Death as the Final Frontier Between Conservatism and Classical Liberalism

The tension between conservatism and classical liberalism began with the Enlightenment’s insistence  on the freedom of inquiry necessary to advance science.  And science in turn was to empower man to dominate nature—learn its secrets and turn it to man’s will. Francis Bacon saw this free inquiry as creating prosperity, lengthening life, and ultimately perhaps forestalling death.

This core tenet of the Enlightenment poses profound difficulties for conservatism. It unleashes technology as a driving force in human affairs, continually upsetting the status quo and requiring the reworking of human conventions. Some of these conventions are social, like the sense of settled hierarchy that was dissolved by the markets that freedom and technological innovation generated. Other revolutions were even more profound, because they reversed conventions that defended an understanding of what was natural in man. For instance, technologies that separate birth from reproduction are the heart of the rise of family reordering and even identity politics.

But the challenge to conservatism is deeper than the new realities that technology creates. Conservatism posits that man should in some sense live in accordance or harmony with nature. Bacon’s view, in contrast, is that man should plunder nature for energy, for longevity– for everything that man desires. Man rather than nature is the measure of things, and man here is not defined by his nature but by his free will.

Thus, it is not a surprise that death may create the ultimate collision between conservatism and classical liberalism. Classical liberalism is naturally allied with idea, or at least the possible choice, of transhumanism—the philosophy of enhancing human capabilities with the ultimate goal of immortality, a goal that may be achieved sooner than many believe. I am a member of the Moses generation– those who can perceive the promised land of indefinite longevity and indeed rejuvenation, but will not enjoy its benefits. But my daughter or grandchildren likely will. Our children and grandchildren will just have to live until the next wave of innovations allows them to surf further toward an unbounded life.

In L’ Chaim and Its Limits: Why not Immortality, Leon Kass, a great conservative, has demurred strongly from this goal. He powerfully argues that death is necessary to realize some of the fundamental ends of man, both individually and collectively. For instance, the finiteness of life gives rise to the nobility of aspiration. The death of one generation naturally makes room for another.

He ably defends the freedom to choose the reign of death. But classical liberalism insists on the right of each individual to choose his or her vision of the good so long as his choice does not coerce or harm others. Kass puts forward one vision of the good life, but there can be others. For instance, an indefinite life permits the steady accumulation of knowledge. I personally would like the longevity to major in every traditional course of study. And by the time I finished I am sure I could gain almost entirely new knowledge by going through the fields again.

For those less interested in abstract matters, an unbounded life might allow one to make a deep acquaintance with millions of people one would otherwise never meet and deepen one’s relations with one’s best friends. Knowledge of all kinds, in short, is infinite. Thus, many people will choose indefinite life as a human good, even if it is, in a sense, a deeply unnatural one.

Reader Discussion

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on February 13, 2016 at 01:19:56 am

"...'tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished. To die; to sleep..."

Professor McGinnis makes many assumptions that may not be justified. He states "For instance, an indefinite life permits the steady accumulation of knowledge." Really? How do we know this? Is this compatible with what we know about neuronal plasticity, and processing of short term and long term memories? How many different types of dementia are there, and how many others will be discovered as life spans lengthen? Will the psychological factors that drive people to suicide now get stronger or weaker if there is no senescence? Neurons do not regenerate, and all sorts of things that damage or destroy them are likely to be encountered in an "indefinite" life (trauma, toxins, brain hemorrhages, strokes, West Nile virus, etc.) Do we let brain function decline with the number of neurons, or do we try to regenerate them with God-only-knows-what kinds of effects on memory, mood, personality, etc. What's to say that the tinkering necessary to get the brain past all of life's perils will result not in immortality of one person, but the creation of another? (The old question, "If you replace the handle of your favorite knife, and then the blade, is it the same knife?")

Here is a sobering finding: military veterans with a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder are 1.9 times as likely to develop dementia as those without PTSD. What will be the effects of a super lifetime of stresses? Not to mention the fact that technology is unlikely to develop to the point that it can provide immortality in the setting of immolation, penetrating head trauma, anoxia, cyanide or carbon monoxide poisoning, carelessly packed parachute, drowning, etc.

Perhaps Professor McGinnis is right, and immortality will be wonderful. Or he is wrong and, even if possible, will be a nightmare of neuroses, psychoses, novel disease and spiritual exhaustion. Maybe death has. and always has had, a purpose and finding that out the hard way might be quite unpleasant.

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on February 13, 2016 at 11:37:30 am

Yep! I think Johnathan Swift addressed this "hope" centuries ago. The result was a blabbering blob of humanity that would, however, live forever. Unfortunately, even though I am not going to live forever, it appears that my long term memory is already misfiring - I forgot the name of these Swiftian *immortals.*

Then again, it could mean that your "lifetime enemy" will be around to plague you for all eternity. Imagine how much fun that will be!

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on February 13, 2016 at 12:59:50 pm

I am reminded of a story about a scientist and God.

Scientist: Hey God. We don't need you anymore, you know. See how far we have come.
God: Yes, human, and how is that?
Scientist: Do you want to see something cool? We, too, can raise life from dirt.
And the scientist proceeds to do just that - exclaiming as he does so. "Well, god, I told you - we don't need you anymore."
God (gazing upon the scientist with a bemused smile) says: "Well, human, do YOU want to see something REALLY COOL, I mean, really cool"?

Scientist: sure, God, but what could top what I just did?

God snaps his fingers and in a flash, the scientist finds himself looking down from the vacuum of space; everything around him has disappeared and in the instant before his blood boils away and the last vestige of consciousness remains, he hears the booming voice of God asking: "Now, human, let's see you do that with your own DAMN dirt!!

Perhaps, the moral of the story is to know, and never exceed, your nature.

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on February 13, 2016 at 17:05:04 pm

Professor McGinnis, I appreciate your thoughts and would like to share a different view.

Albert Einstein, I understand from his writings, never overcame the duality science v religion, even though it is said he claimed he was not a theist. But science is only a study, and its products are understanding and technology. The object of the science study is physics--energy, mass and space-time--from which everything including conservatism emerges. There is a distinct difference in psuedo-science, which sets about to prove a hypothesis no matter how many opposing-evidences may be discovered.

Physics emerged 13.8 billion years ago--from what, humankind does not know. The god theory has not been disproved, but many god constructs are known to be false. Life on earth emerged 3.8 billion years ago, apparently from metaphorical dust. Humankind knows nothing of life elsewhere in this universe or in another universe.

Last week, Einstein's general theory of reactivity may have gotten the boost from theory to law, through the study of physics. Humankind constantly makes great strides in technology, yet remains mired in obsolete thinking about civic morality: personal liberty with civic well-being.

The enigma of the dysfunction is that the conservative mind is most amenable to responsibly managing the frontiers of civic morality, but fears its death too much to let go of obsolete ideas. This does not at all imply the god hypothesis is dead, but merely that humankind has not, so far, developed the understanding to know the god. Humankind could lessen misery and loss by by tending to civic morality with most persons pursuing no-harm personal inspiration and motivation privately.

I know these are unusual concepts, but unusual might not make ideas unattractive to civic minds. A citizen makes a well-grounded statement and another citizen responds with well-grounded, different view point and together they may have created a new idea neither could have had before the collaboration. Perhaps a new, less dysfunctional future emerges from the idea so created.

After an unexpected dance (my wife had said "No" all night), perhaps eight days after heart surgery, I prayed, perhaps still influenced by medication, "If you are ready, take me now. . . .but my wife and children need me." Twenty three years and two major surgeries later, my tentative plan is to live well another 48 years. It drives me to exercise and eat and drink sensibly.

However, there are people who have enjoyed so much success they are ready for death, for example, William Buckley, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZK67jeBJRm0 .

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Phil Beaver

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