Jakob Lohmar, University of Oxford

Longtermism about the Moral Goodness of Acts

According to a new ethical view known as “longtermism”, the effects of our actions on the far future are of particular moral importance. In my dissertation, I critically discuss a specific version of that view which roughly states that the morally best actions that we can currently perform are those actions that have the best effects on the far future. In line with the literature on longtermism, I make a case for that longtermist thesis which is based on the thought that we can do much more good in expectation by targeting the far future because of the huge number of people who could live in the far future and our ability to affect their expected level of wellbeing as well as their very existence. For example, mitigating the existential risks that humanity faces due to e.g. the threats of nuclear war and extreme climate change could have higher expected value than any action targeting the present or near future because an existential catastrophe would make it impossible for all potential future generations to have good lives at all. I also challenge longtermism about the moral goodness of acts, however, by discussing potential non-consequentialist moral reasons for targeting the present and near future. Perhaps, for example, we have special obligations towards present people and the next generation which are grounded in our personal relations to them. Due to such non-consequentialist reasons, it might be morally best overall to focus on pressing problems of the present and near future, such as extreme poverty, even if we can bring about the most good by targeting the far future. In discussing these questions, I will take into account our uncertainty about which moral reasons there are and what relative strengths they have: Is it overall morally best in light of our moral uncertainty to do what has the best effects on the far future?

Keywords: Longtermism, Far Future, Existential Risks, Global Priorities Research, Non-Consequentialism, Moral Reasons, Aggregation, Moral Uncertainty