The case for longtermism in philanthrophy

Longtermism is, roughly, the idea that the total counterfactual impact1 of one’s actions is primarily determined by the effect they have on the very long-run future.2 The case for longtermism in philanthropy relies on three key premises:3

  • Future people matter;

  • There are a lot of them; and

  • We can meaningfully affect their lives

First, future people matter. In many ways, this premise is quite conventional. It’s commonly held that a person’s life is equally valuable no matter where or in what circumstances they are born, so it’s not a huge leap to believe it doesn’t matter when they are born, either. Popular environmental messages, for example, are often framed in terms of protecting people in the future. Concerns about nuclear waste and climate change often focus on their effects on future generations.

Second, there are a lot of them. Since Earth will remain habitable for hundreds of millions of years and humanity could eventually expand to other parts of the universe, the future could contain a huge number of lives. Given the amount of space we have to expand in4 and the length of time we have to do it, the number of people who live in the future could reach 10^32. A number this large is literally incomprehensible. It is trillions of trillions times more people than are alive today. To put it in other terms, you might get close to this number if you took the number of grains of sand on Earth and multiplied it by the number of stars in our galaxy.5 If we believe the quality of these lives matter, then we should be very concerned with how our actions affect them.

Third, we can meaningfully affect their lives. Of course, changing the future seems extremely difficult. To have a meaningful long-term impact, the effects of a given policy or programme would have to last for hundreds or thousands of years without being reversed or cancelled out. There are some actions that do seem to have such an impact: the framing of a constitution, for example. A more direct way of affecting the lives of all those people yet to come is increasing the chance they exist.

Safeguarding the future

At the moment, our species seems vulnerable to a range of threats that could either wipe us out entirely or irreversibly harm our civilisation. These existential risks include everything from asteroid impacts to catastrophic, unforeseen impacts of new technologies like genetic engineering or artificial intelligence. Should one of these disasters come to pass, not only would the lives of everyone living today be destroyed, but so too would the lives of all future people.

It’s worth reflecting on how terrible this would be. We discussed at the beginning of this post how wonderful life in the future may be. Think of the things that make our lives worth living: the relationships we build, the art we enjoy, the connections we make with the natural world, the sense of purpose we find in our work and philanthropy. Love, justice, creativity, happiness. All of these things could come to exist on a scale we currently can’t imagine. We have so much left to explore and experience. But in just one moment, it all could be lost.

Fortunately, we can do something about this. We can support organisations which work to safeguard this future. Such organisations represent some of the very best funding opportunities we’ve found. In addition to its importance, another reason we think these opportunities are so good is that this cause - and longtermism more broadly - is highly neglected by governments, individuals and philanthropists. As just one example, humanity spends much more money each year on ice cream than it does on reducing existential risk.6

There are clear reasons for this neglect. First, parts of the case for focusing on the future are unintuitive. Our brains work poorly when trying to understand huge numbers. Instead, we are scope insensitive and do not naturally feel that a billion times as many lives are a billion times more important. Second, safeguarding the future is a global and intergenerational public good. Such work benefits everybody currently alive and everyone to come, so anyone who funds it captures only a tiny fraction of the total benefits. Even governments, which are often tasked with providing public goods, will underinvest because future people can’t vote or lobby to represent their interests. That means that there is a strong case for philanthropists, who may have the goal of doing as much good as possible without regard for personal benefits or preferences, to step up.

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