The Dragon

Sometimes we look around ourselves and think: it's impossible that no one else is able to see that we live in a nightmare, even in the best of times and in the best places. Yes, there were and there are those who think that way. It's not an exclusive club, anyone can join. So why is it that the group of people who see reality as being analogous to an endless nightmare is much smaller than the group of people who see reality as an undertaking worth perpetuating? As some contemporary philosophers point out, there is ample evidence that most of our species suffer from optimistic bias and Pollyannaism (BENATAR, 2006). More than half of people—way more than half, in reality—believe they have a much better life than the average.

The Great Red Dragon and the woman clothed with the Sun, by William Blake, Brooklyn Museum version

The pessimistic conclusion of the world and the life-denying ethics that come from this philosophical pessimism are not guided by the notion that we are unable to solve the social problems that afflict us. Nor are they based on the assumption that we are unable to solve technical problems that result in a significant improvement in the quality of human life. You can be pessimistic, philosophically speaking, and still consider fair to fight against inequality, against racism and against class exploitation. Even more that that: there is no problem in believing these problems have solutions. In the same way, you will also be correct if you think that humanity has the capacity to improve everyone's quality of life by applying discoveries made in the fundamental sciences to advance techniques. After all, humanity has done this for the past few centuries: it gradually overcomes social and technological problems.

The year of 2020 brought us updated versions of ancient afflictions that humanity knows welleven though we got used to them by now, to the point of forgetting that they are bad and that they need answers. Racism. Poverty. Exploitation. Lack of economic perspective. Billions of people turn on each other to survive, even though the opportunities they fight for are becoming worse everyday. In the Brazilian case, we still have to endure a government that is one of the most bizarre examples of the reactionary and neo-fascist wave that has befallen the world in recent years, driven by a growing decades old obscurantist movement that is anti-modernity and anti-Enlightenment—a movement which I myself was an idiotic admirer in my youth. However, although these problems are complex, it's not foolish to believe that they can be solved, no matter how difficult the challenges may be.

Between the end of the last century and the beginning of this century, several thinkers, some more serious than others, imagined the resolution of even deeper issues that have afflicted the human species since it first evolved on this Earth, issues that have affected societies throughout history and prehistory alike. I am referring to the proposal of certain North American and European futurists to extend human life indefinitely, either by means of medical technologies that slow, prevent or reverse aging, or via almost magical means of transferring our consciousness to computers, making us virtually immortal. In light of the year 2020 and its most pressing problems, dreams of immortality coming from white European and American thinkers sound like white people's problems, and in a way they really are. But such dreams or proposals serve to illustrate how futile and misdirected are certain human efforts and wants, at least from the perspective of negative philosophy.

Nick Bostrom, a Swedish philosopher who became well known for arguing that we probably live in an ancestor simulation made by very advanced human beings, published a fictional story in the mid-2000s titled The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant. In the story, humanity has been under the yoke of a huge man-eating dragon for many, many centuries. Every day, at nightfall, the dragon demands that a few thousand humans be delivered to the foot of the mountain where it lives so that it can be fed. As much as humans tried to rebel, fight, perform magic rituals or pray to destroy the dragon, nothing happened, its power was absolute. The humans then decided to impose a law that required elderly people to be fed to the creature. In time, “dragonologists” emerged. Theologians and philosophers started to consider the dragon as part of the natural order, something beneficial, even. Over the centuries, they realized that the more regularly elderly people were served to the creature, the less likely it went out to raze cities and kill random people.

As humanity grew and developed, the dragon demanded a greater number of victims, reaching more than one hundred thousand per day. The dragon itself grew in size, being almost as big as the mountain on which it lived. At a certain point, iconoclastic dragonologists emerged who decided to question whether it was really impossible to kill the dragon. With a lot of effort, resources and ingenuity, human society mobilized to create a weapon capable of killing the dragon, an event that happens at the end of Bostrom's story. The dragon, according to Bostrom himself, is an analogy for death According to him, today's humanity is still in the primordial stages of questioning the need for death. One day, however, through much effort and human ingenuity, advanced technologies will be able to make us impervious to old age and deadly diseases.

The problem with this fantasy is that it s based on the idea that death is the only (or the greatest of all) evil(s), which is not necessarily true, especially when it comes to negative philosophies (CIORAN, 1989, 1990, 1990). Birth, coming into existence, necessarily places us within a terminal structure, regardless of the punctual death that occurs at the end of our lives (CABRERA, 2018). Within this terminal structure of being:

At birth, human beings are endowed with a kind of decreasing being (or 'decaying' being), a being that starts to end as soon as it emerges, and whose final end can occur at any moment. From the moment they first appear, humans are affected by three kinds of frictions: physical pain (in the form of diseases, accidents and catastrophes to which they are always exposed); discouragement (in the form of a 'lack of will' to continue acting, from the simple tedium vitae to severe forms of depression); and, finally, exposure to the aggressive actions of other humans (in the form of discrimination, chatter, gossip, slander, exclusion, persecution, injustice, physical and psychological torture, and even extermination), themselves also subjected to the three types of friction. (CABRERA, 2018)

In order to cope with this, we equip ourselves with “mechanisms for creating positive values that act as a defense (...) mechanisms that the human must constantly keep active against the advances of the diminishing being and its three types of friction.” (CABRERA, 2018) The positive values we create are able to postpone and mitigate different types of friction. They are even capable of making us forget our condition completely. But they don't make the frictions go away. So, it would be useless to be immortal, as these frictions will continue to exist. In the unlikely event that we are able to control physical and even emotional pain through future technologies, we would still continue to grapple with the other types of friction, such as boredom, which together with pain is the basic condition underlying human existence (SCHOPENHAUER, 2014, 2015).

We also need to take a step back when it comes to believing in our ability to solve problems without creating new setbacks. Machines powered by fossil fuels have replaced animal, human and wind powered machines, but they also created all sorts of new problems. Trains, cars and airplanes allow a huge number of people to travel more often and faster, but the existence of these technologies has already caused people to die from accidents, terrorist attacks, wars, etc. It is as if there were a diabolical irony embedded within the very idea of progress.

Negative ethics looks at this whole scenario and rejects the promises of a future human apotheosis, promises that are implied in positive or optimistic philosophies. We left the Medieval world, leaving all of that obscurantism behind, only to enter modernity and see the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the wars that resulted from the French Revolution—something that never happened during the Middle Ages. No matter how brutal and inhumane that period was, the number of deaths and misery generated by conflicts was always less than when humanity reached modernity. We left our collective childhood behind, as Kant liked to say regarding the Enlightenment, and arrived at the nuclear bomb. Progress!

Negative philosophy's refusal of life is not necessarily an embrace of suicide, but it involves, in large part, a proposal to abstain from human affairs. It is a minimalist ethic that aims to leave as little damage behind as possible. As I wrote earlier, this abstention does not mean that we cannot face problematic social issues. It also does not mean that technological challenges cannot be solved. However, a refusal to procreate is within the range of options encouraged in the fight against the real dragon-tyrant: existence itself, which encompasses not only death, but life, even in its best aspects.

For negative philosophies, the best aspects of life are just the “carrot at the end of the stick” held in front of any living being: good feelings and sensations, which aim to make the participants stay in the game. These good feelings and sensations even encourage the participants to produce new participants. Nature, however, within its biological randomness, produced at least one being capable of denying it through a negative ethic: us. We can see the ropes that manipulate reality, something that other animals cannot see, and we can choose whether to continue the circus or not. Given our constitution of structural death, which would continue even if we were virtually immortal (absolute immortality is impossible under the laws of physics), the negative philosopher's response is the refusal of life in the name of ethics, something that is completely opposite to what a thinker such as Nietzsche did, refusing ethics in the name of an absolutization of life (CABRERA, 2018).

For some contemporary pessimistic philosophers, even if we were born to have a genuinely immortal and divine life, a life filled only with pleasures and without any kind of pain, boredom or existential anguish, generating a new person would not be an obligation. At most, it would be an indifferent choice. This would be because, according to the antinatalist argument, if A does not exist, A does not lose anything, not even the possible positive states that A would enjoy—and that is not bad, since A does not exist to miss such positive states. However, if A does not exist, A will not go through negative states—and, contrary to the previous scenario, the argument states that this is good, even if A does not exist to benefit (BENATAR, 2006).

The intuition behind the antinatalist argument is the following: positive states are not needed for someone who has never existed (the existence of a delicious sundae in an uninhabited planet is indifferent); however, it is good when negative states are not able to hurt non-existent beings (it is good that there is no one on a planet that rains sulfuric acid). A real exemple: the impact of comet Schumaker-Levy on Jupiter did not cause any negative states for sentient beings (capable of feeling good and bad sensations, pleasure and pain), because Jupiter is not inhabited by sentient beings, as far as we know. Following the argument presented, even if our lives were truly immortal and divine, it would be indifferent whether or not to create new immortal and divine beings because, although they would have wonderful lives if they were created, by not creating them, they would not exist to miss those wonderful positive states.

However, we know that we are far from that. In fact, we have a good idea that, as much as we advance technologically in the future, the laws of nature would simply prevent us from one day reaching that absolute stage of benefits. However, although we know that we will never be divine, immortal and blessed beings, we also know that there is room for much improvement in concrete, real human life. There are several problems and social injustices that can be resolved. There are also technological problems that can be overcome. But, from a negative philosophical perspective, there is no reason why we should wait to put a minimalist ethic into practice—that is, there are no reasons why we should perpetuate life through continuous and incessant reproduction in the hopes of a future that justify all of our sufferings.

It is possible that some visionary in the year 900 a.D. thought something like this: “one day, humanity will be able to carry out some type of procedure to amputate a gangrened limb without pain and without causing a fever (infection) that kills the patient.” However, any past perspective that one day we would advance to the point of operating under anesthesia and have antibiotics does not justify the pain that countless humans went through in the period before general anesthesia and antibiotics. Yes, we must try to improve the concrete world now, today. But no future transformation will justify bringing new people into the world—without them being able to consent—so that they wither and die. Not even the future perspective that such people, for the most part, will end up enjoying their lives and become grateful for their existence.

By Fernando Olszewski

(This article was originally published June 11th, 2020 @ Exilado Metafísico)

. BENATAR, David. Better Never to Have Been: the harm of coming into existence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
. CABRERA, Julio. Mal-estar e moralidade: situação humana, ética e procriação responsável. Brasília: Editora Unb, 2018.
. CIORAN, Emil. Breviário de decomposição. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 1989. Tradução de: José Thomaz Brum.
. CIORAN, Emil. De l’inconvénient d’être né. Paris: Gallimard, 1990.
. CIORAN, Emil. La Chute dans le temps. Paris: Gallimard, 1990.
. SCHOPENHAUER, Arthur. As dores do mundo. São Paulo: Edipro, 2014. Tradução de: José Souza de Oliveira.
. SCHOPENHAUER, Arthur. O mundo como vontade e como representação. São Paulo: Editora Unesp, 2015. Tradução de: Jair Barboza.