My personal cruxes for focusing on existential risks /​ longtermism /​ anything other than just video games

In March 2020, I wondered what I’d do if—hypothetically—I continued to subscribe to longtermism but stopped believing that the top longtermist priority should be reducing existential risk. That then got me thinking more broadly about what cruxes lead me to focus on existential risk, longtermism, or anything other than self-interest in the first place, and what I’d do if I became much more doubtful of each crux.[1]

I made a spreadsheet to try to capture my thinking on those points, the key columns of which are reproduced below.

Note that:

  • It might be interesting for people to assign their own credences to these cruxes, and/​or to come up with their own sets of cruxes for their current plans and priorities, and perhaps comment about these things below.

    • If so, you might want to avoid reading my credences for now, to avoid being anchored.

  • I was just aiming to honestly convey my personal cruxes; I’m not aiming to convince people to share my beliefs or my way of framing things.

  • If I was making this spreadsheet from scratch today, I might’ve framed things differently or provided different numbers.

    • As it was, when I re-discovered this spreadsheet in 2021, I just lightly edited it, tweaked some credences, added one crux (regarding the epistemic challenge to longtermism), and wrote this accompanying post.

The key columns from the spreadsheet

See the spreadsheet itself for links, clarifications, and the following additional columns:

Disclaimers and clarifications

  • All of my framings, credences, rationales, etc. should be taken as quite tentative.

  • The first four of the above claims might use terms/​concepts in a nonstandard or controversial way.

  • This spreadsheet captures just one line of argument that could lead to the conclusion that, in general, people should in some way do/​support “direct work” done this decade to reduce existential risks. It does not capture:

    • Other lines of argument for that conclusion

      • Perhaps most significantly, as noted in the spreadsheet, it seems plausible that my behaviours would stay pretty similar if I lost all credence in the first four claims

    • Other lines of argument against that conclusion

    • The comparative advantages particular people have

    • Which specific x-risks one should focus on

      • E.g., extinction due to biorisk vs unrecoverable dystopia due to AI

      • See also

    • Which specific interventions one should focus on

  • This spreadsheet implicitly makes various “background assumptions”.

    • E.g., that inductive reasoning and Bayesian updating are good ideas

    • E.g., that we’re not in a simulation or that, if we are, it doesn’t make a massive difference to what we should do

      • For a counterpoint to that assumption, see this post

    • I’m not necessarily actually confident in all of these assumptions

  • If you found it crazy to see me assign explicit probabilities to those sorts of claims, you may be interested in this post on arguments for and against using explicit probabilities.

Further reading

If you found this interesting, you might also appreciate:

I made this spreadsheet and post in a personal capacity, and it doesn’t necessarily represent the views of any of my employers.

My thanks to Janique Behman for comments on an earlier version of this post.


[1] In March 2020, I was in an especially at-risk category for philosophically musing into a spreadsheet, given that I’d recently: