Persuading people to care about the long term is harder than you think

Persuading people to care about the long term is harder than you think

If I scatter broken glass on the ground and someone else walks over it and cuts their feet, does it matter “when” they cut their feet? That’s the thought experiment at the start of philosopher William MacAskill’s upcoming book, What we owe to the future.

MacAskill’s argument is that harm is harm, whether my littering causes cut feet later today, next week, or 10,000 years from now. He believes that we should consider harm to future people as equal to the severity inflicted on the living. And because the potential number of future humans is far greater than those alive, this should change how we think about problems and risks today.

MacAskill wants to argue for “long-termism”: guarding against catastrophic risks that could either eliminate human life or permanently reduce human flourishing. If we consider the rights and safety of future people, the way we think about short-term risk changes. A 1 percent chance in any given year of a catastrophic event—such as our climate hitting an irreversible tipping point or a full-blown nuclear meltdown—may feel like an acceptably low level of risk, but when we consider the risk to future generations, it becomes intolerable. Or so the theory goes.

But does it work? An inevitable issue here is reproductive freedom. MacAskill rules out restricting access to abortion, much less mandating people to have children. However, from an actuarial point of view, it is difficult to argue that my choice to remain childless so that my partner and I can squander our disposable income on fancy restaurants, watching Arsenal football club or nice holidays is anything but immoral when you consider the potential the benefits of future generations of our children.

Surely all top rate taxpayers should have to adopt or have children themselves, given that those children will statistically have better opportunities and those opportunities will last longer than my alternative life plan?

That MacAskill does not draw this conclusion tells us something important about the utility of his thought experiment. Of course, we should care about long-term risks. But the problem with MacAskill’s approach is that we know it doesn’t work very well. Many people hear that there is a one in six chance of a catastrophic risk, and they either think they are taking those odds, or they sink into despair. Relatively few people hear it as a call to arms. Far from inspiring a greater sense of human potential, the prospect of centuries of possible catastrophe can make people feel they might as well give up here and now.

Longtermism’s intellectual ancestors are utilitarianism and so-called efficient altruism. MacAskill’s thought experiment is reminiscent of the work of the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, who aimed to show that mere distance should not influence our concerns about doing harm. But the success of effective altruism has not been in convincing people that they should give to charity or to care about harm, but in convincing them that if they give money to charity, they will do more good by leaving their money for things that work – like malaria nets or deworming. Thinking long-term, however, inevitably means being more open to missing information gaps and to accepting that we cannot know for sure what will work or not.

Moreover, securing its long-term future requires persuading people who don’t already subscribe to the belief that it matters. It is true to say that the world’s current climate change trajectory is a lot like playing Russian roulette: the longer you play, the more likely you are to lose. But maybe a better way to get people to stop playing Russian Roulette is to explain that there’s a good chance they’ll blow their heads off today rather than an even better chance they’ll blow their heads off off to the end.

With climate change, it is a problem for future generations, yes, but also a problem here and now for many people around the world, near and far. The long-term risks we can actually do more to address are, almost by definition, those whose contours are most obvious to us in the present. Placing greater emphasis on the rights of the unborn does not really illuminate these issues any better than it does illustrating the real risks they carry today.

A better way to convince people to tackle long-term problems is to point out short-term risks – not try to sell them on a thought experiment that even the author doesn’t fully support.

stephen.bush@ft.com

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