This piece is reposted from my new Substack, Out of the Ordinary, which will focus on Longtermism, politics, and philosophy. If you like this, I'd love if you subscribed!
Longtermists often tend to make the case for their views on utilitarian grounds, with a whole lot of science fiction sounding concepts thrown into the mix. They reference concepts like expected value, or toss around phrases like “light cones,” or “hedonium.” But the case for Longtermism can, and should, be made without any references to utilitarian thought at all.
Intuitively, people have always had the desire to pass on a better world to their descendants. Much of climate activism rests on this, but so do conservative efforts to increase birth rates, and libertarian efforts to unleash economic growth. So while the average person doesn’t care equally about someone who might exist in a million years, and someone who does exist right this second, that’s ok: Longtermists don’t need to convince everyone to adopt all of their specific philosophical views. They – we – just need to persuade people to prioritize reducing “existential risks” – threats that could destroy humanity’s potential forever, above some other, more near term goals.
With everyone on earth having just lived through a deadly pandemic, and the threat of nuclear war more present than it has been in decades, this ought to be doable. Below is an intuitive, sentimental argument for Longtermism that I think can be persuasive to people of all ideological backgrounds. When I talk to other people about Longtermism, this is usually the argument I make.
The most amazing thing in the universe is life – and not just life, but conscious life. The fact that inanimate atoms can come together and create a being that understands itself is a miracle. Right now, we have no reason to think that intelligent life like us exists anywhere else – to the best of our knowledge, Earth is a shining bright spot in a cold, dead universe.
So no matter what you value – whether it’s utility, justice, beauty, life, knowledge, or anything else – a world without humans won’t have it. We owe it to ourselves and to our descendants to make sure that the fragile spark of life our planet holds doesn’t flicker out of existence.
But right now, we’re doing almost nothing to protect that precious spark. Covid revealed our pandemic defenses as completely inadequate; what happens if a virus 100 times as dangerous appears? We still have far too many nuclear weapons, and there have been far too many close calls involving them over the years. Runaway climate change could threaten civilizational stability.
Meanwhile, the Biological Weapons Convention, designed to prevent individuals and organizations from making dangerous pathogens, has a total of four employees. The largest funder of advocacy for nuclear nonproliferation just dropped their funding. And as a society, we devote far more resources to producing and consuming ice cream every year than we do on protecting ourselves from self-destruction.
We need to do better than this. And that starts with each one of us. If you’re a young, talented person looking to choose a career, you owe it to yourself and others to consider working on problems that affect the future of humanity. When you take a step back from the routine of daily life, it’s clear that “how to secure a flourishing future for our species” is the most interesting, most challenging, and most important problem we face.
Not everyone is going to find this pitch convincing. But in my experience, this argument from emotion and intuition is a lot more appealing to the average person than the hard-core utilitarian pitch. I lean pretty strongly toward Utilitarianism, but at the end of the day, even I find sentimentality more motivating than vague conceptions of Expected Value.
There’s a tendency in Effective Altruism, and especially Longtermism, to use too much jargon, or to approach people who aren’t familiar with the ideas as if they’re likely to be convinced by the same arguments that convinced the most die-hard members of the movement. That’s a fallacy. Effective Altruists need to more effectively communicate with people who don’t always think in terms of “expected value,” and that starts with directing appeals more toward the heart, rather than the head.