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  • Aging, Death, and Human Longevity: A Philosophical Inquiry
  • Mary B. Mahowald (bio)
Aging, Death, and Human Longevity: A Philosophical Inquiry. By Christine Overall. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003.

Despite their particular relevance to women, the issues addressed in Aging, Death and Human Longevity have been underexamined by philosophers, including feminist philosophers. Margaret Urban Walker's recent anthology on women and aging is a welcome exception (Walker 1999), and other feminist philosophers have addressed issues related to middle-aged women (for example, Callahan 1993, Lyerly 2001, Mahowald 2000, Rogers 1999, Wolf 1996), but we need more of this work. As baby boomer feminists move into my age group (over 65), I suspect we will see more good work on these topics.

Overall's book offers a splendid presentation and critique of a range of views on the question of whether the average human life span should be extended beyond its current status in the developed world (for example, about 76.5 years [End Page 226] in the U.S.). In general, these sort into two camps, the apologists and the "prolongevitists." The apologists are those who think the average human life span is quite enough, and we ought not to tinker with it. The prolongevitists are those who think we should do what we can to extend it. For Overall, justice demands that we first attempt to extend the life span of those who don't yet reach the average, and only then attempt to extend it for everyone else.

Although many people live longer now than they would have lived in previous generations, the maximum human life span has remained roughly the same, about 120 years. This suggests that there is a biologically determined limit beyond which human life cannot be extended, regardless of increased social supports and health care progress. In other words, extension of the human life span has been, and will probably continue to be, mainly horizontal rather than vertical. A crucial caveat acknowledged by prolongevitists is that one's quality of life in the years of extension not be reduced beyond what it would otherwise be. Quantity of life is a good if and only if it entails qualitative satisfactions.

Overall begins with an account of current life expectations in different parts of the world as distinguished by gender, class, and race. Her own place in this spectrum is that of "a woman in midlife" (6) whose interest in longevity is based on the fact that all of us age, any of us can die at anytime, and all of us are allied with people who are already old. She stipulates that religious notions of death or immortality are irrelevant to her analysis. "Death," she writes, "is nonexistence" (5), the ending of life as "the precondition for all other goods" (93).

The apologist arguments that Overall examines and refutes involve the following claims: death should not be dreaded, death is a natural part of life, the human life span is already long enough, and the social costs of prolonging human life are too high. Not surprisingly, the last point is most compelling to Overall as a feminist; she therefore devotes an entire chapter to the notion of a "duty to die" based on social justice. In her view, however, none or all of these arguments provide adequate grounds for the apologist position.

Arguments in support of prolongevitism are considered next. Overall examines longevity and life itself as intrinsic values. With regard to the latter, she believes "that the burden of proof in the deliberate destruction of any form of life rests on the one who would do the destroying" (105). She supports prolongevitism on grounds of a negative "right to life," that is, a "'weak' or 'liberty' right against other human beings that they shall not act in such a way as to terminate my life" (107). But she critiques the argument that extension of the life span would be generally socially beneficial. Even if that were the case, she believes "it is unreasonable and unfair to tie the justification of prolongevitism directly either to past or to potential social contributions of individual elderly people" (121).

Although Overall clearly rejects...


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pp. 226-229
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Archived 2009
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