Maybe longtermism isn’t for everyone

I’ve noticed that the EA community has been aggressively promoting longtermism and longtermist causes:

  • The huge book tour around What We Owe the Future, which promotes longtermism itself

  • There was a recent post claiming that 80k’s messaging is discouraging to non-longtermists, although the author deleted (Benjamin Hilton’s response is preserved here). The post observed that 80k lists x-risk related causes as “recommended” causes while neartermist causes like global poverty and factory farming are only “sometimes recommended”. Further, in 2021, 80k put together a podcast feed called Effective Altruism: An Introduction, which many commenters complained was too skewed towards longtermist causes.

I used to think that longtermism is compatible with a wide range of worldviews, as these pages (1, 2) claim, so I was puzzled as to why so many people who engage with longtermism could be uncomfortable with it. Sure, it’s a counterintuitive worldview, but it also flows from such basic principles. But I’m starting to question this—longtermism is very sensitive to the rate of pure time preference, and recently, some philosophers have started to argue that nonzero pure time preference can be justified (section “3. Beyond Neutrality” here).

By contrast, x-risk as a cause area has support from a broader range of moral worldviews:

Maybe it’s better to take a two-pronged approach:

  • Promote x-risk reduction as a cause area that most people can agree on; and

  • Promote longtermism as a novel idea in moral philosophy that some people might want to adopt, but be open about its limitations and acknowledge that our audiences might be uncomfortable with it and have valid reasons not to accept it.