Aubrey de Grey, a great advocate of immortality, is not worried about “immortal tyrants” for three reasons. First, because tyrannicide will still be possible. Second, because the spread of democracy will preemptively forestall tyranny. Third, because one immortal tyrant may not be so bad as a succession of tyrants, where the next guy is worse than the last. Each argument shows characteristic limits of the transhumanist imagination.

As far as tyrannicide goes, like many transhumanists de Grey stops well short of thinking through the possible consequences of the change he proposes (we are all speculating here, but we can try to be thorough speculators). Remember that tyrants already tend to be fairly security-conscious, knowing that whatever happens they are still mortal. Why would the prospect of having power and immortality to lose make them less risk-averse? It seems rather more likely that the immortal tyrant will be extremely risk-averse and hence security-conscious, and therefore represent a very “hard target” for the assassin — who will have equally much to lose if his mission is unsuccessful. As it is, most people living under a tyrant just do their best to keep their heads down; tyrannicides are rare. Throw immortality into the mix, and they are likely to be rarer still.

As far as democracy goes, de Grey exhibits a confidence characteristic of transhumanists generally: he knows what the future holds. I would certainly join him in hoping that democracy is here to stay and increasingly the wave of the future, but I don’t know that to be true and I don’t know how anyone could know that to be true. The victory of democracy over tyranny in the twentieth century was a near thing. History tells us that good times readily give way to bad times. The belief that democracy represents a permanent cure to the problem of tyranny is facile, in the way that all easy confidence about the direction of history is facile.

Finally, de Grey falls back on the proposition ‘better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’ — better Lenin than Stalin, to use his example. Leaving aside the question of how different the two leaders actually were, here de Grey is apparently trying to be hard-headed: It may not be all sweetness and light when we’re all immortal after all! Like many transhumanists, he is not very good at moral realism. You have to wonder: would the character of the immortal tyrant really stay the same over time? If, as the old maxim holds, absolute power corrupts absolutely, it would seem very much more likely that life under an immortal tyrant would get worse.

Finally, the problem is not really just tyranny, it is evil. In his Wisconsin State Fair speech of 1859, Lincoln notes, “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! — how consoling in the depths of affliction!” Immortal evil means a world where the prideful will never be chastened, and the afflicted only consoled by giving up the very boon that de Grey promises us.


  1. Thanks for engaging with actual transhumanist arguments!

    I'll go ahead and note that it is a world of mortality, not immortality, where in fact the prideful are never chastened; there's no evidence that anyone ever held Genghis Khan to account, and he's certainly not around now to be judged (though, by this age, he might be effectively a different person).

    The story of "This too shall pass" is much older than Lincoln; Wikipedia confirms my memory that this was originally a Jewish legend involving King Solomon.

    Of course time goes on passing even if you're immortal. It is only memory that lasts.

  2. Mr. Yudkowsky, of course the story of 'this too shall pass' long predates Lincoln; not only is that common knowledge, but Lincoln even said as much.

    More importantly, your invocation of Genghis Khan suggests that you miss the point of the Lincoln quotation (and of Charlie Rubin's final paragraph). A cruel tyrant, surveying his realm, might perhaps be humbled if he were to understand that someday, his works will all be undone. ("Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.") But if he could cling to power interminably, if he knew he need never reckon with mortality, there would certainly be no such chastening. And those under his heel would have far less consolation and far less hope of relief.

  3. If you are immortal, what is the point of being a tyrant? Also, as technology progress, people will also communicate more easily and at faster speed. This let people organize a lot faster and make the transfer of information and ideas easier. The fact that I'm writing here is just one example of that concept. Wouldn't it make tyranny tougher to manage to the point where it doesn't make any sense to become a tyrant? Then, you have to wonder, is there any proof that staying mortal would help our cause in any way? It's like never inventing the car in case we ever lack oil. I might be wrong however.

    Please, accept my apologies, I'm not as fluent in english as most of you. I'm doing my best to share my ideas correctly in language different than my own.

  4. A tyrant *might* be chastened? That's a scanty thread on which to hang your hopes of fairness. Still less a justification for embracing Death itself and all the loss it brings.

    Sad fact: Genghis Khan had fun and died without ever realizing what he had done. Life isn't fair. Death doesn't make it any fairer.

    I'll go ahead and note that immortality would indeed be hollow without intelligence enhancement; what good is memory without learning? That might be something on which to pin a hope for the end of tyranny – much better than wishing, probably futilely, that the most evil people of this world are sad about dying. How does that even make life any fairer if the good people are sad too?

  5. Simon, don't worry, I honestly couldn't tell that English wasn't your first language!

    I don't see why "the point of being a tyrant" would be affected by immortality. Assuming that we're limiting the scenario to life extension and not the full-blown Singularity (as kurt9 has been happy to do in previous discussions), there will still be a limited range of things from which people gain pleasure, and 'having power over others' will certainly still be one of them. The terrifying quote from 1984 — "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever" — would be a lot more likely to come true, if structures could stabilize as Rubin suggests.

    Unless, of course, you're right about technology helping the opposition organize. The use of Twitter by protesters in Iran was widely-touted, and indeed it was very helpful to them. But since the initial protests, Iran has brought in consultants from China to help them manage their response: and it's all the more effective precisely because of technology. Along with Basiji batons, the government is using video cameras to identify protesters and quietly arrest them weeks later; Twitter followers and Facebook friends have been used to catalogue and attack networks of students who are likely to share the same political views. And that's just direct repression. People have long predicted that the internet would democratize China. While the most tech-savvy have found ways around government firewalls, though, for the most part the regieme seems very much in control of the situation — certainly more so than in 1989. At the very least, you must admit that tech is a two-edged sword.

  6. I thank Mr. Dufour for one of the clearest and most thoughtful responses I have seen on this blog so far. Let me respond to his points in reverse order.

    1) Immortality would not be like the normal run of human inventions; I think it fair to say it would be without precedent. So the usual "we'll deal with that problem when it arises" approach that is ok in the case of a car does not do justice to immortality.

    2) Knowing that communication among their subjects is a threat to them, tyrants make efforts to disrupt it. In the Soviet Union, the Moscow telephone directory was a classified document. The Iranians disrupted the Internet during this year's massive election protests. The Stasi's huge network of informants made even personal conversations dangerous. Such efforts may be a cat-and-mouse game, but the net result is that the quality, reliability, and safety of communication can be significantly degraded. There is no reason to think the good guys will have the edge just for being good guys.

    3) Your first point about the motives for tyranny goes very deep, and I would be interested in hearing arguments that elaborate on it. I will not do justice to the topic here myself. Broadly speaking, though, whether his motives are personal or ideological, the tyrant seeks the maximum freedom to do as he wills. In that sense, he is close kin to our transhumanist libertarians, so we might already begin to wonder why tyranny would not be even more frequent in their future than our present. We are told that one should be able to do as one wills so long as it does not harm others, or some like argument. The tyrant is simply more consistent, and has no desire to let others restrict his will at all.

  7. Mr. Yudkowsky – I don't recall saying anything about fairness. But thank you for introducing here the subject of 'intelligence enhancement'; there are huge and interesting assumptions embedded in your suggestion that it might somehow reduce the likelihood of tyranny.

    Messrs. Dufour, Boyd, and Rubin – On the subject of tyranny and communication technology, you might enjoy this recent piece from the Weekly Standard. It walks through some of the hyperbole about Twitter and last summer's protests in Iran. It also quotes Gordon Brown making this pronouncement:

    "You cannot have Rwanda again because information would come out far more quickly about what is actually going on and the public opinion would grow to the point where action would need to be taken."

    Prime Minister Brown is saying about genocide the same thing that Mr. Dufour said about tyranny: a lack of information is what lets it happen. But having more and faster information will not necessarily give people what they need to fight tyranny, or give states what they need to fight genocide: the moral clarity to know action is needed, and the courage to act. Sometimes, more and faster information can even detract from the moral clarity and courage needed to fight evil.

  8. I don't think we should "deal with that problem with it arise". However, we have to wonder if it's really a different problem than having a mortal tyrant. Immortality itself don't promote tyranny in any way. It doesn't even hint to it. In fact, it gives incentive against it. If you are immortal, it would make sense to slowly progress toward your goal with the lowest risk possible to avoid loosing everything. Taking risk to achieve rapid gains seem counter-productive to me. We must also add that a lot of things would completely disappear.. the classic wish to be part of history, to be remembered after your death become a moot point, don't it.

    Again, this is all very speculative. Immortality would bring more changes than we could ever think of. I'm an optimistist however and, to me, there seem to be more value in prolonging life than to die.

  9. I confess to being mystified why assertions of how Genghis Khan felt about himself when he died should make a difference to my argument. For some people, a confrontation with their mortality may induce moral seriousness; for others it may not. But in terms of our discussion of tyranny, the salient point is that Genghis Khan is dead. We no longer have to worry about his plans and ambitions. There have since arisen new tyrants with their own grand plans and ambitions for world conquest or thousand-year Reichs. So let's think about two options for starters. Which would you rather live under? Which situation would provide more consolation? The first is the tyrant who, like most tyrants, is not that good at dealing with the problem of succession and continuity (successors being potential rivals). So when he dies, who knows what will happen? The second is the immortal tyrant, who wants a thousand-year Reich and will be around to rule it. A thousand years of habits of command and obedience, of jaded appetites, of willful behavior — and who knows: he may just be getting started. There's a happy thought.

    I thank Mr. Yudkowsky for letting the cat out of the bag with respect to intelligence enhancement being required along with immortality. But that lovely idea sounds to me like more whistling in the dark. Life experience and reading history has taught me that there is a slim correlation between intelligence and decency, and I'm not even sure it is slim — it may be none. It would hardly seem necessary to belabor this point given all the recent stories about the harm the smartest guys in the room are capable of.

    And yes I know we are to believe that there are all different kinds of intelligence; if Mr. Yudkowsky wants to say enhanced moral intelligence let him do so. That would move us down the path towards what I think is the ultimate reason transhumanists are not worried about immortal evil: because they think that what we know of humans will not tell us anything about posthuman behavior.

  10. With regard to information preventing tyranny, Stephen Colbert put it best on his show on Tuesday. In reference to last year's Iranian Green Revolution: "It was a heady time, when we believed that right could overcome might, and that Twitter actually mattered."

  11. The problem of tyrants is one that the developed and much of the developing world is likely passed for good. One does not need a Kurtzweilian singularity to have the decentralization of technology and communication make it such that tyranny becomes logistically impossible. As you have probably figured out by now, I don't believe in the singularity. However, there is the more "mundane" singularity that Brian Wang has described on his website that definitely will happen. I think that the decentralization of technology, especially biotech and manufacturing, is going to make any such tyranny scenario logistically impossible in the next few decades anyways. So, the immortal tyrant argument against radical life extension is not valid.

    Besides, Thomas Jefferson (or was it Ben Franklin?) once said that the price of freedom is eternal vigilence. You don't think that some of us transhumanists take this admonishment to heart? Of course we do. The fear of a potential adverse consequence is no reason to give up on a long term dream or goal. Especially when it is existential in nature. As I said before with regards to this matter, failure is not an option.

    I stand by my point that the only legitimate argument against radical life extension (assuming we never do space colonization) is that of over-population. I provided a link to a presentation based on future population projections for the rest of this century that comprehensivesly debunks this argument.

  12. Once again Mr. Dufour has hit some nails on the head. But he has not (if I may mix metaphors) hit the ball out of the park. I agree that we should not expect exactly the same behaviors from mortal and immortal tyrants; immortal tyrants may indeed be less inclined to seek the rapid gains necessary to enjoy as much power as possible in a brief life. Perhaps they will be more measured in seeking tyranny, more patient. Will such traits make them less tyrannical or more insidious tyrants? (One might consult Xenophon here.) As for immortal glory, already tyrants want to be always in the eyes and minds of their subjects, and death in this respect is a great leveler. Those left behind have, at the very least, the consolation of watching pigeons crap on the statue of the Great Leader. Why would I want to be any less in the thoughts of my subjects if I knew I had all the time in the world?

    I'm guessing that at root Mr. Dufour and I disagree on the following. I see the desire for tyranny as coeval with our humanity. We all share the tyrannic impulse to do as we please, the impulse encouraged by transhumanism. Our circumstances and abilities will constrain us, more or less (transhumanism wants less). Many will learn not to let this tyrannic desire dominate their lives (often based on ethical systems that transhumanists regard as outmoded). Some will only be able to tyrannize over family, or neighbors, or coworkers. A very few will reach the greatest heights and rule large numbers. Immortality does not have to create incentives for tyranny; they are built in. But it can make tyranny worse, and transhumanism can contribute to liberating the core desire that stands behind it.

  13. I'm sorry but I can't see how the ideologies behind transhumanism encourage tyranny. The end of human suffering, the extension of life, technogaianism all seem to be noble ideologies. To me, antimodernism and radical environmentalism seem way more dangerous routes. I might not be tailored for this debate.

  14. Simon, it doesn't. The immortal tyrant argument is a red-herring. The kind of technologies that make post-mortality and other transhumanist technologies possible will lead to empowerment of individuals and self-interested small groups relative to the power of large corporations and nation-states (this more than any other reason makes transhumanism worthy of support). This is inherently decentralizing in nature and, thus, makes any kind of tyranny increasing impossible for logistical reasons alone. I believe that, at least places like the U.S. and even China, we're past the point where anything like a return to Maoism is even possible.

    The immortal tyrant argument is a silly one.

  15. I don't see how an individual tyrant accumulating more and more life experience gives me a worse chance than old tyrants passing the reign to young tyrants. But in any case, we're overrunning the assumptions I actually believe in here. I'm expecting an AI scenario and that's a whole different order of story. That said, if an AI was noninterventionist to leave non-dying humans in a state where it was possible for one of them to become a tyrant, I don't think I'd be fearing it much more because everyone was immortal. The problem of tyranny is not bound to particular tyrants. Humanity has started moving past tyranny but not because people are shorter-lived, etcetera.

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