Longtermism: Something You Should Know About
The dangers of a philosophical ideology that threatens the lives of millions and the future health of the planet
I’ve written before on the insanity of our species. In fact, you might say that most subjects upon which I write for Sunday Letters lean towards the dysfunctional aspects of human behaviour. It’s hard to ignore after all. Capitalism runs riot over the planet in spite of lofty and apparently admirable corporate initiatives to act responsibly. If you followed the recent essays in the Leadership series, you would have read many examples of how these initiatives are merely a smokescreen for the true corporate aim. It is the manifestation in our society of a deep psychological disturbance, and although one might argue that technological innovation has allowed human beings to enjoy a more comfortable way of life than our grandparents, for example, the global humanitarian trade-off seems hardly worth it. According to economic anthropologist, Jason Hickel, millions of people in the global south in effect pay for our comfort1. And it is not merely a phenomenon that came about in error or oversight of policymakers, an unfortunate unintended by-product of globalisation. It may in fact be the product of a purposeful, yet dangerous political and philosophical ideology.
In this week’s Sunday Letters, I’m sharing an article I read recently on the concept of Longtermism; the idea that our actions today affect the very long-term future of the universe—thousands, millions, billions, and even trillions of years from now2. When you read the openly available literature on longtermism, it may seem hard to argue with its thesis, at least at first hand. However, when we dig into the material we find a certain sinister tone to the longtermist view. It begins to take on tones of Machiavellianism and even psychopathy. Phil Torres writes in a recent article for Aeon magazine, that this worldview is quite possibly the most dangerous secular belief system in the world today. Torres suggests that the initial thing we should notice about Longtermism is that it does not, as the term may suggest, promote ‘caring for the long-term future of the planet’ or ‘valuing the wellbeing of humanity’. It apparently goes way beyond this. At its core is the simple, yet flawed ideology of survival of the fittest — ends justify means.
[According to the Longtermist ideology] humanity has a ‘potential’ of its own, one that transcends the potentials of each individual person, and failing to realise this potential would be extremely bad—indeed, as we will see, a moral catastrophe of literally cosmic proportions. This is the central dogma of longtermism: nothing matters more, ethically speaking, than fulfilling our potential as a species of ‘Earth-originating intelligent life’. It matters so much that longtermists have even coined the scary-sounding term ‘existential risk’ for any possibility of our potential being destroyed, and ‘existential catastrophe’ for any event that actually destroys this potential.
Why do I think this ideology is so dangerous? The short answer is that elevating the fulfilment of humanity’s supposed potential above all else could nontrivially increase the probability that actual people—those alive today and in the near future—suffer extreme harms, even death. Consider that, as I noted elsewhere, the longtermist ideology inclines its adherents to take an insouciant attitude towards climate change. Why? Because even if climate change causes island nations to disappear, triggers mass migrations and kills millions of people, it probably isn’t going to compromise our long-term potential over the coming trillions of years. If one takes a cosmic view of the situation, even a climate catastrophe that cuts the human population by 75 per cent for the next two millennia will, in the grand scheme of things, be nothing more than a small blip – the equivalent of a 90-year-old man having stubbed his toe when he was two.
The bottom line of Torres’ argument is that the Longtermist ideology suggests that efforts today, not only on earth but beyond and into the outer regions of our galaxy, should stop at little to ensure humanity’s long term future success. Moral and ethical standards can be shelved once we project ends to some future time and space. If a few hundred thousand, or even millions of people in the global south, die to ensure the survival of the global north—those more technologically advanced and innovative—then so be it. Torres argues that Longtermism is merely utilitarianism under another name. It is, in my view, bad-bastardry of the highest order. It is elitist and exclusionary. It is a rationalisation of the most abhorrent actions against minorities and the continued raping and pillaging of the planet for commercial ends.
Here is the article available in Aeon Magazine. You should read and make up your own mind.