• Annabel Luketic

Should You Sell All Your Possessions? An (unintentional) argument for longtermism

'How should I spend my money' is not a question of taste, but of ethics.

if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it."

- Singer (Famine, Affluence, and Morality)

Alex O'conner's video dives into a few objections and implications of this, and I'm left with some thoughts:

The Distance Objection

The argument that 'we ought to help a person if doing so will not cause any comparable level of harm to ourselves as it would to the person shall we choose not to help them' is independent of the distance between us and the person.

Alex's example of a person being electrocuted in a car as it drives further away from us while we have the choice to press a button and stop the suffering demonstrates this - we have no less a moral obligation to press the button if the person is 10 meters away as we do if they are 1000 meters away as we do if they are on the other side of the globe.

Of course, I agree with this sentiment.

I also believe that this same argument urges a longtermist viewpoint. If, say, instead of the car driving away, we said that a person will be electrocuted within the next minute, tomorrow, a year from now, 1000 years from now, etc. - if we subscribe to the moving car argument that Alex presented, there should be no reason as to why our moral obligation to prevent suffering this moment in comparison to the next should be any less (the caveat here being that this argument is not considering compounding or chain effects of how suffering today could lead to more suffering in the future).

I'm also left wondering - is there any reason in which we should not consider this argument to be viable to no end?

For example, what if there came a point in time in which instead of a moving car, a person was being electrocuted in a spaceship that managed to make it outside of the Milkyway? Or what if our longtermist interests were extended to people living in over a billion year's time? Why shouldn't we still care then?

At this point, I don't have any arguments to offer as to why these values should not extend infinitely, assuming that our means to help others in such scenarios are not limited (in which case, it makes sense to focus on tractability).

Other questions on this:

  • How do the compounding effects of doing good for current generations influence the longterm future?

  • How do the (somewhat intersecting) cause areas of global health, poverty, education, and factory farming weigh up against the probabilities associated with longtermism (e.g. AI as an existential risk)?

For example, if there's an X% chance that AI outcomes are going to be 'very bad' leading to the destruction of humanity containing X amount of people, but we already know for sure that approx. 700 million people are living in extreme poverty right now in this moment, how are we supposed to weigh up the effects of our work there?

At this point in time, I intuitively hold the belief that we should assign more value towards increasing the well-being of our current population, partially because I find the idea of the continuation of extreme poverty in our long-term future to be concerning*. I'd also like to become more aware of the specific details forecasted over the next few decades on this issue:

There has been marked progress in reducing poverty over the past decades. According to the most recent estimates, in 2015, 10 per cent of the world's population lived at or below $1.90 a day. That's down from 16 per cent in 2010 and 36 per cent in 1990. This means that ending extreme poverty is within our reach.

- The UN

I wonder if there are forecasting models available to explain where we see the issue of extreme global poverty going during this lifetime. I believe that this may help in weighing up the consequences of pure longterm priorities vs the most pressing matters of today.

  • How can we balance/prioritise creating a world that's more so worth saving than the one we're currently living in (e.g. through reducing the pain & increasing the wellbeing of others) vs ensuring that our future is preserved (e.g. through mitigating existential risk)?

*However, I am aware that global poverty may not be as neglected as longtermist cause areas, so more research is required on my part to determine the energy that global poverty warrants after taking neglectedness into account.

The Demandingness Objection

Singer’s Drowning Child scenario implies a one-off situation.

The premise of the argument is that we ought to save the life of the drowning child because the thing we have to sacrifice (a $200 pair of shoes for example) is worth far less than the life of a child.

However, Singer presents the argument as if it’s a one-off situation - You just happen to walk past the drowning child on one random occasion. But in reality, people who are aware of effective charities make choices every single day that are interacting with The Drowning Child argument, which elevates the demandingness substantially.

Similar to Alex & Peter, I also believe that the demandingness of a moral theory does not invalidate it. Even though the argument concludes that we ought to sacrifice pretty much everything to help those who are in more need than us, on a practical level, we may not be expected to spend the rest of our lives saving the children to no end, though we ought to do at least more than nothing and more than what we've probably been doing to this point.

In Alex's example of the emptying bank account vs the drowning children, he draws the same conclusion as stated above.

It's also worth nodding to the practicality of choosing to leave the drowning children at some point, for purposes of longevity & leverage - although the thought of leaving the drowning children may be just as difficult to stomach as saving them for the rest of your days, staying takes away from the opportunity to develop longterm solutions to the case of drowning children.

Additionally, it would only be a matter of time before saving child after child became utterly exhausting - in all definitions of the word. This would make it increasingly difficult to maintain. Of course, the fact that it's difficult doesn't justify doing little to nothing at all, but it does provide a strong case for implementing times and resources towards taking care of the self as well - while also being mindful of the resources towards ourselves that produce diminishing returns.

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