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Not a longtermist

You define longtermism as the position that "the future matters more from moral point-of-view than the present or near-future (i.e. the medium-term)". Your argument against longtermism is that "It’s more prudent to live like this---to focus on the medium-term rather than the long-term".

These two claims are not incompatible. One is about morality and the other prudence. And for these two to be in tension, there needs to be a pretty controversial bridge principle to the effect that what matters morally is what is most prudent.

Marcus Arvan

@Not a longtermist: I don't think you're right about prudence. If you have a longtermist moral view, then you should want to advance it prudently rather than recklessly.

Here's another way of putting it. Suppose you think morality requires maximizing long-term good. In that case, to do *that* effectively, you to deliberate prudently about it--that is, in terms of what is the most likely to actually achieve that. If you behave recklessly in trying to advance the long-term good, you make it likely that you will fail.

This is why prudence is morally good. Virtually every moral philosophy (including Kantianism) takes prudence to a moral virtue. Indeed, it has been often called the keystone of all virtues for this reason. *Whatever* your moral aims are, prudence in seeking their realization is better than imprudence/reckless.

Which brings to your point: "These two claims are not incompatible." Indeed, this is my point: *longtermists* should be medium-termists. They shouldn't focus on the long-term because the best means of achieving the best results long-term is to focus on the medium-term.

I am suggesting, in other words, that longtermists should adopt a 'self-effacing' approach to their own moral values--that they should realize that medium-termism is the best practical approach to achieving long-term good and avoid catastrophe.

Marcus Arvan

On further thought, rather than saying that longtermism 'is mistaken', perhaps I should have simply said this: longtermists should be medium-termists!


How new and original is this idea? This is the first time I heard of “longtermism” used as a philosophical principle/idea. Much of what I learned about “longtermism” in philosophy was called “inter-generational obligations” which already has a rich literature.

See. Obligations to Future Generations by R. I. Sikora & Brian Barry (1978) and Derek Parfit, “On Doing Best for Our Children”, in Ethics And Population (Michael D. Bayles ed., 1976).

I guess I’ll give him credit for putting a label on that position. But the arguments aren’t new. One of the problems with “longtermism” is that, even from a utilitarian perspective, it’s incoherent because it would require *each* generation to make (large) sacrifices for future generations resulting in a “jammed-up” tomorrow where the benefits of present sacrifices will never be realized and each generation will be worst off than they would have otherwise been.

Politically, it’s based on a distributive conception of justice and not a procedural one. Iris Marion Young provides an in-depth critique of such a model. See her work Justice and the Politics of Difference.

Marcus Arvan

Redundant: good worries about longtermism's coherence. I agree!

However, on Young and the distributive model, I recently had a paper accepted at a good journal arguing that Rawls's just society would eliminate all of Young's 'five faces of oppression' and that Rawlsian nonideal theory is a good approach to dismantling them, too--all in distributive terms. So, Young should embrace rather than reject the distributive model.

I should be posting the paper relatively soon, and hope you find it of interest!


I will have to read it. But the general worry about the distributive model is that it can be reductionist and atomistic disregarding the relations *between* people. It also seems ineffective when we extend the distribution of material goods to non-material goods such as rights, opportunities, and self-respect. Non-material goods matter as well. I’m not entirely against the distributive model, but we should be aware of its limits and drawbacks, lest we end up repeating and reinforcing them. I'm looking forward to knowing what you’ll have to say about it in your upcoming paper.

Marcus Arvan

@Redundant: I don’t think any of those things are true. I think they have become widespread preconceptions about the distributive model, but the paper argues that they are not ultimately justified. It’s a very long paper (close to 80 pages) and it tries to address these things in detail, so I’m hopeful you’ll find it convincing. I should be posting it here and on PhilPapers sometime in the next several weeks, and I’d be curious to see what you think! :)


I suppose it could be a pervasive stereotype about what distributive justice was, is, and does. I’m all for allowing such a model to be more useful in justice regarding pluralistic and diverse aspects of politics, people’s lives, and existence in general; pushing its boundaries and utmost potentiality. But when and where it is used unjustifiably narrowly, it warrants criticism. I do have high expectations of your paper if it is 80 pages though! ;)

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