One of the biggest selling point of religion is (in particular in monotheistic, Abrahamic ones) the implied threat of being judged. In these mythological systems there is a sense of right and wrong, good and evil and hence sin. Sinners are punished, often in quite horrendous and everlasting sentences. This particular idea proved quite infectious. Catholics used this (as an example) by terrifying the young with gruesome tales of everlasting doom for even the most superficial of transgressions, and the young seem to be particularly impressionable, but that works both ways.
In the post-religious humanist era we are slowly evolving in to (at least in some countries) there is no longer the implied terror of everlasting hell, but that brings with it its own problems. Even though it can be assumed an atheist to be at least as capable as any particular flavor of ‘godist’ to adhere to moral or ethical guidelines, there are some arguments to say that some people might be inclined towards amoral behavior because it is now so widely believed that death means simply an absolute end to existence. There is no longer anything after death, and hence those who die can not be held accountable for whatever wrongs perpetrated in life. Even the most horrific murderer can go unpunished, as long as he gets away with it in life.
We are now graduating to a world where life extension has been, at some levels, attained. Between 1900 and 2010 life expectancy doubled, for a host of reasons. As we look at the following graph…
we see a very acute spike just starting in a particular period in history when technologies were developed that increased the average lifespan in “developed” nations to a current best (germany) of 80+ years. Even better, society at large could now afford these life extension benefits, a thing which would have seemed unacceptable, counter-intuitive and unthinkable just a century earlier. The funny thing is that the graph has gone 45 degrees up for a century, which may suggest this trend will continue despite the vehement denial of insurance companies, statisticians, governments, geriatric scientists and (mostly) people of faith. If the trend were true then a century from now people would be living 200 years, which contradictions with the most fundamental problems in aging. Currently the absolute human age is about 120, due to the mechanisms involved in aging. We don’t have treatments for these most fundamental deteriorative processes.
That isn’t to say we won’t have treatments. Many are now convinced we will have treatments and we will also be able to afford them, contingent on continued world-wide economic stability. We have no way of guessing how fast these benefits will accrue, but listening to experts in the narrow field of biogerontology we can conclude there are arguments that some people alive today will live well beyond 150 years of age.
This raises an interesting specter. Right now there are almost certainly a category of human beings that have very limited interest in some distant future (say, a century hence) because it doesn’t pertain to them. Many people might have an interest for vaguely aesthetic reasons to see a desirable future, or they might have a personal state for reasons of offspring or nationalism. But equally so there are a lot of people who don’t give a damn how the world will be in 100 years, and by and large this is because they will be dead by then. To a lesser degree we are all guilty to this form of cynicism – most people now have access to the public debate, scientific arguments and general common sense to conclude that (just as an example) the world’s current functioning and reasonable extrapolations forward of this functioning is damaging to the future standard of living of humans, if not the actual long term actual survivability of the planet. With the most severe models of climate change there could literally a mass extinctions of all life on the planet, and that would very well indeed include humans. This implies that certain actions today, or to refrain from taking certain actions today (or maybe even enabling others to take actions today) can be implicitly immoral or unethical, as measured by some pervasive future understanding.
This “wir haben es nicht gewusst” denouncement may be of very little interest to future generations. Furthermore, with advancing AI technologies it may very well be possible to not only to determine and measure the ability of anyone to know what kind of behavior would be good or bad, as well as to measure it according to objective metrics. That has quite significant implications. We may reasonably expect that in the future we may end up being judged and that such judgement will have consequences.
I can provide you with three clear actions or inactions that are common in today’s countries that may very well be regarded as grave and punishable criminal acts by the laws of some future world. (1) one example would of course be the excessive contribution to greenhouse emissions and the resulting damage to the habitability prospects of future humans on the planet. (2) People consuming products that have clearly been produced under inhuman conditions, such as Coltan slave labor, or any kind of intensely cruel modes of factory production in developing countries and last but not least (3) any of us expressing a vote for political parties that were likely to start unjust wars.
If we today discovered that certain German scientists working in death camps had developed a medical treatment that perpetuates their longevity by decades, and we would then discover a small cabal of several dozen of these gentlemen or ladies living in some remote location, then we would certainly enact punishment on these people. In fact Israel would almost certainly seek death penalties and would no doubt do so – in this highly theoretical case – for centuries to come.
I don’t expect to sway anyone towards some esoteric objective standard of conduct today, on account of the off chance that anyone might live considerably longer, but we may in fact be living in some kind of interglacial, where people’s behavior were not constrained on account of punishment in some “hereafter”. In the past people were deeply concerned about punishment in the long term, and in the future everyone alive might equally be living under the same cloud. And not just some theoretical and objective standard of conduct that may be a logical extension of morals and ethics “in vogue” in the here and now, but also particularly distasteful codes of being. We can, as an extreme example, not disallow for the possibility that if we will live centuries that at some time in the future we won’t be living under some draconic moral principle. And for instance – if you do things that sharply contradict with Islamic values today, you might one day live under Sharia law and be executed for these perceived transgressions (Link NSFW). The reverse is then also true – if a devout Muslim were to believe in the onset of transhuman technologies he or she might then also believe the onset of such technologies to be according to the will of Allah, and that being judged by some future generation for having been part of an extremist Jyhadi movement to be also according to the will of Allah.
For one, life extension and indefinite lifespans now implies very grave long-term consequences, in terms of what we should strive for in society and its respective values. If it can be reasonably argued that most people alive today will live centuries, then behavior today may have quite drastic consequences in some future date. Right now we may be living in some kind of very narrow horizon of finding ourselves accountable, but as our minds and moral compasses expand as we are, get more educated and grow more wise we should equally evolve the capacity for understanding various expressions of good and evil. It may even be as bad as to dissuade certain life extension advocates today from being too outspoken in their everyday conduct as in the above example sexual deviancy that is legal today (divorce, oral sex, sodomy, same gender sex, fetishism) would be punishable by death in a future sharia legislative context.
Luckily we have time to make sure the world is a pleasant place. I am not sure what kind of lesson there is (and hopefully it is a pelagian one where humanity will over time attribute some kind of half-life to even the most serious of contemporary sins) but anyone reading this who just happens to engage in particularly high consumption of natural resources – some future generation is at this stage quite likely to sue you for damages and (consequently) some kind of repair payments. If you are still alive by then there is now reason to assume they will make you pay, one way or another.