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The Most Important Thing in the World

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Sometimes we may dismiss a problem as "not the most important thing in the world".  Which raises the (surprisingly neglected!) question: what is, literally, the most important thing in the world?In 'The Case for Strong Long-Termism', Greaves & MacAskill argue that the correct answer is: improving the long-run future. I'll try to summarize some of the core considerations here (with any flaws in the exposition being my own), but interested readers should of course check out the full paper for all the details.First note that the near term -- the next hundred years, say -- is a vanishingly tiny proportion of all time, and contains an even tinier proportion of all the valuable entities (e.g. sentient lives) that could potentially exist (if we don't wipe ourselves out first).  It would seem to follow, on almost any plausible population axiology (whether 'total', 'average', or anything in-between -- so long as it does not intrinsically discount the value of future lives relative to current ones), that the overall value of the world will be determined almost entirely by the (quantity and) quality of far-future lives.  All of us existing today are, by comparison, a single speck of dust in the desert.  We matter immensely, of course, but no more than any other speck, and there are an awful lot more of them, in aggregate, than there are of us.So if there's anything we can feasibly do to improve the trajectory of the long-run future, in expectation, the value of doing so seems likely to swamp every other possible consideration.It's worth emphasizing that this implication is robust across a wide range of moral views.  For example, you don't have to be a consequentialist to think that consequences are among what matters.  So any kind of stakes-sensitive, non-absolutist form of deontology (which is surely the only plausible kind) is going to be similarly committed to allowing these astronomically great. . .

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