Son of Longtermism

Some 14 days ago, in this post, I linked and quoted from a NYT guest essay by William MacAskill about valuing the future as much as we value the present. Which struck me as a reasonable position to take, a kind of science-fictional position to take. In contrast to the short-term views that most people, not unreasonably, take.

(Also, there’s an Endpiece to this post, below.)

Since then there have been more articles about MacAskill, including a profile in The New Yorker and a cover story in Time Magazine. And then, two days, ago, a survey or round-up of all these pieces with a summary of the idea of “longtermism” that makes it sound far more sinister than MacAskill’s essay in NYT.

Salon, Émile P. Torres, 20 Aug 2022: Understanding “longtermism”: Why this suddenly influential philosophy is so toxic

Subtitle: “Whatever we may ‘owe the future,’ it isn’t a bizarre and dangerous ideology fueled by eugenics and capitalism”

All of this has been triggered by the publication of MacAskill’s new book, What We Owe the Future, last Tuesday August 16, which I pre-ordered and so got a copy of on publication day. It has cover blurbs by Ezra Klein and Sam Harris, writers whose books I have endorsed and admired, and NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof, whom I generally trust.

So what is the Salon writer so worried about? (I wonder before reading the article.) One possibility is their (Torres’ preferred pronoun) essay is example of left-wing “wokeness,” the eagerness of some on the left to dismiss legitimate work by experts for the sins of having been born in an era with different social standards than today, for example, or for not being sufficiently deferential to current issues of representation and preferred pronouns. Jerry Coyne on his site has been particularly alert to such examples, especially on university campuses; while a recent example was a poorly-informed essay (which I will not link to) on the Scientific American website about the late E.O. Wilson, written by someone who’d only glanced at a couple of his books yet dismissed him on the basis on some correspondence he’d had with another scientist who once propounded views that may have been racist. (Both the right and the left are eager to “cancel” people who don’t meet their current standards of propriety, on the slimmest excuse. Eventually, we will all be targets by one side or the other, I suppose.)

I won’t prejudge one way or the other, of course; I will read this Salon essay (it’s quite long) all the way through, and I’ll read MacAskill’s book too.

But I will quote a bit from this essay, to see how they (Torres) characterizes “longtermism.”

But what is longtermism? I have tried to answer that in other articles, and will continue to do so in future ones. A brief description here will have to suffice: Longtermism is a quasi-religious worldview, influenced by transhumanism and utilitarian ethics, which asserts that there could be so many digital people living in vast computer simulations millions or billions of years in the future that one of our most important moral obligations today is to take actions that ensure as many of these digital people come into existence as possible.

In practical terms, that means we must do whatever it takes to survive long enough to colonize space, convert planets into giant computer simulations and create unfathomable numbers of simulated beings. How many simulated beings could there be? According to Nick Bostrom —the Father of longtermism and director of the Future of Humanity Institute — there could be at least 1058 digital people in the future, or a 1 followed by 58 zeros. Others have put forward similar estimates, although as Bostrom wrote in 2003, “what matters … is not the exact numbers but the fact that they are huge.”

The essay goes on to explore the backgrounds of Nick Bostrom, Nick Beckstead, William MacAskill, and Sam Bankman-Fried, as if to discredit the ideas they are promoting.

More later once I read the book.

(Hmm, could there be some way of labeling future posts on the topic “Bride,” “The Return of,” and so on…?



We may have seen Pixel today.

This entry was posted in Book Notes, Human Progress, Humanism, Philosophy, Science, Social Progress. Bookmark the permalink.