The Long-Term Future: An Attitude Survey

As part of my re­search for Will MacAskill’s planned book on longter­mism, I car­ried out an at­ti­tude sur­vey to find out how peo­ple re­act to some re­lated ar­gu­ments. Par­ti­ci­pants were asked to read two pas­sages of text and in­di­cate their level of agree­ment with var­i­ous state­ments af­ter each pas­sage. The first pas­sage ar­gues that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions mat­ters just as much as the pre­sent, that they are cur­rently ne­glected, and that there are things we can do to help them. The sec­ond, more spec­u­la­tive pas­sage ar­gues that a big­ger pop­u­la­tion is bet­ter than a smaller one (all else equal), and that in the long-run, we should spread be­yond the so­lar sys­tem. We also col­lected some de­mo­graphic data. In to­tal, we re­cruited 403 col­lege-ed­u­cated US re­spon­dents via Positly. If you want to have a look for your­self, the full data set is available here.

Sur­vey Text

Below are the two pas­sages that sur­vey re­spon­dents read.

First Passage

If all goes well, hu­man­ity has a long and flour­ish­ing fu­ture ahead. But whether it does de­pends in part on the de­ci­sions we make to­day. Dis­tant fu­ture gen­er­a­tions are no less im­por­tant than the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion. Their joys and sor­rows are just as real as ours. As an anal­ogy, con­sider peo­ple who live on the other side of the planet. Surely, they don’t mat­ter any less than peo­ple who are closer to you in space. Their well-be­ing counts for just as much. In the same way, fu­ture gen­er­a­tions don’t mat­ter any less sim­ply be­cause they are far away in time.

Yet we rarely pause to think about just how many peo­ple there will be in the fu­ture. At the mo­ment, there are around seven billion peo­ple in the world. The Earth will re­main hab­it­able for an­other 500 mil­lion years. If there are an­other seven billion peo­ple for each cen­tury un­til Earth be­comes un­in­hab­it­able, then the fu­ture will con­tain five mil­lion times as many peo­ple as are al­ive to­day. Be­cause there will be so many peo­ple in the fu­ture, any­thing we could do to­day to im­prove their lives would be of tremen­dous im­por­tance. The stakes are sim­ply as­tro­nom­i­cal.

How­ever, fu­ture gen­er­a­tions are ne­glected in to­day’s so­ciety. In part, this is due to the short-term in­cen­tives we face. For ex­am­ple, poli­ti­ci­ans get re­warded or pun­ished based on how they perform over the course of an elec­tion cy­cle. As a re­sult, they don’t have much rea­son to think care­fully about how the de­ci­sions they make to­day will af­fect fu­ture gen­er­a­tions in cen­turies to come. Be­cause fu­ture gen­er­a­tions are so ne­glected, we should as­pire to cre­ate a so­ciety that does more to help them.

You might think that the fu­ture is just so in­her­ently difficult to pre­dict that we can’t re­ally know how to benefit the fu­ture. But there are in fact many things we can do to help fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. For ex­am­ple, we can im­ple­ment poli­cies that in­crease the rate of sus­tain­able growth. Eco­nomic growth has been one of the main forces be­hind the in­crease in qual­ity of life that we’ve seen over the course of his­tory. We’re 50 times richer to­day than we were prior to the In­dus­trial Revolu­tion. That wealth means we have to work fewer hours, have longer, healthier lives, and are able to en­gage in a much wider range of leisure ac­tivi­ties. Fur­ther eco­nomic growth may bring com­pa­rable benefits to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

Se­condly, we can set up in­sti­tu­tions for the poli­ti­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. The poli­cies we adopt to­day are rarely eval­u­ated for their long-term con­se­quences, even though such con­se­quences can of­ten be very sig­nifi­cant. By hav­ing, for ex­am­ple, an offi­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, we can make sure that these long-term con­se­quences are prop­erly ac­counted for, so that we don’t choose poli­cies that nega­tively af­fect fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

Thirdly, we can help fu­ture gen­er­a­tions by tak­ing ac­tion to re­duce the risk of hu­man ex­tinc­tion. If hu­man­ity goes ex­tinct, our po­ten­tial for a great fu­ture will be lost for­ever. To­day, that fu­ture is threat­ened by cli­mate change and the risk of nu­clear war. More­over, some tech­nolog­i­cal de­vel­op­ments that are just around the cor­ner, such as biotech­nol­ogy, may also bring risks of ex­tinc­tion. There­fore, any­thing we do to re­duce these and other risks will greatly benefit fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

Se­cond Passage

If we play our cards right, we can cre­ate a won­der­ful fu­ture. Through fur­ther tech­nolog­i­cal de­vel­op­ment, we can cre­ate even larger im­prove­ments in qual­ity of life than we’ve seen over the past few cen­turies. Through fur­ther med­i­cal ad­vances, we can elimi­nate the many ill­nesses that plague us to­day, in­clud­ing can­cer and car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease. But it is not only through tech­nolog­i­cal and sci­en­tific ad­vances that we can cre­ate a bet­ter fu­ture. Through poli­ti­cal changes, we can cre­ate a much juster world. Although we may not cre­ate a utopia, we should ex­pect that qual­ity of life is much higher in the fu­ture than it is to­day.

Be­cause lives in the fu­ture could be so won­der­ful, we should cre­ate as many of them as we can, with­out sac­ri­fic­ing qual­ity of life for those who are already al­ive. When life is good, be­ing born is a tremen­dous benefit. In ad­di­tion to the benefits to the in­di­vi­d­u­als be­ing born, a greater pop­u­la­tion also means greater op­por­tu­nity for sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies, tech­nolog­i­cal ad­vances, cul­tural ex­pres­sion and many other things we value.

In the very long-run, this means that we must even­tu­ally spread be­yond the so­lar sys­tem. In prin­ci­ple, there is no rea­son why we shouldn’t be able to spread to other so­lar sys­tems. In our galaxy alone, there may be as many as 40 billion hab­it­able planets. Th­ese are planets that could sup­port com­mu­ni­ties of flour­ish­ing hu­mans. Given the as­tro­nom­i­cal stakes, and to en­sure that hu­man­ity reaches its full po­ten­tial, it is there­fore morally im­per­a­tive that we en­sure that civ­i­liza­tion sur­vives long enough that we can spread through the galaxy.

Main Findings

Re­spon­dents were asked to in­di­cate their level of agree­ment, from 1 = “Strongly dis­agree” to 7 = “Strongly agree”.

1. To what ex­tent do you agree with the ar­gu­ment in the first text?
(M = 5.50, SD = 1.22)

2. Peo­ple on the other side of the planet mat­ter just as much as those who are near to you.
(M = 6.10, SD = 1.26)

3. Peo­ple in the dis­tant fu­ture mat­ter just as much as those al­ive to­day.
(M = 5.79, SD = 1.35)

4. Hu­man­ity will still ex­ist in a thou­sand years.
(M = 5.36, SD = 1.42)

5. Hu­man­ity will still ex­ist in a mil­lion years.
(M = 4.19, SD = 1.59)

6. We should do more to help fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.
(M = 6.03, SD = 1.05)

7. I would be will­ing to ac­cept 5 per­centage point higher taxes that will be used to benefit fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, but which won’t at all benefit the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion.
(M = 4.25, SD = 1.86)

8. There are mean­ingful ways of af­fect­ing things a thou­sand years from now.
(M = 5.44, SD = 1.41)

9. There are mean­ingful ways of af­fect­ing things a mil­lion years from now.
(M = 4.34, SD = 1.79)

10. To what ex­tent do you agree with the ar­gu­ment in the sec­ond text?
(M = 4.28, SD = 1.77)

11. For the av­er­age per­son, life will be bet­ter in a thou­sand years than it is to­day.
(M = 4.49, SD = 1.39)

12. For the av­er­age per­son, life will be bet­ter in a mil­lion years than it is to­day.
(M = 3.97, SD = 1.35)

13. Con­sider two civ­i­liza­tions. Both of them last for a mil­lion years. In the first civ­i­liza­tion, there are ten billion peo­ple in ev­ery gen­er­a­tion. In the sec­ond civ­i­liza­tion, there is one billion peo­ple in ev­ery gen­er­a­tion. Other than their pop­u­la­tion size, the two civ­i­liza­tions are iden­ti­cal. Their mem­bers are equally happy, and there are no is­sues with re­source de­ple­tion, en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, or over­pop­u­la­tion.

If only one civ­i­liza­tion could come into ex­is­tence, which would you pre­fer?
(M = 3.56, SD = 1.81, where 1 = ‘Strongly pre­fer 1B civ­i­liza­tion’ and 7 = ‘Strongly pre­fer 10B civ­i­liza­tion’)

For this ques­tion, I also looked at the qual­i­ta­tive an­swers of those who ex­pressed a strong prefer­ence for ei­ther the 1B or the 10B civ­i­liza­tion. I’ve tried to cat­e­go­rize their rea­sons be­low (not­ing that some re­spon­dents gave more than one rea­son):

There were 74 re­spon­dents who strongly preferred the 1B civ­i­liza­tion.

  1. More re­sources (25)

  2. Less crowded (22)

  3. Over­pop­u­la­tion (10)

  4. En­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues (8)

  5. Hu­mans are over­rated (5)

  6. Other (12)

There were 34 re­spon­dents who strongly preferred the 10B civ­i­liza­tion.

  1. More happy peo­ple (23)

  2. More ideas & sci­en­tific/​tech­nolog­i­cal ad­vances (10)

  3. More di­ver­sity/​cre­ativity/​cul­ture (4)

  4. In­creases the chance of hu­man sur­vival and an even bet­ter fu­ture (3)

  5. Other (2)

14. I hope that in the fu­ture, hu­man­ity will spread to other so­lar sys­tems.
(M = 4.71, SD = 1.77)

I also looked at qual­i­ta­tive an­swers to this ques­tion.

75 re­spon­dents were strongly in favour of space set­tle­ment, and gave the fol­low­ing rea­sons:

  1. Awe­some/​Amaz­ing/​Un­lock po­ten­tial/​Dis­cov­ery: 35

  2. Needed for sur­vival: 28

  3. More room to ad­dress over­crowd­ing/​limited re­sources: 14

  4. Find out if there’s in­tel­li­gent life: 3

  5. More peo­ple get to ex­ist: 1

24 re­spon­dents were strongly against space set­tle­ment, and gave the fol­low­ing rea­sons:

  1. This is un­likely/​im­pos­si­ble/​we won’t sur­vive that long: 11

  2. Hu­man­ity is a dis­aster for other so­lar sys­tems: 8

  3. Against coloniza­tion: 2

  4. Man is stupid: 1

  5. I don’t want to leave Earth: 1

  6. Would just be more of the same prob­lems: 1

  7. Hu­mans don’t be­long on other planets: 1

Cor­re­la­tions and Comparisons

  • Valu­ing spa­tially dis­tant peo­ple was cor­re­lated with valu­ing tem­po­rally dis­tant peo­ple (r = 0.63, p < 3e-16), as is pre­dicted by con­strual level the­ory.

  • Willing­ness to ac­cept a tax to help fu­ture gen­er­a­tions was cor­re­lated with cli­mate change con­cern (r = 0.53 , p < 3e-16)

  • Cli­mate change con­cern was some­what nega­tively cor­re­lated with think­ing that hu­man­ity will still ex­ist in a thou­sand years (r = –0.18, p < 0.0004) and in a mil­lion years (r = –0.15, p < 0.003).

  • So­cial jus­tice con­cern was cor­re­lated with agree­ing with the first pas­sage of text (r = 0.31, p = 3e-10), but not with agree­ing with the sec­ond pas­sage.

  • Sci-fi en­joy­ment was some­what cor­re­lated with agree­ing with the first pas­sage (r = 0.17, p < 0.0008), and more strongly cor­re­lated with agree­ing with the sec­ond (r = 0.28, p < 2e-8)

  • As one might ex­pect, peo­ple were more will­ing to agree that we should do more to help fu­ture gen­er­a­tions in the ab­stract than when this was phrased in terms of a cost. But the two vari­ables were still cor­re­lated (r = 0.53, p < 3e-16).

  • Women were some­what more likely than men to value fu­ture gen­er­a­tions: M = 5.97 vs M = 5.61), t(397) = 2.67, p < 0.008, per­haps due to gen­er­ally higher em­pa­thy lev­els.

  • Men (M = 4.60) were more likely than women (M = 3.95) to agree with the sec­ond ar­gu­ment, t(401) = –3.72, p < 0.0003.

  • Those who iden­ti­fied as eco­nom­i­cally free mar­ket were more likely than those who iden­ti­fied as eco­nom­i­cally so­cial­ist to think that hu­man­ity will still ex­ist in a thou­sand years (M = 5.61 vs M = 4.95), t(274) = 4.46, p-value < 2e-05


In terms of mak­ing a con­vinc­ing case for longter­mism, what do these find­ings im­ply? Here are some ten­ta­tive take­aways, though no doubt there are fur­ther les­sons.

  1. Valu­ing the fu­ture. One strik­ing thing is how strongly peo­ple agree that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions mat­ter just as much as the pre­sent one (M = 5.79, SD = 1.35), and that we should do more to help them (M = 6.03, SD = 1.05). Of course, when helping fu­ture gen­er­a­tions is pre­sented as in­volv­ing a per­sonal cost (in the form of a tax in­crease) there is less agree­ment (M = 4.25, SD = 1.86), so it’s not clear how these at­ti­tudes would trans­late into ac­tion. Nev­er­the­less, it does sug­gest that peo­ple gen­er­ally view some of the core ideas of longter­mism in a fa­vor­able light.

  2. Pop­u­la­tion ethics. Another strik­ing thing is how lit­tle peo­ple think that a larger pop­u­la­tion is bet­ter (M = 3.56, SD = 1.81, where 1 = ‘Strongly pre­fer 1B civ­i­liza­tion’ and 7 = ’Strongly pre­fer 10B civ­i­liza­tion). How­ever, we also col­lected qual­i­ta­tive re­sponses to this ques­tion, and found that many of the peo­ple who preferred the smaller civ­i­liza­tion over the big­ger were un­will­ing to ac­cept the stipu­la­tions. Among the 74 re­spon­dents who strongly preferred the smaller civ­i­liza­tion, the most com­monly given rea­sons were more re­sources (25), less crowded (22), over­pop­u­la­tion (10), and en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues (8), in spite of the ex­plicit claim that “there are no is­sues with re­source de­ple­tion, en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, or over­pop­u­la­tion.” Nev­er­the­less, 125 of the 403 re­spon­dents re­ported be­ing in­differ­ent be­tween the two civ­i­liza­tions, so an un­will­ing­ness to ac­cept the stipu­la­tion can­not be ev­ery­thing that’s go­ing on here.

  3. Cli­mate change. One strik­ing, but per­haps not very sur­pris­ing find­ing is just how strongly peo­ple as­so­ci­ate talk of in­fluenc­ing and benefit­ing the fu­ture with cli­mate change and sus­tain­abil­ity. For ex­am­ple, when mo­ti­vat­ing their an­swers to the ques­tion about whether there are mean­ingful things we can do to af­fect things in a thou­sand years, over half of the re­spon­dents men­tioned cli­mate change and en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues. This sug­gests that a cru­cial as­pect of com­mu­ni­cat­ing longter­mism con­cerns how to po­si­tion the view with re­spect to cli­mate change.

  4. Weaker be­liefs about the dis­tant fu­ture. Many of the state­ments that con­cerned a mil­lion years into the fu­ture re­ceived re­sponses that peaked around 4 (‘Nei­ther agree nor dis­agree’). One hy­poth­e­sis is that for the very dis­tant fu­ture, peo­ple typ­i­cally don’t have be­liefs in any strong sense. Per­haps re­lat­edly, as we ex­pected, there was stronger agree­ment with the first text than the sec­ond (M = 5.50 vs. M = 4.28). This sug­gests that com­mu­ni­cat­ing the ‘weirder’ as­pects of longter­mism pre­sents more of a challenge.

(Thanks to Will MacAskill and Lu­cius Cavi­ola for dis­cus­sion.)