The Epistemic Challenge to Longtermism

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Abstract
Longtermism holds that what we ought to do is mainly determined by effects on the far future. A natural objection 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 options is mainly determined by short-term considerations. This paper aims to precisify and evaluate (a version of) this epistemic objection. To that end, I develop two simple models for comparing "longtermist" and "short-termist" interventions, incorporating the idea that, as we look further into the future, the effects of any present intervention become progressively harder to predict. 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.
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First archival date: 2019-10-26
Latest version: 2 (2020-05-13)
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2019-10-26

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