What Could the Future Hold? And Why Care?

What Could the Future Hold? And Why Care?

Week By Week Guides

We use this week to introduce people to the philosophical claim of strong longtermism. We want people to explore Toby Ord’s argument for prioritising existential risk before introducing the philosophical notion of longtermism. The goal of this is to more clearly disentangle the concepts of existential risk and longtermism. People often conflate these, when in fact we think there are strong arguments to work on existential risk reduction that don’t depend on longtermism, and longtermism can lead people to prioritise other causes beyond existential risk reduction.

Key Principles

  • Impartiality: helping those that need it the most, across location, time, and species.
  • Forecasting: Predicting the future is hard, but it can be worth doing in order to make our predictions more explicit and learn from our mistakes.

Key Points

  • Understand the concept of longtermism: if you want to help people in general, your key concern should be to ensure that the future goes well in the long term.
  • There likely will be much more value and disvalue in the future than in the present.
  • Influencing the future may be tractable, e.g., through reducing existential risk or trajectory changes.
  • There are ways to influence the future other than reducing existential risk

Tips for this session

Make a disclaimer along the lines of: “Like before, this week, we’ll be discussing our personal values. This is one of the places where EA definitely doesn’t have the answers. Hopefully, you’ll listen to other people’s views, and consider different arguments and perspectives, but in the end, you’ll have to make up your mind yourself about what kinds of things you value.”

During the Session

Icebreaker (10 mins)

  • Ask people to split into groups and share something they're looking forward to in the year 2070. What's a technology they hope will exist? How do they think the world might be better for oppressed people? Do they just look forward to playing with their grandchildren?

Discussion questions

  • Discuss the exercise
  • Imagine you could save 100 people today by burying toxic waste that will, in 200 years, leak out and kill thousands (for the purposes of the question, assume you know with an unrealistic level of certainty that thousands will die).
    • Would you choose to save the 100 now and kill the thousands later?
      • Why?
    • Does it make a difference whether the toxic waste leaks out 200 years from now or 2000?
    • Why or why not?
  • Imagine you donate enough money to the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) 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?
    • Why, or why not?

Thinking about longtermism

  • Can anyone give a definition of longtermism?
  • Sometimes people use an analogy of humanity as a whole being a single person, and longtermism being analogous to someone being prudent about their future - doing things that are good in the long run, rather than only considering the short-term effects. To what extent do you think this is a useful way of framing how we should be thinking about humanity as a species?
  • Do you think future generations are discriminated against?

What will the future be like?

  • How good do you think the future will be? What do you expect to happen in the next 20, 100, or 300 years? What technologies do you think might be developed? What problems do you think we might be able to solve?
    • Dig into what it would be like for people in the future
    • How long would they expect to be living under it
      • E.g., for 100 years, for millennia, or in a locked-in state
  • What are you afraid that the future might bring? What bad things do you expect to happen in the next 100, 200, or 300 years? What new problems might we face?
    • Dig into what it would be like for people in the future
    • How long would they expect to be living under it
      • E.g., for 100 years, for millennia, or in a locked-in state
  • What do you think about the arguments about how it seems like the future could easily get very wild? For example, what are your thoughts about the discussion around digital minds, self-duplication, or galactic colonization?

Our ability to influence the far future

  • What do you think is the most tractable way in which we can influence the far future? How tractable is it?
  • If you could learn one fact about the future, what would it be?

Arguments against longtermism

  • What are the best arguments against longtermism?
    • Some good arguments are made and addressed in the paper The Case for Strong longtermism (Hilary Greaves and William MacAskill, 2021). We recommend you read that article to familiarise yourself with potential objections, including:
      • Discount rates
      • Person-affecting views
      • Intractability
      • Risk aversion with respect to welfare
      • Non-aggregationism
      • Prioritarianism