Will billionaires be immortal? “Their wealth and power will keep growing”

Ethicist Chris Wareham researches ethical implications of life expanding treatments

Twee senioren die witte wijn drinken op een bankje in de natuur. Foto: Sven Mieke, via Unsplash

In the world of life-extending treatments, more and more is possible. This raises ethical questions such as: who will actually benefit from these treatments? And what are the consequences if one group of people grows much older than the rest? Assistant Professor at the Ethics Institute Chris Wareham is researching these questions. “Living longer increases the likelihood of greater wealth, which increases political power and inequality.”

Longevity increases political and financial power

Even in rich countries, basic healthcare sometimes is inaccessible to people with lower incomes. And therefore, the concern is that novel treatments and inventions aimed at longevity will only be available to the very wealthy. And this poses several threats, Chris Wareham sees, especially to equality.

Dr. Chris Wareham
Dr Chris Wareham

“Economic power and political power are interlinked,” Wareham explains. “It is uncontroversial that those with wealth can better afford to promote their causes and interests. Longevity is linked to this, because wealthy people are likely to have access to more and better technologies. As they live longer, wealth accumulates, for instance through compounding.” He refers to a quote by Elon Musk: “who said in Time Magazine that as societies age, there are more older people. And then, the older somebody is, the richer they are.”

“So in a much older society, the wealthy very old are likely to be dramatically wealthier than the young. This has the potential to entrench and worsen all sorts of divisions. As can possible cultural and value divides between young and old, which are arguably one of the causes of polarisation. There are some disturbing possibilities.”

Life expectancy is already rising – who would want eternal life?

But why would people want to live as long as possible or even forever at all? “I think the biggest misconception, particularly amongst the young, is that life when you’re old is bad,” Wareham says, “or not worth living. People will casually say things like they want to die before they get old. Some resistance to longevity comes from this. But looking at various studies on ageing, assumptions about old age are often wrong.”

“Many studies report the ‘happiness curve’, which shows that older people after the age of 60 tend to be happier than younger people. There are many qualifications to this kind of result, but I think it casts into doubt this very negative view of ageing and old age, and of course has implications for whether living longer is likely to be desirable.”

One solution is to ensure that the less privileged have similar levels of access to technology that extends healthy lifespan.

“The trend toward longevity is not new, although people have been predicting it would end when we reach a ‘natural’ maximum. All those predictions seem to fail, so that continuous increases tend to sneak up on us.” That’s why Wareham thinks it’s important to think out scenarios where the average lifespan of people is significantly higher.

The importance of an ethical perspective on longevity

Policymakers need to be aware of the inequalities associated with life-extending treatments, Wareham finds. “One solution is to ensure that the less privileged have similar levels of access to technology that extends healthy lifespan. Looking at longevity from an ethical perspective continually asks us to refocus on what matters about biotechnological advances.”

“It may also be necessary to evaluate deeper economic and political reforms that protect democratic integrity, such as limiting campaign spending in many nations. Consideration of more radical alternatives is also warranted in response to extreme inequality more generally. For example, my colleague Professor Ingrid Robeyns has proposed limits on wealth.”

Wareham is not convinced by the argument that medical inventions and technologies will eventually trickle down to the less wealthy. “This tends to be a long journey and many people die earlier than they need to in the meantime – if it happens at all, as huge access gaps remain. The massive inequalities of healthy lifespan within and between rich and poorer nations attest to this.”

Chris Wareham in the media

Financial Times, ‘The Start-Ups Seeking a Cure for Old Age’ (December 2022)
Futurism, ‘Experts Worried Elderly Billionaires Will Become Immortal, Compounding Wealth Forever’ (4 January 2023)
Daily Mail, ‘The rise of the Methuselah’ (5 January 2023)
Unilad, ‘Scientist Worries Billionaires Have So Much Money They'll Stop Ageing’ (7 January 2023)
Popular Mechanics, ‘The Cure for Death Means Billionaires Will Live Forever – and Be Rich Forever’ (9 January 2023)