Katie Steele: Neutrality about creating good lives - No panacea for longtermism

Datum: 14 september 2022
Tid: 10:00-11:45

Place: At the Institute for Futures Studies, Holländargatan 13, Stockholm, or online.


The principle of neutrality can be seen as a direct response to the totalist approach to evaluating populations of varying constitution and size: while the latter holds that the addition of a good life makes the world better, ceteris paribus, the former denies precisely that. Accordingly, neutrality denies certain counterintuitive longtermist maxims that are entailed by totalism. That includes the maxim that any deterioration in ‘present’ lives can be outweighed by sufficient gains in the expected number of ‘future’ good lives. The problem, however, is that neutrality does not preclude close variants of such maxims. For instance, neutrality is consistent with extreme deterioration in present lives being offset (if not outweighed) by sufficient gains in the expected number of future good lives (what Broome 2005 has dubbed ‘greedy neutrality’). So neutrality too can have demanding and thus counterintuitive implications for present people. It is not just that our plight is made less important by the creation of more future people. What really sticks is that in deliberating about actions that affect present persons, our predictions about future persons matter morally. There is no easy escape. The best way to resist calls to action on the basis of longtermist maxims is to challenge the empirical assumptions of their applicability, not their intuitive plausibility.

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Katie Steele is professor of philosophy at Australian National University. Katie presently holds a 4-year ANU Futures Scheme grant and is a co-investigator on the 'Ethics and Risk' ARC Discovery Project as well as a co-investigator on the 'Climate Change and Future Generations' grant based at the Institute for Futures Studies.

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