The Bioethics of a Cancer Cure & Our Fear of Mortality


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?

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  1. goktrenks

    It seems you’re assuming that the only reason one would choose to live longer(if given such choice) would be because of the common held belief of fear of death.I don’t think that would be the single reason.Having read your previous posts on death, I think we’re on the same page that it is irrational to be afraid of death,but I’d choose to live longer for different reasons,my thought process would go something along the lines of”I can always choose to end my life if I want to,so let’s live longer,I have nothing to lose.If it doesn’t go well,death is always guarnteed anyway.”

    You wrote:

    “Historically, it wasn’t unheard of to end your own life immediately after you feel as though you’d reached your peak in life”

    I would take a kind of Camel’s absurdist stance on this problem:Live,because It’s the fun choice.

    I don’t want to put words in your mouth,but it seems you’re assuming that the overpopulation problem would get worse if cures for diseases become available,but that doesn’t say that there is an inherent problem with “curing all diseases” per se.If the overpopulation problem could be solved in some other way then there wouldn’t be amything wrong with people living longer(Antinatalist movements,for example(which I support)).

    The point I’m trying to argue is,there isn’t anything inherently wrong with not choosing a premature death,if such option is available.The suffering that people overpopulation would cause if people lived longer could be dealt in various ways.

    I’m looking forward to see your thoughts :)

    • Harvey Meale

      >It seems you’re assuming that the only reason one would choose to live longer(if given such choice) would be because of the common held belief of fear of death

      More so to avoid having an aging population. As lifespan increases, you end up spending a longer period of your life in a state of brittle boned frailty. That of course doesn’t immediately make life no longer desirable and I’m not suggesting all of the old people should jump into volcanoes, but I think it would have a pretty devastating economic impact.

      >Having read your previous posts on death, I think we’re on the same page that it is irrational to be afraid of death,but I’d choose to live longer for different reasons,my thought process would go something along the lines of”I can always choose to end my life if I want to,so let’s live longer,I have nothing to lose.If it doesn’t go well,death is always guarnteed anyway.”

      Absolutely! And I think I’d personally like to live for as long as anyone else. But I don’t necessarily think that we should go out of our way to elongate life. I like living more than most people but at the same time find no good reason to extend it beyond a reasonable, natural duration (whatever that is). The logic of “if you are happy and live longer, you get to experience happiness for a longer period of time” and “death stops this happiness” seems ontologically flawed to me. Happy to go further into this if you’d like clarification. 😉

      >I would take a kind of Camel’s absurdist stance on this problem:Live,because It’s the fun choice.

      This is what I was referring to above. I think the ontology isn’t quite accurate here. I don’t think it’s fair to say that in death, there is an absence of fun. There’s a difference between nothingness/void and being locked up in a boring black box for eternity.

      >I don’t want to put words in your mouth,but it seems you’re assuming that the overpopulation problem would get worse if cures for diseases become available,but that doesn’t say that there is an inherent problem with “curing all diseases” per se.If the overpopulation problem could be solved in some other way then there wouldn’t be amything wrong with people living longer(Antinatalist movements,for example(which I support)).

      Agreed 100%. If we implement some form of population control policy (China?), however, we’d once more find ourselves with the problem of a very old and decrepit population. A very small % (compared to today) of the global population would be healthy, active, and able to work. If we all start living to 150 years old then it’s possible we’d only be able to work from ages 15-75, meaning we can only spend 40% of our lives working and “contributing” economically to society. Now on the other hand we spend closer to 50% of our lives working. This is another problem that could be solved but I suspect would be quite a bit more challenging than the population control problem.

      Always good to hear from you!
      H

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