The Base Rate of Longtermism Is Bad

Cross-posted from Cold Button Issues.

Sometimes philosophers make bold, sweeping claims for other philosophers and modest, palatable claims for the general public. Consider Peter Singer’s writing on philosophy which includes endorsing situational infanticide versus his more popular writing where he makes hard to dispute claims like “[l]iving a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place.”

Will MacAskill and Hillary Greaves wrote a paper arguing for strong longtermism the “the view that impact on the far future is the most important feature of our actions today.” Then Will MacAskill wrote a New York Times best-selling book that argued that caring about the future is somewhat morally important.

MacAskill didn’t need to water down his claims to convince me. In theory, I’m fully on board with longtermism. There’s probably tons of future people who matter just as much as we do so let’s prioritize them, hurray! Despite being willing to endorse the philosophy of longtermism, I think building a movement around longtermism or taking actions for the sake of the longterm future are likely to backfire.

Some friends of mine in the effective altruism movement have said they would be excited about the shift to longtermism if there were successful past examples of longtermist movements.

But I think past examples of longtermism are easy to find- it’s just hard to find successful examples.

When GiveWell was relatively young and not as influential as it is today, it commissioned work on the history of philanthropy, to answer questions like when did ambitious philanthropists succeed, when did they fail, and what effective altruists could learn from the past. I think repeating such a process for longtermism, by taking even a quick look at past efforts to prioritize the longterm future- casts doubt on longtermist efforts.

Benjamin Franklin, Failed Longtermist

If George Washington was the Captain America of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin was Iron Man. The fun one, the cool one, the guy who invented the lightning rod. He’s probably the closest thing America has to a Leonardo Da Vinci. He signed the Declaration of Independence, ran the post office, was the ambassador to France, and kept on inventing things.

He also tried to be a longtermist. When he died, he left a bequest to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia that was to accrue interest for the next 200 years before the cities could access the whole principal. As Will MacAskill recounts, the amount grew to $5 million and $2 million respectively. The money mostly went to fund a private college.

Because of this he’s sometimes favorably cited as a successful example of how people can intentionally try to help the longterm future and succeed. The problem is, of all the things that Franklin did that shaped the future, his intentional future-oriented bequest was basically a rounding error. No disrespect to the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology which benefited from his generosity, but that’s not what made Benjamin Franklin important to the world.

What else could he have spent this money on? Taking better care of his health so he lived longer, supporting relatives to start a family yielding hundred of additional Franklin descendants over the years, running a few more experiments…. He could have thrown another party! This might sound like I’m joking but a big part of an ambassador’s jobs is to be a charming bon vivant and a great party host. An even stronger friendship between the United States and France would surely have been more consequential than founding this private college.

There’s no contradiction between spending money now to benefit the future and being a longtermist. Still, even a man as brilliant as Benjamin Franklin totally flopped when he tried to go longtermist.

Perpetual Foundations

Because the proponents of longtermism within effective altruism are unusually intelligent, well-educated, and articulate, it sometimes seems like effective altruists are the first to think of every single good idea in philanthropy. Sometimes that’s true- I think 80,000 Hours, for example, is truly unique.

But dedicating philanthropic resources to the betterment of the future is common, even prosaic and routine. The institution of the “perpetual foundation” might not be described as a product of philosophical consequentialism or longtermist thinking. Yet the core concept of a perpetual foundation, a charitable trust that donates little enough of its capital each year that the principal amount stays the same or increases, is essentially a commitment to treat people in each year from here to eternity as equally deserving of philanthropic resources. Truly impressive moral impartiality!

As far as I know, longtermists have not cited perpetual foundations as a precedent. One reason might be that the typical perpetual foundation is not very adept with philosophical rhetoric. But the structure is very longtermist.

Perpetual foundations have supported hugely impressive things. Both the Ford and Rockefeller Foundation funded the Green Revolution, but both foundations were relatively young at the time.

One danger of perpetual foundations is that they might end up pursuing goals antithetical to what their creators wanted. The classic example here is the Ford Foundation, founded by successful capitalists within the Ford family, which eventually took a sharp left turn, causing Ford family members at the time to distance themselves from the foundation. Whether the leftward shift is good and a happy accident or sign of moral progress, or bad and a betrayal of its founders, isn’t that relevant in this case. From the perspective of its creators, it backfired after only a few short decades.

Perpetual foundations have also fallen out of favor in the philanthropic press and world of institutional philanthropy more broadly in the last few decades; instead spend-down or sunsetting foundations have gained favor. The Gates Foundation has pledged to exhaust its resources within 20 years of the deaths of Bill and Melinda Gates. Atlantic Philanthropies lists Cari Tuna and Dustin Moskovitz, Jack Ma, and Mark Zuckerberg as also avoiding perpetual foundations.

A powerful critique of charitable foundations is that they’re uniquely unaccountable- not answering to the market like corporations or to voters like politicians. Longterm-oriented philanthropy seems like it would be even less accountable. If a malaria charity fails to achieve anything, people with malaria can try to complain. But if a longterm-oriented charity fails to achieve anything, the only people who could complain would be time travelers!

Communist Revolutions

Communist revolutionaries fought for a utopia. Many Communists suffered social ostracism, torture, and death across many continents in the hopes of bringing about a positive long-term future. Many Communist thinkers endorsed a substantial and bloody transition period between capitalism and a true classless society, that they claimed would be pretty awesome. This seems risky because when costs are upfront and really extreme, your predictions of longterm benefits have to be pretty accurate for you to end up ahead in terms of human well-being.

I judge Communism as a total failure that plausibly killed nearly 100 million and an example of failed longtermism. Some people view various Communist regimes and revolutions as good overall, and dispute claims about alleged Communist crimes. If that’s you, you might view Communism as a hopeful precedent for longtermism. .


In What We Owe the Future, MacAskill wrote:

“To illustrate, suppose that a highly educated person in the year 1500 tried to make the longterm future go well. .. many issues wouldn’t occur to them. The ideas that the earth’s habitable life span could be a billion years and that the universe could be so utterly enormous, yet almost entirely uninhabited, would not have been on the table.”

I have to say the time aspect of this statement is almost certainly false. The poor, benighted 1500er would likely be a devout Christian or Muslim or Hindu or some other religious adherent who believed in the immortal soul. Next to secular effective altruists who hope humanity survives merely till the heat death of the universe, they were the real longtermists and would scoff at unambitious hopes of merely surviving a few billion years.

Religion is probably the best prospect for showing that longtermist movements are a good idea. Many religions present themselves as eternal truths (inherently longterm), incorporate claims about an eternal afterlife (also super-longterm), and inspire people to make huge sacrifices to ensure the longterm survival of their faith such as the martyrs or missionaries who set off on dangerous missions to spread the word.

Along the way, most major religions have inspired major altruistic works and charitable institutions- although some would argue they inspire comparable harm. And if Christianity or Islam or some other religion is true, then people who worked on spreading the true faith may have done infinite good, easily outweighing the finite failures of the other categories.

I think it’s indisputable that there are several religions that for centuries or millennia have shifted human values in their direction, shaped the decisions of billions, and created and destroyed powerful institutions and states.

If you’re religious, then maybe you should be relatively bullish on longtermism. Of course the specifics of your religion might endorse longtermist actions much different than those typically supported by effective altruists- spreading the Gospel, starting a religious order, intercessory prayer, etc… But if you’re not religious or not eager to claim that the fledgling effective altruist longtermist movement is essentially a religion, then it might look like most movements or institutions that aim explicitly at longtermist ends are failures. This new longtermist movement also seems to lack many of the features that have made religions so successful- hope for the afterlife, a clear set of moral values, community, and a psychological framework for life that’s relevant across society.

The Longtermist Paradox

One way to reject my argument would be to find lots of examples of longtermist movements that actually work.. Another would be to argue that longtermism is so unique and unprecedented, we have little to learn from past failures.

For instance, you can claim that MacAskill and Ord and Beckstead and Bostrom and Greaves and so forth, are smarter and better-meaning than proponents of most past longtermist movements. That seems plausible to me! And I do think the world would probably be better overall, if those philosophers could guide a few more billion dollars to dealing with biorisk or safe development of artificial intelligence or other concrete actions they’ve endorsed.

But I don’t view the effective altruist version of longtermism as particularly unique or unprecedented.I think the dismal record of (secular) longtermism speaks for itself.

Hedonism is often criticized by arguing that the pursuit of pleasure fails to produce it. I think the same thing holds true for longtermism. Great men and women who made their descendants better off were actively working to make their peers or maybe their children and grandchildren better off- not their distant descendants. The ones who aimed at the distant future mostly failed. The longtermist label seems mostly unneeded and unhelpful- and I’m far from the first to think so.

We can salvage many of the specific concerns of longtermism- climate change, nuclear proliferation, biorisk, artificial intelligence- by appealing to how they threaten our generation and the next few. I’d like to keep humans from going extinct but I don’t want the effective altruism movement to fall into the same reference class as so many disappointing or harmful past movements.

The best I think we can do is think of human history as a ladder extending into a long and hopefully bright future. We should do our best to make it through the next few rungs, passing on the world in as good of a condition as we can manage it. After that it’s up to our descendants to tackle the next few rungs. Looking too far ahead might cause our grip to slip.

Since I’ve conceded that many of the specific concerns of longtermists are warranted while criticizing their unfortunate conceptual focus, perhaps I have made a similar error by writing about a relatively meta and conceptual issue instead of focusing on my current day job, which ironically is in a field, prioritized by longtermists. But as more time and more money explicitly revolves around longtermism, a movement with many failed predecessors and few if any hopeful examples, I worry that effective altruism is going down the same road.