescence would, in my opinion, be one of our most significant achievements of the 21st century.

I will give these issues some more thought, and perhaps will write something further on this issue.