Longtermism
Is improving the far future one of the key moral priorities of our time? If it is, how should this influence our actions?

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This profile is tailored towards students studying economics, philosophy and psychology, however we expect there to be valuable open research questions that could be pursued by students in other disciplines.

Why is this a pressing problem?

In The Precipice, the philosopher Toby Ord describes longtermism as a philosophy that ‘takes seriously the fact that our own generation is but one page in a much longer story, and that our most important role may be how we shape—or fail to shape—that story.’

It’s very common to feel some level of concern and responsibility for future lives – many people are concerned about the effects of climate change because of the hardships their children and grandchildren may face, for example. Longtermists take this common idea further: might working to increase the wellbeing of future lives be the most important thing we can do today?

This might be the case because, providing humanity doesn’t go extinct, the potential number of future lives could be vast, far exceeding the number of people who have existed so far. For example, Our World in Data estimates that if humanity survives as long as the typical mammalian species (1 million years), the population stabilises at 11 billion, and the average life length raises to 88 years, there would be 100 trillion people alive over the next 800,000 years. Depending on the trajectory of humanity’s future, the number of future humans could be many orders of magnitude higher. Of course, we could also meet at early extinction, meaning it could be much lower.

If we can predictably and positively influence the future through the actions we take today, we could influence a vast number of lives. If we consider these future lives to be just as morally significant as lives today, it could be that trying to improve them is the most important thing for us to focus on. 

This possibility raises many fundamental questions that further research is needed to answer. For example, how reliably can we improve the future? How do efforts to improve lives in the short-term seem likely to affect the long-term future? Is trying to reduce the risk of human extinction the best thing we can do for the future? Should we focus on trying to bring the best possible future about, or should our efforts go towards trying to avoid the worst possible outcomes?

Explore existing research

Some starting points for further reading are:

  • Greaves, H., & MacAskill, W. (2021). The case for strong longtermism.
  • Beckstead, N. (2013). On the overwhelming importance of shaping the far future.
  • Greaves, H. (2017). Population axiology.
  • Mogensen, A. L. (2019). Staking our future: Deontic longtermism and the non-identity problem.
  • Curran, E. J. (2022). Longtermism, aggregation, and catastrophic risk.
  • Broome, J. (2005). Should we value population?
  • Beckstead, N., & Thomas, T. (2021). A paradox for tiny probabilities and enormous values.
  • Greaves, H. (2016). Cluelessness.
  • Thorstad, D. (2022). Existential risk pessimism and the time of perils.
 

A full syllabus on longtermism is another source of further reading, based on a course on longtermism taught at the University of Oxford.

Find a thesis topic

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, below are some ideas on what would be valuable to explore further. The questions below are drawn from the Global Priorities Research agenda and the agenda of the Effective Altruism Psychology Lab.

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  • What are the long-term effects of interventions that seem particularly high-priority from a short-term perspective, for example the highest impact global health and development interventions or the most effective programmes to help farm animals? Under what conditions, if any, might they exceed the expected long-term impacts of (other) efforts aimed explicitly at improving the long term? (Global Priorities Institute research agenda)
  • Given the informed disagreements that persist regarding the social discounting rate and other normative issues of relevance for longtermism, non-dogmatic agents should arguably be uncertain about these issues. What social discount rate and other normative assumptions should be adopted in light of this uncertainty? (Global Priorities Institute research agenda)
  • The ‘size’ of the future may present us with other ways, beyond reducing or mitigating catastrophic risks, of producing vast amounts of value. In particular, we may be able to produce lasting technological or civilisational ‘trajectory changes’ whose expected long-term value exceeds that of existential risk mitigation. This warrants putting thought into identifying promising trajectory-change opportunities and developing a framework for prioritising among them. (Global Priorities Institute research agenda)
  • Any actions and policies that affect the very long-term future will change the size and composition of the total population of everyone who will ever live. The moral evaluation of such changes is fraught with paradoxes. Does longtermism presuppose some particular, controversial population axiology, such as total utilitarianism? Or might longtermism be robustly supported across a range of minimally plausible population axiologies? If so, do different axiologies support different conclusions about intra-longtermist prioritisations? (Global Priorities Institute research agenda)
  • Should longtermists be more concerned about avoiding the worst possible outcomes for the future than ensuring that the very best outcomes occur? This could be because the costs of the worst outcomes are greater than the benefits of the best outcomes, because avoidance of the worst outcomes is more neglected, or because the worst outcomes should be given more weight than the best outcomes? If so, what activities would be best? (Global Priorities Institute research agenda)
  • Assess the expected value of the continued existence of humanity. Might this expected value be negative, or just unclear? How do our answers to these questions vary if we (i) assume utilitarianism; (ii) assume a non-utilitarian axiology; (iii) fully take axiological uncertainty into account? (Global Priorities Institute research agenda)

Research that helps estimate the wellbeing of future individuals could help longtermists decide whether it is more important to prioritise improving the quality of future lives or reducing the chances of human extinction. The research agenda of the Effective Altruism Psychology Lab includes the following related questions:

  • How happy are people today and what can this tell us about people’s wellbeing levels in the future?
    • What proportion of people finds their lives valuable and worth living, i.e., better than neutral? Are there cross-cultural differences?
    • What predicts happiness? Are there demographic or cross-cultural differences? 
    • What’s the relative intensity and evaluation of negative versus positive experiences?
    • Is the baseline affect weakly positive? Is it also true of non-humans?
    • How could ongoing trends in technology affect human happiness in the distant future, and therefore, the value of reducing human extinction risk?

Further resources

The website longtermism.com has many useful resources and suggestions for further reading if you want to explore this direction further.

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, apply for our coaching and we can connect you with researchers already working in this space, who can help you refine your research ideas. You can also apply to join our community if you’re interested in peer connections with others working in this area. 

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  • Future Matters is a newsletter covering a variety of topics related to longtermism.

Contributors

This profile was last updated 21/12/2022. Thanks to Charlotte Siegmann and Tomi Francis for helpful feedback on this profile. All errors remain our own.

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