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The Problems with Longtermism

The further we look into the future, the less certain we can be about our predictions and plans.

· 13 min read
The Problems with Longtermism
Will MacAskill speaks at TED2018 - The Age of Amazement, April 10 - 14, 2018, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

A review of What We Owe the Future by William MacAskill, Basic Books, 352 pages (August 2022)

We know that future human beings will exist, that their lives will be every bit as important as ours, and that we should act accordingly. This is the central argument in William MacAskill’s What We Owe the Future, and it’s difficult to dispute. MacAskill’s new book is a manifesto for “longtermism,” which he has described as the “idea that positively influencing the long-term future is a key moral priority of our time.” This may sound like a truism, but it’s surprisingly controversial—as many deceptively simple moral principles are—and MacAskill presents his case in an accessible and convincing way. Many of the most important ethical arguments are those that are half-settled in people’s minds but haven’t yet been fully articulated.

Many critics of longtermism acknowledge that it is ethically compelling, but they claim that concern about the distant future is probably too abstract to be socially and politically actionable. For example, Robert Wright recently argued that more effective shorttermism would address many of the problems MacAskill is concerned about: “If people were skilled shorttermists—if they pursued short-term interests wisely—our long-term problems, including the existential ones, would be manageable.” Wright points out that the threat of nuclear weapons, engineered pathogens, climate change, and so on are immediate short-term problems that have significant long-term consequences. Yet we refuse to address many of these issues, despite the fact that they could have devastating consequences for us and our children. This only makes it less likely that people can be mobilized to care about issues that affect strangers who will be born thousands of years from now.

Still, there’s no reason we shouldn’t take their interests seriously. MacAskill cleverly presents future people as marginalized and disenfranchised—they have no say in the policies and actions that will help to determine their fate. And he presents vivid thought experiments that make the point even clearer: if you leave a broken bottle on a hiking trail and a child later cuts herself on a shard, does it matter if this happens a week or a decade from now?

MacAskill is a leading figure in the Effective Altruism movement, which is heavily influenced by the consequentialism of utilitarian philosophers like Peter Singer (though it’s becoming more intellectually diverse all the time). In many ways, longtermism is a logical extension of utilitarianism, which is concerned with securing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Just as physical distance shouldn’t impede us from helping the least well-off in the world (a case Singer made in his famous 1972 essay, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”), temporal distance should be regarded as similarly irrelevant. Longtermism also calls to mind Singer’s 1981 book The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, which argues that humanity’s sphere of ethical concern has steadily grown from kin to tribe to nation to species. So, why should that circle not expand further to include members of the species who don’t yet exist?

MacAskill has already put Singer’s utilitarian logic into practice in many ways: his 2015 book Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference advances the core Effective Altruist argument that efforts to improve the world should focus on maximizing impact. He also founded the nonprofits Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours, which encourage people to donate significant portions of their income to effective causes and pursue “high-impact careers,” respectively. Whatever you think of Effective Altruism, MacAskill’s efforts to reorient people toward donating their time and money to causes that can save lives and prevent suffering at scale (such as by funding the distribution of bed nets to prevent the spread of malaria or direct cash transfers to the global poor) have saved and improved countless lives.

The value of his contributions to longtermism is less clear. While longtermism purports to be a revolutionary new way of framing ethics, political and social organization, etc., the concept is implicit in many fields and works that already exist. When Singer argued that people who live in wealthy and developed countries should help those in extreme poverty, he was attempting to instill an ethical and cultural norm that would cause people to change their behavior. The same applies to his writing on animal welfare. The hope is that arguments about global inequality and the wellbeing of animals will lead to healthy long-term changes: a world with less poverty and less suffering. Singer’s time horizon may not be thousands or millions of years, but to echo Wright, it’s likely that the first step toward convincing people to care about future generations is getting them to care about other human beings who just happen to live somewhere else in the world—or sentient creatures that happen to belong to different species.

With any book as ambitious as What We Owe the Future, allowances have to be made for conjecture, generalization, and experimentation. But the scale of the longtermist vision creates serious problems for the practical application of MacAskill’s ideas. Reading What We Owe the Future, I sometimes got the sense that longtermists live in a gated intellectual community comprised solely of philosophers and technologists, without much input from historians, political scientists, and many other experts whose insights are critical to the longtermist project. MacAskill is careful to insist that longtermism requires a multidisciplinary approach, but it’s clear that the movement still has a lot of work to do on this front. For example, he proposes several seemingly intuitive and innovative projects that are actually extremely quixotic and almost certainly counterproductive. Consider his suggestion that we build “charter cities” to try out different policies and forms of government:

Charter cities are often promoted by those who want to see more economically liberal policies. But there is no necessary connection between these two ideas. For almost every social structure we can imagine, we could have a charter city based on that idea; there could be Marxist charter cities and environmentalist charter cities and anarchist communitarian charter cities. We could find out, empirically, which of these brings about the best society. And, in addition to creating a diversity of formal institutions, we could try to cultivate a diversity of cultures, too.

The idea of using cities where actual human beings live as laboratories for “almost every social structure we can imagine” is antithetical to much of what we’ve learned about democracy and institution-building over the past several centuries. A city isn’t a sprawling tabula rasa for an enlightened group of social engineers to organize as they see fit. While MacAskill wouldn’t frame the idea that way, it’s difficult to see how the idea of charter cities is compatible with democracy, as it’s unlikely that a diverse array of ideologies and economic systems would emerge to govern cities organically—especially when there are already successful models of governance and economic arrangements that a significant proportion of the population accept. Would you vote to be among the subjects of the anarchist communitarian civic experiment? Perhaps the proponents of charter cities envision novel systems which do away with democracy altogether, but this presents its own set of problems.

Comparative politics is a field of political science that offers insights about how different governments develop, function, and perform relative to one another. We don’t have to conduct mass experiments with real people to gather empirical data on various social structures—we can study the societies that exist today and examine the historical record to see how they evolved (as well as how societies failed or succeeded in the past). We’ve learned plenty about what works and what doesn’t over the years—to take one example suggested by MacAskill: do we really need to give Marxism another try? How many times does an ideology have to fail before we accept that it is unworkable and move on? MacAskill also suggests creating a “diversity of cultures,” but culture isn’t a phenomenon that can be managed and tested from the top down—it’s a complex set of beliefs, relationships, and practices that arises naturally from the bottom up.

The section on charter cities reflects one of the essential themes of What We Owe the Future: MacAskill’s concern about what he calls value lock-in—“an event that causes a single value system, or set of value systems, to persist for an extremely long time.” Because those in power usually seek to entrench their own worldviews as much as possible, humanity has to guard against efforts to do so—particularly because we’re almost certainly wrong about some of the values we hold. MacAskill believes the emergence of artificial general intelligence (AGI) makes the threat of value lock-in much more urgent, as it could concentrate power to an unprecedented degree and propagate a single set of ideas indefinitely. As he puts it, the “ruling ideology could in principle persist as long as civilisation does.” He continues:

AGI systems could replicate themselves as many times as they wanted, just as easily as we can replicate software today. They would be immortal, freed from the biological process of aging, able to create back-ups of themselves and copy themselves onto new machines whenever any piece of hardware wears out. And there would no longer be competing value systems that could dislodge the status quo.

According to MacAskill, the solution to this problem is an open and ecumenical approach to the values that are programmed into (and which inform the implementation of) AGI systems:

If we don’t design our institutions to govern this transition well—preserving a plurality of values and the possibility of desirable moral progress—then a single set of values could emerge dominant. They may be those championed by a single individual, the elites of a political party, the populace of a country, or even the whole world.

This idea is reasonable in theory. MacAskill identifies moral abominations once considered uncontroversial, such as slavery, and observes that these monstrous beliefs were entrenched for long periods of time (even suggesting that slavery may still be with us today but for a few historical contingencies). With that history in mind, we should certainly be modest about how we promulgate ethical principles, and avoid zealotry and absolutism. MacAskill has spent much of his career fighting injustices that will likely horrify future generations—from gross inequality between the developed and developing world to the industrial-scale cruelty of factory farming. So, he speaks from experience when he urges readers not to be complacent about values that are widely held today.

Still, it’s difficult to see how the effort to prevent value lock-in will work in practice. How does MacAskill suggest that the programmers of AGI (and those who build the institutions that govern its rise) promote value ecumenicalism without descending into relativism? What happens when competing values clash? At some point, decisions have to be made about the right course of action, and a plurality of (often contradictory) values won’t make these decisions any easier. It’s one thing to argue that we shouldn’t arrogantly presume that we have all the right answers to fundamental moral questions, but it’s possible to take this modesty too far. While value ecumenicalism sounds appropriately scrupulous and inclusive for an uncertain future, it seems vulnerable to paralysis and inaction. The insistence that our values are bound to evolve shouldn’t become a dismissal of humanity’s hard-won philosophical and political achievements. This is why MacAskill’s suggestion about charter cities is disconcerting—it demonstrates that he’s agnostic about which economic and political systems we should adopt, despite centuries of evidence in support of several systems we already have.

Francis Fukuyama’s 2011 book The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution provides a sweeping history of political systems around the world, and attempts to explain the rise of modern states (as well as why some states have failed to fully modernize). Fukuyama argues that this process is built around three major elements: the state, rule of law, and accountable government. A strong, centralized state is necessary to govern effectively, the rule of law limits the power of the state, and accountability (through democratic elections, for instance) provides the state with legitimacy. Many societies have some characteristics of modern states while lacking others. For example, the Chinese created the first truly impersonal and meritocratic administrative state, but didn’t evolve sustainable mechanisms to maintain the rule of law or accountable government—an imbalance that persists to this day.

Historical contingency has been critical to the development of modern states, which is one of the reasons state-building is so difficult today (as the United States discovered in Afghanistan and Iraq). There are countless factors that drove state development around the world, such as the role of religion, the strength of the society relative to the strength of the state, and the spread of ideas (sometimes by force, as in the Napoleonic Wars). But a central theme of The Origins of Political Order (as well as its companion volume, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy) is the universality of the three essential components of a modern political system: a strong centralized state, the rule of law, and accountability to the population. “Once this package had been put together the first time,” Fukuyama writes, “it produced a state so powerful, legitimate, and friendly to economic growth that it became a model to be applied throughout the world.” What’s especially remarkable about this model is its durability—as Fukuyama notes, all three components of modern political order had been “established in one or another part of the world by the end of the eighteenth century.”

Consider how much moral progress has been made since the 18th century, from the abolition of slavery to the end of colonialism. Yet the basic features of the most successful political and economic systems on the planet remain the same. Many of the most transformative examples of moral progress have made these systems even more resilient, such as the steady enfranchisement of more citizens and the participation of women in the workforce.

In 2022, the main rivals to liberal democracy have revealed their structural weaknesses. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a catastrophic failure which exposed the incompetence of one of the world’s most feared militaries, while China’s “zero-COVID” policy has kept a huge proportion of the population in a terrorized state of lockdown and precipitated a steep decline in economic growth. This probably comes as no surprise to Fukuyama, who observes that one of the main liabilities of the Chinese model of political development is the “bad emperor problem”—the lack of checks and balances to prevent a single all-powerful ruler from causing incalculable harm. While Xi Jinping is no Mao, the concentration of power in his hands over the past several years—from the elimination of term limits in 2018 to the cementing of Xi’s power during the Communist Party congress this month—and his obstinate refusal to change course on COVID, as well as his increasingly bellicose threats toward Taiwan, are alarming signs.

To demonstrate the value of charter cities, MacAskill cites a special economic zone created by Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen in 1979, which had “more liberal economic policies than the rest of China. Average yearly income grew by a factor of two hundred over forty years.” MacAskill might have added a point from The Origins of Political Order: “In China, once collective farms were disbanded in 1978 under the leadership of the reformer Deng Xiaoping, agricultural output doubled in the space of just four years.” Hundreds of millions of Chinese emerged from poverty in the following decades. But these achievements weren’t the result of intrepid political and economic experimentation—they were a result of familiar market-based reforms that had similar effects in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and other regional states. Deng Xiaoping was willing to relinquish state control over some aspects of the economy in exchange for growth. As he explained: “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is white or black as long as it catches mice.”

Unlike its authoritarian rivals, democracy has the capacity to course-correct. While many democracies have strong centralized governments, they don’t face the bad emperor problem because leaders can be removed from office, legislatures can refuse to enact their agendas, and courts can challenge their policies. When MacAskill calls for value ecumenicalism, he should acknowledge that many modern political structures are already designed to protect a diverse range of ideas and beliefs. The First Amendment has existed for over 230 years, and it still provides robust protection for free expression in the United States. While it’s easy to imagine dangerous forms of value entrenchment—and the US Constitution is far from perfect—one of the reasons free speech is a cherished principle in America is because it has been enshrined in law for hundreds of years. MacAskill cites the Constitution as an example of an important work that long outlived its authors, but this is a testament to the fact that some forms of value lock-in are healthier than others.

Basic democratic principles are under assault around the world. Beyond Russia’s attempt to extinguish Ukrainian democracy by force, a deep civic rot has become increasingly evident in many democratic countries. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán openly advocates what he calls “illiberal democracy,” and he’s used the power of his office to suppress the independent media and manipulate the judiciary. Jair Bolsonaro says he won’t accept the results of an election in which he isn’t declared the winner. After Donald Trump launched a concerted campaign to overturn the results of the 2020 election in the United States, many Republican lawmakers and candidates refused to accept those results. Sixty-nine percent of Americans (in both parties) believe their democracy is “in danger of collapse.” If anything, the value of democracy isn’t entrenched enough.

Rather than value lock-in, the most pressing threat to successful democratic institutions today is value Balkanization—widening disagreement on certain fundamental values. From the emerging indifference (and even hostility) toward democracy to the failure to agree on the most basic set of facts, our civil society has become so disconnected and tribal that authoritarians have been able to exploit these divisions and undermine the most essential features of our system. Perhaps it’s true that democracy will be regarded as a quaint relic of a more barbarous age in thousands of years. But for now, the most terrifying threat to the future is that those who believe in democracy will be displaced by those who do not.

Longtermism is a vital project, but the further we look into the future, the less certain we can be about our predictions and plans. Although we should always be open to the possibility that our moral intuitions will one day be upended, can we really afford to experiment with a vast array of social and political systems when we can clearly see which ones have proved their value over and over again for hundreds of years? Just as we were fortunate enough to inherit values that allowed us to sustain civilization this long, we should be stewards of those values for generations to come. We owe the future everything we’ve learned.

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson has written for many outlets and is the author of 'How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment' (Pitchstone Publishing, 2023)

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