On the morality of not working on life extension

Reporting (rather dismissively) from the Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights conference, William Saletan writes:
De Grey, the guy with the beard, called for higher taxes and research funding to "end the slaughter" of human aging. He argued, incoherently, that our failure to do everything possible to stop aging this instant was tantamount to mass murder.

Maybe Saletan is saying that De Grey's argument is presented incoherently, but I suspect he's saying that the whole argument is incoherent, which I'm not sure I agree with. The basic argument here, that failure to do something that would prevent people suffering or death is morally equivalent to causing that suffering or death, though not particularly widely respected, has a respectable pedigree. Indeed, if you replace aging with world poverty in Saletan's statement above, you get pretty close to Peter Singer's famous argument about famine relief.

Saletan doesn't deign to argue against De Grey, he just calls him incoherent, but it seems to me that there are three basic arguments against what Saletan reports Grey to be saying:

  • We shouldn't do "everything possible" to cure aging because their are other important goals. I strongly suspect that De Grey would agree with this, at least as far as health goes, since dying of cancer isn't any better than dying of old age.
  • The whole concept of "curing" old age is silly. It's of course possible that life extension won't work, but it's also possible that it will. It's certainly not inconceivable that it will, and so it seems to me that as far as the relief of suffering and death goes, working on life extension has roughly the same status as working on cancer or HIV.
  • The usual action/inaction distinction; not working to cure something isn't the same as working to cause it. This is a perfectly reasonable philosophical perspective, of course, but I wonder if Saletan would be so glibly dismissive if the topic was whether we should fund AIDS research.

I certainly wouldn't put the point anywhere as strongly as Saletan suggests De Grey did, but I don't think that De Grey's position is incoherent either. Certainly, if life extension can be made to work, it seems like there are pretty strong moral arguments to be made for investing in it, just as there are strong moral arguments for investing in curing any other life threatening medical condition.