Science

Andreas Schmidt takes the long view

Why we should care about people who don’t exist yet

Thinking about the long term is more than looking out for the future of your kids or grandkids. According to UG philosopher Andreas Schmidt, we should take care of all people that haven’t been born yet. They should even be represented in parliament.
29 March om 13:45 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 29 March 2022
om 15:32 uur.
March 29 at 13:45 PM.
Last modified on March 29, 2022
at 15:32 PM.

Door Christien Boomsma

29 March om 13:45 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 29 March 2022
om 15:32 uur.

By Christien Boomsma

March 29 at 13:45 PM.
Last modified on March 29, 2022
at 15:32 PM.

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur
Volledig bio »

Background coordinator and science editor
Full bio »

Andreas Schmidt tries to be a good guy. He’s a vegetarian, because he doesn’t like the idea of ‘sentient beings being tortured and slaughtered’. He cares about the environment. He tries to do no harm and helps others. 

And yet, when he first heard about longtermism, his first thought was: why should I care about this? ‘I mean, the idea seemed a little far off, you know? A little weird.’

We should care about humans that live 100 million years from now

That’s not a strange reaction. Even though we all sort of agree that it is important to think of a future beyond the next elections, we mostly think of that future as one that our children or grandchildren will inhabit. ‘We might think of making pension funds a little better’, Schmidt says, ‘and that’s of course very important, but not really an issue here. Pension funds are not really a top priority if you care about humans a million years from now.’

But that is exactly what longtermists do. They say that if you want to do good in this world, one important priority should be to focus on projects that will benefit our descendants in the long run. ‘That means you should care about humans that live a thousand years from now, or even a hundred million years from now. All potential future descendants of humanity.’

Why? Because there will be a lot more of them than there are people alive right now. So if you want to do good and affect as many people as possible, you should do right by them. And that means a shift in priorities.

Compatible needs

Still, when Schmidt – who is also an effective altruist, which means he tries to do good as effectively as possible – first heard about this way of thinking, he wasn’t immediately convinced. ‘Emotionally, I found it difficult’, he says. ‘There are so many problems that we have right now, why do we have to worry about these really distant future people?’

However, he’s changed his mind since then. First, because he realised that the needs of future people are usually quite compatible with caring about your children or grandchildren. Second, because he finds it exciting to see where philosophical arguments will lead him. ‘They sometimes take you to surprising places and many people will change their lives when they become convinced by a good argument.’

Values like democracy or freedom are specified for existing people

There is one, he feels, that easily convinces people who give it some thought: Isn’t the most important thing you can do for those distant humans to make sure they can have life at all? We should dedicate time and energy to mitigating developments that threaten the very existence of humanity.  

Some of those are self-evident, like climate change. Others might not occur that often, but when they do, we’re in deep trouble. ‘Global pandemics for example’, Schmidt says. ‘Including the bio-engineered ones. Or nuclear war, which, unfortunately, is now again on people’s minds.’

Other potential problems lie with artificial intelligence, Schmidt says. AI researchers seriously talk about what they call the alignment problem – the worry that AI might surpass human intelligence and its goals will no longer be in sync with ours. Or the control problem, where AI becomes a super intelligent force that will control humanity in its turn. ‘These are the more surprising issues you should focus on, when you really care about the long-term perspective’, Schmidt says. ‘Potentially, you make a very big difference.’

Future-proof society

Schmidt has been slowly redirecting his research to topics where he can do his part. ‘I’m a political philosopher’, he says. ‘Which means I work on the way we build our institutions. You want well-functioning political institutions that are resilient in the face of a crisis.’ 

Think of a good public health system that can withstand a pandemic, or a robust scientific sector that can work with politicians to tackle whatever may come their way. A healthy, sustainable economy. ‘It’s hugely important to decarbonise economic growth and think about the distribution of income and wealth, but I’m probably more positive about economic growth than most people. It also has value for societies to grow, because it tends to lead to stable, more cooperative societies.’

How do you build a future-proof society, Schmidt asks himself. And: do our current ‘big values’ like freedom, equality, justice, and democracy hold up when you take the interests of hundreds of billions of potential humans into account? ‘These values are specified for existing people’, he says. ‘And it’s a real question whether our democracies are able to deal with these long-term challenges.’

Reforming democracy

Still, he does not believe that authoritarian systems are the answer – even though there are those who think so. ‘What these people do is pick and choose examples where authoritarian countries are doing somewhat better. But if you look at it systematically, they are not better equipped to deal with issues like climate change and they certainly do not do better in addressing issues like preventing nuclear wars.’ 

He does realise, though, that democracies aren’t doing anywhere near enough in looking out for the future, either. ‘So how can we reform democratic institutions to make them more long term? How can we provide representation for future generations, for example?’

Authoritarian systems are not equipped to deal with long-term issues either

A ministry is one possibility, or an ombudsperson. Small changes, but totally doable. In Wales they have one already. Hungary had one too, but they got rid of him again, as did Israel.

You could also add another house to the Dutch parliamentary system. Currently, the lower house (‘Tweede Kamer’) is where the laws are made, the upper house (‘Eerste Kamer’) checks these laws. But a third one could check whether these laws are actually future proof. ‘Future generations are the vast majority in human history, yet they have no influence on important things like climate change or the use of nuclear weapons. No vote or representation at all.’

Moral progress

It’s an interesting thought. But would politicians actually be willing to let their agendas be dictated by human beings who can’t vote? Isn’t that just a little far-fetched? 

Schmidt smiles. It wouldn’t be the first time that humans drastically changed their views, he says. ‘Not too long ago, people felt women mattered less than men and didn’t deserve the same moral concern. The same goes for racial equality, LGBTQ+ rights and rights for non-human animals. In the 19th century, discussions we have today would have struck people as very weird. It’s only through moral progress, good arguments and social movements that we realised which groups we’ve been unjustly excluding.’

What he wants to say is this: people can change. People can be empathic. Not all at once maybe, but slowly. ‘I guess I would not want to focus on whether we can be perfect, but on whether we can make improvements.’

He truly believes that people want this. ‘With many of the projects that we already find very valuable, we assume implicitly that they will be carried on after we die. If we knew they would not, they would lose a lot of their value.’

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