In 1729, Jonathan Swift modestly proposed a measure “for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden to their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public.” He argued that there is one lucrative and delicious way to protect the poor from hunger, to ease their lives from the difficulty of rearing children, and to allow them to turn a profit: allow for the human consumption of children. Swift asserted that “a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or broiled.”
What an idea! Simultaneously increasing available food supplies and decreasing hungry mouths in one grand recipe! It’s so brilliant that I believe we should seriously consider extending the practice to our elderly population as well.
The questions of increasing world population have been contemplated since the time of Thomas Malthus in the late 18th century. Nevertheless, there has yet to be a true examination of the ever-increasing life expectancy of the inhabitants of the industrialized world. Swift’s problem was with the young; our problem will be with the old.
Medical science works indefatigably to find cures for the ailments that cause human death, allowing senior citizens to live into their 80s, 90s and beyond. It is an absolute miracle of human ingenuity that we have been able to increase life expectancies to such an extent. But should extending every person’s life to the greatest capacity be an end for society? As the average age of the population of much of the western world begins to increase, we must consider whether keeping the elderly around are worth the trouble and the loss of food.
A human body that has been in existence for near a century is often incapable of working in any great capacity. Barring rare exceptions, a retired person is either unable or unwilling to produce anything for society. Medicines and elderly care facilities cost us millions of dollars to prolong the lives of people that are already luckier than many. Besides, aside from my grandmothers (I love you Grandy and Gramma!) and a few others, most of the elderly are mean and don’t give me any birthday presents.
And think of all the benefits! First, it would end an economic drain on the fields of medicine and health care, improving the quality of life for all people. It would allow people to end their lives peacefully, removing the emotional strain of long stays at the hospital. The end would be expected, giving the elderly time and opportunity to say goodbye to friends and loved ones. The awful medicinal regiments that many elderly are faced with to extend their lives could be stopped, allowing for some peaceful respite before the end. Perhaps the most appealing result would be that the end of one’s life could be a real reward for a life of hard work. So often in American culture, we work ourselves to (a figurative) death to amass lots of money. To the angst of their heirs, the elderly would be able to spend their money without the fear of living the remainder of their days in poverty. And I’ve heard that old people meat is soft and tender; that’s why they break so easily when they fall.
OK. Perhaps killing old people is not the answer to this problem. After all, many view retirement as reward for a life of work, and we all hope to be old crotchety men and women some day. But my example, along with Jonathan Swift’s, brings up a moral question that will become more and more relevant as the 21st century grows old: How do we balance a respect for life without destroying the quality of life? My example of eating senior citizens, while somewhat absurd, is well-founded. In the near future the average age of the population will dramatically increase, forcing much of younger society to work for the welfare of the older. If much of the product of our society is going towards supporting our parents, America’s economic and technological growth will be stunted.
Many of the greatest controversies of our political day depend on our understanding of the worth of life; abortion, health care and legalized suicide all hinge upon how we value this incomprehensible miracle. If I may borrow an otherwise empty phrase from President Bush, a “culture of life” is necessary for a society because the idea of working together for a greater good can only be accomplished if we believe our own lives are safe. But long life should not be the only end. We must be prepared as a society to rethink our ideas about life to deal with the problems wrought by human science. The long life of a few should not depress the quality of life for the many.
Zachary Zwillinger is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.