In an interview with London Real, and elsewhere, Aubrey de Grey has stated that “aging is the world’s most important problem, in this very obvious sense that it causes the most suffering.” (Brian Rose, who is himself in the throes of aging, can’t help but emphatically agree with Grey’s incredibly tenuous statements.) There are a couple of implicit statements in here that I take issue with. For one thing, it is impossible to definitively state that the suffering related to aging and death is greater than the suffering associated with distinct and different categories of human experience. Generally, being a low ranking human, which is more commonly conceptualized as “inequality,” causes a comparably tremendous amount of suffering. Kids are traumatized by their peers, and adults work awful jobs from which they are barely able to survive. Either way, this line of thinking is moot because suffering cannot be directly quantified.
Grey’s argument implies that suffering is a quantifiable, that one unit of suffering is equal to one unit of anoher type of suffering. Given these tenets, age related suffering is more important simply because there is more of it. Assuming that suffering is quantifiable, and that it is in fact greater in the aggregate from aging than anything else, is there anyway in which suffering could be weighted differently, such that early life suffering would be more important despite being lesser?
To answer this question, suffering could be conceptualized similar to money, as a thing that has a present value, and a sort of discounted future value. Going one step further and utilizing an interest model, early age suffering can be quantifiably greater in the long term because of compounding interest. This may seem incredulously abstract, but it is practically true. Consider the fact that psychological trauma during childhood disposes one to suffer throughout life. The cost of those experiences recur though memories, and through sub-consciously determined patterns of behavior, which emerge as opportunity costs to greater fulfillment from life. An example would be a person who subconsciously thinks that they don’t deserve anything good and sabotages their endeavors.
From a macro perspective, there is a potentially ethical issue that arises from diverting resources away from early life suffering to late life suffering. Assuming a zero sum sort of reality, is it wrong that one dollar going to age mitigation research, is a dollar that isn’t going towards keeping kids free of trauma, given that dollar has the same marginal impact on suffering?
On a separate topic, there is the issue of the environment. Given that the there is environmental catastrophe from the human consumption of resources, which goes beyond the usage of fossil fuels, there is a strong probability that the effects on the environment will cause tremendous suffering for humans, above and beyond age related suffering. This framework suggests that age related suffering is not the most important issue, even in terms of suffering.
Assuming that the environment will be okay (maybe degrading linearly rather than catastrophically,) at least enough for the relatively wealthy to avoid harm, yet mass extinction is going on. What are you left with? Implicitly, there is the statement that human experience is paramount to the objective physical world, and non-human experience. I get that you can’t definitively state that the environment is intrinsically valuable outside of what is necessary for human survival. Still, it seems intuitively shitty that one would think of old people dying as more important than ecological collapse.
From a less extreme, and more practical perspective, one could say that the most important beneficial endeavor for humans is increasing health for all individuals. Which would decrease suffering across all ages. Anti-aging research is interesting and worthwhile, but it’s not even close to being the most important issue facing humanity. It may be the most important issue to a wealthy individual with the ability to insulate ones self from socio-environmental catastrophe. However, it is almost tautologically not the most important issue facing the average human.