The Ethics of Cryonic Suspension
This short essay addresses the issues concerning the pros and cons regarding freezing the best and brightest the world has when they have died. It supports the suspension of whoever chooses this route in hopes of being revived many decades hence. We begin by looking at reasons that support suspension, then a few of the leading rationales in opposition. A brief summary concludes this paper. By presenting the best thoughts in favor of potentially saving the some of the most worthy people, I hope to persuade people that cryonic suspension is in the best interests the global civilization.
Supporting the Future
Thomas Jefferson's words resonate powerfully: the notion that "all men are created equal" sounds a note of truth within each of us. The intractable truth of this brilliant phrase is that, indeed, we are all born into the world an innate equality conferred upon us simply due to our person-hood, due to the fact of our existence. No one needs further documentation to prove his inalienable right to life, liberty, fraternity, and the right to pursue every goodness and benefit that exists in this world. This is accepted reality of all ethical societies.
At the same time, we realize that Jefferson's words were political; they may be more or less true and self-evident, but they were and remain rhetorical. There is nothing whatever wrong with this fact. But let's look at Jefferson's thinking dispassionately and see how far it goes if we extend the reach of this idea.
Few in our Western democracies would argue that any person is created with unequal legal and moral rights. Everyone is born with equal legal protections: the right to be cared for, nurtured, to be treated humanely, medically, ethically. This is as it must be. When we examine the complexities of the real world and lives more closely, we become aware of the differences from individual to individual.
Most humans beings who survive their initial several days or weeks of life and who survive childhood and adolescence will presumably eventually achieve some degree of independence and worth as adults. Although our individual inequalities are usually evident from early childhood, in many cases it isn't until we are grown that the differences become most prominent. Some of us have exceptional athletic prowess; other harbor the spark of intellectual brilliance. While most of us are statistically "average" I think we need to concentrate on those who excel morally and intellectually -- and perhaps physically as well -- and evaluate their growth and accomplishments.
The numbers of those who contribute most to the well-being of humankind are relatively small. This number will increase as bio-technology gives us the ability to sharply increase our brain power thru genetic means and other, non-genetic therapies. For the time being we are only looking at the upper few percent of the population--at most five or ten percent who greatly benefit the rest of humankind thru their creative talents, whatever their nature.
The question that this essay asks is whether it is ethically correct -- permissible -- to allow these creative people to be "saved" by cryonically suspending them upon their deaths so that they have the possibility to be "brought back from the dead" at some future date. Of course, with the certainty of future medical miracles, these people would not only have their lives restored, but their health and youth as well.
From what limited data I have been able to collect over the past couple decades, most people--at least 99%--say, no. Most people say they are content to live and die now, in this era, in this environment, with the friends and family they have now. This is all perfectly fine and well: the people I have asked have all contributed far beyond what most have, and if they are willing to let go with that, it seems a perfectly rational decision.
What about the remaining fraction of a percent, usually super- achievers, who have given some thought to living on a "second time around"? Back-of-the-envelope calculations tell me that there are between 7,000 to 12, 000 people ages 45 and older in the West who, upon the deaths, want to be frozen. Virtually all are well educated; after some months or years of having their skills being brought up to date after they are unfrozen and rejuvenated, they would be able to resume their contributions.
The View from the Other Corner
People who believe it is a moral wrong to "save" these people might argue that it makes no sense to add even a single person to the growing population explosion, much less 10,000. That we should redirect all efforts to save the elderly or extend their lives and rather aiming to resurrecting the dead, put these efforts toward rescuing countless millions in the grossly underdeveloped societies. These people may argue that for the time effort, and expense of saving [or cryonically suspending] just one old person --- or worse, for bringing this frozen elder person back to life and curing what originally killed him and moreover, spending the dollars and months to make him young again --- in short, rather than going thru all these contortions, countless thousands of lives could be saved (or improved) in, for example, sub-Saharan Africa.
Another point the opponents make regarding cryonic suspension involves who is chosen and who is left behind. It may be a fine thing to have the brainiest and most philanthropic frozen and brought back, but what if someone closer to the average person wants to do this? Say, an average Joe who is looking to contribute to the future: will be be acceptable to what seems to be an elite club? Or will he be looked down upon or given less-than-optimal treatment?
We must take a serious look into the deeper issues of suicide among the mentally unstable. Since, in effect, cryonics seems to offer the promise of some wonderful fantasy life in the future, supposedly, wouldn't this concept encourage people to kill themselves and avoid their responsibilities (and suffering) in the present? Suicides might happen at the hospital emergency room rather than at home or elsewhere so that brains would stand better odds of being chilled and the suicides be carried off to the facility where they would be kept chilled until the rest of the cryonics suspension and storage could take place. Anything that encourages suicide is morally forbidden.
A final argument may carry the most weight. As yet, the idea of bringing a frozen corpse back to life is a sheer fantasy. The whole thing may turn out to be totally impossible, or at least entirely impractical since it may turn out to be prohibitively expensive to re-animate a corpse. It might turn out to cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars each. So in the end, there would be several hundred to several thousand "corpsicles" somewhere. In the end, this "grand experiment" would amount to nothing but a waste of time and money.
Responding to the Other Corner
I would reply to the opposing views just above by stating the obvious (at least as I see it), that reviving 10,000 people out of 9 or more billions on this planet is an insignificant change, of about one one-hundred-thousandth of one percent as to lack meaning. Especially considering the great promise these 10,000 or so would bring to the future. As for what kinds of people would be "permitted" or encouraged to be suspended, the short answer is, anyone and everyone who can afford it. In the reality of inflation, $30-$35,000 is entirely reasonable. The average person of today--physically or intellectually average, or "average" in any way--who has the non-average desire to contribute in a future society would certainly be given equal treatment to an imaginary elite. The truth is, we are all average and below average in some ways; equivalently, above average in other ways. Any deficits will be remedied with future technology.
The matter of suicide as a shortcut to some future fantasy paradise strikes off the mark. I believe that a much smaller number of people who are interested in cryonic suspension have committed suicide than those in the general population. People interested in being suspended and re-animated many years from now almost invariably enjoy life. Cryonicists have life-affirming personalities, in contrast to those who either fear life and death or long for death. Let's look at the issue of suicide from a different angle. Given the hope and promise of living a future here, in this reality, rather than what, if anything, follows death, should reduce thoughts of suicide. Hope is life-affirming and essential.
As for whether or not future technologies actually will be able to bring back the people from storage at an extremely low temperature, no one knows. I wouldn't bet against it; I think that given the extremely fast (and increasing exponentially) growth in every facet of science that there will definitely be a way of achieving revival. Curing whatever killed the patients and rejuvenating them will be straightforward and efficient. Same with the weeks of therapy and bringing people up to date with what years they have missed.
Isn't it better to attempt this "grand experiment" that is both plausible and believable in the belief that it can be achieved? If our ancient ancestors were not willing to take risks some 30 or 40 thousand years ago, we would probably still be living in caves.
Within the 21st Century, I believe that bio-technology will be able to stop aging and reverse it; that people will live almost all of their very long lifetimes as healthy, happy, and productive world citizens. Until that day comes, until everyone who wants to can live until they feel that they have lived enough, cryonic suspension offers the promise of saving the best of humankind for an even better future.
All cryonicists are concerned with the well-being of future generations. Given that, those who are willing and ready to be frozen will act with the highest ethic both now and when they are re-animated.
Future technology will not solve all of society's ills, of course, but in time technology will give the entire global population the opportunity to live decent and fulfilling lives--lives that include full employment and unlimited access to education. Imagine what physical and emotional health, fulfilling work, and endless possibilities at a person's fingertips can do. Then you begin to see the hope that I see.
Here are some links for further information about cryonic suspension following one's death.
Cryonics Institute Alcor Life Extension