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Death & Morality
The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant
Nick Bostrom tells us a philosophical parable about death.
Once upon a time the world was tyrannized by a great dragon. The dragon stood taller than the largest cathedral, and was covered with thick black scales. Its red eyes glowed with hate, and from its terrible jaws flowed an incessant stream of evil-smelling yellowish slime. To satisfy its enormous appetite, ten thousand men and women had to be delivered every evening at the onset of dark to the foot of the mountain where it lived. The misery inflicted by the dragon-tyrant was incalculable. In addition to the ten thousand gruesomely slaughtered each day, there were the mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, children and friends who were left behind to grieve.
To fight the dragon, priests and magicians called down curses and spells, to no avail. Warriors marched against it, armed with roaring courage and the best weapons the smiths could produce, but they were incinerated by its fire before coming close enough to strike. Seeing that defeating the tyrant was impossible, people had no choice but to obey its commands and pay the grisly tribute. The fatalities selected were always elders. The thinking was that they had at least already enjoyed a few decades of life. But nobody could put off their turn indefinitely, not even the king.
Spiritual men sought to comfort those who were afraid of being eaten by the dragon by promising a dragon-free life after death. Others argued that the dragon had its place in the natural order and a moral right to be fed. They said that it was part of the very meaning of being human to end up in the dragon’s stomach. Others maintained that the dragon was good for humanity because it kept the population size down. Most people tried to cope by not thinking about the grim end awaiting them.
This desperate state of affairs continued for many centuries. Expectations had gradually adjusted, and the dragon-tyrant had become a fact of life. Attempts to kill the dragon had ceased. Instead, efforts now focused on placating it. It was found that punctual delivery of the quota reduced the frequency of raids on the cities.
Over the centuries, being well fed, the dragon slowly but steadily grew bigger. Ten thousand bodies were no longer enough to fill its belly. It now demanded a hundred thousand, to be delivered to the foot of the mountain every dusk. To facilitate this process, the king had a railway constructed. Every ten minutes a train would arrive at the mountain terminal crammed with people, and would return empty.
Servants were employed by the king in large numbers to administer the tribute. There were registrars who kept track of whose turn it was to be sent, collectors who would be dispatched in special carts to fetch the designated, clerks who administered the pensions paid to families who were no longer able to support themselves, and comforters who would travel with the doomed, trying to ease their anguish with spirits or drugs. There was, moreover, a cadre of dracologists. Some conducted studies of the dragon’s physiology or behaviour, others collected samples – its shed scales, the slimy drool, its lost teeth, and its excrement, which was specked with fragments of human bone. To finance these activities, the king levied heavy taxes on his people. Dragon-related expenditures, already accounting for one seventh of the economy, were growing even faster than the dragon itself. But the more the beast was understood, the more its invincibility was confirmed. In particular, its black scales were harder than any material known to man, and there seemed no way to make as much as a scratch in its armor.
Humanity is a curious species. Every once in a while somebody gets a good idea. Over time, many wondrous tools and systems are developed. Some of these devices make it easier to generate and try out new ideas. In this way, the great wheel of invention gradually began to accelerate. One of the sages went so far as to predict that technology would eventually make it possible to build a contraption that could kill the dragon-tyrant.
The king’s scholars, however, dismissed this idea. They said that history books recounted hundreds of failed attempts to kill the dragon. “We all know that this man had some irresponsible ideas,” a scholar later wrote in his obituary of the reclusive sage, who had by then been sent off to be devoured by the beast whose demise he had foretold.
Meanwhile, the wheel of invention kept turning. A few dracologists began arguing for a new attack on the dragon-tyrant. Killing it would not be easy, they said – but perhaps some material could now be invented that was harder than the dragon’s armor, and fashioned into some kind of projectile. And after working on the problem for many years, someone demonstrated that a dragon scale could be pierced by an object made of a certain composite material. Engineers calculated that a huge missile made of it could penetrate the dragon’s armor. However, the manufacture of the material would be expensive.
A group of several eminent engineers and dracologists sent a petition to the king asking for funding to build the anti-dragon missile. When the petition was sent, the king was preoccupied with a tiger which had killed a farmer and disappeared into the jungle. The king had the jungle surrounded and ordered his troops to slash their way through it, killing all its 163 tigers. During the tumult, however, the petition had been forgotten.
The petitioners sent another appeal. This time they received a reply that the king would consider their request after he’d reviewed the annual dragon-administration budget. When the budget was finally approved, however, reports came in that a village was suffering from a rattlesnake infestation. The king rode off to defeat this new threat, and the anti-dragonists’ appeal was filed away in a dusty cabinet in the castle basement.
The anti-dragonists met to decide what was to be done, and they resolved to take the matter to the people. They traveled around the country and gave public lectures, explaining their proposal to anyone who would listen.
At first, people were skeptical. They had been taught that the dragon-tyrant was invincible and that the sacrifices it demanded were a fact of life. Yet when they learnt about the missile, many became excited. Citizens flocked to the anti-dragonist lectures.
When the king read about these meetings in the newspaper, he summoned his advisors. They told him that the anti-dragonists were troublemakers whose teachings were causing public unrest. It was much better for the social order, they said, that the people accepted the inevitability of the dragon tribute. The dragon-administration provided many jobs that would be lost if the dragon were slaughtered. In any case, the king’s coffers were currently nearly empty after the two military campaigns and the funding set aside for a new dragon railway line. However, the king was worried that he might lose some of his popular support, and so decided to hold an open hearing.
The meeting took place in the largest hall of the royal castle. The hall was packed. The king first gave the floor to the leading anti-dragonist scientist, a stern woman. She proceeded to explain how the proposed missile would work, and that, given the requested funding, it should be possible to complete the work in fifteen to twenty years. With even greater funding, it might be possible to do it in as little as twelve.
Next to speak was the king’s chief moral advisor: “Let us grant that this woman is correct about the science, and that the project is technologically possible, although I don’t think that has been proven. Still, she desires that we get rid of the dragon. Presumably, she thinks she’s got the right not to be chewed up. How presumptuous. The finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual, whether they know it or not. Getting rid of the dragon would deflect us from realizing the aspirations to which our lives naturally point. It is debasing – yes debasing – for a person to want to continue their mediocre life for as long as possible without worrying about the higher questions of what life is for. But I tell you, the nature of the dragon is to eat humans, and our own nature is truly and nobly fulfilled only by being eaten by it!” The audience listened respectfully to this speaker. His phrases were so eloquent that it was hard to resist the feeling that some deep thoughts must lurk behind them, although nobody could quite grasp what they were.
The speaker next in line was a sage who was widely respected for his kindness and gentleness. As he strode to the podium, a small boy yelled out from the audience: “The dragon is bad!” The boy’s parents turned bright red and began hushing the child, but the sage only said, “Let the boy speak.” At first, the boy was too scared to move, but when he saw the genuinely friendly smile on the sage’s face, he obediently followed him up to the podium. “I want my granny back,” said the boy.
“Did the dragon take your granny away?”
“Yes,” the boy said, tears welling up in his frightened eyes. “Granny promised that she would teach me how to bake gingerbread cookies for Christmas. Then those people in white clothes came and took Granny away to the dragon... The dragon is bad and it eats people … I want my Granny back!”
There were several other speakers that evening, but the child’s simple testimony had punctured the rhetorical balloon the king’s ministers had tried to inflate. The people were backing the anti-dragonists, and by the end of the evening even the king had come to recognize the humanity of their cause. In his closing statement he simply said: “Let’s do it!”
As the news spread, celebrations erupted in the streets. The next morning, a billion people realized that their turn to be sent to the dragon would come before the missile would be completed. Dracocide became the number one priority. Mass rallies raised money for the project and urged the king to increase the level of state support. In his New Year address, he announced he would pass a bill to support the project at a high level of funding, saying, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of freeing the world from the ancient scourge of the dragon-tyrant.”
Thus started a great race against time. An anti-dragon missile was simple in concept, but to make it required solutions to a thousand technical problems. Test-missiles were fired but fell dead to the ground or flew off in the wrong direction. Despite almost unlimited funding and round-the-clock work by the technicians, the king’s deadline couldn’t be met. But a prototype missile had been successfully test fired, and production of the shell from the composite material was underway. The launch date was set to the following year’s New Year’s Eve, exactly twelve years after the project’s official inauguration.
A week before New Year, the scientist who had earlier made the case for the project and was now its chief executive, came to the castle and requested an urgent audience with the king. The king excused himself to the dignitaries whom he was reluctantly entertaining at the Christmas dinner, and hurried off to meet her. As always of late, she looked pale and worn from her long working hours. This evening, however, the king also thought he could detect a ray of relief in her eyes. She told him the shell had been loaded, everything had been triple-checked, the missile had been deployed and they were ready to launch, and she asked the king to give his final go-ahead.
The king sank down into his throne and closed his eyes. He was thinking hard. By launching the projectile tonight, seven hundred thousand people would be saved. Yet if something went wrong – if the missile missed its target and hit the mountain instead – it would be a disaster. A new shell would have to be constructed, and the project would be set back by years. He sat there silently for almost an hour. Then he opened his eyes and said, “No. I want you to check and then re-check everything.”
The last day of the year was cold and overcast, but there was no wind, which meant good launch conditions. The sun was setting. The king and his closest advisors were observing from a platform close to the launch pad. Behind a fence, large numbers of the public had assembled to witness the great event. A large clock was showing the countdown. Fifty minutes.
An advisor tapped the king on the shoulder and drew his attention to somebody running towards the platform. Security quickly caught up with him and he was handcuffed and taken away. The king turned his attention back to the launch pad, and to the mountain in the background. In front of it, he could see the dark slumped profile of the dragon. It was eating.
Some twenty minutes later, the king was surprised to see the handcuffed man reappear. He was accompanied by two security guards and appeared to be in a frenzied state as he began shouting: “The last train! The last train! Stop the last train!”
“Who is this young man?” said the king. “What does he want? Let him come up.”
The young man was a junior clerk in the ministry of transport, and he had discovered that his father was on the last train to the mountain. The king had ordered the train traffic to continue, fearing that any disruption might cause the dragon to stir and leave. The young man begged the king to issue a recall-order for the last train, which was due to arrive at the mountain terminal five minutes before time zero. “I cannot do it,” the king responded, “I cannot take the risk.” But the young man continued to wail even as the guards carried him off the platform: “Please! Stop the last train! Please!”
After a while, his wailing ceased. The king glanced over at the countdown clock. Five minutes remaining. Then four minutes. Three minutes. Two minutes. Then thirty seconds. Twenty seconds. Ten, nine, eight …
As a ball of fire enveloped the launch pad and the missile shot upwards, the spectators rose to the tips of their toes. For the masses and the king, the young and the old, it was as if at this moment they shared a single awareness: an experience of a white flame shooting into the dark, embodying the human spirit, its fear and its hope, striking at the heart of evil. Then the dragon’s silhouette on the horizon tumbled and fell, and a thousand voices of pure joy rose from the assembled masses, joined seconds later by a deafening thud from the collapsing monster. After centuries of oppression, humanity was at last free from the cruel tyranny of the dragon!
The joy cry resolved into a jubilating chant: “Long live the king! Long live us all! We did it! We did it!” But the king answered in a broken voice: “Yes, we did it, we killed the dragon today. But why did we start so late? This could have been done five, maybe ten years ago! Millions of people wouldn’t have had to die!” He stepped off the platform and walked up to the young man in handcuffs. There he fell down on his knees. “Forgive me! Please forgive me!” The rain started falling in large, heavy drops, turning the ground into mud, drenching the king’s purple robes. “I am so very sorry about your father,” he continued.
“Do you remember twelve years ago in the castle?” replied the young man. “That crying little boy who wanted you to bring back his grandmother? That was me! I didn’t realize then that you couldn’t possibly do what I asked for. Today I wanted you to save my father. It was impossible for you to do that without jeopardizing the launch. But you have saved my life, and the lives of my mother and my sister. How can we ever thank you?”
“Listen to them,” said the king, gesturing towards the crowds. “They are cheering me for what happened tonight. But the hero is you. You cried out. You rallied us against evil. Now, go to your mother and sister. You and your family shall always be welcome at the court.”
The young man was released, as the powdered faces of the royal entourage gathered round the king to express a combination of joy, relief and discombobulation. So much had now changed. The right to a future had been regained, a primordial fear had been abolished, and many a long-held assumption had been overturned. “Your majesty, what do we do now?” ventured the most senior courtier.
“My dear friends,” said the king, “we have come a long way, yet our journey has only just begun. Today we are like children again. The future lies open before us. We shall go into this future doing better than we have done in the past. We have time now: time to get things right, time to grow up, time to learn from our mistakes, and time for the slow process of building a better world. I believe we have some reorganizing to do!”
Stories about aging have traditionally focused on the need for graceful accommodation. The recommended solution to diminishing vigor and impending death was resignation, coupled with an effort to achieve closure in practical affairs and in relationships. Given that nothing could be done to prevent or retard aging, this focus made sense. Rather than fretting about the inevitable, one could aim for peace of mind.
Today we face a different situation. While we still lack effective means for slowing the aging process, we can identify research directions which might lead to the development of such means in the near future. So ‘deathist’ stories and ideologies, which counsel passive acceptance, are no longer harmless sources of consolation: they are fatal barriers to urgently-needed action.
Many scientists tell us that it will become possible to retard, and eventually to halt and reverse, human senescence. For example, a recent straw poll at the 10th Congress of the International Association of Biomedical Gerontology revealed that the majority of the participants thought it either probable or ‘not improbable’ that comprehensive functional rejuvenation of middle-aged mice would be possible within 10-20 years (see ‘Report of open discussion on the future of life extension research’ in Annals NY Acad. Sci., A. de Grey, p.1019, 2004). At present, there is little agreement about the time-scale or the means, nor is there a consensus that the goal is even achievable in principle. In terms of the fable, where aging is represented by the dragon, we are at a stage somewhere between the lone sage predicting the dragon’s eventual demise and the iconoclast dracologists convincing their peers by demonstrating a composite material that’s harder than the dragon’s scales.
The ethical argument the fable presents is simple. There are obvious and compelling moral reasons for the people in the allegory to get rid of the dragon. Our situation with regard to human aging is closely analogous and ethically isomorphic to the situation with regard to the dragon. Therefore, we have compelling moral reasons to get rid of human senescence.
The argument does not advocate life-span extension per se. Adding extra years of sickness and debility at the end of life would be pointless. The argument is in favour of extending, as far as possible, the human health-span. But by slowing or halting the aging process, the healthy human span would be extended. Individuals would be able to remain vigorous and productive at ages at which they would otherwise be dead.
There are also a number of more specific lessons:
(1) A recurrent tragedy became a fact of life, a statistic. In the story, people’s expectations adapted to the dragon, to the extent that many became unable to perceive its evil. Aging, too, has become a mere fact of life – despite being the principal cause of an unfathomable amount of human suffering and death.
(2) A static view of technology. People reasoned that it would never become possible to kill the dragon because all attempts had failed in the past. They failed to take into account accelerating technological progress. Is a similar mistake leading us to underestimate the chances of a cure for aging?
(3) Administration became its own purpose. One seventh of the economy went to dragon-administration. This is the fraction of its GDP that the U.S. spends on healthcare. Damage-limitation became such an exclusive focus that it made people neglect the underlying cause. Similarly, instead of a massive publicly-funded research program to halt aging, we spend almost our entire health budget on health-care and researching diseases.
(4) The social good became detached from the good for people. The king’s advisors worried about the possible social problems that could be caused by the anti-dragonists. However, social orders exist for the benefit of people; and it is generally good for people if their lives are saved.
(5) Lack of a good sense of proportion. A tiger killed a farmer. A rhumba of rattlesnakes plagued a village. The king got rid of the tiger and the rattlesnakes, and thereby did his people a service. Yet he was still at fault, because he got his priorities wrong.
(6) Fine phrases and hollow rhetoric. The king’s moral advisor spoke eloquently about human dignity and our nature. Yet the rhetoric was a smokescreen which hid rather than revealed moral reality. By contrast, the boy’s inarticulate but honest testimony points to the central fact of the case: the dragon is bad; it destroys people. This is also the truth about human senescence.
(7) Failure to appreciate the urgency. Only as the king was staring into the face of the bereaved young man does the extent of the tragedy sink in to him. Searching for a cure for aging is not just something we should perhaps one day get around to doing. It is an urgent moral imperative. The sooner we start a focused research program, the sooner we will get results. It matters if we get the cure in 25 years rather than in 24 years – a population greater than that of Canada would die as a result. In this matter, time equals life, at a rate of approximately 70 lives per minute. With the meter ticking at such a furious rate, we should stop faffing about.
(8) “I believe we have some reorganizing to do!” The king and his people face some major challenges when they recover from celebrating. Their society has been conditioned and deformed by the presence of the dragon, and a void now exists. They will have to work creatively to develop conditions that will keep lives dynamic and meaningful beyond the accustomed three-score-years-and-ten. Luckily, the human spirit is good at adapting. Another issue that they must eventually confront is overpopulation. Maybe people will have to learn to have children later. Maybe they can find ways to sustain a larger population by technology. Maybe they will one day begin to colonize the cosmos.
So let us leave the fable people to grapple with their new challenges, while we try to make progress in our own adventure.
© Prof. Nick Bostrom 2012
Nick Bostrom is founding Director of the Future of Humanity Institute, and a Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University.
• A longer version of this article was first published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol. 31, No. 5, 2005.