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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. 

[Earlier impressions]

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.

[My claim]

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)[1]. 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.

[Closing remarks]

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. 

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.  


[1] 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.  





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Hi! I enjoyed reading this; thanks for writing and posting it!

I'd make a tentative guess that many (most?) longtermists would totally agree with a ton of the substantive claims in this post — or at least I do — such as: 

  • Substantive equality, as defined in this post, is the right way to think about equality
    • (Though I'll register that I personally find discussions about equality to often be pretty confusing/unhelpfully framed, when we don't agree on a) what quantities should be equal, b) how they're currently distributed, and c) and what it would look like for them to be equal)
  • Systemic marginalisation matters, and should be taken very seriously
  • The developing world is hugely important when thinking about building a better future (& will become more so over time)

I think one way we could make discussions about the kinds of issues you've brought up here go better would be to make them more concrete and explicit about the kinds of things we'd like to see more of versus less of.

Here's my attempt to summarise the 'my claim' section (do you think this seems right?)

  1. 'Systemic issues [such as] weak national institutions and widening inequalities to systemic biases with regards to their race and gender (as well as ableism, cis-heteronormativity, etc.) and...anti-immigration stances...are quite likely to persist into the future if they are not strategically and intentionally addressed.'
  2. [Just paraphrasing for brevity] Longtermists should think more carefully about what this means for their work.
  3. 'It is not good enough to work only towards ensuring that the longterm future exists...we ought to strive to ensure that those who will live then live sufficiently well.'
  4. 'The currently pursued longtermist interventions by the community are too narrow, almost entirely focused on preventing or mitigating x-risks.'

I feel like I'd be much better able to figure out whether I agreed with your argument here, if I had a few examples of the kinds of things you'd be interested in seeing longtermists do more of to 'broaden' the interventions we pursue.

I think some of them I'd really support, and others I'd be less excited about — at least in part because my impression is that lots of methods we know of for fighting inequality are pretty popular with mainstream movements for doing good (so they're less neglected than weirder stuff EAs tend to do). 

Thanks again for your post! :D

Hi Bella, 

I’m glad to hear that, and thanks for your comment, it’s been very helpful!

I think your summary is pretty accurate, although I think I ought to clarify my position on things we’d like to see more of than less of. I really make no claims about what I want to see less of. For example, I don’t think that the work being done on x-risks is overemphasised; rather, I am making the argument that we can begin to tackle more problems as longtermists given their huge potential benefits in the far future.

A bit of a warning: I haven’t spent as much time thinking about the solution space but intend to do more of this going forward, so take my responses as preliminary thoughts.

When writing this post, I did think that most of these claims seemed reasonable enough, but I worried that I could be missing a crucial fact that would show these views as not fitting into the longtermist philosophy or practise, e.g., an informal consensus on longtermism being solely focused on ensuring that future people exist. This was also a concern because, other than passing mentions of good value lock-in and trajectory changes in literature, I haven’t seen examples of work pursued for these reasons.

Regardless, I think that theoretically, longtermism could espouse these views. However, my reflections really come from the actual work being done in the longtermist space, which I can call here longtermism in practise (I refer here to the kinds of work I see being supported by longtermist organisations). My solution space at the moment is quite significantly influenced by the ideas put forward by Iason Gabriel and Brian McElwee when discussing the missing middle problem. In brief, they attempt to show that EA (in the general sense as to include Longtermism) tends to focus on low-value/high-confidence low-impact interventions (picking the low hanging fruits) such as vaccinations on the one hand and high-value/low-confidence (x-risk and GCR work) on the other hand. They point out that interventions in the medium-value/medium-confidence band could potentially help us tackle more problems, including ones that would contribute to systemic change. Some examples of this work would include the immigration policy and criminal justice reform work supported by Open Phil which seem to be the only interventions pursued in EA under this band (although perhaps some animal welfare work could fall here). Such interventions, I argue, should be more actively sought out and funded by longtermists because of their potential impact on not only improving the lives of current or near-future generations but also setting a positive trajectory for their descendants. I think that the availability of funding for such medium-value/medium-confidence interventions (for example, in tackling poverty or racial and gender inequality, etc.) would incentivize the best minds to explore these issues more and provide more robust proposals for interventions. I also think this is where my call to make it easier to make a case for certain interventions tackling systemic problems would apply to both EA and Longtermism recognising that work here will necessarily have numerous benefits for current generations but is keenly focused on the long view, where it will have the highest returns.

On your last concern, I acknowledge that for many of the problems I specifically highlighted, there is a high chance that most of their most promising interventions are not neglected at all, which is part of the reason I think we might gain more if we review the methodology we use as well. Without seriously considering this particular point, I think that the importance of these interventions (how many lives they may potentially positively affect and for how long) could be argued in place of the emphasis on neglectedness. There might also be other interventions in these areas that may have high returns but are less popularised or explored. Regardless of the robustness of my rough suggestions here, I think encouraging more work here makes it easier to hear of and support more (and better quality) proposed interventions on these issues.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment, & thanks for providing some more explicit/concrete examples of the kind of thing you'd like to see more of — that was really helpful!

(And I hadn't read that article you linked before, or thought about the "missing middle" as a frame — thanks!)

I think I'm now more confident that I disagree with the argument you've laid out here.

The main reason is that I disagree with your claim that we'd be able to do more good by reviewing our methodology & de-emphasising neglectedness.

I basically just think neglectedness is really important for what I'm trying to do when I'm trying to do good.

I think there are really compelling arguments for working on e.g. immigration policy and criminal justice reform, that are going to appeal to a much broader audience than the one on this Forum. You don't need to be, like, a 'moral weirdo' to think that it's unnacceptable that we keep humans in near-indefinite imprisonment for the crime of being born in the wrong country.

And I think the core strength of EA is that we've got a bunch of 'moral weirdos,' who are interested in looking at ways of doing good for which there aren't clear, emotionally compelling arguments, or that don't seem good at first. E.g. when improving education, everyone thinks it seems good to provide teachers and textbooks, but fewer people think of removing intestinal parasites. [1]

I recognise this isn't anywhere close to a watertight defence of the current main focus of longtermists versus the other kinds of interventions you highlighted, but I think it's the core thing driving why I don't currently buy the argument you laid out here :)

[1] putting aside for one second the arguments about whether this actually works, lol! Was just the first example that came to mind of something deeply "unsexy" that EAs talk about.

I see what you mean and figured that the neglectedness consideration will be a significant block to my argument within the EA/Longtermist framework but (my current inability to provide a methodological appraisal notwithstanding)  I still find myself hesitant to accept that we should not delve into these issues (given what is at stake that is, the quality of lives of potentially billions of future beings). I also reckon that part of the work under good value lock-in will inevitably involve working on many systemic problems even if the difference will lie in the approach we take. Ultimately though my argument is hinged on whether we should as a community find it acceptable to ignore these issues while proclaiming we want to do the most good we can (and for the most number of people). I concede that these are indeed very hard problems to solve as seen by the several players who have been trying to solve them but this community has some of the smartest and most innovative minds, I think the challenge might be one worth taking up.


Hey Nat, thanks for writing up this post (I've been procrastinating on writing a similar sort of post myself) and sharing it :)

Like Bella, I think many people who'd call themselves longtermists would agree with a lot of it. I've tried to reconstruct this argument from it (paraphrasing as little as I can), but please correct me if I'm wrong:

1 - we live in a deeply unequal world and some of the causes of inequality are deeply entrenched into our systems

2 - these challenges (most of them systemic) are quite likely to persist into the future if they are not strategically and intentionally addressed

3 - an increasing percentage of the world’s population will be born in and live in a world with deeply entrenched systemic issues

4 - it is difficult to envision a truly flourishing longterm future for all people while social, political, and economic inequalities persist and become more entrenched

5 - currently, longtermism's focus on mitigating x-risks leads it to promote interventions that are too narrow to change these systemic issues

Conclusion - Therefore, current longtermism will not guarantee a truly flourishing future

I think many people in EA would be on the spectrum of sympathetic to in full agreement with you here. So I'd be interesting where your perception of longtermism or longtermists being against or averse to this comes from? I think my counterpoint is that at the moment there isn't a lot of longtermist work out there (compared, say, to discussions on animal welfare or the moral value of philanthropy) as it's a young movement

And in What We Owe the Future, MacAskill talks a lot about "Trajectory Changes", i.e. making the future world better (or not worse) and not just creating more of it. and gives the example of abolitionism as a movement for longtermists to emulate when trying to effective long-term moral change.

If you want to revisit this post or make it a sequence, I think looking into:

  • Examples of what current longtermist interventions and why you think they're narrow
  • Examples of specific interventions that should be considered instead (e.g. reforming global institutions such as the World Trade Organisation or UN Security Council?)
  • If the current state of the world were to be existential secured - how good would that be? I think, reading between the lines,[1] you might conclude that the human race lasting into the long-term future in its current form would be morally questionably if not outright bad. Perhaps this might be a crux with some longtermists who view that existence as positive morally, or perhaps think that the future will be morally better than the present 'by default'

These would be great to read, but no pressure, I really enjoyed this post :)

  1. ^

    and please correct me if I'm wrong


I am glad to hear there are others grappling with these questions too, and I would really like to see your take on this, as I’m sure there are certain things about which you have thought more deeply or differently. Your summary is pretty accurate, and because your question is similar to Bella's, I tried to respond more fully there. However, if I missed anything, I'd love to continue the conversation!

I do agree with your ‘reading between the lines’ conclusion of my post that a long-term future where these injustices and inequalities persist or worsen is morally questionable. I still think that there’s value in such a future, as at least then there would be a chance to improve things (although I worry that as these problems become more and more entrenched, the chances of things changing for the better decrease).

Thanks for the suggestions, I’ll start looking into them

Just to highlight how I am integrating these issues into my own longtermist work:

In my work on refuges I am keenly aware of how choices made will affect different people and cultures in the long-term. The basic question is: Who would survive an ~extinction-level catastrophe? 

In some conversations I have had and writing I have read, this question has been seen as more of an opportunity than a challenge: We could perhaps to some degree influence the composition of the people inhabiting these refuges to positively lay the foundation for an egalitarian, pluralistic and tolerant future society. In a few conversations I had we even speculated on the need for as many men as women, as the intervention would look a lot cheaper if genetic diversity could be solved by access to reproductive facilities including a cryobank. What would that do to gender relations in the subsequent, post-catastrophe society?

This sounds quite interesting, I’d like to learn more about this kind of work! Thanks for sharing.

Thank you for sharing your impressions! Some comments and questions:

  1. Does longtermist institutional reform count as systemic change?
    1. Meta-question: What is systemic change? How do you define it?

      I think this a term that has become memetically dominant in the Left and has lost its meaning because it is used far too often and casually. So, now whenever people mention that term, I am not quite sure if I know what they mean by it.
  2. I think one speculative reason why longtermist circles don't discuss concerns like the ones you raise is because of a somewhat prevalent belief that the post-scarcity utopia will happen soon after AGI. In a nutshell: AGI will happen very soon, the creation of AGI will lead to ASI (or AGI+) fairly quickly, and if this whatchamacallit is sufficiently aligned, it will solve all our problems.

    Even if an individual somewhat subscribed to this notion, they may not think about most present concerns as they would all seem trivial. After all, they will soon be "solved" in the post-AGI world.[1]
  1. ^

    I don't think professional longtermist organizations operate on this belief or even entertain it.

Hi akash,

Thanks for the comment!

I define systemic change plainly (not as a technical term) i.e. as change that would affect an entire system or a fundamental part of it. In which case I would consider longtermist institutional reform and some work under animal welfare as pursuing systemic change. Your second point feeds into one of my key concerns which is that the absence of work around systemic change being explored under longtermism could be intentional for such reasons even though these reasons might not be formally acknowledged. I certainly think that such an assumption would be inaccurate.

I distance myself from longtermism for the reasons you spell out here,  i.e. correcting inequality is not seen as a priority. But I do agree that fixing inequality should be a key priority even by longtermist principles. The longtermists that do not think it is a priority are often not even aware that they hold shaky (in my opinion) assumptions that:

  • Inequality does not deprive us of talent to solve presing world problems
  • Inequality does not exacerbates the scale and probability of X-Risks and Catastropic-Risks
  • Inequality itself is not a significant source of suffering if allowed to perpetuate into the future

There are other reformulations of longtermism that exist outside of the normal EA community, usually by critics of longtermism. For example:

https://www.carlbeijer.com/p/there-is-no-long-term-without-socialism (article is paywalled but if you message me privately, I am happy to share a copy of it I have saved).

Hi Mohammad,

Thanks for your comment which I find expounds on my train of thought fairly accurately!