The Epistemic Challenge to Longtermism


Longtermists claim that what we ought to do is mainly determined by how our actions might affect the very long-run future. A natural objection to longtermism is that these effects may be nearly impossible to predict -- perhaps so close to impossible that, despite the astronomical importance of the far future, the expected value of our present actions is mainly determined by near-term considerations. This paper aims to precisify and evaluate one version of this epistemic objection to longtermism. To that end, I develop two simple models for comparing "longtermist" and "neartermist" interventions, incorporating the idea that it is harder to make a predictable difference to the further future. These models yield mixed conclusions: if we simply aim to maximize expected value, and don't mind premising our choices on minuscule probabilities of astronomical payoffs, the case for longtermism looks robust. But on some prima facie plausible empirical worldviews, the expectational superiority of longtermist interventions depends heavily on these "Pascalian" probabilities. So the case for longtermism may depend either on plausible but non-obvious empirical claims or on a tolerance for Pascalian fanaticism.

Author's Profile

Christian Tarsney
University of Texas at Austin


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