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

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

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

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

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

But it works? An unavoidable issue here is reproductive freedom. MacAskill rules out limiting access to abortion, much less forcing people to have children. But from an actuarial point of view, it is hard to argue that my choice not to have children so that my partner and I can squander our disposable income on fancy restaurants, watch Arsenal Football Club or go on a nice holiday is not immoral considering the potential benefits. future generations to have children.

Surely all high-end taxpayers should have to adopt or have children, since, statistically speaking, those children will have better opportunities and these opportunities will outlast my alternative living plan.

That MacAskill does not reach this conclusion tells us something important about the usefulness of his thought experiment. Of course, we should worry 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, say, a one in six chance of a catastrophic risk and think they will accept those odds or sink into despair. Relatively few people hear it as a call to arms. Far from being inspired by a greater sense of human potential, the prospect of centuries of potential catastrophes can make people feel like giving up here and now.

The intellectual ancestors of long-termism are utilitarianism and so-called effective altruism. MacAskill’s thought experiment recalls the work of Australian philosopher Peter Singer, who sought to show that mere distance should not influence our concern for harm. But the success of effective altruism has not been in persuading people that they should give to charity or worry about harm, but in convincing them that if they are giving money to charity, they will do more good if they give their cash to things that work. , such as mosquito nets against malaria or deworming. Thinking long-term, however, inevitably means being more open to losing information and accepting that we can’t know for sure what will or won’t work.

Furthermore, securing the long-term future requires persuading people who don’t already subscribe to the belief that it matters. Admittedly, the world’s current trajectory on climate change is a lot like playing Russian roulette: the more you play, the more likely you are to lose. But perhaps 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 there’s an even greater chance they’ll eventually.

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 that we can actually do the most to address are, almost by definition, those whose contours are most obvious to us today. Giving greater weight to the rights of the unborn does not illuminate these problems any better than it does to illustrate the real risks that 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 its author doesn’t fully endorse.

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