This longread by Phil Torres at Current Affairs on the Longtermism/x-risk/Effective-Altruism mob does a pretty good job of setting out the issues with what might be the ultimate in moral philosophies, namely a moral philosophy whose adherents have convinced themselves that it is not at all a moral philosophy, but rather the end-game of the enlightenment-modernist quest for a fully rational and quantifiable way of legitimating the actions that you and your incredibly wealthy donors were already doing, and would like to continue doing indefinitely, regardless of the consequences to other lesser persons in the present and immediate future, thankyouverymuch.
Longtermism should not be confused with “long-term thinking.” It goes way beyond the observation that our society is dangerously myopic, and that we should care about future generations no less than present ones. At the heart of this worldview, as delineated by Bostrom, is the idea that what matters most is for “Earth-originating intelligent life” to fulfill its potential in the cosmos. What exactly is “our potential”? As I have noted elsewhere, it involves subjugating nature, maximizing economic productivity, replacing humanity with a superior “posthuman” species, colonizing the universe, and ultimately creating an unfathomably huge population of conscious beings living what Bostrom describes as “rich and happy lives” inside high-resolution computer simulations.
This is what “our potential” consists of, and it constitutes the ultimate aim toward which humanity as a whole, and each of us as individuals, are morally obligated to strive. An existential risk, then, is any event that would destroy this “vast and glorious” potential, as Toby Ord, a philosopher at the Future of Humanity Institute, writes in his 2020 book The Precipice, which draws heavily from earlier work in outlining the longtermist paradigm. (Note that Noam Chomsky just published a book also titled The Precipice.)
The point is that when one takes the cosmic view, it becomes clear that our civilization could persist for an incredibly long time and there could come to be an unfathomably large number of people in the future. Longtermists thus reason that the far future could contain way more value than exists today, or has existed so far in human history, which stretches back some 300,000 years. So, imagine a situation in which you could either lift 1 billion present people out of extreme poverty or benefit 0.00000000001 percent of the 1023 biological humans who Bostrom calculates could exist if we were to colonize our cosmic neighborhood, the Virgo Supercluster. Which option should you pick? For longtermists, the answer is obvious: you should pick the latter. Why? Well, just crunch the numbers: 0.00000000001 percent of 1023 people is 10 billion people, which is ten times greater than 1 billion people. This means that if you want to do the most good, you should focus on these far-future people rather than on helping those in extreme poverty today.
I have one bone of contention, though the fault is not that of Torres but rather the Longtermists themselves: the labelling of their teleology as “posthuman”. This is exactly wrong, as their position is in fact the absolute core of transhumanism; my guess would be that the successful toxification of that latter term (within academia, as well as without) has led them to instead identify with the somewhat more accepted and established label of posthumanism, so as to avoid critique and/or use a totally different epistemology as a way of drawing fire.
Posthumanism would perhaps be a little more intuitive a label were it hyphenated (e.g. post-humanism): it is not about transcending one’s human-ness (that’s transhumanism’s bag), but rather about finding ways to think that move beyond the deep biases of Enlightenment humanism—whiteness, maleness, Europeanness, heterosexualness, all of those things, but also (and most fundamentally) the notion that the human being (however diversely conceptualised) is both the measure and the central pole of the universe.
As Torres’s article makes very clear (though it’s not really disguised), Longtermism and its associated ideological systems (transhumanism very much included) are profoundly anthropocentric, and as such are not at all post-humanist; rather, they are a sort of ultra-humanism, in which the potential value (always estimable in quantitative terms, yet always based on on spurious statistical handwaves and estimates whose mathematical scale serves the purpose of distracting via sensawunda the minds of the statistically untrained) of a human species that is supposedly capable of (and thus morally justified in its attempt to) colonise entire galaxies outweighs anything and everything that might be seen as collateral damage en route to that goal.
Torres quotes Simon Knutsson’s conclusion that the Longtermists are “super-strategic”, and that their philosophies are less sincere belief systems than they are elaborate intellectual smokescreens for an otherwise shallow fundamentally self-interested libertarianism; I have repeatedly made a similar argument about what I think of as “core” transhumanism. But I am beginning to wonder whether it is possible that both of those possibilities may coexist, and that the philosophical superstructure here—while developed and emergent from the need to provide a priori justifications for courses of action already decided upon for a posteriori economical reasons—is also, or eventually comes to be, completely sincerely believed by its architects. I will recall once again that the “con” in “con-man” is an abbreviation of “confidence”, and that the first rule of sales is that the successful salesman’s first mark must necessarily be himself: particularly in the realm of politics and philosophy, one will never successfully convince another person of a position that one does not personally hold to. (Of course, that belief is necessary to making the sale, but not necessarily sufficient.) Good salespersons therefore develop a particular version of cognitive dissonance, namely the ability to create a sort of mental partition in which the product (or philosophy) is believed to be exactly the efficacious wonder it is claimed to be.
But, to quote Jerry Cantrell, “slowly all the roles we act out / become our identities / and in the end we are / what we pretend to be“. It’s very tempting to assume that pointing out the inconsistencies of a belief system will oblige its adherents to abandon it—despite the last year and half (or the last century and a half) of solid and disheartening evidence to the contrary. The point is that, while there is value to critique, the critical mode of modern philosophy (as Foucault pointed out long ago) stands on exactly the same epistemological foundations as the hyper-rationalist mode; they can only ever struggle over control of the same fundamental field of thought. As I understand it, posthumanist theory (at its best) is an attempt to go beyond that field of thought to something new—though whether it is or will ever be successful at doing so is a question that we, caught in that very same epistemic paradigm, are unable to answer.
Nonetheless, posthumanism retains my own philosophical loyalties, because of its suggestion of an alternative (rather than a mere opposition) to the ultrahumanism of the Longtermists, whose implications Torres so clearly spells out. For the transhumanoids, the planet on which we live, and the majority of those currently living on it, are merely the shell and albumen of the egg from which homo galacticus are destined to hatch; it is a Manichean religio-philosophical structure which, in its making-transcendant of the category of the human, jettisons even the more noble and well-intended elements of humanism itself.
Posthumanism, by contrast, suggests that we humble the human as one actor among many, and take a place in the universe that recognises both its limits and our own. The revulsion and panic that this idea instills in so many people is perhaps the best indicator of its potential to contribute to a new epistemic paradigm, and with it a way of life for humanity that is something other than an endless succession of roadside picnics.