A full syllabus on longtermism
What this is
A syllabus of readings relating to ‘longtermist’ philosophy. I’m posting it here because I hope it might inform syllabi for university courses, reading groups or EA fellowships, and because I would love to see people share suggestions for other works to include.
As this list was designed to include roughly a semester’s worth of material it is, needless to say, not an exhaustive resource. Indeed, each of the dozen topics could have a syllabus of their own and I am not myself very familiar with the relevant literature – suggestions are very welcome!
Like many other student groups, my previous university EA community would often invite faculty speakers to join dinner discussions and fellowship meetings. In our group, the ethics professor Shelly Kagan has been generous enough to regularly attend group discussions. While he initially joined for conversations on Peter Singer’s arguments on charity, we started a few years ago to instead focus on questions regarding intergenerational ethics.
After a few very successful group discussions, I suggested that Kagan could teach a course on the topic and, a few years later, that course is now being taught as an undergraduate seminar.
While Kagan was preparing the course, I offered to make a draft syllabus for it, and although I believe Kagan’s actual syllabus looks quite different from the list I produced, I figured that it might nevertheless be worthwhile to share here on the forum. I should stress that this syllabus is independent of the course and professor and that any errors thus are entirely my own.
Why I think this might be valuable
I think we got quite lucky to find a university professor who was sufficiently interested in – and sympathetic to – longtermism that they would teach a course on it, and I’m not sure that this is something that could happen at every school with an EA group. But conditional on finding such a professor, I hope this syllabus could increase the likelihood of them teaching a course like this, which seems really valuable. Of course, I also hope that this could prove useful for reading groups, fellowships, and the like!
Crucially, I do not see this as a resource for “convincing people that longtermism is true.” Rather, I hope that the readings can inspire and inform robust conversations about the strengths and weaknesses of longtermism – a philosophy that, in the scheme of things, remains very new and unexplored. Indeed, several of the readings included here pose serious challenges to various aspects of longtermism that are worth carefully considering.
Some considerations that went into making this syllabus
Intergenerational ethics ≠ longtermism
The course this syllabus was made for is called “Ethics and the Future,” which underscores the fact that, as I see it, ‘intergenerational ethics’ (a philosophical topic or field) is not equivalent to ‘longtermism’ (a philosophical position and research agenda within that field). So while longtermism is heavily featured, it’s not the only thing you’ll find on the syllabus.
Formalism and accessibility
In addition to the usual dose of jargon, many of the papers on this subject – especially on the topics of discounting and population ethics – include a lot of mathematical expressions that may pose a barrier to some readers. I tried to keep accessibility in mind when making the syllabus and excluded a few potential readings on those grounds, but I still suspect that some of the readings might be challenging to many students without a lot of formal training (myself included). Ultimately, however, this is just a draft, and it can obviously be adapted to improve accessibility depending on the purpose and audience.
A note on diversity
Much of the field of academic philosophy suffers from very noticeable demographic homogeneity, and the subfields discussed here are no exception. As a regrettable consequence, almost all of the readings on this list are by white authors and a majority of them are written by men. While the causes and consequences of this trend deserve a much longer, separate discussion, I will nevertheless briefly address it here.
On this topic, I often hear the argument that we should “evaluate ideas based on their merits rather than the identity of the author.” In principle, I am definitely sympathetic to this view. In practice, however, I believe that (moral) philosophies – and any blindspots or weaknesses they may have – can be influenced by their social and historical context, as well as the positionality of those who developed them.
This is definitely not to say that we should discard (or elevate, for that matter) any particular philosophy or piece of work simply due to the identity or culture of the originator. However, if we think of EA’s entire “portfolio” of philosophical traditions and demographic groups from which we learn, I think there is a serious risk of blindspots and errors if the origins of the source material are very homogenous.
Take, for instance, the moral notion that we must afford equal rights to people of different genders: while John Stuart Mill – an early feminist of sorts – is an example that moral insights may dawn on anyone (i.e., a man pushing for women’s rights), I think it is extremely plausible to suggest that these important insights would have gained more of a foothold much sooner if women had had more of a voice and platform in academic and political circles. (Note: I’m no expert on this particular history and would be curious to hear from others who know more.)
More generally, the fact that there are wide differences in views across cultures, genders, ethnicities, races, and socioeconomic groups suggests that people, as a matter of fact, are not reasoning completely independently of their positionality, despite that being an admirable ideal for us to aspire to. Consequently, it seems to me that representing a wide range of peoples is a clear way to reduce the risk of blindspots and errors, and thereby maximise the chance of identifying “correct” moral views.
Additionally, I think that there are compelling community-oriented reasons for valuing diversity on syllabi and reading lists, as some people might be more excited about engaging with a community that seems informed by a wider range of perspectives.
All of this is to say that I think authorship diversity is a desirable feature of a reading list (among many others, of course). So, insofar as this particular syllabus does very poorly on that front, I’d really appreciate suggestions for works to include, and I’d generally be excited to see other efforts to address this issue more broadly.
This syllabus was heavily inspired by the reading list from Will MacAskill and Christian Tarsney’s graduate seminar on Topics in Global Priorities that I had the pleasure of auditing in the spring of 2019. The effort to expand and revise the syllabus would not have been possible without the generous help from Andreas Mogensen, Brian Tse, Christian Tarsney, Emma Curran, Eui Young Kim, Frankie Andersen-Wood, John Mori, Magnus Vinding, Mojmír Stehlík, Sebastian Sudergaard Schmidt, Shelly Kagan, Charlotte Unruh, Tatjana Visak, Teruji Thomas, and Xuan (Tan Zhi Xuan). Again, any errors are my own.
Week 1: Ethics and the future
Goal: To introduce students to the idea of moral relations across time and to show the intuitive plausibility of intergenerational obligations, especially for students who are unfamiliar with the general idea of longtermism.
Toby Ord, The Precipice, Chapter 1: Standing at the precipice
Toby Ord, The Precipice, Chapter 2: Existential risk
Simon Caney, Justice and Future Generations
Lukas Meyer, Intergenerational Justice, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Week 2: The case for (strong) longtermism
Goal: To present the core case for longtermism, as presented by notable scholars in the EA community.
Hilary Greaves and William MacAskill, The case for strong longtermism.
Nick Beckstead, On the Overwhelming Importance of Shaping the Far Future, Chapter 3: The case for shaping the far future
Nick Bostrom, Astronomical waste
Week 3: The non-identity problem and person-affecting views part I
Goal: To introduce students to the non-identity problem and its relevance for longtermism.
Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Chapter 16: The non-identity problem
Elizabeth Harman, Can we harm and benefit in creating?
Christopher Meacham, Person-affecting views and saturating counterpart relations
Week 4: The non-identity problem and person-affecting views part II
Goal: To extend the discussion of person-affecting views and introduce important counterarguments to the views presented in Week 3.
**Tatjana Visak, Cross-species comparisons of welfare, Chapter 6: Welfare as an impersonal or as a personal good
Jeff McMahan, Climate change, war, and the non-identity problem
**Note: Available upon request from the author.
Teruji Thomas: The Asymmetry, Uncertainty, and the Long Term
Andreas Mogensen: Staking our future: deontic long-termism and the non-identity problem
Week 5: Population axiology part I
Goal: To introduce important topics in population ethics and highlight their importance for longtermism.
Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Chapter 17: The repugnant conclusion
Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Chapter 18: The absurd conclusion
Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Chapter 19: The mere addition paradox
Amanda Askell, Pareto Principles in Infinite Ethics, Chapter 1: The Foundations of Infinite Ethics
Week 6: Population axiology part II
Goal: To extend the discussion from Week 5 and present writings from key scholars in the longtermism community.
Hilary Greaves, Population axiology
Hilary Greaves and Toby Ord, Moral uncertainty about population axiology
Week 7: Discounting the future
Goal: To introduce, and perhaps resolve, the discussion of discounting in intergenerational ethics.
Tyler Cowen and Derek Parfit, Against the social discount rate
Andreas Mogensen: ‘The only ethical argument for positive delta ’?
John Broome, ‘Discounting the Future’
Hilary Greaves, Discounting future health
Week 8: Fanaticism and demandingness
Goal: To highlight, and address, the problems of fanaticism and demandingness.
Teruji Thomas and Nick Beckstead, A paradox for tiny probabilities and enormous values
Nick Beckstead, On the Overwhelming Importance of Shaping the Far Future, chapters 6 and 7
Week 9: Deontology and paralysis
Goal: To offer an example of a specific discussion within longtermism.
Andreas Mogensen and William MacAskill, The paralysis argument
**Charlotte Unruh, The Constraint against Doing Harm and Long-Term Consequences
**Note: Available upon request from the author.
Fiona Woollard and Frances Howard-Snyder, Doing vs. allowing harm, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Week 10: Non-consequentialist intergenerational ethics
Goal: To show that duties towards future generations can be grounded in non-consequentialist ethics
Elizabeth Finneron-Burns, Contractualism and the Non-Identity Problem
Rahul Kumar, Risking future generations
Jane English, Justice between generations
Elizabeth Finneron-Burns, What’s wrong with human extinction?
Week 11: Examples of non-Western intergenerational ethics
Goal: To give just two examples of views that might arise from different philosophical perspectives on intergenerational ethics. Note: I would be particularly keen to receive suggestions for this section, as my familiarity with non-Western philosophy is embarrassingly limited. I am aware that certain strains of Chinese and Buddhist thought relate to questions of intergenerational ethics but have been unable to find any stand-alone pieces that would work well as readings on a syllabus like this.
Kevin Gary Behrens, Moral obligations to future generations in African thought
HH the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, Training the Mind: Verse 1
Week 12: Predicting and influencing the far future
Goal: To introduce the epistemic challenge to longtermism and preview the general practical challenges to applied longtermism.
Christian Tarsney, The epistemic challenge to longtermism
William MacAskill, Are we living at the hinge of history?
Luke Muehlhauser, How feasible is long-range forecasting?
Week 13: Cluelessness
Goal: To introduce the general problem of cluelessness and its particular relevance for longterm future-oriented action.
James Lenman, Consequentialism and cluelessness
David Thorstad and Andreas Mogensen, Heuristics for clueless agents: how to get away with ignoring what matters most in ordinary decision-making
Week 14: Longtermist cause prioritisation part I: Avoiding suffering, reforming institutions.
Goal: To move from the “why” towards the “what” and discuss potential priorities for longtermists.
Magnus Vinding, Suffering-Focused Ethics, Chapter 14, Reducing S-risks
Tyler M. John and William MacAskill, Longtermist institutional reform
David Althaus and Lukas Gloor, “Reducing the risks of astronomical suffering: a neglected priority
Simon Knutsson, The world destruction argument
Week 15: Longtermist cause prioritisation part II: Utopia and its discontents
Goal: To end on a high note by reflecting on what the future could look like, but also to consider a pointed critique of longtermism and utopian thinking.
Nick Bostrom, Letter from Utopia
David Pearce, Utopian neuroscience?
**Note: In my view, the tone of this essay is at times antagonistic and some arguments seem uncharitable towards the positions they seek to critique. I include the essay here because I believe it raises important concerns about risks associated with longtermism that warrant good-faith discussion; however, this should not be read as an endorsement of the more polemic features of the essay.
I hope some of you will find this resource in any way useful. As noted above, I look very much forward to hearing any suggestions and comments you might have!