The Ethicist: Should I Become Immortal?

Dmitry Itskov (Source: Twitter)

Dmitry Itskov (Source: Twitter)

In the last two columns, I have been exploring Cartesian dualism and some of its consequences. This month, I want to consider an intriguing technological development that may emerge out of the marriage of Cartesian thinking and advances in computer technology. This is the claim made by some so-called “immortalists” that, within the next 30 years or so, we will have access to “immortality technology” which will allow us to upload our minds (or our “personalities”) into a computer or an android, where — barring some computer glitches or electrical failures–we will be able to live forever. One of these immortalists, Dmitry Itskov, has stated, “I am going to make sure that we can all live forever,” and he wants to ensure that this will happen within his own lifetime so that he, too, will become an immortal.

I am not sure whether or not this proposal is technically possible, but what interests me about it are the metaphysical and ethical questions it raises. I want to consider the metaphysical questions first, and then explore the ethical ones. Those readers who have read my previous two columns will be well aware that, once again, this idea demonstrates an unthinking acceptance of a kind of Cartesian dualism, of the idea that mind and body are radically distinct, and that who we most fundamentally are – our personality traits, emotions, desires – resides in the mind, not the body. Consequently, it would seem to follow that if we could somehow extract mind from brain and body and upload it into a computer or android, we would, indeed, attain a kind of immortality.

The question I want readers to think about, however, is a variation on the question I asked last month, namely, would you still be “you” if you had a different body? The answer to that question seemed unclear when we considered the possibility of attaching our heads to someone else’s body, but it seems even more difficult when we consider the idea of placing our minds into an entirely artificial body, or into a computer which might bear no physical resemblance to an actual human being. Would “you” still be “you” (and would “I’ still be “me”) if our minds were located in an android body that would, presumably, be unable to experience almost everything that follows from our physical embodiment, both good and bad: the pleasures of a full stomach or a good night’s rest, the pain of a stubbed toe or the fatigue that comes from shoveling snow or working out at the gym, the sensation of a hot shower or the feel of a cat’s fur?

Even were it possible (as, I presume, it very well might be) to program the android body in such a way that it produced an imitation of those sensations for our disembodied minds, there seems to be something fundamentally different about experiencing those sensations as a result of our actual physical embodiment and feeling an imitation of them as a result of a computer program. Consequently, if this possibility becomes reality, we can ask whether genuine immortality has been achieved, or whether what survives is not really “us” in some robust sense, but a pale imitation of the people we once were. Moreover, the metaphysical questions multiply when we consider the possibility that our brain patterns might be duplicated, in just the same way that computer programs can be copied from one computer to another – if my brain patterns were uploaded into two android bodies, or two computer hard drives, would there then be two versions of me? Which one would be the “real” one?


It is also interesting to think about the connection between our mortality – and our knowledge of our own mortality – and our humanity. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is offered immortality but turns it down because, for him, it is the knowledge that his life is finite that gives his projects and plans, his joys and sorrows, his accomplishments and his failures, meaning and significance.

For the immortal gods, in contrast, nothing really matters, and their lives unfold in a ceaseless attempt to stave off boredom and find new ways to entertain themselves. What, then, would be the purpose of living forever, if it becomes possible for us to do so? None of us is so important that it matters to humanity that we survive as particular individuals. And, for each of us, would the purpose of immortality be simply to increase the number of subjectively pleasurable experiences we have? For at least some of the immortalists, this is all that an endless lifespan seems to mean, and is enough to justify both the desire to live forever and the volume of resources that are being expended to make the possibility of immortality a reality. But is it really enough?

Source: 2045 Initiative

Source: 2045 Initiative

The ethical questions raised by this attempt to achieve immortality become even more acute when we consider the miserable lives that many of our fellow human beings live today. Itskov is reported to have spent a fortune on research designed to allow this form of survival to become a reality, and his primary motivation seems to be to ensure his own individual immortality. However, there is arguably something terribly arrogant about this desire: of course, all things being equal, none of us wants to die, but does any of us have the right to live forever? Is it even something that any of us should desire?

Moreover, is it ethically justifiable to spend millions trying to ensure that a few wealthy people will have the opportunity to upload their minds or personalities into an android body in a world in which those who have the resources to take advantage of this technology already enjoy a life expectancy that far exceeds that of many human beings living on this planet? People in most parts of the developed world now have a life expectancy of more than 80 years, while men living in the Central African Republic can expect to live 43 years, men living in Lesotho for 44 years, and men in Burundi for 53 years? (For women in those countries, life expectancy is 49 years, 53 years, and 55 years, respectively).

In short, something has gone badly wrong, ethically speaking, when vast amounts of money are spent on research designed to indefinitely extend the lives of those who already can expect to live longer than many of their fellow human beings, whose lives could be extended to ages taken for granted in the developed world if they had access to the things that those of us living in the first world expect, such as clean drinking water, sufficient food, and adequate health care.



Rachel Haliburton


Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.




Click to enlarge.

Editor’s Note: As the eagle-eyed among you may have noted in Rachel Haliburton’s updated bio, she has recently published a book — one that expands upon and explores some of the topics she’s touched on here in the pages of the Spectator.

The Ethical Dectective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction was published in February by Lexington Books which describes it this way:

Detective fiction and philosophy — moral philosophy in particular — may seem like an odd combination. Working within the framework offered by neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, this book makes the case that moral philosophers ought to take murder mysteries seriously, seeing them as a source of ethical insight, and as a tool that can be used to spark the ethical imagination. Detective fiction is a literary genre that asks readers to consider questions of good and evil, justice and injustice, virtue and vice, and is, consequently, a profoundly and inescapably ethical genre. Moreover, in the figure of the detective, readers are presented with an accessible role model who demonstrates the virtues of honesty, courage, and a commitment to justice that are required by those who want to live well as a virtue ethicist would understand it. This book also offers a critique of contemporary moral philosophy, and considers what features a neo-Aristotelian conception of autonomy might display.

I’m tickled to announce its publication, particularly since I had the honor of doing the cover artwork. (Sometimes the Spectator gets tired of all the words and just wants to draw pictures.)

Congratulations Rachel, your success is no mystery!