Episode 131 – “A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain”

Among the most fundamental features of being human is that we are living things, and like all living things, we age and ultimately we die.  It may seem odd, but there are many philosophers who have denied or downplayed this fundamental feature of our existence, from the ancient philosophers to the modern. They hold that a person has a soul, which is distinct from the body it temporarily inhabits, and that the soul, once created by God, is immortal, and thus will survive the death of the body. While the body ages and dies, the soul does not.

Not all philosophers hold this view, but even those who believe that our minds or souls are distinct from our bodies, still have to come to grips with the fact that while we occupy this veil of tears and are closely related to our bodies, persons, however related to or united with their bodies, do age, and thus they have to come to grips with the effects of aging.  Not only does aging affect how fast we can run and how long we can dance, but perhaps more importantly, how we are viewed by others.

It is not surprising, then, that we have been obsessed with finding the fountain of youth, that is, with the question of whether the aging process can be slowed, halted or reversed.  Certainly this is a legitimate question in biology and related fields, as aging,  whether at the level of the organism, or at the cellular level, is a natural process that is subject to empirical investigation.

“A Short Drink from a Certain Fountain” takes us to a possible world in which scientific progress on aging has advanced to the point where a drug therapy exists that shows some promise of influencing the aging process in animals, including humans, though it is “at least twenty years” away from being ready for clinical trials on humans.

Harmon Gordon has a young wife who has tired of him. The difference in their age is, he thinks, responsible for her loss of interest in him. Harmon’s brother, Raymond, is a physician who has developed the age-reversing drug, and he implores his brother to inject him with it. Although Raymond resists, he ultimately injects Harmon. Harmon’s aging process is reversed, but there are unintended consequences.

Harmon’s request raises several difficulties for Raymond, who is related to Harmon in several different and potentially conflicting ways. First, Raymond is the brother of Harmon. Second, Raymond is the physician of Harmon. And third, Raymond is a scientist performing experiments that could potentially benefit the aging population, of which Harmon is a member.

As Harmon’s brother, Raymond’s assessment of Harmon’s needs is influenced by his family relationship, and his detailed knowledge of Harmon’s personal life and personal problems. Thus he caves in the Harmon’s request, against his own best judgment, for the anti-aging therapy when he would not have done so for any other patient. Further, as a scientist whose primary responsibility is to conduct research in a manner which is free from bias, following protocols such as the use of double-blind trials, where neither experimental subjects nor investigators know who has been given the therapy being tested and who has been administered a placebo, the decision to administer the untested drug to his brother violates many principles of the ethics of experimentation, not the least of which is administering a therapy to a human subject without approval by the appropriate governing bodies. Here the ethics of care, taking care of the needs of a patient, and a family member, collide with the ethics of clinical research.

The problem for which the age-reversal therapy is the intended solution, is the problem of aging, which is multi-dimensional, but here is manifested as the way advancing age distances one from others. Though we all age at the same rate in one sense, so that after a year, we’re each a year old,er in another sense the elderly age more quickly than the young, and after a year, an elderly person may seem to have aged far more than someone in their thirties, for example.  By choosing to marry a much younger person, Harmon has found himself swimming against a strong current, and in danger of drowning.

The tragedy here is that Harmon has misdiagnosed the problem. The difficulties in his relationship to Flora, his wife, isn’t due to a difference in age, but in the choice of a partner. Flora is mean, uncaring, and completely selfish, and it’s clear that she is probably unsuitable as a partner with any, whether close to her age or not. Even the most advantageous outcome of a drink from Raymond’s fountain of youth would not reverse Harmon’s unfortunate choice of a partner. Raymond attempts to point this out to his brother, and in doing so as a brother, comes closer to helping him than he does as a physician or scientific investigator.

This suggests that the problem of aging boils down to our changing relationships to others. As we age, our relationship to younger people changes. We become like parents, and then like grandparents, and if we live long enough, like great grandparents. But that may not comport with how we see ourselves. This is Harmon’s problem, but to a greater or lesser extent, it is everyone’s problem.

Samuel Scheffler pinpoints a problem with aging that results from the inevitable loss of our peers as we become older. Our friends and colleagues are a source of our own reasons for action. The decisions we make about what projects to engage in, what forms of recreation to participate in, what political and social issues to support, is shaped by the beliefs and interests of those to whom we are related by bonds of friendship and family. As Scheffler puts it, those peers cast a “normative shadow,” and as those peers die while we survive, that shadow becomes smaller and smaller.  To counteract this effect of aging requires building new close relationships, something that other aspects of aging make it increasingly difficult to do.

Further Readings:

Hellman, S., and D.S. Hellman, 1991. “Of mice but not men: Problems of the randomized clinical trial,” The New England Journal of Medicine, 324: 1585–89.

Scheffler, S., 2016. “Aging as a Normative Phenomenon” Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 505-522.

Temkin, L.S., 2008, “Is Living Longer Living Better?” Journal of Applied Philosophy, 25(3): 193–210. (Also cited in “Kick the Can”)

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