Hilary Greaves, a philosopher at the University of Oxford, thinks you should answer yes. “I’d hope that most reasonable people would agree that pain and suffering on the other side of the world matter just as much as pain and suffering here,” she said. In other words, spatial distance is morally irrelevant.
“And if you think that, then it’s pretty hard to see why the case of temporal distance would be any different,” Greaves continued. “If there’s a child suffering terribly in 300 years’ time, and this is completely predictable — and there’s just as much that you could do about it as there is that you could do about the suffering of a child today — it’d be pretty strange to think that just because it’s in the future it’s less important.”
in April, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled against the expansion of the cement industry, which is terrible for the climate, in certain areas of Punjab. In the decision, the presiding justice wrote: “The tragedy is that tomorrow’s generations aren’t here to challenge this pillaging of their inheritance. The great silent majority of future generations is rendered powerless and needs a voice. This Court should be mindful that its decisions also adjudicate upon the rights of the future generations of this country.”
A few countries have already created government agencies dedicated to thinking about policy in the very long term. Sweden has a “Ministry of the Future,” [not anymore] and Wales and the United Arab Emirates both have something similar.
You might object that you can’t reliably predict the effects of your actions in one year, never mind 1,000 years, so it doesn’t make sense to invest a lot of resources in trying to positively impact the future when the effects of your actions might wash out in a few years or decades.
That’s a very reasonable objection. Greaves acknowledges that in a lot of cases, we suffer from “moral cluelessness” about the downstream effects of our actions. “But,” she told me, “that’s not the case for all actions.”
She recommends targeting issues that come with “lock-in” opportunities, or ways of doing good that result in the positive benefits being locked in for a long time. For example, you could pursue a career aimed at establishing national or international norms around carbon emissions, or nuclear bombs, or regulations for labs that deal with dangerous pathogens. These actions are almost certain to do good — the kind of good that won’t be undone quickly.
“It’s in the nature of a lock-in mechanism that the effects of your actions persist for an extremely long time,” Greaves said. “So it gets rid of your concern that the effects will keep getting dampened and dampened as you get further into the future.”
Greaves does not find it easy to live her philosophy. She told me she feels awful whenever she walks past a homeless person. She’s acutely aware she’s not supporting that individual or the larger cause of ending homelessness because she’s supporting longtermist causes instead.
“I feel really bad, but it’s a limited sense of feeling bad because I do think it’s the right thing to do given that the counterfactual is giving to these other [longtermist] causes that are more effective,” she said. “The morally appropriate thing is to occupy this kind of middle space where you’re still gripped by present-day suffering but you recognize there’s an even more important thing you can do with the limited resources.”