Thoughts on “A case against strong longtermism” (Masrani)
I recently read Vaden Masrani’s post “A case against strong longtermism” for a book/journal club, and noted some reactions to the post as I went. I’m making this post to share slightly-neatened-up versions of those reactions. I’ll split my specific reactions into separate comments, partly so it’s easier for people to reply to specific points.
Masrani’s post centres on critiquing The Case for Strong Longtermism, a paper by Greaves & MacAskill. I recommend reading that paper before reading this post or Masrani’s post. I think the paper is basically very good and very useful, though also flawed in a few ways; I wrote my thoughts on the paper here.
My overall thoughts on Masrani’s post are as follows:
I think that criticism is very often valuable, and especially so for ideas that are promoted by prominent people and are influencing important decisions. Masrani’s post represents a critique of such an idea, so it’s in a category of things I generally appreciate and think we should generally be happy people are producing.
However, my independent impression is that the critique was quite weak and that it involved multiple misunderstandings of the Greaves & MacAskill paper in particular, longtermist ideas and efforts more generally, and also some other philosophical ideas.
Relatedly, my independent impression is that Masrani’s post is probably more likely to cause confusions or misconceptions than it is to usefully advance people’s thinking and discussions.
All that said, I do think that there are various plausible arguments against longtermism that warrant further discussion and research.
Some are discussed in Greaves and MacAskill’s paper.
One of the best such arguments (in my view) is discussed in Tarsney’s great paper “The epistemic challenge to longtermism”.
(Given these views, I was also pretty tempted to call this A Case Against “A Case Against Longtermism”, but I didn’t want to set off an infinitely recursive loop of increasingly long and snarky titles!)
(Masrani also engaged in the comments section of their original post, wrote some followup posts, and has discussed similar topics on a podcast they host with Ben Chugg. I read most of the comments section on the original post and listened to a 3 hour interview they had with Fin and Luca of the podcast Hear This Idea, and continued to be unimpressed by the critiques provided. But I haven’t read/listened to the other things.)
 This seemed better than just making all these comments on Masrani’s post, since I had a lot of comments and that post is from several months ago.
This post does not necessarily represent the views of any of my employers.