Moral perspectives on existential risk reduction

Different moral perspectives on existential risk reduction (x-risk reduction) have different implications for how much to prioritise x-risk reduction in general, as well as for which specific x-risks to prioritise reducing. In the effective altruism community, the moral perspective most associated with x-risk reduction is longtermism: existential risks are often seen as a pressing problem because of the astronomical amounts of value or disvalue potentially at stake over the course of the long-term future. But other moral perspectives could also lead to a focus on x-risk reduction.

For example, in The Precipice (Ord, 2020a), Toby Ord discusses five different "moral foundations" for the importance of x-risk reduction:

  • The past: We could see humanity as a vast partnership across time, and an existential catastrophe could be seen as "fail[ing] every generation that came before us" (Ord, 2020b).
  • The present: Many existential catastrophes would involve death and suffering for vast numbers of people alive at the time it happens.
  • Civilizational virtues: "by risking our entire future, humanity itself displays a staggering deficiency of patience, prudence, and wisdom." (Ord, 2020b)
  • Cosmic significance: "this might be the only place in the universe where there's intelligent life, the only chance for the universe to understand itself, on how we are the only beings who can deliberately shape the future toward what is good or just." (Ord, 2020b)

The "present"-focused moral foundation could also be discussed as a "near-termist" or "person-affecting" argument for x-risk reduction (Lewis, 2018). In the effective altruism community, this is perhaps the most commonly discussed non-longtermist moral argument for x-risk reduction. Meanwhile, the "cosmic significance" moral foundation has received some attention among cosmologists and physicists concerned about extinction risk....

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