A case for medium-termism

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There has been a lot of discussion of ‘longtermism’ recently—in TIME, The New York Times, and social media. Some people think longtermism is great. Others think it’s dangerous. I have concerns about how it is likely to be misused too. But mostly, I just think it’s philosophically mistaken.

The idea that we should care more about the long term sounds great, inspiring even—and I think it’s true, at least with a bit of moderation. But, on that note, I think something a lot less sexy sounding—medium-termism—is more defensible. More defensible, ironically enough, from a long-term perspective!

Longtermism gives moral priority to the long-term future. One major idea is that the number that people that might exist in the future could be vastly greater than the number of people living now. We might colonize other planets, or even create vast numbers of digital people in simulations who could live happy lives—happier lives, perhaps, than us.

So, the thought is, the future matters more from moral point-of-view than the present or near-future (i.e. the medium-term). Morally speaking, every person matters equally. But there are vastly more possible future people than people who live today or have lived in the past. So, the future should matter to us more than the present, the short-term, or even the medium term.

Never mind that digital people probably aren’t possible (consciousness appears to be fundamentally analog, not digital). But setting this aside, to see what I think is wrong with longtermism, imagine applying an analogous line of reasoning to your own life as an individual.

I’m 45. I might live to 110 years of age. I might have far more years in front of me than I have lived already. So, I should care far more about the long-term—for it’s possible that I’ll live to 110 and have so many more years to live.

But, wait a minute, how likely is that? It’s very likely that I’ll live to be 46, a bit less likely that I’ll live to be 50, a bit less likely still that I’ll live to be 60, a lot less likely that I’ll live to be 90. What about 110? Not impossible, but spectacularly improbable.

This is why we don’t plan our lives on the assumption that we’ll live be 110. We don’t prioritize the long term over everything else—because it’s so uncertain. When we are ten years old, we don’t plan to live to 110. We instead focus, if we’re prudent, on the medium-term—on taking steps to ensure that we are reasonably successful and secure at 35.

Then when we’re 35? Again, if we’re prudent, we plan once again for the medium-term: we try to save enough so that we can retire at 65 and support ourselves until our late 70’s (the likely length of our life). Etc.

It’s more prudent to live like this—to focus on the medium-term rather than the long-term—for two reasons.

First, to get to the long-term at all, you actually have to make it through the present and medium term. You won’t get to retire comfortably at 65 if you screw up your life at 35. So, when you’re 20, you should try to figure out how to get to 35 in good shape. Then, once you get to 35, you should try to get to 50, etc. So, you should plan for the medium term.

Second, the medium term is far more likely than the long-term. When we’re 10, we don’t know if we’re going to live until we’re 40. Chances are pretty good, but then again, we might not. So, taking into account likelihoods, one should try to enjoy the present and plan for the medium term. Then, if things work out (if we live to 40), we do it again: we plan to live to 65, and if things keep working out, we live a nice long life. So again, you should plan for the medium term.

The future of humanity hardly seems different. We, the human race, might not make it to 2050. Chances seem pretty decent that we will. But then again, it looks increasingly like nuclear war is a possibility and the world might be too hot by 2050 to make colonizing other planets or creating vast numbers of digital beings much more likely than zero.

The human race may or may not get to 2050, then, but the chances still seems pretty good. So, we should plan for it ensure that it happens. Then, if we get to 2050, we should try to get to 2100—etc.

But years 21,000 or 2,100,000AD? That humanity makes it to either them seems spectacularly unlikely from where we are now. So, we shouldn’t plan for it. If we’re prudent, we should try to make it through the present in one piece, plan for the medium term so that we make it there (i.e. 2050, 2100, 2150, etc.), and if and when we make it there, do the same again—so that we actually get to the long-term.

We shouldn’t prioritize the long-term, then. We shouldn’t be ‘longtermists.’ We should be medium-termists—for, if we get the present and medium term right, over and over again, then chances are as good that we’ll make it longer term…while not discounting the present and medium term!

That is, by focusing on the present and medium term, we have the best chance of living well in the present, medium, and long-term all together, treating them all as equally important.

This, I think, is how prudent people live. A prudent person doesn’t obsess over the distant and uncertain future. They recognize that the distant future is so uncertain that it can’t be planned for. So they try to live a good life as a whole—by living in the present, planning for medium term, and (with a little bit of luck) and doing those things well so that it’s as likely that they live and flourish in the longer-term too.

So, if you’re a long-termist, sorry, I you too should be a medium-termist. Getting the medium-term right is the most prudent way to ensure that we have a long-term future to begin with. The medium-term is what we have in front of us. It is what stands between us and the long-term—a long-term that may or may not have vast numbers of people.

So, it—not the long-term—is what we should focus on and aim to get right. If we do, then with a little luck (and luck is a big part of long-term life, like it or not), then the long term will turn out as good as we can rationally plan for, given the limitations of our knowledge of it.

Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More

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