Karri Heikkinen (UCL) - 2022-23 Students

Strong Longtermism as a Public Philosophy

Even according to our most conservative estimates, the number of people alive now pales in comparison to the astronomical number of people contained in the long-term future. Yet, it seems that we live in a hegemony of short-termism. Whether in politics, philanthropy or our own life choices, our attention rarely reaches beyond the next few years, even as our carbon-intensive way of life risks leaving future generations with a radically impoverished planet. This should make us ask: what would a more morally defensible orientation towards the future look like?  

My research aims to answer this question by arguing for a view I call strong longtermism as a public philosophy. The core idea of this view is that even if morality allows us significant freedom to act as we please as private citizens, governments are morally obliged to act in ways that maximise the expected value of the long-term future. A public philosophy, then, is a philosophy aimed at guiding public bodies we use to solve collective problems, as opposed to moral codes regulating private interactions and individual behaviour.  

My proposed project has two primary aims. Firstly, I pose objections to many of the currently prominent theories of intergenerational ethics, arguing that we lack a view that can take seriously the vast potential value of the long-run future, while avoiding implausible implications elsewhere. Secondly, I propose and explore the implications of a novel account that is still firmly grounded in existing scholarship, namely strong longtermism as a public philosophy. 

I intend my project to contribute to the growing literature on our obligations towards future people, as well as broader debates between consequentialist and non-consequentialist moral theories. Furthermore, I believe the project could improve our understanding of effective altruism, provide practically relevant insights for applied ethics, and perhaps even help motivate a return of consequentialism in political philosophy. 

Primary supervisor: Dr Joe Horton, UCL
Secondary supervisor: Dr Han van Wietmarschen, UCL

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