It’s hard to begrudge anyone who wants to live longer. Death is an unknown—the ultimate frontier—and therefore scary for many people. Medicine is aimed at improving and extending healthy lives, so what could be the problem with cryonics, which wants the exact same thing?
Cryonics is the effort to freeze terminal patients, or only their severed heads, in hopes of a future ability to resurrect and cure them. The first body to be cryogenically preserved for this reason was in 1967, frozen (and grotesquely mismanaged) by a former TV repairman with no scientific or medical background. Since then, the field of cryonics has been viewed as quackery by the mainstream.
But that was then, and this is now. The science of cryonics has evolved much in the last half century, and together with visions of nanomedicine, immortality research, mind-uploading, AI discoveries, and other technological advances, cryonics doesn’t seem as implausible as it used to. So, let’s take a new look at some of the ethical issues arising from it.
Arguments for cryonics
The most familiar arguments, both for and against cryonics, are poetic and theoretical. For instance, some view cryonics as the tip of the spear in the fight against death’s tyranny. For them, cheating death is a matter of justice. If autonomy is the high priority as we believe it is, and terminal patients (understandably) wish to live longer, then it seems wrong to deny anyone their last request to save their own lives—or at least to try.
A related argument is that death is a useless disease that ought to be cured. Not only do we pursue cures for other diseases today, we also bring back the dead with medical interventions already, such as with defibrillators and CPR for heart-attack patients. So, cryonics is just a logical extension of medicine: it’s not as creepy as it might first sound. And the more we know about human and animal biology, the less clear it is when something is truly and irreversibly dead. As we know from pop culture, “mostly dead is slightly alive.”
And another argument comes from moral theory. If maximizing happiness is an ethical imperative, as utilitarianism asserts, then more living people could translate into more happiness in the world. Not only would there be more time for the patient to experience or create more happiness, but that patient’s family and friends would perhaps grieve less, believing their loved one will not be gone forever.
Arguments against cryonics
Meanwhile, others argued that death is a natural and necessary part of the circle of life. Ecologically, keeping people around long past their “natural lives” may upset an already fragile balance, potentially exacerbating overpopulation, resource consumption, waste, and so on.
This is to suggest that cryonics isn’t just a difference in degree from, say, saving heart-attack victims, but it becomes a difference in kind. It’s not an incremental improvement, as medicine makes in slowly raising average lifespans, but it’s potentially a radical disruption with major systemic effects.
Culturally, Joseph Weizenbaum— who was a MIT computer science professor and creator of ELIZA—wrote, “Our death is the last service we can provide to the world: Would we not go out of the way, the following generations would not need to re-create human culture. Culture would become fixed, unchangeable and die. And with the death of culture, humanity would also perish.”
Beyond external effects, the desire for more life may express bad character. Wanting more than one’s fair share—of life or anything else—seems egotistical and expresses ingratitude for what we already have. If not for death, we might not appreciate our time on earth. We appreciate many things, such as beauty and flowers, not despite their impermanence but because of it.
Some see it as desperate and futile to “rage against the dying of the light”, and that death is better met with grace and acceptance. Inevitably, there’s nothing else we can do. We can’t control how we enter this world, but we can (sometimes) control how we leave it, if autonomy and dignityare still important.
Of course, we can’t expect all people to face death with grace, since all of history suggests otherwise. Is a fear of death irrational; does it make people susceptible to wishful thinking or even outright scams? Is faith in cryonics irrational? If so, there’s concern that cryonics—which can cost around $30,000 to $200,000—may be a siren’s call that exploit “customers” who are psychologically and emotionally vulnerable, who are terrified of death and thirst for more life, consequences be damned.
Even if those customers are not being exploited but freely enter into the arrangement with a sound mind, given the large expense, there’s a worry that only wealthier people can afford to time-travel via cryonics, just as they can better afford to travel the planet today. If they brought their wealth with them into the future, that may create instant inequalities and even diversity issues. If they were influential people of power, well, that’s why term limits in politics are generally a good thing.
Critics would also question the logic of consequentialism, whether more happiness is even the right goal. Sometimes, more is just more, not necessarily better. (See, Derek Parfit’s “repugnant conclusion” for this point.) If a better life is the goal as opposed to longer life, there are things we can do right now to improve our situation but usually don’t, such as meditation and helping others. Anyway, if life doesn’t hold much meaning for you now, how will living in the future help you with that?
And there are other arguments against cryonics, including those based on the “yuck factor” and religious reasons, for whatever they’re worth.
Practical issues in waking the dead
The debate tends to get stuck in the theoretical fight above, since it’s hard to shake people from their worldviews. But let’s suppose cryonics is scientifically possible and will happen anyway. What are the practical challenges then?
It matters what timescale we’re talking about here. If a patient is frozen for only a few years before their resurrection, then that’s a much different scenario than the popular vision where patients “wake up” a hundred or even a thousand years in the future.
Imagine we had a cryogenically preserved body from the year 1919, just one hundred years ago. If we could bring this person back to life right now, would we? Maybe someone, somewhere in the globe would attempt it, just as someone has reportedly genetically modified babies, to the horror of just about every bioethicist alive.
But considering that this century-old body may be carrying diseases that the modern world might not be prepared for—such as the 1918 Spanish flu virus—it seems unlikely we would simply reanimate this person and let him/her freely roam the world like other people today. It’s even less likely, if the frozen body were hundreds of years older, possibly carrying medieval plagues.
Rather, we might very well view such people as medical and historical oddities that need to be quarantined in a lab, if not exhibited in a museum with the other mummies. Dead people don’t have rights and typically don’t regain them; our legal system would have a hard time adjusting to that possibility.
Consider also the issue of language. Today, older generations have a hard time communicating with younger generations, even though we nominally speak the same language. Even if language didn’t evolve historically as fast as it does now on social media, there would still be a very real communication barrier with once-frozen people from long ago.
We could perhaps figure out the meaning of a news article from 100 years ago, or maybe even the Declaration of Independence from about 250 years ago in America. But Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales written in Middle English from 600 years ago, or Beowulf in Old English from 1,000 years ago? Forget about it. Even most linguistics and literature scholars today couldn’t translate them.
Thus, releasing a centuries-old, previously frozen person into the wilderness of modern life would seem cruel, even if we wanted to grant them freedom. Besides basic communication, we’d have to wonder whether they could ever be integrated with society, from navigating street traffic to phishing attacks to the job market. This also assumes they can overcome whatever cultural biases they carry from the past, such as intense racism; biases are notoriously hard to dislodge.
Again, if the cryonics customer were awakened within a decade or two, then perhaps many of the above concerns apply to a lesser degree. But they would still be at the mercy of future people who may or may not want to open that biological time-capsule (or bomb) from history, for these reasons and others. Even if a cryonics company would honor a decades-old or centuries-old agreement, political society of the future might forbid the resurrection.
Nothing here is guaranteed, including cryonics’ science or its failure. Still, even if cryonics is ultimately not workable or too far out of reach to help people today, medical insights could be gleaned from the exercise. Even cryogenically preserving a gravely injured patient for one or more days could mean the difference between life and death, just as performing CPR does today; time matters in the race to save a life. Long-distance space missions could be one giant step closer to reality, if cryonics could help figure out hypersleep travel.
If customers (who are terminal and of sound mind) don’t mind funding the experiment in deep freeze, there doesn’t seem to be any immediate harm in trying. The desire for more life may be unquenchable anyway, as it seems to be as old as death itself.
But if cryonics works, then society—including law and ethics—will radically change, and there’s no harm in thinking about that in advance either, including the larger debate on human enhancement technologies. Just the opposite, scientific breakthroughs can be sudden, and we’ll need to be immediately ready to manage those disruptions. We’re not ready now.