Zohar Atkins

-5 karmaJoined Mar 2022


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Why I Am (Not) a LongTermist

I am copy and pasting my newest endeavor to meditate on the meaning of "long-termism."


The Long-Term is like the Maimonidean conception of God—you know it when you don’t see it.


The Divine Face, like the distant future, is hidden. But Moses is permitted to see the back of God’s face. Similarly, today’s super-forecasters cannot know the future, but they can see the back of the future.


Of God we know nothing, says Franz Rosenzweig, but our ignorance is of God. So, too, the long-termist knows nothing of the future, but her ignorance is of the future.


In the very long run, there is no time, no before and after, no linearity. In the very long run, there is no humanity. In the very long term, there is the End of Days, which means a day of joy in which the world no longer yearns for anything more in the future or it is a day of self-destruction; perhaps these are one. For in ascetic traditions, Enlightenment is akin to death, a total loss of self, of appetite, of drive and desire. The catatonic priest, hooked up to the neuro-imaging device, appears happy. The relevant parts of his brain light up, signaling to researchers that we will need new jargon to describe his bliss—and yet behaviorally, his non-responsiveness is worrisome. Maybe the joy-symptoms are a sign of something nefarious, as Zero Mostel’s character says in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: the Cretans only smile because they are about to die of a plague. But Mostel is lying. The Cretans will be fine, and, besides, if a plague is coming it does not correlate with smiling. Nonetheless, the success of the long-termist is her failure.


Utilitarians are not concerned with whose pleasure it is that they are maximizing, so long as they are getting a good deal. If you can get a better deal by diminishing the suffering—or increasing the joy—of some hitherto neglected group, like amoebas, that is worth more than just marginally increasing the joy of the happiest person. Many utilitarians accept, at least theoretically, that there is no reason to think human pleasure and pain are categorically different than animal pleasure and pain. And if we could know or imagine the pain of inanimate objects, a la panpsychism, then the utilitarian might come to the repugnant conclusion that we should be extend our circle of compassion to bricks and chips. Less fantastically, if AI were to become so awesome as to approximate human consciousness, it might also command our love and responsibility, whatever that might mean.


On the way to pursuing pleasure and minimizing pain, we might stop being human. Deontologists, whatever you think of them, argue that we have a primary obligation to remain human, even if this means that we have a certain amount of suffering. But strict utilitarians see this as just a religious-hang up, an anti-democratic posture preventing the widespread distribution of newer, cheaper and better goods. The question is not, as Leo Strauss put it, “Progress or Return” but “Progress or Transgress”—at what point does progression cease being a matter of making life better and become a matter of making it unrecognizable, categorically other? If pleasure and pain are the only or primary latitudes, it shouldn’t matter. We’re all just code, right?


A core tenet of the effective altruist movement is care for the long-term. Minimally, this means ensuring that the long-term will be there. But Heidegger challenges this linear conception of time as a line. For the long-term to exist, there must first be temporality. For there to be temporality, there must be mortality, awareness of and concern for one’s ownmost finitude.


It is fashionable amongst long-termists to worry about catastrophic risk; the death of the planet from nuclear war, environmental dissolution, asteroid collisions, alien invasion, or AI golems gone rogue. But none of these “ontic” risks can mean anything if there is not a Dasein, an existing being, for whom these are threats. What is the long-termist solution to preserving Dasein?


A long-termist self-critique involves appreciating the ways in which utilitarian thinking and policy-making threaten the “being”—if not the happiness—of the ones engaged in it. A world in which we are maximally happy, but not sufficiently mortal would be one in which earth might exist, but the “world” would not.


There are good reasons to suspect calls for “Meaning” and “care.” Richard Rorty thinks that Heideggerian thought, and any thought devoted to preserving something like the sublime leads to cruelty. But if cruelty is a side-effect of a calculus that acknowledges the incalculable and the awe-inspiring, numbness is a side effect of one that sees most if not all problems of accounting.


Existence is not a column on the spreadsheet. It is, rather, that being that takes issue with itself, and uses spreadsheets to solve solvable problems while fleeing from the insoluble one: itself.