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.

<VIDEO LINK – to come >


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).

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