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.