Longtermism

Longtermism

In this week of the programme, you will meet your cohort and discuss the case for longtermism. Longtermism is the view that focussing on improving the long run future is the best way to have a large positive impact. It can be motivated by thinking that future people matter morally, there could be vast numbers of people in the future and there are things we can do to help those people.

Curriculum

Core materials

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What we owe the future’ - talk by Will MacAskill
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Introduction’ and ‘Chapter 1: Standing at the Precipice’ in ‘The Precipice’ by Toby Ord

Recommended reading

More to explore

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'Against the social discount rate' - Tyler Cowen and Derek Parfit. If we employ a ‘social discount rate’ when it comes to calculating the benefits and costs of public policy choices, we weigh the interests of those who will be affected immediately by these choices significantly more than those of people who will be affected in the longer term. This paper argues against using a ‘social discount rate’.
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'Justice and future generations' - Simon Caney. Discussion of our obligations toward future generations from a justice-focussed perspective
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'Intergenerational Justice' in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Discussion of our obligations toward future generations from a justice-focussed perspective

Exercise: How should we weigh the interests of future people?

One view that supports longtermism is that we should avoid privileging the interests of individuals based on when they might live.

In this week’s exercise we’ll be reflecting on some prompts to help you start considering what you think about this question, i.e. "Do the interests of people who are not alive yet matter as much as the interests of people living today?"

Spend a couple minutes thinking through each prompt, and note down your thoughts - feel free to jot down uncertainties, or open questions you have that seem relevant. We encourage you to note down your thought process, but feel free to simply report your intuitions and gut feelings.

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Imagine you could save 100 people today by burying toxic waste that will, in 2000 years, leak out and kill thousands. Assume there is some chance that future communities in this area will find a way to safely deal with the toxic waste, but they may well never find this solution, and they may simply forget it’s there. Would you choose to save the 100 now and create a serious risk of death for thousands later? Does it make a difference whether the toxic waste leaks out 2000 years from now or 20000?
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Imagine you’re a wealthy philanthropist, considering how to spend your money. Your first option is to pay for surgeries for blind people in the US. With your donations, you will restore the sight of ten people. You also wanted to consider some nonstandard approaches to philanthropy however, and so your second option is to pay certain couples to have children. Each of these couples want to have children, but couldn’t do so without additional support. As a result, ten children with good lives will be born. Which option would you choose?

Did you consider what the implications of these interventions would be for people in the world other than the people specified in the question? If not, would that change your answer?

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Imagine you donate enough money to the Against Malaria Foundation to save a life. Unfortunately, there’s an administrative error with the currency transfer service you used, and AMF aren’t able to use your money until 5 years after you donated. Public health experts expect malaria rates to remain high over the next 5 years, so AMF expects your donation will be just as impactful in 5 years time. Many of the lives that the Against Malaria Foundation saves are of children under 5, and so the life your money saves is of someone who hadn’t been born yet when you donated.If you had known this at the time, would you have been any less excited about the donation?

Next in the Introduction to Longtermism Series

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