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What are the leading critiques of "longtermism" and related concepts

by AlasdairGives 1 min read30th May 202023 comments


By longtermism I mean “Longtermism =df the view that the most important determinant of the value of our actions today is how those actions affect the very long-run future.”

I want to clarify my thoughts around longtermism as an idea - and to understand better why some aspects of how it is used within EA make me uncomfortable despite my general support of the idea.

I'm doing a literature search but because this is primarily an EA concept that I'm familiar with from within EA I'm mostly familiar with work (e.g Nick Beadstead etc) advocates of this position. I'd like to understand what the leading challenges and critiques to this position are (if any) as well. I know of some within the EA community (Kaufmann) but not of what the position is in academic work or outside of the EA Community.


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“The Epistemic Challenge to Longtermism” by Christian Tarsney is perhaps my favorite paper on the topic.

Longtermism holds that what we ought to do is mainly determined by effects on the far future. A natural objection is that these effects may be nearly impossible to predict—perhaps so close to impossible that, despite the astronomical importance of the far future, the expected value of our present options is mainly determined by short-term considerations. This paper aims to precisify and evaluate (a version of) this epistemic objection. To that end, I develop two simple models for comparing “longtermist” and “short-termist” interventions, incorporating the idea that, as we look further into the future, the effects of any present intervention become progressively harder to predict. These models yield mixed conclusions: If we simply aim to maximize expected value, and don’t mind premising our choices on minuscule probabilities of astronomical payoffs, the case for longtermism looks robust. But on some prima facie plausible empirical worldviews, the expectational superiority of longtermist interventions depends heavily on these “Pascalian” probabilities. So the case for longtermism may depend either on plausible but non-obvious empirical claims or on a tolerance for Pascalian fanaticism.

“How the Simulation Argument Dampens Future Fanaticism” by Brian Tomasik has also influenced my thinking but has a more narrow focus.

Some effective altruists assume that most of the expected impact of our actions comes from how we influence the very long-term future of Earth-originating intelligence over the coming ~billions of years. According to this view, helping humans and animals in the short term matters, but it mainly only matters via effects on far-future outcomes.

There are a number of heuristic reasons to be skeptical of the view that the far future astronomically dominates the short term. This piece zooms in on what I see as perhaps the strongest concrete (rather than heuristic) argument why short-term impacts may matter a lot more than is naively assumed. In particular, there's a non-trivial chance that most of the copies of ourselves are instantiated in relatively short-lived simulations run by superintelligent civilizations, and if so, when we act to help others in the short run, our good deeds are duplicated many times over. Notably, this reasoning dramatically upshifts the relative importance of short-term helping even if there's only a small chance that Nick Bostrom's basic simulation argument is correct.

My thesis doesn't prove that short-term helping is more important than targeting the far future, and indeed, a plausible rough calculation suggests that targeting the far future is still several orders of magnitude more important. But my argument does leave open uncertainty regarding the short-term-vs.-far-future question and highlights the value of further research on this matter.

Finally, you can also conceive of yourself as one instantiation of a decision algorithm that probably has close analogs at different points throughout time, which makes Caspar Oesterheld’s work relevant to the topic. There are a few summaries linked from that page. I think it’s an extremely important contribution but a bit tangential to your question.

This is not exactly what you're looking for, but the best summary of objections I'm aware of is from the Strong Longtermism paper by Greaves and MacAskill.

Most people don't value not-yet-existing people as much as people already alive. I think it is the EA community holding the fringe position here, not the other way around. Neither is total utilitarianism a majority view among philosophers. (You might want to look into critiques of utilitarianism.)

If you pair this value judgement with a belief that existential risk is less valuable to work on than other issues for affecting people this century, you will probably want to work on "non-longtermist" problems.