What if you really wanted to think about long term survival of humans as a species instead of catering to rich people?
In all of the recent discussion on the topics, one of the the most annoying aspects of “effective altruism” and “longtermism” is that the purported thinking in those directions has a very basic-white-male-kid-fresh-out-of-high-school-learning-about-utilitarianism-for-the-first-time vibe. Erik Hoel has done better than I would writing about the deeper issues with the utilitarianism on which effective altruism is based apparent to anyone who has studied ethical theories just a bit more than not at all, so I won’t rehash it. My thoughts are pretty much expressed in my pithy tweet:
My aim here is instead to discuss how longtermism appears to be shaped to cater to rich people much the same way effective altruism is — that if you weren’t maximizing appeal to billionaires, you’d come up with an entirely different longtermism.
There is one major takeaway from what we know about survival of species — monocultures are fragile; diversity is good.
The corollary of “monocultures are fragile” is “don’t let a few people have all the money”. In one obvious corruption by billionairephilia, effective altruism tries to say that it’s best to make a lot of money so that you personally can do philanthropy to move humanity forward — and that it’s ok for billionaires to do this just as it’s ok for you. However, in the egalitarian society at the heart of the enlightenment ideals, the diversity in the marketplace of ideas is its strength. If a few billionaires are deciding all the philanthropy, that will create a “founder effect” in ideology1 behind that philanthropy — possibly losing out on good ideas, but definitely losing out on alternative ideas.
For example, note how much economics has taken over the judgment of whether welfare policies are good or even how to implement them through so-called “nudges”. Public welfare has been taken over by neoliberalism, a monoculture, where once thrived many different approaches.
The real longtermist solutions would be either to directly redistribute the wealth to restore that diversity of welfare approaches, or, if it benefits from being one large program, collectivize the wealth and the decisionmaking through something like a public spending plus democracy. Given that we know humans when left to their own devices seldom give enough to philanthropy so the latter approach — i.e. a socially democratic government — would be optimal if we cared about humanity in the long term enough to overcome our own biases.
In a more literal “founder effect”, the idea of setting up space colonies would not a focus of genuinely thinking long term. Unless you have some idea to lessen the resource requirements by orders of magnitude, the space colonies will almost certainly suffer from a greatly reduced genetic diversity (and higher incidence of genetic abnormalities) due to founder effects. An independent space colony (were it possible2) is at best an insurance policy. But an insurance policy is not a primary plan — insurance is tail risk mitigation. The primary plan — especially if you were thinking long term — would be figuring out humanity could live sustainably on its current planet. Repairing the environment or slowing the devastation would be the primary plan, not just some tail risk mitigation. Imagine if someone living in their first house said the long term solution to fires was to build another house instead of taking steps to mitigate fire risk? It would be risible. That’s how risible a longtermist view fixated on space colonization is — but that’s where the billionaires are, so the philosophy follows.
A genuine longtermist wouldn’t be racist. Genotype diversity is species survival, not special preferences for specific phenotypes. And in order to maximize that diversity, a genuine longtermist would push for social welfare policies so that every human can live and support a family. In particular, you’d redistribute the wealth of billionaires who already have enough resources to contribute to the gene pool in order to support social programs for those that don’t. Again, you’d basically be a social democrat.
Genuine longtermists would eschew IQ as a metric for anything of value. First, any filter you would apply, regardless of its validity, would produce reduced diversity on the other end. Filtering on high scoring IQ tests, through their design, produce a whiter, maler end product — certainly due to its defects as a measure of “intelligence” (such as having a non-zero projection along cultural dimensions per graphic above). But even if these tests were valid, diversity is survival — and eugenic breeding of humans focusing on IQ would not only produce the same results as breeding programs for dogs or even aristocratic bloodlines3 (genetic, survival, and behavior defects) but reduce the contingent of human diversity with forms of intelligence that just aren’t currently culturally fashionable4. Of course, the fake longtermists think we should support certain people with higher IQ "for the good of the species" which — because IQ measurement is strongly biased towards higher socioeconomic class and not necessarily measuring intelligence — is exactly what rich people want to hear.
These are just a few of the ways the longtermism sold to the wealthy is more about stroking the ego of the wealthy than, you know, humanity’s long term survival. As Émile Torres put it, it’s “eugenics on steroids”. What you’d really want if you cared about the long term would be 1) to make it possible for humans’ diversity to flourish through economic support, 2) to strive towards some mechanism to get humans to, you know, solve some of the current long term problems in order to develop a culture of solving long term problems. In short, promote social democratic welfare policies, support diversity and inclusion, and tackle climate change.
The wealthy — both relatively and absolutely wealthy — of course dislike all of that. They don’t want to be taxed for social programs, they want a monoculture of their own ideas and neighborhoods, and they often benefit from the particular form of the world built on cheap fossil fuels. If instead of catering to them you genuinely thought long term you’d realize, as Dr. Sarah Taber put it, billionaires are the top existential threat to humanity.
Update 1/23/23: Corrected some sentences that just ended early for some reason.
This is related to why I think “cancellation” for any reason whatsoever is good — it mitigates overrepresentation of billionaires and the elite and provides a mechanism for churn in the marketplace of ideas.
Manu Saadia is writing an entire substack dedicated to all the other issues — philosophical and practical — with space colonies.
Royalty becoming more and more inbred over time was likely due to the unintended consequences of the process of inheritance generally dividing power. If you divide power among your offspring and then recombine it with the offspring of an ally, the loss is mitigated — but leads to inbreeding. Primogeniture was an early attempt at addressing that loss of power from dividing your lands among your offspring which had a comeback in the late medieval/early modern period in Europe when new proto-nation-states started to emerge in the aftermath of the collapse of the western Roman empire.