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Question: What are the different types of longtermisms?

I have heard of: Strong / Weak Broad / Targeted Patient / Urgent What do they mean? How do they relate to each other? (is every combination possible?) Is there a clear and short resource laying out what they all mean? Are there other distinctions?

Answer

Roughly, longtermism is the view that positively influencing the long-term future is a key moral priority of our time. Although longtermism is a very new idea, a number of different types of longtermism have already been proposed.

Strong vs. weak longtermism.

Strong longtermism holds that positively influencing the long-term future is the key moral priority of our time. This form of longtermism was introduced by Hilary Greaves and Will MacAskill in their working paper, The case for strong longtermism. Note that the authors do not define or discuss "weak" longtermism; the contrast is rather with longtermism as such, which as noted above holds that positively influencing the long-term future is a key priority, but not necessarily the top priority.

Patient vs. urgent longtermism.

We can explain this distinction in connection to what some people call the "hinge of history hypothesis". This is the hypothesis that we are currently living at a time where humanity has unusually high influence over the long-term future. Urgent longtermism finds the hypothesis plausible and, accordingly, holds that it makes sense to spend our altruistic resources relatively quickly. (Altruistic resources include not just financial assets, but other resources that can accumulate and be spent deliberately in the pursuit of altruistic goals, such as credibility, career capital and coordination ability.) By contrast, patient longtermism holds that the opportunities for influence are not concentrated in the near term and, in line with this, their proponents favour saving or investing these resources so that they can be deployed at some point in the future, when the moments of significant influence arrive.

Broad vs. targeted longtermism.

This distinction was originally introduced by Nick Beckstead in his doctoral dissertation, On the Overwhelming Importance of Shaping the Far Future. Targeted (or narrow) longtermism attempts to positively influence the long-term future by focusing on specific, identifiable scenarios, such as the risks of misaligned AI or an engineered pandemic. By contrast, broad longtermism tries to have a long-term influence by pursuing general approaches with the potential to be useful in a broader range of contexts, such as building effective altruism or promoting global cooperation.

Bear in mind that both patient and urgent longtermism, and broad and targeted longtermism, are positions that exist on a continuum. The terms 'urgent'/'patient' and 'broad'/'targeted' divide these continua into two discrete regions, similarly to how the terms 'tall' and short' divide the dimension of height. So it's probably more fruitful to see these distinctions as uncovering an underlying dimension along which longtermism can vary. Put differently, the question that longtermists should try to answer is, ultimately, 'How patient/urgent should longtermism be?' or 'How broad/targeted should longtermist interventions be?' rather than 'Should longtermism be patient or urgent?' or 'Should longtermism be targeted or narrow?'

Other distinctions One additional distinction sometimes made---which also originates in Greaves and MacAskill---is between axiological and deontic longtermism. 'Axiological' and 'deontic' are technical terms borrowed from analytic philosophy: 'axiological' means 'related to what is good or valuable' and 'deontic' means 'related to what we ought to do or have reason to do'. So axiological longtermism holds that positively influencing the long-term future is among the most valuable things we can do, whereas deontic longtermism holds that positively influencing the long-term future is among the things we have most reason to do. Sometimes these views are combined with strong longtermism, so axiological strong longtermism becomes the view that influencing the long-term future is the most valuable thing to do and deontic strong longtermism becomes the view that influencing the long-term future is the thing we have most reason to do.

Another relevant distinction, made by the philosophers Johan Gustafsson and Petra Kosonen, is between normative and prudential longtermism. Normative longtermism is longtermism as it is normally understood, i.e. as a view about what is valuable, or we have reason to do, from an impersonal or moral perspective. However, one can also consider a form of longtermism focused on what is in a person's self-interest. If humans could live for thousands or millions of years, it could be argued that, from a self-interested perspective, each person should focus primarily on the long-term effects of their actions, because a person's lifetime wellbeing will be largely determined by those effects.

To learn more about some of these varieties of longtermism, you can listen to this episode of the 80,000 Hours podcast. We also recommend the website longtermism.com to learn more about longtermism in general.

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