Longtermism at the Crossroads

A conversation with Philosophy Professor Kieren Setiya of MIT, on the concepts and challenges of longtermism as articulated by William McAskill.


At the Long Now Boston Conversation event on December 6, 02022, Professor Kieren Setiya pointed out that longtermism is a new iteration of utilitarianism that argues against geographical and temporal partiality.  While it brings attention to our global long term responsibilities, it overemphasizes hypothetical quantifications of future goods at the expense of current harms and fails to address the negative consequences of systemic injustice.

“If we factor in uncertainty using the tools of expected value theory, we find that tiny chances of extinction swamp the moral mathematics.”   

These flaws can be answered by adopting a more expansive consideration of the past and future trajectories of the human narrative.  We have been making progress in our pursuit of a more just and ethical world.  We share an ethical obligation to continue this progress and contribute to a future that is more just and offers greater good for those that it inhabit it.  This includes taking responsibility for the collective and systemic defects in our current world.  As Long Now Boston has advocated, this means learning how to be a better ancestor.

“An alternative view is that size doesn’t matter in itself. We should care not about the number of human lives, but the continuation of the human story.  This is in part about preservation; but mere survival is not enough, for we have unfinished business: think of the injustice of the world; our ignorance; our untapped creativity and our inhibited capacity for love.”

For more about the controversies of longtermism, see Professor Setiya’s book review The New Moral Mathematics (Boston Review), and recent articles The Heavy Price of Longtermism (New Republic), or Longtermism: How good intentions and the rich created a dangerous creed, (The Guardian)

Professor Satiya was also recently featured in Nautilus magazine: Life is Hard and That’s Good, where he discusses his recent book , Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way (2022).

About the speaker:

Kieran Setiya is the Philosophy Section Head in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT.  He works on issues in ethics, epistemology, and the philosophy of mind and is the author of a number of books including Knowing Right From Wrong (2012) and Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (2017). His new book, Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way (2022) was just released.  In August, Professor Setiya published a book review The New Moral Mathematics (Boston Review) commenting on the philosophical consequences of Longtermism as articulated by William MacAskill in What We Owe the Future (2022).

Engineering for Long Term Solutions

Engineering for Long Term Solutions

Long Now Boston and The Maintainers joined forces to present a conversation melding our two key concepts of long-term thinking and the maintenance mindset. The event was led by Maintainers Movement Fellow Tona Rodriguez-Nikl and hosted on June 6 02022 within the Long Now Boston conversation series. 

VIDEO:  Recording


The conversation event was led by 2022 Maintainers Fellow Tona Rodriguez-Nikl. Tona is a professor in the department of Civil Engineering at California State University, Los Angeles. In addition to technical research, he is interested in the broader impacts of technological development and the role of engineers and technology as we address climate change and other future challenges.  Tona introduced each of the speakers.  Their comments are summarized as follows:

Bill Bulleit – Emeritus Professor of structural engineering at Michigan Tech

The Engineering Way of Thinking (EWT): Uncertainty and the Future

  • EWT is way to approach design, using heuristics, to develop, maintain, and and manage artifacts (all in their broadest sense of their terms)
  • Heuristics: anything that aids a probable solution 
  • EWT is knowing that failure will emerge
  • Because we live in a world of uncertainty, we want to make space for small failures and experimentation for all the big stakes in our world. 

Key ideas:

  • Think globally, act locally
  • Many experiments, with corresponding criteria for failure, are required.
  • Diversity in the broad sense, is essential
  • Big, relative to the system, is bad

Guru Madhavan – Director of Programs, National Academy of Engineering 

Politics of Recognition

  • Maintenance is simultaneously  life and larger than life. 
  • Engineers often celebrate themselves as innovators, when a vast majority of Engineers are maintainers, trying to avoid disruption. Engineers may need a re-branding, both in how engineers are viewed by the general public, but also how they view themselves!

Politics of Project Management 

  • We are well familiar with the delays of mega-projects (of a billion dollars or more), especially as they relate to maintenance, often over by 200-1400%.
  • When lacking concrete goals:  schedules, costs, and teams get derailed in mega-projects. 
  • Monitoring accountability is necessary, and we must create pathways of conversation between maintainers and those planning/engineering.

Today’s innovations are tomorrow’s vulnerabilities. Without maintenance, failures flourish.

  • We need to grapple with the politics of recognition, and the politics of project management. This is how we can responsibly channel the role of engineering if we are to tackle any wicked problems. 

Donna Riley – Professor of Engineering Education at Purdue University

Engineering and social justice: Power relationships must be named and challenged in regards to who is involved in problem definition.

  • Who defines our problems? We have many futurists telling us what we “ought” to want. We must question: A future for whom, and what is the quality of that future for all?

Many disasters have been long in the making. 

Engineers tend to be ahistorical (Donna says this as an engineer). 

  • Engineers cite unanticipated consequences, however Henry Petroski points to the big bridge collapse, and how similar bridges have failed for similar reasons… had engineers learned engineering history, they would have learned from these failures. 
  • However, Donna argues, more than nuts and bolts history, we also have a social history.
  • Eg: Before the Flint, Michigan water crisis, there was a Flint governance, racism, economic crisis… Fixing the pipes doesn’t solve the problem for a long term. If we don’t look at each of these aspects, we’re not certain we’ll reach a long term solution. 

Moving to an ecosystem focus for engineers, and increasing engagement between engineers and non-engineers, is needed to contribute to problem solving together. Engineers need to be less arrogant and more humble (also saying this as an Engineer). 

Kai Whiting – Researcher and Lecturer, Sustainability and Stoicism, UCLouvain

What does ancient living tell us about the ways in which we desire “the good life”? 

  • Eg: We build a bridge not to cross a river, we build the bridge because something or someone we want to connect with is on the other side. 

What is the meaning of life? To exist – or to do something more? The good life = the life worthy of being lived. Humans are naturally sociable. What we need is good character overall. 

  • Character building to live a good life: Developing the wisdom to moderate yourself for the sake of the whole community. To know what is good/bad/and to take courage for a collective good, not just for the self. 
  • Eg: What’s best for me, is what is best for all… not one size fits all. 
  • We all have commitments to different arenas. What are my skills? What community am I in? How can I collaborate with my network? How can I think carefully about the knowledge that I have to offer and what is my role? I have multiple hats in multiple parts of life. 

Conversation and Discussion:

Tona: We ought to rationally think about our situations and our impacts. Parallels to Bill’s presentation in thinking about our situation to make change. This is Engineering work. Donna’s contribution about who decides, relates to Kai’s question of “why” do we do what we do and how do we manage it.  Panel: highlighted role of the engineer, and how we hold together 

  • Non engineers can learn from engineers. 
  • Engineers can learn from non engineers. 

What are the limitations behind the scope of experimentation? 
Bill: long term solution is actually to maintain, alter, then maintain again. Because we don’t have any set goals, or know exactly where we’re going yet…. Any experiment or any movement within a system should not require decisions that could lead to collapse, so instead, make small changes within a complex system. 

Eg: the baby formula fiasco: the problem in one plant set the whole crisis  in motion. 

Donna: Bringing values into the conversation and assuring that the voices that need to be there are at the center. 

  • Engineering principles… which values? What if engineers were taught they’re supposed to value nature, but this ends up supporting national ideals, and the locals get made invisible. Eg: Need Science, but with room  for the people to raise questions 
  • This all relates to thinking small, and it’s a nice experiment to add  thinking long. Vulnerabilities are created when not thinking long term. How to provide visible, shared, and community values in more equitable ways.
  • Tona asks: how do you do this!?: how do we bring in a topic of virtues when people aren’t interested in thinking about it. 
  • Seneca: we learn not for school, but for life. How to create this space for students… when folks are thinking broader. 

General vs liberal education. How to give an introduction about how each field thinks about something. How can educators of engineers bridge this gap? Engineering the way of thinking about education. 

Engineering the questions of Know How vs Know What. We’re still clueless about how to competently build things now. 

  • Something to keep in mind: how do you avoid premature speedbumps? 
  • How do we prematurely slow down so that projects can evolve? 

Mega projects – a better transition to clean energy  will involve mega projects. Something to think about: maintenance of the mundane or the subliminal. We don’t currently have a system to achieve a design approach for net zero. 

  • Local public utilities:how  to do large scale projects on a small scale… requires talking about coordination
  • Large projects create cost overruns / how to negotiate commitments 
  • How deal with Uncertainty 

What we need to be asking:  how do energy and services combine to lead to human flourishing? How do we have a clear understanding of what it is that energy provides?  How do we   meet our needs?  What is it that’s harmful? 

Theme: the world we live in today is much more complex than ever — we need to be able to expand the engineering mindset to a larger/broader scale, one that is values-centered. Question: is that a fair assessment? We need to think about a broader way of doing engineering or maintenance?? 

  • Not more complicated, more complex. We can’t handle complexity, we can handle complications.
  • Engineering has to think about  more values, and what values engineers want to approach. 
  • Guru: meta  point: engineers are dual citizens in the world of  both disasters and blessings, needing to bridge wonders and worst case scenarios. What matters is peer review,  good engineering needs to be open and transparent

June 6, 2022 – the concept of a global celebration on June 6 2269 (being promoted by 2269.co) is useful to think about. 


The ideas shared during this event confirmed that the practice of engineering must evolve to stay up to date with the challenges of an accelerating world.  That acceleration is being driven by global and technological factors that require new modes of thinking, planning, design, construction and maintenance.  But this is what engineers do, and the perspectives shared by the panelists provide encouraging evidence that the needed change are moving forward.

For more information on the Maintainers movement, follow the organization on Twitter and sign up for their quarterly newsletter and email listserv.  

For information on Long Now Boston, To stay up to date with Long Now Boston, check us out on our website longnowboston.org, or on  Facebook and Twitter. 

Chasing Oumuamua – Project Lyra

A Long Now Boston Conversation with Dr Martin Elvis (Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) on Project Lyra, a space mission to chase, catch and interrogate Oumuamua in 26 years.


On May 2, 2022, Dr Martin Elvis gave a spellbinding presentation on Project Lyra – a proposal to chase, cash and investigate the mysterious interstellar visitor named Oumuamua.  Harvard astronomer Abraham Avi Loeb had introduced Oumuamua to Long Now Boston in his 

Long Now Boston Talk “Life Among the Stars ” in December 2019.  Since then, Avi has raised a storm of controversy on his continued claim that Oumuamua is best explained as an artifact – a manufactured device of interstellar origins.  If this is true, the consequences to humanity would be profound – we are not alone in the Universe and the Fermi Paradox would be laid to rest.

Project Lyra

Martin reviewed the technical data on Oumuamua, noting that it is generally believed to be of interstellar origin, but that no consensus has emerged as to its nature.  Given its odd observed behavior and apparent acceleration after passing the sun, it is not unreasonable to think that it is an alien craft, either an accidental or anonymous METI (messaging by extraterrestrial intelligence).  Speculations continue to abound – and the consequences of one or another of these speculations being true are very significant.

The proposed solution is to launch a light, fast surveillance mission – Project Lyra – to intercept Oumuamua before it is gone forever.  If the resources and technical capacity can be assembled, the mission could be launched in 2028.  By using Jupiter as a slingshot in 2032, the mission could intercept Oumuamua by 2050, in 28 years.

Martin noted that assembling, launching, and monitoring the Project Lyra mission would be challenging.  We would learn a lot in the process of securing the opportunity to investigate this interstellar object close up.


Given the renewed interested in space missions in the past few years and the prospects of near-term space commercialization, many in the audience felt that Project Lyra in some form could and should be funded.  We may wait years to find out.  If the mission does proceed, we will still have to wait decades to learn, if we can, the mystery of Oumuamua’s nature and origins – is it a space anomaly or a space craft.

For a recent post on Project Lyra, check this out on PHYS.ORG.

Reforming Medicine: Applying the Lessons of SARS-CoV-2

Surgical face mask

Reforming Medicine: Applying the Lessons of SARS-CoV-2

Event Summary February 1 02021:  A conversation on SARS-COV2 inspired innovations, with Preston Estep and Florian Krammer.

Synopsis: The COVID-19 pandemic has been the single most disruptive event to strike the Globe in almost a century.  Those disruptions have disproportionately affected those with the least resources.  Yet the pandemic has also been a catalyst for innovations which will have long term benefits.  Among those are positive innovations in the biomedical field, specifically virus identification, advance preparation and advanced vaccine development and deployment, as well as critical lessons in global and national public health policy and administration.  

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The RSA – Inspiring 250 Years Progress

The RSA – Inspiring 250 Years Progress

On September 14, 2020, Long Now Boston welcomed Dr. Anton Howes, historian of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) for a conversation on the 250-year history of the RSA.  The RSA has demonstrated that non-profit, public interest organizations can live a long time – but they have to reinvent themselves constantly in the face of rapid social, cultural and technological change.  And they also have to have a powerful core vision.  For the RSA it is:

“Everyone is able to participate in creating a better future.”

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Inspiring Climate Change Action

On June 1, 02020, Long Now Boston welcomed climate activist Curt Newton, who led an interactive virtual workshop on climate change. Curt introduced our audience to En-ROADS, a science-based tool that simulates various environmental parameters, resulting in potential climate change solutions. By manipulating these parameters using the En-ROADS simulator, Curt demonstrated the connectivity of these parameters and the contribution that each has on potentially stabilizing global temperature and sea-level rise over the coming decades. En-ROADS is an educational tool that can help individuals and institutions think long-term about climate change and the policy options that can make a difference.

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Perspectives on the Pandemic

A Long Now Boston Virtual Conversation

Long Now Boston has held two virtual conversations in the past month to identify how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting human society and culture and what the implications may be for us in the long term. The first conversation, with Long Now Boston volunteers, was held April 6. The second, open to Charter Members, was convened on May 11. While the perspectives are varied and the future trajectory of the virus and its impacts are highly uncertain, one thing seems clear:  The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be the most significant global disruption since the mid 20th century. How we collectively respond to it will shape the history of the 21st century.  

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Long Now Boston City Nature Celebration 02020: Observing the Urban Environment

April was Global Citizen Science month. To celebrate, people around the world took part in various citizen projects, from observing the night sky to measuring rainfall. Long Now Boston joined in by participating in the City Nature Challenge. The City Nature Challenge was founded and is organized by the California Academy of Sciences and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. It is an international celebration of biodiversity observed and documented in and around urban areas. 

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Rx for a Better Future: Wisdom Over Recklessness

A Long Now Boston conversation with Bina Venkataraman, March 2, 02020, Cambridge MA. 

In a world dominated by short-term thinking, it is easy to become cynical or jaded about human behavior and the long-term prospects for humanity. Bina Venkataraman has a solution – the pursuit of “wisdom over recklessness.”  Wisdom (“experience, knowledge, and good judgment”) can overcome recklessness (“lack of regard for the danger or consequences of one’s actions”), but it requires a different approach to what we measure, what we reward and what we imagine. Bringing this wisdom to bear on our individual and collective choices requires change and new tools at the individual, cultural and institutional levels, which Bina has documented in her book The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age. She offered great advice to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Long Now Boston Conversation event on Monday March 2, 02020, at the CIC in Cambridge, with the help of moderator William Powers.

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