Is death an option?

Transhumanists argue that technology can make accidental death obsolete. They further argue that:

If some people would still choose death, that’s a choice that is of course to be regretted, but nevertheless this choice must be respected. The transhumanist position on the ethics of death is crystal clear: death should be voluntary. This means that everybody should be free to extend their lives and to arrange for cryonic suspension of their deanimated bodies. It also means that voluntary euthanasia, under conditions of informed consent, is a basic human right.

This position is hugely problematic.

  • As persuasive technologies improve
    and as we learn more about our cognitive biases, we are discovering how weak the concept of “informed consent” really is.

  • Worse, they are now requiring the creation of a system to adjudicate whether informed consent was really given or not on a per-individual basis. Right now, the procedural costs of executing someone who has received the Death Penalty exceed the costs of a life in prison. Who would pay those costs for someone to execute themselves?
  • Worse still, any system adjudicating informed consent is guaranteed to make mistakes. It will have to balance the risk of some people being “unfairly” kept alive with the risk of murder. To me, the presumption should be against murder. Such a presumption would imply simply banning suicide.
  • More subtly, if the decision to extend life or not is also the outcome of informed consent, do we now have to subject the use of any life-extension technology to the “informed consent” bureacracy? How do we know that someone isn’t being unfairly pressured into being kept-alive?

The Transhumanists need to acknowledge that the creation of these technologies effectively will impose longer lives on people whether they like it or not?


4 Responses to Is death an option?

  1. Ramez Naam says:

    Persuasive technologies are becoming more powerful, yes, but people are also becoming more adept at resisting them.

    Personally, I find the notions of self-determination and informed consent to be as relevant today as ever.

    An interesting look at self-determination in the context of transhuman technologies is John C. Wright’s _Golden Age_ and its sequels. While the books are fiction, they do a rather good job fleshing out a world in which individuals have extreme freedom to alter their own minds and bodies. As one would expect, when given this freedom some individuals make very very bad decidions. That’s a natural consequence of empowering individuals. The question isn’t whether some individuals will choose poorly – it’s whether on the whole society is better off with individuals making their own decisions about their minds and bodies, or with states or other central organizations wielding that power.

  2. No, the question is how much allowing suicide makes it easier to commit murder and how much we care.

    More generally, I feel like much argument for additional individual rights ignores the infrastructure requirements for maintaining a system that includes those rights and therefore the implicit tradeoff in infrastructure cost between those rights and other rights infringed to support the system.

    e.g. if a particular freedom makes crime more likely (e.g. drug addiction causing crime/accidents/etc), is it worth thte cost?

  3. Break it down for a hillbilly, would you? If the argument’s about suicide/murder, well, yes, obviously allowing “informed consent” suicides will increase the number of murders. As a society, then, I think what you have to weigh is the loss of a few murdered people (because you have to admit I think the number of people who are actually murdered in this way are pretty slim) versus the continued burden of a much larger number of people who just don’t really want to be here. Maybe our “persuasive technologies” are better spent getting people to opt out of life…

  4. The “number of people who are actually murdered in this way” will be pretty slim as long as society spends sufficient resources to determine correctly whether there was in fact “informed consent” sufficiently often to deter this sort of murder.

    So we have the tradeoff of:
    * keeping a much larger number of people who just don’t really want to be here

    * increasing amounts of both “uninformed consent” or “informed non-consent” AKA murder.

    * paying the expense of verifying “informed consent”

    Reasonable people may differ, but I don’t want my taxes to subsidize suicide. OTOH, see


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