The future of death: cryonics and the telos of liberal individualism

Journal of Evolution and Technology 6 (1) (2001)
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This paper addresses five questions: First, what is trajectory of Western liberal ethics and politics in defining life, rights and citizenship? Second, how will neuro-remediation and other technologies change the definition of death for the brain injured and the cryonically suspended? Third, will people always have to be dead to be cryonically suspended? Fourth, how will changing technologies and definitions of identity affect the status of people revived from brain injury and cryonic suspension? I propose that Western liberal thought is working towards a natural end, a “telos.” In response to a variety of biotechnologies, law and public opinion in liberal democracies will be forced to make explicit that the rights of a living thing are determined by its level of consciousness. I discuss the way that technology will force three clarifications about the value of consciousness, at the beginning, the end and boundaries of human life. Sentience and personhood will become the basis of moral concern, regardless of its media. Just as human rights have become independent of race, gender and property, rights will become independent of being a breathing human being. But even as we make this transition, the cryonically preserved are still likely to be considered dead for pragmatic reasons, albeit with gradually increasing rights as technology makes their reanimation increasingly probable. I suggest that it could be acceptable to cryonicists that the frozen continue to be defined as dead if assisted suicide can be legalized. Under a liberal assisted suicide policy cryonicists might be allowed to carry out suspension before a declaration of death, preserving the maximum amount of neural information. The gradual redefinition of life and personal identity in terms of psychological continuity will also have consequences for the legal status of the reanimated. If, due to information loss, the reanimated do not meet a threshold of psychological continuity, they may be considered new persons. Cryonicists may therefore wish to specify ahead of time whether they are still interested in being reanimated if pre-animation assessment suggests that the result will not meet the necessary threshold of continuity. Finally, I touch on the way that neural technology will fundamentally problematize the separate, autonomous self on which liberal democratic values are based, leading to a legal and political Singularity. It is this looming neural Singularity that makes the proposed liberal democratic telos a final stage in humanistic thought, before it is superceded by something radically different.

Author's Profile

James J. Hughes
University of Massachusetts, Boston


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