Few in the last few weeks could have missed the media treatment of Elon Musk or Sam Beckman-Fried. Yet they both share a moral philosophy ‘longtermism’ – which is both increasingly influential and controversial. To the extent of it being described as a new religion.
Long termism evolved out of the movement known as effective altruism
Everyone wants to do good, but many ways of doing good are ineffective. The EA community is focused on finding ways of doing good that actually work.
The key figure here is the Oxford Philosopher William Macaskill in his book ‘What We Owe the Future’ (2022)
Macaskill has two main arguments, people in the future matter as much as people born today, Second, the future could be vast. Absent catastrophe, most people who will ever live have not yet been born. Third, our actions may predictably influence how well this long-term future goes. In sum, it may be our responsibility to ensure future generations get to survive and flourish.
Closely related to this is arguments about the social discount rate – what rate we discount for example carbon emissions. The Stern review from 2005 commissioned by Gordon Brown argued for a low time discounting (0.1%), this was criticised by many economists.
Economists express current and future costs and benefits on a comparable basis, they discount future amounts, converting them to the equivalent present value. At a 3% discount rate, £103 a year from now has a present value of £100.
Stern generally accepted the philosophical argument now put forward by liong-termists for treating all generations equally, he also observes that there is a small, but non-zero, probability that future generations will not exist – for example, if a natural or man-made disaster destroys most or all of the human race.
Conversely if you set the discount rate high you reduce the cost of carbon. The Trump Administration set it at 7% for example.
In the light of these arguments the Treasury undertook a review of the social discount rate last year and kept it at 3.5%
What however if you make the social discount rate close to the limit of zero. A position that might correspond with what has been called ‘strong longtermism’.
William Macaskill has supported a weaker version of longtermism but stated that strong longtermism may be true.
Strong longtermism has led to many utilitarian arguments of dubious moral integrity, such as that near extinction climate change doesn’t matter because in the long term humanity could recover and the true long term threats are things such as total extinction from AI.
MacAskill and Greaves wrote in their 2019 paper laying out the case for strong longtermism: “For the purposes of evaluating actions, we can in the first instance often simply ignore all the effects contained in the first 100 (or even 1000) years, focussing primarily on the further-future effects. Short-run effects act as little more than tie-breakers.”
The revised version, dated June 2021, notably leaves this passage out.
What We Owe the Future surmises that even a “worst-case” climate scenario—the burning of 300 years’ worth of fossil fuels, resulting in three trillion tons of emitted carbon—is a survivable scenario. He surmises the resulting warming of 7 to 9.5 degrees Celsius would be bad, but finds it “hard to see how even this could lead directly to civilizational collapse.”
With the heavy weighting given to future humanity – a humanity expanding ever outwards to the stars in Musks fantasies – you can discount short term ‘blips’ such as famine, inequality and mass starvation if favour of an extreme utilitarian calculus that only the far future matters.
The problem is that only people alive today feel pain and suffering. Freedom from pain and suffering is the starting point of human rights. Extreme utilitarianism such as strong lomgtermism has no conception of human rights, or even social norms,the rule of law or restraint, as long as it is for the ‘future good’. Hence Crypto Bros such as SBF distaining rules, restraint and evening excusing raw theft and fraud as long as it promoted the future of humanity. Ultimately it becomes a form of fascism, which always thinks through the lens of conceptions such as the ‘nation; rather than people. Strong longtermism interposes ‘humanity’ as the above the person concept – hence its bad taste in the mouth relationships to eugenics and transhumanism.
The position that you cant always put a money price on things is a good critique of cost benefit approaches to decisions. ‘What price your grandmother’. But time preference is human and necessary to any form of decision making. If you choose to plant a tree on land you could go food on that metric is inevitable. If you planted a ‘world tree’ with a spectacular galaxy filling payoff in 10,million years in favour of everyone bar one remaining adam and eve as their would be no land for food that would not be a good decision. We naturally discount because we are human and seek to promote welfare within foreseeable horizons for ourselves, our children and our planet.
We make sacrifices for tangible returns providing the uncertainties are controllable. A good example is the planting of oaks by the likes of Capability Brown and Humphry Repton in their designs even though they would not mature for 200 years, presuming an intergenerational management of the landscape. This example is often quoted but can be exaggerated. Most landscapes were adaptations of medieval hunting parks with many even then veteran trees. The planting of new trees was designed to replace their inevitable loss and death. Their patrons would not have paid for landscapes they were incapable of enjoying in their lifetimes.
It is impossible to plan without some form of short-medium term horizon. If you become slaves to the far future, through a discount rate near the limit of zero, short and medium terms returns and comparisons become meaningless. It allows for almost any argument on planning to be trumped by arguments fo far future welfare, however uncertain or far fetched.
Indeed humanity would have long since become extinct had we made decisions on the basis of strong longtermism as we would have not built up the capacity to deflect short terms shocks.