A Long Now Boston Community Conversation with writer and philosopher Kieran Setiya, Philosophy Section Head in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT.
At our event on December 6, 02022, Professor Kieren Setiya noted that longtermism is a new iteration of utilitarianism that argues against geographical and temporal partiality. It brings attention to global long term responsibilities, but overemphasizes hypothetical future goods at the expense of current harm, and fails to address the negative impact of systemic injustice.
Kieran Setiya is a Professor of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was born in Hull, UK. He is known for his work in ethics, epistemology, and the philosophy of mind. Setiya is a co-editor of Philosophers' Imprint. He is the author of Practical Knowledge, Reasons without Rationalism, and Knowing Right From Wrong. His new book, Life is Hard (2022), is out from Riverhead Books (US) and Hutchinson Heinemann (UK). Combining philosophy with personal essay, the book has chapters on infirmity, loneliness, grief, failure, injustice, absurdity – and hope. It has been reviewed by the Economist, the New York Times, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, and others. His last book was Midlife: A Philosophical Guide. It is available in bookstores and can be ordered online. His work on midlife has been featured in Aeon, Hi-Phi Nation, Five Books, and the New York Times. He has also written about baseball and philosophy, H. P. Lovecraft, stand-up comedy, and the meaning of life.
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 Setiya 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).