‘I have always been terrified of death, and no philosopher or holy man has been able to convince me otherwise.’ Such are the words of the celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson. From the moment we conceive of mortality, we are doomed to know that, whatever we think lies beyond, we will never be able to know the ends of our beginnings, that we will one day have to leave all we’ve created and loved, and that there is nothing we can do to change it. Or is there?
“young people’s blood plasma Seems to mitigate the effects of ageing”
Scientists are looking at a number of ways to mitigate the effects of ageing and, potentially, conquer death itself. One of the most promising fields is blood plasma transfusion, which involves the transfusion of blood from under-25s into older people. This technique is said to have worked well in mice, and it would seem that there is something in young people’s blood plasma that mitigates the effects of ageing. This treatment is already being offered by some entrepreneurial scientists to the general public; the blood of young people can be yours for only $8000.
All sounds quite exciting, right? However, what are the moral implications of such a treatment? Quite aside from the idea of using the blood of young people to retain one’s youth being a little Countess Báthory, some have questioned the economic implications of blood plasma treatment. Who would provide the blood, and who could afford it? $8,000 is out of reach of many, and the fear is that the blood itself would come from poorer people in the US or abroad. Young, impoverished people selling their lifeblood so that the rich may live eternal? Marx would have a field day.
“we need death to give life any meaning”
But there is another, deeper moral concern I have. While dying might frighten all but the most passionate of believers, and the wish for immortality may seem a given, the reality is, paradoxically, we need death to give life any meaning. All the pleasure we take in life is derived from knowing that it is ephemeral, a blink of light between two eternities. We want to see and experience as much of the world as we can before we have to leave it.
Think of how much time you waste now, when you know your time is limited, and imagine how bad it would be if it weren’t. Why go and see the Northern Lights this year if you could wait another 400? Our desire for experience and meaning is driven by our sense of urgency, and to remove the ‘best-before’ date is to plunge us into a bland world stretching into a grey and meaningless horizon. The philosopher Roger Scruton argues ‘if you recognise human love properly, you realise that is a relationship between dying things’, and he is right. Immortality would not be salvation, but damnation. Rather than searching for eternal life, maybe we should focus on improving the ones we’ve got.