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Aluminati Statement   Whom are we thinking about?  Update main page

From the October 02, 2005 New York Times, a clear eye toward the implications of an aging society from a pundit (who usually irritates me with his right-wing proclivities disguised as moderation). - DC

David Brooks : Longer Lives Reveal the Ties That Bind Us.

Let me tell you how we're going to die. Twenty percent
of us, according to a Rand Corporation study, are
going to get cancer or another rapidly debilitating
condition and we'll be dead within a year of getting
the disease. Another twenty percent of us are going to
suffer from some cardiac or respiratory failure. We'll
suffer years of worsening symptoms, a few
life-threatening episodes, and then eventually die.

But 40 percent of us will suffer from some form of
dementia (most frequently Alzheimer's disease or a
disabling stroke). Our gradual, unrelenting path
toward death will take 8 or 10 or even 20 years,
during which we will cease to become the person we
were. We will linger on, in some new state, depending
on the care of others.

As the population ages, more people will live in this
final category. Between now and 2050, the percentage
of the population above age 85 is expected to
quadruple, and the number of people with Alzheimer's
disease is expected to quadruple, too.

The President's Council on Bioethics, under Leon Kass,
who stepped down yesterday as chairman, has been
trying to grapple with what this means. The council
considers the practical issues. We don't have enough
people to take care of the millions on the glide path
toward death. Fewer people go into nursing. Families
are smaller and divided.

But the biggest issues the Kass report takes up are
moral and cultural. We live in an individualistic
society. We think of ourselves as autonomous
creatures, making up our own minds and seeking

That was fine in an earlier age, when kids could go
off at age 16 to make their way in the world, and when
people died at age 65 after a short illness. But as
the Kass report notes, ''The defining characteristic
of our time seems to be that we are both younger
longer and older longer.''

Parents have to spend a lot more time preparing their
children for the new economy and children have to
spend a lot more time caring for their parents when
they are old.

In other words, technology, which was supposed to be
liberating, actually creates more dependence. We spend
more of our lives while young and old dependent upon
others, and we spend more time in between caring for
those who depend upon us.

Will our moral philosophy catch up to this reality?

When George Bush delivered a speech on the ownership
society, Peter Augustine Lawler, who is a member of
the bioethics council, wrote an essay in The New
Atlantis called ''The Caregiving Society,'' chiding
the president for offering an overly individualistic
social vision. ''The ownership society only makes
sense if it prepares us to be care-givers and
care-receivers,'' he wrote, ''and if it does not
encourage us to see ourselves as unencumbered

Lawler argued that the ethic of ''mutual neediness
should limit the idea of self-ownership.'' He cited
the French philosopher Chantal Delsol, who observed
that the ''amount of vigilance, care, friendship and
patience that must be given any person, if he is not
to be driven insane or to despair, is almost literally

The council report is very much in this vein. It is a
rebuke to the economic individualism of the right and
to the moral individualism of the left. With its
emphasis on mutual obligation, I sometimes thought I
was reading a report from the old German Christian

The report argues strongly against living wills and
advanced directives, against individuals' attempts to
control their own treatments and deaths. It is more
ethical and more effective, the council believes, to
give a loved one the power of attorney to make medical
decisions for you, and so acknowledge your own

The report questions the foundation of individualism,
that our worth is determined by what we say and do.
No, the report says. Our worth is in our bodies, and
our relationships. As Kass put it the other day, ''The
much diminished mother I hugged on the day of her
death was the same woman I'd been hugging all my

The report also shows how far social thinking has
moved in the past 30 years. A generation ago, all the
emphasis was on rebelling against conformity, on
liberating the individual. Now the emphasis is on
nurturing bonds so sacred they are beyond the realm of
choice. Now the individual is less likely to be
regarded as the fundamental unit of society. Instead,
it's the family.

In a mobile, high-tech age, the Kass report is a
declaration of dependence.

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