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The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

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 Society / Culture   |   Health   |   Philosophy   |   Social Science
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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 personal 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 and acceptable means for slowing the aging process, we can identify research directions that might lead to the development of such means in the foreseeable future. “Deathist” stories and ideologies, which counsel passive acceptance, are no longer harmless sources of consolation. They are fatal barriers to urgently needed action.

Many distinguished technologists and scientists tell us that it will become possible to retard, and eventually to halt and reverse, human senescence. At present, there is little agreement about the time-scale or the specific means, nor is there a consensus that the goal is even achievable in principle. In relation to the fable (where aging is, of course, represented by the dragon), we are therefore at a stage somewhere between that at which the lone sage predicted the dragon’s eventual demise and that at which the iconoclast dragonologists convinced their peers by demonstrating a composite material that was harder than dragon scales.

The ethical argument that the fable presents is simple: There are obvious and compelling moral reasons for the people in the fable to get rid of the dragon. Our situation with regard to human senescence is closely analogous and ethically isomorphic to the situation of the people in the fable with regard to the dragon. Therefore, we have compelling moral reasons to get rid of human senescence.

The argument is not in favor or life-span extension per se. Adding extra years of sickness and debility at the end of life would be pointless. The argument is in favor of extending, as far as possible, the human health-span. By slowing or halting the aging process, the healthy human life span would be extended. Individuals would be able to remain healthy, vigorous, and productive at ages at which they would otherwise be dead.

In addition to this general moral, there are a number of more specific lessons:

 

(1)  A recurrent tragedy became a fact of life, a statistic. In the fable, people’s expectations adapted to the existence of the dragon, to the extent that many became unable to perceive its badness. 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 accelerated 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 (which is also 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. Instead of a massive publicly-funded research program to halt aging, we spend almost our entire health budget on health-care and on researching individual 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. They said that no known social good would come from the demise of the dragon. Ultimately, however, social orders exist for the benefit of people, and it is generally good for people if their lives are saved.

 

(5)  The lack of a 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 at fault, because he got his priorities wrong.

 

(6)  Fine phrases and hollow rhetoric. The king’s morality advisor spoke eloquently about human dignity and our species-specified nature, in phrases lifted, mostly verbatim, from the advisor’s contemporary equivalents. Yet the rhetoric was a smoke screen that hid rather than revealed moral reality. The boy’s inarticulate but honest testimony, by contrast, points to the central fact of the case: the dragon is bad; it destroys people. This is also the basic truth about human senescence.

 

(7)  Failure to appreciate the urgency. Until very late in the story, nobody fully realized what was at stake. Only as the king was staring into the bloodied face of the young pleading man does the extent of the tragedy sink in. Searching for a cure for aging is not just a nice thing that we should perhaps one day get around to. It is an urgent, screaming 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)  “And in the coming days… I believe we have some reorganization to do!” The king and his people will face some major challenges when they recover from their celebration. Their society has been so conditioned and deformed by the presence of the dragon that a frightening void now exists. They will have to work creatively, on both an individual and a societal level, to develop conditions that will keep lives flourishingly dynamic and meaningful beyond the accustomed three-score-years-and-ten. Luckily, the human spirit is good at adapting. Another issue that they may eventually confront is overpopulation. Maybe people will have to learn to have children later and less frequently. Maybe they can find ways to sustain a larger population by using more efficient technology. Maybe they will one day develop spaceships and begin to colonize the cosmos. We can leave, for now, the long-lived fable people to grapple with these new challenges, while we try to make some progress in our own adventure.

 

Read the full paper by Nick Bostrom: https://nickbostrom.com/fable/dragon.html
Only made possible with the support of my patreons: https://www.patreon.com/cgpgrey
Wallpapers for supporters: https://www.patreon.com/posts/dragon-tyrant-18382041

Discuss this video: http://reddit.com/r/cgpgrey

Made with the support of:

Andrea Di Biagio, Andrey Chursin, Ben Schwab, Bob Kunz, Cas Eliëns, Christopher Anthony, David F Watson, Donal Botkin, Edison Franklin, Friedrich Gies, GameGo, James Bissonette, Jeremy Banks, John Buchan, JoJo Chehebar, Mark Govea, Michael Cao, Nevin Spoljaric, Oliver Steele, Richard Comish, Roman Pinchuk, Stephen W. Carson, Tianyu Ge, Tien Long, and James Gill.

MORAL

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 personal 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 and acceptable means for slowing the aging process[1], we can identify research directions that might lead to the development of such means in the foreseeable future. “Deathist” stories and ideologies, which counsel passive acceptance, are no longer harmless sources of consolation. They are fatal barriers to urgently needed action.

Many distinguished technologists and scientists tell us that it will become possible to retard, and eventually to halt and reverse, human senescence.[2] At present, there is little agreement about the time-scale or the specific means, nor is there a consensus that the goal is even achievable in principle. In relation to the fable (where aging is, of course, represented by the dragon), we are therefore at a stage somewhere between that at which the lone sage predicted the dragon’s eventual demise and that at which the iconoclast dragonologists convinced their peers by demonstrating a composite material that was harder than dragon scales.

The ethical argument that the fable presents is simple: There are obvious and compelling moral reasons for the people in the fable to get rid of the dragon. Our situation with regard to human senescence is closely analogous and ethically isomorphic to the situation of the people in the fable with regard to the dragon. Therefore, we have compelling moral reasons to get rid of human senescence.

The argument is not in favor or life-span extension per se. Adding extra years of sickness and debility at the end of life would be pointless. The argument is in favor of extending, as far as possible, the human health-span. By slowing or halting the aging process, the healthy human life span would be extended. Individuals would be able to remain healthy, vigorous, and productive at ages at which they would otherwise be dead.

In addition to this general moral, there are a number of more specific lessons:

(1)  A recurrent tragedy became a fact of life, a statistic. In the fable, people’s expectations adapted to the existence of the dragon, to the extent that many became unable to perceive its badness. 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 accelerated 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 (which is also 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. Instead of a massive publicly-funded research program to halt aging, we spend almost our entire health budget on health-care and on researching individual 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. They said that no known social good would come from the demise of the dragon. Ultimately, however, social orders exist for the benefit of people, and it is generally good for people if their lives are saved.

(5)  The lack of a 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 at fault, because he got his priorities wrong.

(6)  Fine phrases and hollow rhetoric. The king’s morality advisor spoke eloquently about human dignity and our species-specified nature, in phrases lifted, mostly verbatim, from the advisor’s contemporary equivalents.[3] Yet the rhetoric was a smoke screen that hid rather than revealed moral reality. The boy’s inarticulate but honest testimony, by contrast, points to the central fact of the case: the dragon is bad; it destroys people. This is also the basic truth about human senescence.

(7)  Failure to appreciate the urgency. Until very late in the story, nobody fully realized what was at stake. Only as the king was staring into the bloodied face of the young pleading man does the extent of the tragedy sink in. Searching for a cure for aging is not just a nice thing that we should perhaps one day get around to. It is an urgent, screaming 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)  “And in the coming days… I believe we have some reorganization to do!” The king and his people will face some major challenges when they recover from their celebration. Their society has been so conditioned and deformed by the presence of the dragon that a frightening void now exists. They will have to work creatively, on both an individual and a societal level, to develop conditions that will keep lives flourishingly dynamic and meaningful beyond the accustomed three-score-years-and-ten. Luckily, the human spirit is good at adapting. Another issue that they may eventually confront is overpopulation. Maybe people will have to learn to have children later and less frequently. Maybe they can find ways to sustain a larger population by using more efficient technology. Maybe they will one day develop spaceships and begin to colonize the cosmos. We can leave, for now, the long-lived fable people to grapple with these new challenges, while we try to make some progress in our own adventure.[4]

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