Magazine October 20, 2014, Issue

Threescore Years and Fifteen

I want to live forever. Or, if that’s impractical, as long as science can keep me operational. Now, obviously, this means elevating my game — more salubrious foods, calisthenics, steering clear of second-hand smoke and what have you. But if my efforts fall short — and I’m inclined to believe that at some point they might — I expect technology to pick up the slack. If this entails replacing my limbs with bionic parts, so be it. If it necessitates pumping me full of experimental pharmaceuticals or plugging me into contraptions that keep vital organs functioning properly, go for it. Nanotechnology? Whatever that is, I’m all in. And, if all else fails, please upload my consciousness into a freshly grown clone — though, if it’s not too much trouble, let’s make this one more athletic.

In his now-infamous Atlantic essay “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” Ezekiel Emanuel, 57, subtly disparages people like me as “American immortals.” I take no offense. Emanuel, after all, is the director of something called the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. He also finds time to run the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. Or, in other words, there are people blessed with dazzling intellects who strive to unlock the secrets of the universe or devote their careers to making life more tolerable for the weak, sick, and elderly. And then there are people who crunch numbers to concoct arbitrary human expiration dates.

Old age, says Emanuel, leaves us faltering, declining, feeble, ineffectual, pathetic, and uncreative. Without even a single Ph.D. to my name, I’ve arrived at a similar conclusion. Growing old sucks. It can be depressing for the individual. A heart-wrenching burden for many families. And, also, better than most alternatives. This is why we humans have initiated a successful sweeping project to lengthen the Third Act — one of our most meaningful and moral undertakings, actually. This disturbs Emanuel, who claims that though proles live longer these days, they do not live more fulfilling lives. And while this might be true (though I doubt it), the most problematic part of Emanuel’s contention is his failure to answer the most vital question raised by his proposition: What kind of life is worth living?

Why am I alive? Maybe it’s an evolutionary need to be a father or maybe it’s an intellectual need to mock people who are by every calculable metric a lot smarter than I am. I don’t pretend to have the answer — probably because everyone’s answer is unique. What I think I do know, however, is how not to quantify life.

Life, for example, is not about being a cog in the collective. This is the basic rationalization Emanuel offers for his deadline — complete with a chart that plots the purpose of human existence. If you’re a productive person with high creative potential, your “first contribution” (interning at a nonprofit, perhaps) will be made in your mid 20s. Your “best” contribution (running for office or working for the Department of Zzzzzz) will be made in your late 30s. And your “last” contribution (authoring a memoir celebrating a life in public service) will be made in your early 60s. After that, well, what’s the point, right?

There are outliers, of course — Abraham didn’t father Isaac until he was 100, and Ronald Reagan wasn’t elected president until he was nearly 70 — but we should concede that research proves the older you are, the more likely it is that you’re engaged in piddling digressions such as visiting your grandchildren or binge-watching Murder, She Wrote. The chances of your authoring a white paper on a carbon tax or engaging in undertakings deemed beneficial by technocrats is rather low. Thank God.

Emanuel also advances the ugly idea that an uncomfortable life is not a life worth living. Half of Americans over 80 will be saddled with some functional limitations, he points out. A third of Americans over 85 will suffer from Alzheimer’s. Hips will hurt. Memories will fade. This is often tragic. But don’t millions of Americans live their lives with physical and mental limitations? Is their earthly existence worth the same as that of a 76-year-old — nothing? Emanuel says his proposition is a personal one, but if he believes his life — one we imagine he values more than most — isn’t worth extending past 75, what about others who fail to meet his criteria? This question goes unanswered.

Emanuel denies his piece is a stealth proposal to “save resources, ration health care, or address public-policy issues arising from the increases in life expectancy.” The stench is there, though. For decades an ugly Malthusian compulsion has infected the Left, leading it to think we should measure the value of life by its impact on the environment or its productivity. The implication is stupefying, anti-humanist, and immoral.

Emanuel preemptively claims that there will be spiritual reasons for people to reject his pseudoscientific trolling. Well, even skeptics who believe that existence is happenstance, that life serves no grand purpose, and that there is no afterlife to look forward to should be insulted. I’m reminded of an interaction in one of the most underrated Woody Allen films, Love and Death, in which the character Sonya asks: “But, if there is no God, then life has no meaning. Why go on living? Why not just commit suicide?” Woody Allen’s doppelgänger, Boris, retorts, “Well, let’s not get hysterical. I could be wrong. I’d hate to blow my brains out and then read in the paper that they found something.”

There’s no need to cash out on Pascal’s wager too early, especially when we don’t know what sort of technological developments are on the horizon. My selfish hope is that we make tremendous strides in this department in, say, the next 30 years. If I don’t become a supercentenarian, it’ll be the fault of society. Mostly of people like Ezekiel Emanuel.

– Mr. Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist.

David Harsanyi is a senior writer for National Review and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun

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