I want to discuss today the ethics surrounding the notion of curing not just cancer but all potentially curable diseases that currently cause death in humans. Now I’m by no means a sadist who thinks the idea of dying painfully from cancer is beautiful. Because it’s not. What I am interested in, however, is how wiping out these diseases through scientific intervention would effect humanity on a very broad scale. Suppose there was a pill to cure all morbid diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and viral diseases such as HIV (a lot of which already have cures). Note this is entirely hypothetical; some cancers are incurable by nature. What then would be the average lifespan? What would our quality of life look like? And what would this mean for humanity?
The most common argument against working toward a cancer cure is the concept of overpopulation. If people started living to 120 years or 200 years, overpopulation would become a huge issue. Economies would collapse, famine would become widespread, and before long we’d simply run out of room to house five or six generations simultaneously. There’s no possible way we could live as we currently do when each year the world population increases by 83 million people. Estimates suggest that by the year 2100, the population will be over 11 billion. Cancer and other diseases are currently the most efficient means of population control and if we were to remove even just cancer from the list, our population would very quickly begin aging and overpopulation would become a huge problem.
An aging population means people will spend a longer percentage of their lives in a state of frailty. Youthfulness will be extended somewhat but only by a small amount in comparison to our brittle boned golden years. If a smaller percentage of the entire population are able-bodied and most of us are in retirement, what effect would this have on global economies?
Historically, it wasn’t unheard of to end your own life immediately after you feel as though you’d reached your peak in life. After your youthfulness began to deteriorate, it was considered noble to end things as opposed to waiting around for old age to cripple you. It was thought that you’d no longer have anything to offer the world and that you ought to be remembered as young and mentally astute. While this of course mightn’t hold true in today’s society, this idea of a mentally deteriorating and physically immobile population could well be a step backwards for humanity.
But I think the problem is simpler than this. People are afraid of dying. If we had the option of living to 60 or 120, most people are absolutely going to choose to live longer. People really hate the idea of dying and it’s reflected in our continual effort to research ways in which we can eliminate death-causing diseases. Perhaps if we bred a generation who were less unwelcoming of death and understood the benefits of recognising your impermanence as a transient human being, we’d not have to deal with the ethics of overpopulation because dying would simply not be a problem.
Humans, like all animals, aren’t supposed to live forever. Our transience is central to our make-up as conscious, living beings. But we have an infatuation with not dying. Death and in particular the avoidance of it, through elongating our existence into an afterlife, is a central component of all religions.
It is currently a popular opinion in bioethics to extend life as far as possible and some scholars are suggesting scientists have a moral duty to bring this about. I think we should reject this notion entirely. I think this is simply a function of our irrational fear of dying.
Perhaps then it would be better to spend our research funds not on finding a cure but on managing disease to reduce the suffering incurred by what has traditionally been a painful death. What are your thoughts?