“The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant,”

Prof Nick Bostrom 324-1.jpg
Nick Bostrom is a co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association (now called Humanity+) and co–founder of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. 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.1

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 decries, 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…2

I agree, we should try to overcome the tyranny of death with technology.

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

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3 thoughts on ““The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant,”

  1. Well. The story seems transparent enough—a good tale, analogous to our own state of affairs. Something like being between the rock and the hard place, with many more contingencies. There are ways of thinking and seeing I do not share with those thinkers and seers. I don’t mind. I am not all that different to thousands of others. I do not believe Panpsychism either. Had I the wherewithal, I would be pleased and honored to save mankind from himself. I can’t know whether transhumanism is a viable solution. Therefore, I will keep quiet. When Socrates said: “I know that I know nothing”, what was he really trying to do? That has always bothered me.

  2. Transhumanism is a very interesting idea. The “argument” that death is completely acceptable simply because “it’s natural”, or that by removing death is a sort of affront to “nature” is so dumb. These people, in their mindless egoism, see themselves as individuals, but everyone else as some sort of unimportant bulk to get rid of.

    If I had the power to decide who is to die, I’d go to these people and say, “Ok. You die. Of cancer. After all, it’s all natural.”. I bet they’d sob and whine until Socrates or Cicero would tell them to shut up, from beyond the grave.

    Thank you.

  3. Well! if you are haunted by the fear of death, and someone offers you a possible solution that will allow you to live for ever or at least for a very long time, if only you will fund his research, and you are well endowed with money, and you want to believe them, well why not, your researcher might be Kurzwell’s as yet unidentified, genius before who’s genius the laws of Physics might be caused to melt, I guess it is possible if you believe it is possible! so why not? We live in the age of Money and the belief in the Power of Money permates Our whole society, it is one of the core beliefs that motivate our actions so why not test the power of money, everyone, certainly including me, will watch this experiment with great interest!

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