[O]ver the past two decades, a small group of theorists mostly based in Oxford have been busy working out the details of a new moral worldview called longtermism, which emphasizes how our actions affect the very long-term future of the universe – thousands, millions, billions, and even trillions of years from now. This has roots in the work of Nick Bostrom, who founded the grandiosely named Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) in 2005, and Nick Beckstead, a research associate at FHI and a programme officer at Open Philanthropy. It has been defended most publicly by the FHI philosopher Toby Ord, author of The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity (2020). Longtermism is the primary research focus of both the Global Priorities Institute (GPI), an FHI-linked organisation directed by Hilary Greaves, and the Forethought Foundation, run by William MacAskill, who also holds positions at FHI and GPI. Adding to the tangle of titles, names, institutes and acronyms, longtermism is one of the main ‘cause areas’ of the so-called effective altruism (EA) movement, which was introduced by Ord in around 2011 and now boasts of having a mind-boggling $46 billion in committed funding.
It is difficult to overstate how influential longtermism has become. Karl Marx in 1845 declared that the point of philosophy isn’t merely to interpret the world but change it, and this is exactly what longtermists have been doing, with extraordinary success. Consider that Elon Musk, who has cited and endorsed Bostrom’s work, has donated $1.5 million dollars to FHI through its sister organisation, the even more grandiosely named Future of Life Institute (FLI). This was cofounded by the multimillionaire tech entrepreneur Jaan Tallinn, who, as I recently noted, doesn’t believe that climate change poses an ‘existential risk’ to humanity because of his adherence to the longtermist ideology.
Meanwhile, the billionaire libertarian and Donald Trump supporter Peter Thiel, who once gave the keynote address at an EA conference, has donated large sums of money to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, whose mission to save humanity from superintelligent machines is deeply intertwined with longtermist values. Other organisations such as GPI and the Forethought Foundation are funding essay contests and scholarships in an effort to draw young people into the community, while it’s an open secret that the Washington, DC-based Center for Security and Emerging Technologies (CSET) aims to place longtermists within high-level US government positions to shape national policy. In fact, CSET was established by Jason Matheny, a former research assistant at FHI who’s now the deputy assistant to US President Joe Biden for technology and national security. Ord himself has, astonishingly for a philosopher, ‘advised the World Health Organization, the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, the US National Intelligence Council, the UK Prime Minister’s Office, Cabinet Office, and Government Office for Science’, and he recently contributed to a report from the Secretary-General of the United Nations that specifically mentions ‘long-termism’.
The point is that longtermism might be one of the most influential ideologies that few people outside of elite universities and Silicon Valley have ever heard about. [Continue reading…]