Disclaimer: This post is entirely based on my impressions of longtermism as informed by my interaction with the literature, other longtermists, and questions from curious non-longtermists. This post is not a critique of the work being done by longtermists currently but rather a push to widen the category of interventions being pursued under the longtermist umbrella. It may be that I am missing some key facts in which case I would greatly appreciate responses challenging my assumptions, claims, and conclusions. Finally, all views expressed here are solely mine and do not reflect any organizations I am affiliated with directly or indirectly. I take full responsibility for any harmful premises presented.
This post is a personal reflection on longtermism from my perspective as an African woman living and working in the continent. In the post, I make the claim that it seems as though pursuing the ‘flourishing of future generations’ such that all future beings lead dignified and worthwhile lives points to the need for us to pursue more interventions that feed into systemic change. I also make this point as a contribution to the of pursuit of good value lock-in. I contend that the values we currently hold substantially lower the quality of life for some groups of people who share traits which have historically been subjected to oppression and marginalization and that failing to work on these issues falls short of the claim that (some) longtermists seek not only the endurance of humanity but its flourishing too.
My initial response as a newcomer to EA was to reject longtermism. At the very least, I believed—incorrectly—that the widely accepted sustainability principle already covered its objectives by ensuring that the earth remains habitable for future generations. I also found strong longtermism—that in any set of decision situations, the best decision would be the one with the best consequences for the far-future conclusion—to be quite counterintuitive, especially given my surroundings. Finally, it was also difficult to fully comprehend the sheer numbers cited (scope insensitivity), difficult to believe that we could actually know what would count as protecting future generations (cluelessness), and even then whether these actions would actually lead to their intended consequences given that their effects are to be felt far off into the future (e.g., washing out and rapid diminution).
The case for longtermism rests on the following premises: (a) that future people matter, i.e., they have equal moral worth as present people; (b) that by many estimates, they will by far outnumber us; (c) that there are ways in which we can make sure the longterm future goes well; and (d) (according to strong longtermists) that doing so is the greatest moral imperative of our lifetime given what is at stake. My understanding of the work and literature around longtermism seems to indicate that longtermism, broadly speaking, is concerned with two objectives: (a) ensuring that the longterm future exists and humanity’s potential is not destroyed or significantly impaired (work here is heavily focused on preventing existential catastrophes) as well as, (b) ensuring that future beings lead flourishing lives (concerns here revolve around the quality of lives and wellbeing of sentient beings existing then, e.g., good value lock in and preventing suffering risks).
I gradually came to embrace weak longtermism as a result of frequently exposing myself to discussions on the idea, a commitment to embracing the scout mindset, and becoming aware of some of the cognitive biases at work. Hence, I consider ensuring that the longterm future goes well a priority of mine without it being the key priority. Notably, my belief that pursuing both objectives (survival and thriving) is a worthwhile enterprise forms the foundation of my longtermist identity. Recent works have also been of tremendous help by presenting additional perspectives on concern for posterity and a desire to improve the future from other cultures, such as Abungu’s work, which looks into the perspectives of several African communities and reports by the Legal Priorities Project showing the apparent consensus amongst both lay people and legal experts on the fact that we could and should do more to protect future generations using legal channels.
[On the language of longtermism]
Longtermist aspirations, as seen through longtermism’s language and principles, reflect neutrality and impartiality in the pursuit of interventions designed to ensure that the longterm future goes well. However, my contention arises from the fact that we live in a deeply unequal world and some of the causes of inequality are deeply entrenched into our systems. It appears then to me that the neutral language of longtermism – which informs the types and scope of interventions pursued – overlooks the serious ways in which we are greatly unequal. This, in turn, increases the possibility that only certain privileged groups will stand to benefit (and perhaps disproportionately so) from the interventions undertaken under the seemingly neutral pursuit to protect and promote the existence and wellbeing of all human beings.
[Formal v Substantive Equality]
To elucidate this point, I’ll briefly discuss the concept of equality as understood under the doctrine of indirect discrimination. Firstly, it is important here to broadly distinguish between formal equality (where treating people equally is equated with treating them similarly) and substantive equality (where structural comparisons are made to ensure that already marginalized groups are not further harmed even by facially neutral acts, principles, or policies). When we assume that formal equality (using neutral language in setting out principles, acts, or policies) necessarily leads to substantive equality, we may inadvertently lead to the further exclusion or marginalization of already vulnerable groups. This is because, as MacKinnon observes looking at the roots of the principle, the call to treat like alike and unlike was not, in principle, intended to promote equality in instances of inequality (e.g., between Greek men and Greek women) but rather to stabilize relations amongst those who are already structurally alike (e.g., amongst adult Greek men).
This recognition of the ways in which group differences (e.g., race, gender, sexuality, etc.) may render even facially neutral approaches (laws, policies, acts, etc.) disproportionately harmful to such groups has instead been embraced as a more robust way of ensuring that true equality is pursued. Thus, rigorously assessing our acts, principles, or policies would allow us not only to detect inadvertent disparate effects but also to counter them as all decision-makers would be compelled to interrogate the impact of their practices or policies on people who are different from them. Furthermore, several proponents of this view (under the indirect discrimination doctrine) attach moral culpability to actors who fail to seriously take into consideration the vulnerability of certain groups given their historical oppression, citing this as a failure to acknowledge others as persons of equal moral worth in their deliberation. Such ‘negligent’ actors are also accused of intentionally seeking to maintain the status quo and compounding injustice.
According to Our World in Data, the sole instance of being born in the developed world may make a world of difference in the quality and kind of life one will lead. Additionally, recent UN estimates show that by 2050, half of the world’s population growth will be concentrated in about nine countries, eight of which are low- and middle-income countries with a majority black and brown population. This then seems to indicate that an increasing percentage of the world’s population will be born in and live in a world with deeply entrenched systemic issues ranging from their weak national institutions and widening inequalities to systemic biases with regards to their race and gender (as well as ableism, cis-heteronormativity, etc.) and the increasingly anti-immigration stances being embraced in the developed world. These deeply entrenched problems present very serious challenges to the lives of millions of people presently, which greatly diminishes the quality of their lives. Worse still, these challenges (most of them systemic) are quite likely to persist into the future if they are not strategically and intentionally addressed.
It seems necessary to me then, when envisioning the future and promoting the longtermist objectives, to ask the question, ‘Who are we envisioning as the kind person who will live in the longterm future?’. Further, do we envision the far future to be raceless, genderless etc. (or at least one where these traits do not connote the power/vulnerability that they currently do)? Are countries from the global south sufficiently developed politically and economically to be considered equal voices on the global stage? If so, how did they manage to overcome the persisting effects of colonialism, imperialism, and exploitation? In a nutshell, will the existing systemic injustices be a thing of the past? If not, and if indeed the situation significantly worsens for this growing population, how would we, as longtermists have countered the repugnant conclusion? If such injustices will be a thing of the past, what role would we have played as longtermists in ensuring this state of affairs? This question is quite pertinent, especially as Cargill asserts in ‘Expanding the moral circle to future generations’ in The Long View, that the assumption that ‘the moral arc ineluctably bends to justice’ is mistaken and that it has taken (and will continue to take) the intentional hard work of daring members of society to expand our moral circle of concern. I also argue that it is not good enough to work only towards ensuring that the longterm future exists, assuming that these challenges will somehow self-correct. Instead, I believe that as a community of people dedicated to doing the most good we can, we ought to strive to ensure that those who will live then live sufficiently well.
Having laid out my contention, I find myself going back to the oft made criticism against EA on the non-pursuit of systemic change or the missing middle problem as described by Gabriel and McElwee. I also find myself sympathetic to the methodological critique of EA by Broi where he observes that while EA institutionally does not prevent the pursuit of systemic change, its methodology does not seem to give much room for such interventions to be successfully considered. I extend both of these views to my concerns about longtermism (albeit loosely as I suspect there may be some key differences between EA and Longtermism that would render this comparison ineffective). Still, I believe that as longtermism is focused on even larger timescales and population scales, the currently pursued longtermist interventions by the community are too narrow, almost entirely focused on preventing or mitigating x-risks. Unfortunately, my limited quantitative skills hinder me from making any robust critiques as to the methodology employed by longtermists to successfully make this point. Yet I still find it difficult to envision a truly flourishing longterm future for all people while social, political, and economic inequalities persist and become more entrenched. What’s more, the UN’s Our Common Agenda: Policy Brief 1, concerned with the protection of future generations echoes this point of view calling for ‘redoubled efforts to achieve peace, sustainability, human rights, fairness, inclusion, and equality in the present’. Hence, I think the absence of this concern in longtermist literature and discussions is worrying and leaves uncertainty over the longtermist position.
That future people have equal moral worth as current people, is a bedrock principle in longtermism, and yet demonstrating this equal moral concern requires more than the mere acknowledgement of this fact. It requires the recognition that certain groups of people are systemically marginalized and highly vulnerable, so promoting their wellbeing well into the future would require the arduous task of getting rid of the heavy chains that have been put on them for generations. Failing to take seriously these serious barriers to a more fulfilling and dignified life might inevitably render the longtermist agenda partial to the interests of the already privileged populations and their descendants. Ultimately, I believe that seriously taking into account the inequalities that persist in pursuing longtermism may prevent us from reaching dreadful conclusions such as ‘save the westerner’ and eugenicist ones.
In closing, I would like to share my own reasons for promoting longtermism and urging other young, brilliant Africans to embrace it. Firstly, I generally believe in the aims of longtermism, which focus on promoting and preserving the longterm potential of humanity. I also firmly believe in the power of additional perspectives in improving the robustness of any noble ideas and pursuits, including longtermism. I think that voices from this part of the world have the potential to provide great improvements to the philosophy and its practical work thus ensuring that the longterm future goes well for everyone. Furthermore, I think that longtermism is a fairly young field and thus more amenable to change. Lastly, I hope that through the diversification of thought and identities, the movement will become a shining example of true equality as seen through its culture and treatment of minorities, in stark opposition to the prevailing treatment we receive in other spaces in the rest of the world.
To end, I would like to address a few readily apparent concerns/challenges that I foresee arising from this post.
- Although I have been in the longtermist space for over 2 years now, engaging with these ideas, I believe that there could be strands of longtermism that I am yet to be aware of which sufficiently address my concerns. In that case, this post is also a call to make those strands more visible and give them more legitimacy in EA/Longtermist spaces.
- I also understand that the problems I have mentioned likely fail to meet the neglectedness and/or tractability criteria. However, as indicated in the post, I am sympathetic to the calls to adjust the current methodology to at least give some interventions in the systemic change funnel a fighting chance especially given the longtermist view. I also write this post to ensure that these concerns stay in our minds as we conceptualize a flourishing future for all sentient beings.
- I have (indirectly) made the assertion that, as longtermists it is important that the future we envision is one in which we have avoided the Repugnant Conclusion. This assertion is somewhat challenged here, but I retain the assertion because I think there is value in thinkers taking their time to seriously consider ways in which such conclusions may be avoided.
 For example, the methodology used in EA is very heavily focused on evidence and impact with good feedback loops while the one employed in longtermism is more speculative. Additionally, the scales considered under neartermism are also much smaller and shorter than in longtermism.