February 24, 2024

New kid on the block: the bioethics of ageing

A process which is “even more fundamental and ubiquitous than procreation”

There is ever-multiplying number of sub-specialties in bioethics — procreative ethics, intergenerational ethics, neuroethics, robot ethics, animal ethics, environmental ethics and so on. But, despite constant doom-mongering in the media about greying populations, chatter about ageing ethics is subdued.

This might change if Christopher Simon Wareham, of the University of the Witwatersrand, has his way. In an online-first article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, he proposes “ageing ethics”, which is “arguably even more fundamental and ubiquitous than procreation”.

The great drawback of ageing ethics is that it will inevitably be viewed as negataive and depressing, “with a narrow focus on issues concerning healthcare costs, end-of-life decisions, and increasing decrepitude and dementia”. But Wareham points out that ageing is a life-long process and includes issues like mid-life crises.

He also makes an interesting distinction between “right ageing” and “good ageing”. 

Ethical dilemmas related to right ageing concern questions about our duties and rights as ageing persons. What ought the ageing person to do in response to ageing-related dilemmas? For instance, the theorist may ask whether it is sometimes morally obligatory for an older person to refuse a treatment so that a younger person may have it. As a further example, ethicists of ageing may address the question of whether forced retirement violates societies’ obligations towards ageing persons.9

Rather than focusing on rights and duties qua ageing persons, ethical questions related to good ageing focus on well-being. How can we age well or meaningfully? For instance, the theorist may ask which ethical theories allow us to cope best with our status as ageing beings. Which values, goods and harms are most relevant to the ageing person, and which virtues are most relevant to flourishing as one ages? 

The definition of ageing matters as well. Transhumanist writers and their allies amongst bioethicists tend to regard ageing as a disease which need to be cured. Others, like Leon Kass, former head of the US bioethics commission under President George W. Bush, believe that ageing is a valuable part of human flourishing. 

Creative commons