Ezekiel Emanuel's misguided and misinformed article in the current issue of The Atlantic, "Why I Hope to Die at 75," has been met with a wildfire of criticism. To my way of thinking, the rejection is appropriate and worthy. Two central questions arise: How long can we live? and How long should we live?
To me this issue is déjà vu. I was asked a few years ago to participate in a print debate with Dan Callahan who was then president of the Hastings on Hudson Institute on Bioethics. Dan and I were friends. I respected him greatly. I ran with him on the Princeton campus. But he carried the perspective that us old folks should get out of the way of the younger segments and give them room. I disagreed. His arguments were largely financial. Does aging represent an asset or a deficit?
To this premise I invoke Socrates's axiom The unexamined life is not worth living." Our current up close examination of life indicates that our biologically determined lifespan is 100 years. Madame Calment of Arles France still holds the outlier record of 122 as our oldest relative, but 100 is increasingly endorsed as our median life span. The current issue of Nature contains an article that asserts this reality.
Centenarians are our most rapidly expanding age cohort. To deny this reality of the human potential is an assault on Mother Nature. The answer to the above first question is 100 years. Decreeing 75 to be our terminus is not a sturdy fact. It would represent statutory senility, much as 65 as current retirement age is an acknowledged anachronism.
To seek a response to the second question, should we? I invoke the concept of unlived life as an abortion. Early in life we propose this word to signify that life which is not fully lived. Abortion, this word offends every one, but the premise of unlived life at the tether end is morally equivalent to earlier loss. We should live our whole life, not just a part. William James observed, "We live lives inferior to ourselves."
We universally proclaim our right to life, but is it not true that rights derive from responsibility? Ben Franklin pointed out that a newborn cannot be held responsible because he or she has not yet lived long enough. Responsibility is dependent on knowledge. Now we have lived long enough to know how long we can live. Should we? To proclaim that we should not live our potential is not only irresponsible but it is immoral.
At 84, I am 10 years beyond Zeke's deadline, his drop-dead notice that I should have moved on. As I look closely at my own life, I have done much more good work in the last decade than ever before in my life.
Our present constituency of persons in their eighth, ninth and tenth decades makes immense contributions. I look about me and my emeritus faculty friends here at Stanford and the same issues present. Aging is in many ways a self fulfilling prophecy. We get what we set. To be derelict by fore-shortening our human potential is irresponsible and ill-informed.
This is not saying at all that I embrace the immortalists' claim to endless summers. Life has a finitude, decreed by the second law of thermodynamics. If we do it right, 100 healthy years is enough.
Now for the first time, we are informed that our life contains 100 years that can be, should be, worthy and productive and valued as a precious natural resource. Human potential should not be negated by casual and ill considered essays such as Zeke's. So I reject Zeke's sentiments categorically. I hope that the coming decades will allow Zeke to mature and gain some perspective that is not apparent in this current article.