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I'm writing a fantasy story where magic is common and wizards follow a strict code of conduct. One of those tenets is "never stray from humanity and do not seek immortality or godhood." While I admit that becoming a god might be a complicated thing to restrict from literal reality warpers, how would governments go about policing and restricting people from obtaining eternal life through magical (and perhaps technological) ways? One other question I have for this is, how would a ban on immortality impact healing magic and medicine if it could potentially be used to prolong life? What other kinds of impacts on society would take place if immortality was illegal?

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closed as too broad by Frostfyre, CaM, Kyyshak, Morris The Cat, Nosajimiki Jul 9 at 15:35

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • $\begingroup$ Can the length of life be extended, as long as there's a definite endpoint? $\endgroup$ – DomineSatanas Jul 8 at 21:41
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    $\begingroup$ Hello! I like the initial question here, but as it is you're currently asking three different questions! You'll get better answers for each of those questions if you open a separate question for each one. $\endgroup$ – MrSpudtastic Jul 8 at 21:41
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    $\begingroup$ Are you looking for a "litmus test" for immortality? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jul 8 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ Once per year, kill everyone. Punish anyone who survives. :-) $\endgroup$ – SRM - Reinstate Monica Jul 9 at 1:15
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    $\begingroup$ For an interesting prior art, consider the works of Dune: "thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind." That commandment appears in his universe, and you can see the myriad effects it has on all of society in every way shape and form. I'd consider that example just close enough to what you seek to be useful, but just far enough to stay out of your way as you develop your own answers. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 9 at 1:18
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A strict maximum age.

Genesis 6:3:

And the LORD said: 'My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for that he also is flesh; therefore shall his days be a hundred and twenty years.'

You could implement this sentiment into law. People who reach 120 years are required to die. If they don't agree to medically-assisted suicide, they are executed.

This is of course a rather harsh policy, but some worlds are harsh so I don't limit my worldbuilding to only pleasant ideas.

This policy would stop your magically immortal people from living longer than 120 years if you kept good enough records of when people were born and could find the violators. As far as I know, false-positives would be extrememly rare. If this policy had been in effect globally here on Earth, then in all of recorded history it would have only killed one mortal person who was still alive by non-magical means: Jean Calment and she would have been required to die two years, 164 days before her natural death. If you extended the limit to 125 years, then no non-magical old person would have been killed.

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    $\begingroup$ It's debatable whether or not that's what the verse means, but I digress. hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/21049/… $\endgroup$ – Reinstate Monica NOW Jul 9 at 0:25
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    $\begingroup$ The point isn't to have a theologically sound interpretation, but just "a reason", valid or not, to enforce something, and build a world around the distopia. It's an interesting take IMO. $\endgroup$ – Nelson Jul 9 at 6:41
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    $\begingroup$ A (probably false) theory claim that Calment died in 1934 and her daughter Yvonne, born in 1898, assumed her mother's official identity. With this kind of law, we could have the opposite situation, were someone impersonate a younger relative, in order to be seen as younger $\endgroup$ – Kepotx Jul 9 at 8:01
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    $\begingroup$ The impact of such a law would be... huge. People will become fugitives by default and their friends and families will naturally become accomplices. It also raises the question why any society would want to support such a law. $\endgroup$ – Passer By Jul 9 at 12:10
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    $\begingroup$ There is a similar 'Maximum Age' law in Futurama. Once you reach the age of 160, you are no longer permitted to live on earth, you are moved to a specialized facility. S2E10 - A clone of my own. $\endgroup$ – rpmerf Jul 9 at 14:04
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I made a joke in earlier comments, but then got to thinking further... does your magic allow for resurrection? If so, you could have everyone required to come in every 10 years, say, as part of getting drivers license renewed, and a government official shoots you in the head. Or injects you with poison. Or something. If you die, it proves you haven’t crossed the line, so they resurrect you. If you don’t die, they try twice more to kill you, and if that fails, you get ejected into space/flung into prison/removed from history by a time cop who prevents your conception/etc.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't agree that immortal people cannot die at all, but that they cannot die via aging. This is a hilarious interpretation nonetheless... $\endgroup$ – Nelson Jul 9 at 6:43
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, an eternal oubliette. A trope older than the person contained so. Somehow they always escape. And they're always pretty upset and up for revenge. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Jul 9 at 11:30
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    $\begingroup$ What's worse than an asteroid on an Earth-crossing orbit? An upset immortal who's hell-bent on destroying everything and who's too small to be detected by telescopes and who's about to land on Earth after 1000 years in space. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Jul 9 at 11:34
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnDvorak What's the problem? They will just need some space cops! $\endgroup$ – val Jul 9 at 15:34
  • $\begingroup$ @val so you end up with a criminal stuck in an Earth-crossing orbit and a police officer stuck in an Earth-crossing orbit. Even if the cop could match the criminal's orbit well in advance of their arrival, what next? Shooting them with a space Glock is useless. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Jul 9 at 15:37
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Let's think for a few seconds:

  • The ban is quite arbitrary, so does not require much effort to stop believing in its validity

  • The ban actually applies only to a small group of smart, high power individuals, whose power is even not specially bound to their social standing - exactly the worst type to keep in line

  • People don't have much to lose in case of breaking the ban, while plenty to gain if they do it right

Well... in comparison to that war on drugs is a great success.

OK, so for practical purposes:

  • a bunch of powerful healing magic is actually highly restricted and regulated (and this part is actually the most enforced part of the law)
  • high rank individuals who live suspiciously long, have one day disappear in order not to raise too much suspicion
  • every wizard pays a great lip service to the ban, just it's a public secret, that most people who are powerful enough to break the rules just do it
  • people are more than happy to use this ban to score even with their personal enemies, so actually some transgressors are being punished
  • idea to use curses to make the ban enforced is somehow considered as invasive, dangerous or disgusting - at least so say older and wiser wizards
  • there are some common ways of avoiding the ban like emigration, assuming new identity, escape in to different dimension, go to hide in wilderness...
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Other wizards need to take care of this problem.

If a magic user has skills enough to achieve immortality, he or she has skills enough to dupe / buy off / intimidate the cops. The regular civilian police are going to be hopeless against some necromancer lich. Your only hope is other wizards.

1: Other wizards will probably know who among them is up to immortality shenanigans. Wizards have scrying glasses and divinations and such.

2: Nonimmortal wizards will likely be envious and seek to prevent that sort of cheating.

3: Assembled other wizards might have the skills to actually take on an immortal. I could imagine a "Witcher" sort of magic user who made this a regular gig.

4: These sorts of risky civic-minded actions will put the wizards willing to undertake them in a good light with the authorities, who might grant such wizards privileges and resources otherwise unavailable.

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    $\begingroup$ This is almost exaclty how it's handled in one of my novels. Not foolproof by any means, but, well, that would be boring, wouldn't it? $\endgroup$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh Jul 9 at 11:45
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Theft and murder are against the law, yet it happens every day. Even though immortality is illegal, not matter what you do to enforce it, someone will always find a way to get away with it.

Detailed birth records, magical observations and age tests and bureaucratic oversight are all nice and all, but it will only catch the honest.

One method that may help catch most, although draconic, a randomized culling. If you have death squads that go out and wipe out 2-5% of the population each year, odds are you will have wiped out ~99.73% within 100 years. Sorry, I'm a little fuzzy on statistics, but if you account for normal birth/death rate and take the statistics out to the 6th standard deviation, then you should ensure most of the population gets causght up in your death squad sweeps.

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  • $\begingroup$ You've managed to solve both illegal immortality and regular overpopulation in one fell swoop. Congratulations! $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Jul 9 at 11:37
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    $\begingroup$ This only works if there is absolutely no way, learned or inherited, of evading or beating the death squads. Otherwise you'll end up with a culling-resistant, immortal and probably very angry strain of super-wizards. $\endgroup$ – Ruther Rendommeleigh Jul 9 at 11:53
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    $\begingroup$ The typos are causing me physical pain, but are too small for an edit. Even though immortality is illegal, **not** matter... and ...ensure most of the population gets **causght** up... Beyond that, a random culling would be a nice, dystopian way of coping with the issue, but it would still only catch the honest. Going off the grid during the cullings would still be an effective way to survive. $\endgroup$ – bvoyelr Jul 9 at 12:50
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry about the typos. Spell check failed me this time. About going off grid, chances are in 100 or even 500 years, you would eventually be caught in a sweep, or at least very few would avoid it. Plus, going off grid kind of solves the problem that immortality would otherwise pose. $\endgroup$ – Sonvar Jul 10 at 1:38
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The most powerful institutions are also the ones who most excel at tracking your income and taxes.

Just make it so that your income taxes are adjusted by age past a certain limit - say, after 100 any retirement plans are cancelled and your taxes on income are doubled every decade.

This would in effect cause a maximum age to be enforced by law.

Of course, the most rich and powerful could always evade taxes and move their wealth to havens, or deal in manaCoin. But then again, fantasy is no fun without a powerful lich for the protagonists to lynch.

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The maximum age limit that others have suggested is a good start, but can still be circumvented with some forged documents to fake your age. Also, doesn’t do much about godhood.

Think about how government and law enforcement try to control contraband like explosives: they limit the legal availability of the materials known (or suspected) to be used for immortality and omnipotence. Thaddeus the Green has been buying up all the quicksilver in the tri-county area? The feds have a judge give them a warrant to scry his laboratory. There would probably be whole teams of wizards with license to do theoretical research into immortality to figure out the probable methods, so long as they share what they find with the government (and submit to some extra transparency scrutiny, just in case).

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Is ontological immortality possible (i.e., one cannot die in any way, and will always regenerate from any trauma, like the Greek gods), or merely functional immortality (you won't die naturally, but can still be killed)?

If the former, prison is always an option.

If the latter, just impose the death penalty (or merely eternal prison) for anyone who is found to have become functionally immortal. If you want to allow the imposition of functional immortality as a last-ditch effort for treating certain injuries and diseases, then put a maximum lifespan cap on it: if you can no longer die by natural means, the government will put you to death on X date, and you agree to that as a condition of treatment.

How this would impact healing magic and medicine depends on the legal definition of functional immortality. Does it count if you have to keep having repeated rejuvenation treatments, such that your immortality isn't actually inherent to you but rather is a feature of your living conditions, or does it only count if you make yourself permanently immortal? If the intended effect is just to ensure that there is nobody over a certain maximum age, then none of that matters; you just impose the death penalty for anyone who can be proven to have past that age (like in Logan's Run), no matter what. Just make it high enough that no one would ever naturally live that long (unlike Logan's Run). But if the intent is merely to prevent people from becoming superhuman, then there need be no particular effect on healing magic or medicine, and no need to impose a lifespan cap.

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  • $\begingroup$ A better way than prison for capital punishment is to just launch them into space and then forget about them. $\endgroup$ – Bilbo Baggins Jul 8 at 21:56
  • $\begingroup$ @BilboBaggins I would count that as functionally equivalent to prison. It would be easier to lock them in a box and drop them in the ocean than launch them into space, though. $\endgroup$ – Logan R. Kearsley Jul 8 at 21:57
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    $\begingroup$ But they might eventually escape if they are just in the ocean. There is no way for them to escape if they are hurtling away from the earth. $\endgroup$ – Bilbo Baggins Jul 8 at 21:59
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    $\begingroup$ @BilboBaggins Touche. Might still want to encase them in concrete just to be sure, though. $\endgroup$ – Logan R. Kearsley Jul 8 at 22:01
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    $\begingroup$ I was trying to remember the name of that movie. Guess you had something to remind you ;) $\endgroup$ – Sonvar Jul 9 at 3:03
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I can think of two ways that this could be done:

  • Preemptive censorship, true immortality is only granted by one spell, everyone knows that such a spell exists, and the vaguest details of what is involved (this seems counterintuitive but it's necessary to prevent an accidental discovery) but there is a standing agreement that said spell is not taught or pursued by wizards for any reason. This only really works well where all wizards are trained by existing wizards, if there isn't a master-apprentice chain but if wizards are all, or even just largely, self-taught it kind of falls down.

  • After the fact magical forensics, immortality leaves a mark, a mark that any good wizard can spot a mile away, literally. If immortals are easy to spot then weeding them out becomes easy as well. This assumes that wizards are governed, either internally or externally, if they're not the idea of banning immortality becomes problematic.

To what extent, because it will have some effect, a ban on immortality effects healing magic and life extension is a plot issue for you, as the author, to work through. The exact societal ramifications that follow on from that likewise.

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