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Principles of Longterm Liberalism
What guides our thinking?
Longterm Liberalism is a project that aims to synthesize the insights of effective altruism and liberalism. But in doing so, we appeal to a set of guiding principles that serve as north stars for our thinking. These principles are (1) Effective Altruism, (2) Longtermism, (3) Epistemic Humility, and (4) Liberalism.
Note: Be sure to check out the companion piece to this one: Why We Started Longterm Liberalism!
We will only be alive for a few decades - a mere blip in the vastness of time. But in that time, we hope to leave the world a better place than we found it. We are interested in discovering the best ways to improve the wellbeing of sentient creatures, regardless of their country-of-origin, race, gender, species, sexual orientation, position in time, or other arbitrary factors.
We do not reject the existence of distinct obligations to members of our own family, close friends, or local communities. But we believe that our actions can ripple outward, affecting beings around the world and across time. That’s why it’s important to think big.
There is a wide range of actions a person could take if they care about improving the state of the world. They could donate to charities. They could try to influence the political process. They could volunteer. They could invent new business models or technologies. They could contribute to cutting-edge academic literature. These are just a few examples of what we call Avenues of Impact.
But regardless of the Avenue of Impact, there are enormous differences between the most effective and least effective actions we take. Supporting one charity could be thousands of times more effective than supporting others. Working on one political problem could be thousands of times more effective than working on others.
One does not need to be a total utilitarian or consequentialist to see the problem here. To quote John Rawls, a famously non-consequentialist moral theorist,
“All ethical doctrines worth our attention take consequences into account in judging rightness. One which did not would simply be irrational, crazy.”
Effective altruism is not necessarily consequentialist and is compatible with pretty much any serious moral theory (see this 80,000 Hours Post on Social Impact). But it does recognize the fact that if we want to improve the state of the world, we must take consequences seriously.
As such, it’s important to rigorously research which actions have the highest positive impact. Given the limited time and resources we have on Earth, we hope to leverage our efforts towards those high-impact actions.
“If all goes well,” longtermist philosopher Toby Ord puts it, “human history is just beginning.”
In the next few centuries, we could see an explosion of economic progress enabled by safe and aligned artificial intelligence. We could cure diseases that wreak havoc today. We could create technologies that allow us to stop destroying Earth’s biodiversity and torturing farmed animals. We could guarantee a world of abundant prosperity for trillions of people living in the long-term future. We could begin to chart our long-awaited return to the stars from which we emerged.
What stands in the way of this is existential risk – risks that threaten the destruction of humanity’s longterm potential. We are longtermists because we believe that there exists astronomical moral value in the future.
We do not seek to undermine the very pressing short-term problems of today. Those living in extreme poverty are suffering - today. Billions of farmed animals are suffering - today. Victims of war, tyranny, and violence are suffering - today.
But we reject the notion that the problems of today should completely overwhelm our moral considerations. There may be trillions of people who will exist in the future. People who will have friends, children, communities, and lovers. People who will experience the joy of discovery and have a passion for justice. People who matter.
Unfortunately, our institutions don’t treat them as though they matter. Our democracies give future generations no vote. Our courts give future generations no recourse for injustices done to them. Our Constitutions hardly even acknowledge their existence.
The next 100 years pose unique risks. Emerging technologies like engineered pandemics could kill billions of people. Artificial general intelligence could create a stable totalitarian future or lead to outright human extinction. For these reasons, some say that we are living in the most important century in human history.
If we bring about our extinction – the permanent destruction of humanity’s longterm potential – we would not only be destroying the prosperity of people living at the time. We would be committing an abominable crime against people living in the far future.
Our ancestors fought hard to ensure a safe, prosperous future for us. They braved a bitter ice age to make sure their descendants got to live in comfort. They fought in WWII to make sure their descendants didn’t live under fascist authoritarianism. They risked their careers to stop nuclear annihilation. They put blood, sweat, and tears into making sure we could be where we are today.
Our generation must do the same for our posterity.
Epistemic humility is an intellectual virtue that encourages us to be cautious about taking strong positions on nuanced topics. It’s a recognition that because the world is complicated, there are many compelling arguments against beliefs we may hold dear. Our knowledge is always going to be incomplete, so we should be open to (1) the possibility that we’re wrong, and (2) changing our views in light of new evidence/reasoning.
In 2021, rationalist author Julia Galef proposed a helpful analogy for thinking about epistemic humility. In her book, The Scout Mindset, she contrasted two different approaches to complicated questions: a scout mindset and a soldier mindset.
On the battlefield, a scout’s role is to try to see the world as it is. A good scout looks at the complex world around them and tries to create a map that distills this complexity. Although their maps are necessarily imperfect, they’re good at generating accurate predictions about the world. Importantly, scouts are comfortable admitting that their previous maps were wrong, and adjusting accordingly. After all, the scout is trying to see the world as it is, not how they’d like it to be.
The soldier’s role is quite different. They are not curiously interrogating the world around them. Rather, their goal is to fight for what they already believe in. Soldiers come into the battlefield with prior-held beliefs about who is wrong or right. They interpret new information not from a lens of open-mindedness, but based on strong biases.
As humans, our natural tendency is often to behave like a soldier. We hold nationalistic, ideological, or cultural biases. We ignore the wrongs committed by people on “our team” and play up the wrongs committed by “the other team.” We interpret attacks on our ideologies as if they were personal attacks on our character. We feel uncomfortable admitting when we’re wrong.
The virtue of epistemic humility encourages us to overcome our soldier mindset. We should train ourselves to feel excited when we learn information that challenges our preconceptions. We should see changing our minds in light of new evidence as a virtue, not a vice. We should be agnostic about controversial issues we haven’t seriously researched. We should be able to articulate the strongest criticisms of our perspectives (see the Ideological Turing Test).
In ethics, we should reason through moral uncertainty. Rather than fully adopting a controversial moral view like utilitarianism or natural rights theory and following it to its conclusions, we should recognize that there’s a non-trivial chance that any given moral theory is incorrect. As such, we should seek to maximize expected moral benefit.
This means that we should prioritize working on problems (like human extinction) in which all serious moral theories come to a similar conclusion, rather than problems (like trolley problems) that divide different moral theories. And when a particular moral theory generates highly counter-intuitive outcomes (see the repugnant conclusion), we shouldn’t reflexively accept those weird outcomes. We should question the high-level moral theory.
If we want to make progress on important questions, we must approach the world with a sense of curiosity and wonder. We should relish in the fact that there is so much yet to discover.
Liberalism begins with the following observations: (1) There is a wide variety of views on what “the good life” looks like. Many of our deepest convictions – like which God to believe in or what moral codes to abide by – are mutually incompatible. (2) Nonetheless, we all benefit from a social order that fosters peaceful cooperation between people with such radically divergent beliefs.
The question is, how do we get people who have radically different views of what “the good” looks like to live together peacefully? The answer is by protecting people’s liberties. This is an insight that has been discovered repeatedly throughout history by various individuals attempting to improve society. By giving people freedom, we don’t just protect their “natural rights,” we create the conditions necessary for a flourishing society.
Take freedom of speech. When we discussed epistemic humility, we talked about how complicated the world is and how there’s so much left to be discovered. The only way we can discover the best ideas is if we allow all ideas (with minimal exceptions) to be freely discussed. We should be skeptical of government censorship of speech because this could stifle our ability to discover better ways of doing things. See John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.
Or, take freedom of enterprise. We don’t quite know how to best grow potatoes, build semiconductors, or organize global shipping supply chains. Allowing different businesses to own private property and compete with one another enables better business practices to develop.
In an ideal market, a company can only make higher profits by (1) enticing more people to buy their goods or services or (2) producing the same goods and services at a lower cost. Thus, practices that better fulfill the public’s desires lead to higher profits, while practices that don’t fulfill the public’s desires lead to lower profits. In pursuit of profits, competing companies will inadvertently discover better means of satisfying societal needs.
Liberals aren’t always rights-absolutists. We acknowledge that free speech allows harmful ideas to spread. We acknowledge that, in the real world, there are market failures. But we also acknowledge the failures of central government intervention in free activities.
Sometimes, government failures occur because central planners do not have access to as much knowledge as all the participants in a decentralized economy (see the knowledge problem). Other times, government failures occur because the process for creating regulations gets captured by special interests who unfairly rig regulatory power in their favor (see regulatory capture).
The right approach, then, is to compare government failures and market failures. Different kinds of liberals come to different conclusions. Libertarian-liberals believe that, as a whole, government failures tend to be greater than market failures. More interventionist liberals may be open to certain kinds of central planning. But what unites liberals is a general skepticism of central power in its ability to solve problems.
As ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said,
“The more prohibitions there are,
The poorer the people will be.
The more laws are promulgated,
The more thieves and bandits there will be.
Therefore a sage has said:
So long as I “do nothing” the people will of themselves be
So long as I love quietude, the people will of themselves go
So long as I act only by inactivity the people will of themselves
The past few centuries have seen an explosion in prosperity unlike anything else in human history. It has also seen the widespread adoption of liberal ideas around the world. We don’t view these two facts as a coincidence. We believe liberalism was a necessary condition for past human progress, and we believe it to be critical for the longterm future, too.
These principles are non-exhaustive, but do a pretty good job of articulating what guides our thinking! We look forward to producing more content for this blog.
We conclude with the sage words of Carl Sagan:
“As the ancient myth makers knew, we are children equally of the earth and the sky. In our tenure on this planet we've accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage — propensities for aggression and ritual, submission to leaders, hostility to outsiders — all of which puts our survival in some doubt. But we've also acquired compassion for others, love for our children and desire to learn from history and experience, and a great soaring passionate intelligence — the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity.
Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain, particularly when our visions and prospects are bound to one small part of the small planet Earth. But up there in the Cosmos, an inescapable perspective awaits. National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic or religious or national chauvinisms are a little difficult to maintain when we see our planet as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars.
There are not yet any obvious signs of extraterrestrial intelligence and this makes us wonder whether civilizations like ours always rush implacably, headlong, toward self-destruction. I dream about it. And sometimes, they’re bad dreams.”
PS: Be sure to read the companion piece, Why We Started Longterm Liberalism!