My country is not one tower, one roof,
But the whole earth is a citadel and home
Ready for us to spend our life in.
Crates of Thebes in The Lives of Eminent Philosophers
Longtermism is the idea that the future is overwhelmingly important.
Not only on the scale of decades, but millennia, epochs, and eons.
In liberal democracies, we have learned to become indifferent to where people are born and who they’re born as – or at least believe that we ought to be indifferent. But haven’t learned to treat when others are born with the same egalitarian ethos.
Once we do, we will find that most of the value resides in the future. Most of the people who will ever live haven’t been born yet. Our present population may be a rounding error compared to the number of people in future generations. Hence, the future matters more than the present.
This thought has recently inspired a rigorous renaissance in futurism, with contributions from philosophers, economists, entrepreneurs, and generalists. A sampling of this work includes Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, on the risks of advanced artificial intelligence, Toby Ord’s The Precipice, on existential risks from asteroids to engineered pandemics, and the non-profit 80,000 Hours primer on Future Generations and their Moral Significance.
The dominant form of longtermism is quantitative and contemporary. The first reason given for why the future matters more than the present within 80,000 Hours primer is:
The Earth could remain habitable for 600-800 million years, so there could be about 21 million future generations, and if we do the needed work, they could lead great lives — whatever you think “great” consists of. Even if you don’t think future generations matter as much as the present generation, since there could be so many of them, they could still be our key concern.
The intellectual vanguard is focused on risks from novel technology, and speculative futurism.
But it pays to step back and visit those who have come before. Leopold Aschenbrenner has done this by coining Burkean Longtermism: a version of the view influenced by classical conservatism.
Towards this end, we should look back further into the past and ask what would an ancient form of longtermism look like? Not to use it as gospel, but as one more lens to observe our time.
After all, we are intellectual descendants of ancient philosophers.
The ancient Stoics in particular were early precursors to longtermism. Though they didn’t defend the idea that it doesn’t matter when you were born, they set the groundwork for liberal universalism: the idea that it doesn’t matter where or who you are, you matter and are owed moral consideration.
Stoicism is then the most natural framing of an ancient longtermism – at least from the Greco-Roman tradition. I’ll sketch out what that could look like here.
We’ll find that the Stoic take on longtermism is consilient, but also possesses a radically different temperament from the contemporary version.
The Atemporal Cosmopolis
The Stoics had the most expansive moral philosophy of the Greco-roman world, focusing on humanity at large. They effectively systematized the philosopher Diogenes’ remark:
I am a citizen of the universe.
Stoic philosophers were early to the idea of universalism, the thought that people can matter in virtue of their rationality. Being educated, Greek, Roman, or man is not necessary. Instead of belonging to a specific city or polis, the perfectly virtuous belong to the cosmopolis – the universal city.
The contemporary philosopher, Peter Singer, introduced the idea of the expanding circle:
The circle of altruism has broadened from the family and tribe to the nation and race, and we are beginning to recognize that our obligations extend to all human beings. The process should not stop there.
He argued that our circle of concern should extend to animals and any other being with the capacity to feel pleasure or pain. Future animals, homo sapiens or otherwise, are no different.
Although they didn’t expand the circle as far, Stoic philosophers advanced a similar line of reasoning centuries ago. Consider the concentric circles of Hierocles, who catalogs the “circles” in descending order of immediacy: the individual’s, family, extended family, tribesmen, fellow-citizens, neighboring citizens, fellow-countrymen, and the “outermost and largest circle, which encompasses all the rest, is that of the whole human race.” He ends this list with the observation that:
Once these [circles] have all been surveyed, it is the task of a well-tempered man, in his proper treatment of each group, to draw the circles together somehow towards the center, and to keep zealously transferring those from the enclosing circles into the enclosed ones. It is incumbent on us to respect people from the third circle as if they were those from the second, and again to respect our other relatives as if they were those from the third circle.
A natural extension of these lines of thought is to extend our circle to include future beings – not just those that are alive now. And once we do that, a novel version of longtermism emerges.
Contemporary longtermism gets its force from the potential size of future populations. In this way, it’s quantitative. The future is overwhelmingly valuable because that’s where the most people, and hence the vast majority of value, could reside. It is from point of view that Nick Bostrom writes in Astronomical Waste:
As I write these words, suns are illuminating and heating empty rooms, unused energy is being flushed down black holes, and our great common endowment of negentropy is being irreversibly degraded into entropy on a cosmic scale. These are resources that an advanced civilization could have used to create value-structures, such as sentient beings living worthwhile lives.
The rate of this loss boggles the mind. One recent paper speculates, using loose theoretical considerations based on the rate of increase of entropy, that the loss of potential human lives in our own galactic supercluster is at least ~10^46 per century of delayed colonization.
The lesson that Bostrom takes from this is that we ought to maximize the safety of technological development – otherwise we waste near unfathomable value.
Unlike Peter Singer’s utilitarian or Nick Bostrom’s quantitative ethics, Stoic longtermism grounds our concern for the future in who we are – not a mathematical calculation.
Let’s understand what this means and then move to the concrete differences that result.
We take on many roles throughout our life. In his Discourses, the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus said:
I ought to maintain the roles natural and acquired, as a pious man, as a son, as a father, as a citizen.
One of those roles is that of a cosmic citizen. A member of the cosmopolis. The cosmopolis is not merely an artifact of the present. It persists into the future.
Is this a version of longtermism? There are two parts to the idea: the claim that the future matters and that it overwhelmingly matters.
The first box is checked. Being a member of the cosmopolis involves contributing to its development – which demands a concern for the future.
One could deny that Stoicism requires that being a member of the cosmopolis requires caring for the future. But this is bizarre. Imagine a congregation of perfectly virtuous Stoics, Stoic sages, building and administering a city. The city’s persistence would be a mark of the sage’s wisdom. Allowing existential threats to the polis – whether they come from external or internal causes would count against the virtue of a sage. Living well in a city involves playing a hand in its persistence.
Moreover, the cosmopolis is bound together by our capacity to reason. Reason establishes shared and universal norms. These norms are not constrained to mere points in time. Instead, they bind us across generations. Present reasoners aren’t the only ones that matter. Future (and past) ones matter as well.
A part of being a cosmic citizen then is to ensure that the onward rush of humanity continues. We’re a member of the atemporal cosmopolis – a community not bound by nation, creed, or time. To accept this idea is to accept that the future matters.
The other aspect of longtermism is that what happens in the long run is overwhelmingly important. The future is where most of the value resides.
This idea does not fit as easily within Stoic ethics. It’s easy to see how it plays nicely with utilitarianism, the idea that we ought to maximize happiness. If one doesn’t care where happiness exists, then basic arithmetic get’s one to the idea that the long run is overwhelmingly important. It’s where the vast majority of happiness could occur.
However, Stoic ethics can motivate the thought.
At an early stage in life, prudence demands that we go to great lengths to avoid death. This is true at the level of individuals and, but also justice. Later in life, when there are fewer years to be lost, death may be less of a cost. And we mold policy accordingly. It would be wise to protect civilization at a young stage. Hence, we should go to great lengths to avoid its death and set it on the right course. That is our role, at this point in time.
This thought is consilient with Bostrom’s conclusion that we ought to maximize the safety of technological development. At this level of civilizational maturity, we shouldn’t play with fire. Although it’s tempting to look at the world and conclude, with E. O. Wilson that:
The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.
Stoic longtermism demands emotional maturity and virtuous institutions.
But this version of longtermism isn’t grounded in the size of the future. This is not moral mathematics. It comes from who we are: rational and social creatures.
This is longtermism with a different temperament from the contemporary flavor.
Here are three differences between Stoic longtermism and the modern variety.
I. The Community of Reason
The image of the future for the Stoics is different from the modern account.
Ancient Stoics debated whether virtue was a requirement for being a member of a cosmopolis. Early Greek Stoics were demanding: for one to truly be a member of the cosmic city, one needs to be a sage. Later Roman Stoics relaxed the criteria, for them the capacity for reason was sufficient. Regardless, what fundamentally mattered to both is that the polis is made up of the virtuous.
This is a decidedly different take from the liberal tolerance of values.
This is best brought out with an example. Here’s one way to improve the future: promote economic growth.
Economic growth enables people to live out their values. Of course, it’s associated with drops in disease, mortality of all kinds, plumbing, and other miracles of the modern age.
Yet according to Stoics, these things are externals. They aren’t what ultimately matters. What matters is making good decisions and thinking well. The advances of the contemporary world are not necessary for a good life. That’s the core principle of Stoicism: virtue is necessary and sufficient for a good life.
The cosmopolis is, at the very least, grounded in our rational nature. This isn’t a formal account of rationality, but a substantive one. The formal conception of rationality makes it all about inferences. Someone may be formally rational if they reason correctly given their ends. The substantive conception of rationality involves questioning the ends. Nature has a telos. To be rational is to play your role in this telos.
Think of this difference as the difference between a computer that does what it’s supposed to do given its input and one which does something valuable. The first behaves how it’s supposed to in the formal sense – there are no bugs. The second does something truly valuable. Perhaps it’s the difference between a phone running candy crush and an artificial intelligence uncovering the secrets of protein folding.
The Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius explains how human reason demands living in accord with the whole:
If you’ve ever seen a dismembered hand or foot, or a head hacked off and lying somewhere apart from the rest of the body–well, a man does his best to make himself like that if he refuses to accept his lot and cuts himself off from society or behaves selfishly. At some point, you’ve made yourself an outcast from the unity that’s natural to you by virtue of the fact that you became a part of it at birth. At the moment, then, you’ve cut yourself off, but the brilliant thing is that you can unite yourself with it again.
And the classicist, Malcolm Schofield in The Stoic Idea of the City, summarized the Stoic conception of reason as:
The reason which men and god have in common is not simply prescriptive reason without further qualification. It is prescriptive reason instructing them to treat each other as social animals.
Humans become a part of the cosmopolis by sharing the capacity for right reason. Not just any future matters. But one where its members can properly be considered as belonging to the same community as us.
The future going as well as possible amounts to nothing less than building a community of sages.
2. Never Act Viciously
When one is in the utilitarian frame of mind, it’s natural to start thinking about tradeoffs.
Perhaps it’s permissible to take an unethical job if you would be better than your replacement. The ends justify the means. Perhaps the importance of the movement justifies shady political tactics.
The temptation to act viciously for a greater end is not unique to modern longtermism. Every broadly consequentialist political movement has the same temptation – that’s nearly every political movement.
Should one compromise virtue? No. The member of the cosmopolis does not compromise character. They do not get their hands dirty.
One can indeed imagine challenging thought experiments for this position.
But consider this thought experiment: if someone held a gun to your head and forced you to maintain your virtue while promoting your cause, could you?
The answer is, likely, yes.
There are tradeoffs in everything, but moving to quickly consider tradeoffs indicates a lack of resourcefulness and care.
If a virtuous person faces a dilemma – where it looks like one must engage in vice, their response is to consider how to act virtuously regardless of external factors. Taking a commitment to virtue seriously requires this.
If one is thinking about morality as mathematics one may find oneself deliberating how to best maximize happiness. Some options on the table may be vicious. But the Stoic should not even deliberate, from the Discourses of Epictetus:
When Florus was deliberating whether he should go down to Nero’s spectacles and also perform in them himself, Agrippinus said to him, “Go down”: and when Florus asked Agrippinus, “Why do not you go down?” Agrippinus replied, “Because I do not even deliberate about the matter.” For he who has once brought himself to deliberate about such matters, and to calculate the value of external things, comes very near to those who have forgotten their own character.
3. The Risks Are Ordinary
If longtermism is true, it’s plausible that we should do all we can to avoid existential and catastrophic risks.
The most likely risks derive from speculative novel technologies. For example, consider Toby Ord’s ranking from The Precipice:
- Unaligned AI
- Engineered Pandemics
- Unforeseen Anthropogenic Risks
- Other anthropogenic risks
- Nuclear war
To be clear, Ord is ranking existential risks (extinction risks), not catastrophic ones (survivable, but absolutely terrible risks). Nonetheless, whether it’s superintelligence and digital people or sophisticated nanotechnology and cloning, much longtermism is focused on the speculative.
In addition to prioritizing risks from speculative technology, other longtermists have suggested that we should prioritize cause prioritization. That is, prioritize doing more work figuring out what is valuable and what should be prioritized.
Longtermists look at the world from a perspective of relative privilege. This is an insanely prosperous and peaceful time. Projects that impact the long run are only valuable if it’s likely that there will be one. One can’t think at the level of epochs if you don’t know what the gods have planned for you tomorrow.
The longtermist of antiquity would likely be skeptical of this picture. Their world is much more random. The familiar and boring risks are more real than the speculative novel ones.
The ancients saw civilization as more uncontrollable and fragile than we do. Consider the poet Semonides lines:
We who are human have no mind
But live from day to day like beasts
Knowing not what the gods have planned for us.
And Seneca’s practical advice to “never trust prosperity” and treat “fortune as if everything that is within her power will come to pass.”
When planning for fortune, the Stoic Seneca has in mind the ordinary risks of violence, ostracism, political stability, and war.
On this view, the most important risks are more mundane, deriving from logic the ancients would be familiar with:
- Political instability
- Environmental and civilizational collapse
These risks are catastrophic. Not speculatively existential.
Stoicism offers a vision of how the future matters. It’s worth remembering: our lives will end. What matters is that we live well.
Likewise, civilization will come to a close. What matters is that, while it exists, it forms a just community – and that community stretches through time, asymptotically approaching utopia and sagehood.
The survival of the atemporal cosmopolis matters. But survival is not the fundamental aim.
Personal and civilizational virtue is.
Make room for others. Others too must be born as you too were born, and once born they must have room and housing – the essential requisites. But if the first-comers do not move out, what is left for them? Why are you insatiate? Why never satisfied? Why do you crowd the universe?