Addressing the Dragon in the room

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Recently, a friend of mine shared this video in one of our group chats: The Fable of the Dragon Tyrant

I strongly suggest watching the video before reading this post. I will summarize some of the points, but I can’t possibly do it as well as they did. It’s well Worth the 10 minutes in my opinion.

The video is based on this short story, which is about as good, so you can simply read it instead. Or optimally, you can do both. I know I did.

The story takes place in an alternate world, where there is an enormous dragon that seems completely invincible. None of the weapons or tactics that were tried to beat it, and humans tried many of those, has had any effect whatsoever. On the other hand, the Dragon is sentient, immortal, and seemingly pretty smart. He also loves eating humans.

The dragon offered a deal to the human race. Bring me 10 000 humans every day so that I can eat them effortlessly without having to move around. In exchange, I will not attack you, and not destroy your stuff or annihilate your race.

It is important to note that in this world, people did not suffer from physical aging past their prime, but the community still decided that, for fairness, people would be more likely to be sent to the dragon if they were older. The exact selection method changes from text to video.

Then, many many years pass and mankind learns to accept the dragon as a natural fact of life. They build society taking into account its existence. As their population grows, the dragon slowly increases the tribute size too, because he can. Then, after a long time (implied to be centuries or even milleniums), scientists discover a “maybe” way to kill the dragon for good. After much debate, they end up getting the funding and support for the projet, and even then it takes several years to be completed.

In the end, the project succeeds, the dragon is killed, and people are happy and glad, but many of them regret not starting the project sooner to save more people.

It is only implied in the video, but explicitly written in the text, that the story is an analogy for death. The dragon represents death, taking away thousands of people every day, yet we still mostly accept it as a fact of life. The story’s moral is that we should start putting as much effort as we can, not next year, next month or tomorrow, but right now, to stop, and eventually reverse aging. Every day we delay the work on this topic is several thousand people who die and can’t ever be brought back.

I have very mixed feelings about this story.

First of all, I am a huge proponent of life extension and health research. I hope very well that aging can be stopped (at least) before I die, for mostly selfish reasons like not dying. If we manage to stop aging, then our deadline to figure out how to reverse it is basically infinite (except for entropy I guess), same goes for actual immortality (not dying from other reasons either). I’m a big fan of being alive.

So you could expect me to be a big fan of this story, since it seems to agree with me. Death is a problem that way too many people ignore. We already seem to put a huge value on a single human life, but contrary to a very popular belief that life would be less valuable without death, I believe that any value life (±80 years) currently has is nothing compared to the value of a much longer (±1000s of years) life. In this time, we could acumulate so much more knowledge, enjoyment, relationships, etc.

In the story, the King devotes lots of resources fighting “minor” threats, like wild animals, instead of funding the dragon project. This is treated by the author as an example of completely skewed priorities. In real life, this could be a reference to the huge effort we put into “saving” people who are wounded, sick, starving, etc, while we all know that in real life, we never save a single person. We only delay their deaths by a very short amount of time. Such resources, if they were used to instead combat the deadline that aging puts on all of us, would not only save many more people in the medium to long run, but also make their lives much more valuable.

But the aesop in both versions of the story is straight up bullshit for many reasons.

First of all, most of the people that are against the dragon-killing project are straight up strawmen. While they very accurately mimic real life bullshit ideas, like everyone deserves to get eaten by the dragon at some point, fighting it is “unnatural”, or past failures mean future attempts will be failures too, they are not even close to being exhaustive. The more valid points are barely touched upon, and quickly brushed aside. Some of those, in the context of the story, would include the very real risk that if the project fails, the dragon could take revenge and kill everyone (which aging can’t do in real life), or the fact that while being eaten by the dragon doesn’t make any life more valuable, being free to spend your years doing what you want instead of devoting all your time and money to the project definitely makes a life more enjoyable. If the project succeeds, you can be free after, but if it fails, every life has been much less enjoyable for pretty much no reason. Some other valid counter arguments, like the overpopulation issue, are raised in the story. Even though they are very easy to disprove, they are never actually addressed in the story, which makes them sounds completely valid, and makes the author look like he ignored some points because he didn’t know how to prove them wrong.

In the story, the final decision to fund the project was taken after a little kid cried that the dragon ate people he loved. While very emotional, and a good way to shut down the strawmen that were arguing that the dragon was good, it is still only an emotional argument. This sounds pretty close to the real life strawmen that want to ban things (guns, cars, kinder surprises) because of the harm they cause, without ever caring about the good those things bring, and taking the time to figure out if they do more harm or more good.

There’s a reason why 5 years old kids, no matter how nice or sweet, don’t make federal policies.

Furthermore, the aesop is entirely built upon consequentialism. The project ended up working with basically no downsides except for the effort it took. Everyone lived happily ever after. This seems to be taken as a justification. The reason why the project was good is that in the end it worked.

Consequentialism in real life is easily countered. If you go all in on a mediocre hand in poker, but end up winning by pure chance, it doesn’t mean you played well, and it doesn’t mean everyone should do the same. Playing Russian Roulette is a very bad idea, no matter how many games you won in the past. Same goes for the story. If the chance of success, which was unknown to the people, was 1%, and the consequence for failure was extinction, then it doesn’t matter if it worked out in the end. They would have made the wrong choice. (I am well aware that from a purely mathematical perspective, even those conditions made the choice correct, but using modern real life values and priorities, everyone living a happy life during several decades is better than instant extinction by a factor of more than 100. We rarely judge morality with pure mathematics).

Furthermore, this is not real life. This is a fictional story. This makes a consequentialism philosophy even less credible. Just like in gambling movies, where the character wins at the crucial moment for the sake of plot, the author here decided that the project would succeed. This makes the argument vastly weaker. If the author had made the rocket fail, and the dragon retaliate by murdering everyone, then he could have used pretty much the same story as an aesop for why it is a bad idea to make country-wide enormous decisions based on the feelings of young children. The argument would have been exactly as strong, while being totally opposite. That makes both proofs very weak. While in real life, results can be somewhat used as a justification for something, even if it’s borderline a fallacy, you can’t argue that the goal was achieved. In fiction, the goal can be achieved instantly if the writer feels like it, therefore even the shaky argument “it works so it can’t be that bad” doesn’t hold.

So after thinking about it, I think this video is pretty much just an attempt (maybe in completely good faith) to manipulate people through emotions and relatable fears (most people don’t like aging or dying), and doesn’t hold its own as a legitimate attempt to argue the fact that we should pour a significant amount of our resources (that are otherwise occupied at the moment) into anti-aging research.

You may ask yourself why I mentioned having mixed feelings then. It’s pretty straightforward, I agree with the idea but think the argument is bad, just like I can agree with equality of the sexes yet disagree with affirmative action. There’s nothing mixed in disagreeing with someone on your own side.

What’s mixed is my personal feelings on this one. On one hand, I firmly believe in honesty, not manipulating people, and using good arguments and legitimate logic to argue for things. I don’t believe emotional arguments are good arguments.

But on the other, I really believe that one of our biggest priority should be trying to end aging. I believe this is several order of magnitudes more important than pretty much everything we are currently working on, since every life saved now last exponentially longer, so is exponentially more happy and useful to society. I believe this is so important that any easily understandable video like this one, if it manages to convince only one person, is a big deal, and a huge help for mankind as a whole.

Even if it is manipulative, misleading or even straight up false, there is no doubt that this dragon story has convinced some people.

So on one hand, I have a set of important, clear and straightforward values, that drive my morals and ethical decisions. On the other, this is the greatest “greater good” I can imagine. And I can’t figure out if it’s worth it. Ironically, supporting this story is me being a consequentialist. If it works, even though it compromises my values, then isn’t it a good thing in the long run?

It’s hard to not be an hypocrite.