The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

Nick Bostrom (1973 – ) holds a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics (2000). He is a co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association (now called Humanity+) and co-founder of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. He was a member of the department of philosophy at Yale University until 2005, when he was appointed Director of the newly created Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. He is currently Professor, Faculty of Philosophy & Oxford Martin School; Director, Future of Humanity Institute; and Director, Program on the Impacts of Future Technology; all at Oxford University.

Bostrom’s article, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant,” tells the story of a planet ravaged by a dragon (death) that demands a tribute which is satisfied only by consuming thousands of people each day. Neither priests with curses, warriors with weapons, or chemists with concoctions could defeat the dragon. The elders were selected to be sacrificed, although they were often wiser than the young, because they had at least lived longer than the youth. Here is a description of their situation:

Spiritual men sought to comfort those who were afraid of being eaten by the dragon (which included almost everyone, although many denied it in public) by promising another life after death, a life that would be free from the dragon-scourge. Other orators argued that the dragon has 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 still maintained that the dragon was good for the human species because it kept the population size down. To what extent these arguments convinced the worried souls is not known. Most people tried to cope by not thinking about the grim end that awaited them.[i]

Given the ceaselessness of the dragon’s consumption, most people did not fight it and accepted the inevitable. A whole industry grew up to study and delay the process of being eaten by the dragon, and a large portion of the society’s wealth was used for these purposes. As their technology grew, some suggested that they would one day build flying machines, communicate over great distances without wires, or even be able to slay the dragon. Most dismissed these ideas.

Finally, a group of iconoclastic scientists figured out that a projectile could be built to pierce the dragon’s scales. However, to build this technology would cost vast sums of money and they would need the king’s support. (Unfortunately, the king was busy raging war killing tigers, which cost the society vast sums of wealth and accomplished little.) The scientists then began to educate the public about their proposals and the people became excited about the prospect of killing the dragon. In response the king convened a conference to discuss the options.

First to speak was a scientist who explained carefully how research should yield a solution to the problem of killing the dragon in about twenty years. But the king’s moral advisors said that it is presumptuous to think you have a right not to be eaten by the dragon; they said that finitude is a blessing and removing it would remove human dignity and debase life. Nature decrees, they said, that dragons eat people and people should be eaten. Next to speak was a spiritual sage who told the people not to be afraid of the dragon, but a little boy crying about his grandma’s death moved most toward the anti-dragon position.

However, when the people realized that millions would die before the research was completed, they frantically sought out financing for anti-dragon research and the king complied. This started a technological race to kill the dragon, although the process was painstakingly slow, and filled with many mishaps. Finally, after twelve years of research the king launch a successful dragon-killing missile. The people were happy but the king saddened that they had not started their research years earlier—millions had died unnecessarily. As to what was next for his civilization, the king proclaimed:

Today we are like children again. The future lies open before us. We shall go into this future and try to do 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, time for the slow process of building a better world…[ii] 

Summary – We should try to overcome the tyranny of death with technology.

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[i] Nick Bostrom, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant,” Journal of Medical Ethics (2005) Vol. 31, No. 5: 273.
[ii] Bostrom, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant,” 277.

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8 thoughts on “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

  1. I’ve lectured on this topic for many years…before thousands And to my GREAT surprise, even though life is our 1st and greatest gift…very few people when asked would opt fir everlasting life. Though they all would accept another day. I’m not sure where is the cutoff, but further questions reveal that about 109 years is plenty. Could it be that LIFE is valued as existential – as the accumulation of experience and that 100 years is enough already! Purge memory and life everlasting may be acceptable forever.!

  2. I’ve replied before to some of people’s reservations in my essay “Death Should Be Optional” which appeared in Salon in 2014.

  3. Great article. But to be a grammar queen for a moment, it is nature decrees, not decries!

  4. Humans are always like children, always susceptible to the Pied Pipers Siren song, always thinking that, if only I had that which I have not, then I could be Happy!

    Now, some people, having been exposed to the idea that, somehow, they might Live forever or at least a long, long time, think ‘Yes’ that is what I want, I want to live for ever or at least a very, very long time, if I could ‘Believe’ that that was to be my fate then I could be Happy and anxiety free! The less anxious you are the more able to be happy you are, Anxiety is the destroyer of happiness for many, turning their miserably short lives into such waking Night Mares that they long for Death to cease their torment!

    So, Living Forever, or at least living for a very, very long time must be reserved for those exceptional People who have the Philosophy and Intelligence to conquer their impulse to anxiety and enjoy their freedom. Who will decide who gets extended and will extension be forever or will it be a matter under continuous review?

    Ray Kurzweil’s Man with the intellectual power to melt the laws of Physics, When he finally appears, he will surely walk in the halls of power, but who will walk with him and how will they be selected?

  5. Not a very very long time—indefinitely: which means an unknown lifespan. Someone who might ordinarily die as a youth, might live to middle age; someone who might otherwise die in middle age might live into old age.
    Beyond old age is as yet unknown.
    And to live an indefinite lifespan, one’d have to make such the first priority in life. A doctor is a physi-cian, not a magic-ian. A biologist is a scientist, not a god; at least not yet, anyway.
    As we age, we have to put more effort merely to survive, let alone extend our lifespans. When we become very old we survive not day by day but, rather, second by second.

  6. unfortunately we are nowhere near the point of slaying the dragon. I don’t think I will avoid being eaten by it, much to my regret. there’s nothing noble in rotting in a hole somewhere, in my opinion, no matter how many billions have done it before me.

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