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Burkean Longtermism

People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.

Leopold Aschenbrenner
Leopold Aschenbrenner
11 min read
Society is indeed a contract. … It is to be looked on with other reverence, because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their appointed place.

-Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (p. 108)

I am friends with a bunch of hardcore “longtermists.” They obsess about the future on cosmic scales, on the quintillions of humans that could live all around the galaxy a billion years hence. They often take a futurist perspective, speculating about new technologies, like transformative AI, and how they could impact humanity’s trajectory.

I have strong sympathies for this view. But as I see it, many smart people have implicitly converged on a related but substantially different perspective, one I will dub Burkean longtermism.

I define Burkean longtermism in terms of a number of propositions.

  1. We ought to have a deep concern for the distant future. But this concern is not grounded in social-justice-style appeals to ever-expanding moral circles (“we should value people equally regardless of place and time”). Rather, it is grounded in an acute sense of the long arc of time—the sense you get from hearing your great-grandmother’s stories about WWII. The concern for the future is concrete: what do we pass along to our posterity, our own children and children’s children and their children?
  2. With this acute sense of the long arc of time comes not just care for that which we pass along, but also appreciation for that which we have inherited. That means appreciating past progress—as Burke put its: “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors” (p. 34). But perhaps most of all it means a strong “prior” on the particular habits, mores, and institutions that we have inherited. Tradition is smarter than you.
  3. We should take epistemic humility extremely seriously. “Time has upset many fighting faiths,” as the legendary Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once put it. Many of our forebearers’ most fervent beliefs have been overturned by the test of time; many of ours will be too. In turn, this means skepticism about any specific views derived from pure reason.
  4. Rather, we should place our faith in mechanisms of error correction, experimentation, competition, adaptation.
  5. We should be skeptical of any radical inside-view schemes to positively steer the long-run future, given the froth of uncertainty about the consequences of our actions. A “longtermist” in the Middle Ages might have been convinced that the best thing to do was to violently spread fundamentalist Christianity. So too will future generations think of whatever plans we have hatched.
  6. Instead, the Burkean longtermist reverts to a historicist perspective in thinking about the future. We should prize those forces that have been robustly good over long timespans in the past, like economic growth. And we should guard against those threats that have bedeviled humanity for time immemorial, like wars and plagues and tyranny. “In history a great volume is unrolled for our instructions, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind” (Burke, p. 157).
  7. Along the way, we should retain a keen sense of the fragility of civilization. Barbarism and depravity lurk not far below the veneer of modernity.

What are the implications of such a view? Perhaps the canonical example would be Tyler Cowen’s "stubborn attachment" to economic growth and human rights. (Though I would argue that we should place less emphasis on 2% vs. 2.1% growth and more on making sure growth continues at all. Zero growth stagnation has arguably been the historical norm.) Similarly, we might prioritize reducing risks from pandemics and weapons of mass destruction. (But these issues might be less totalizing than for “hardcore longtermists,” and we might be more optimistic about the potential for progress to conquer these threats).

Other emphases might be:

  • a) The threat of authoritarian China. Twice in the last century did the shadow of totalitarianism come close to enveloping the world, first Nazism and then Stalinism. We may well face such an existential challenge once again.
  • b) The precipitous decline in birth rates all across the world. Yes, this matters for economic reasons: the end of population growth could herald a new Dark Ages. But perhaps there is something even more fundamental at stake. Our sterility threatens the intergenerational compact itself. An aging, childless society will not be one concerned about the long-run future. (Along these lines, maybe we ought to be more concerned about world leaders’ increasing childlessness?) Considerations like these should make us somewhat uneasy about secularization as well.
  • c) Classical liberalism and error correction mechanisms. Given epistemic humility, I see our world’s increasing cultural homogeneity with great worry. We must preserve the ability for our views and understandings to evolve. For example, we should attach great import to preserving American-style religious liberties: in no other country can religious groups live in “parallel societies,” experimenting with truly different ways of life. Even “liberal” places in Europe make it an aim of state policy to crack down on “parallel societies,” e.g. forcing everyone to go to secular public school; the forces of modernity are too overwhelming and crush all difference.

In some ways of course, what I have outlined is just … conservatism. If so, perhaps my argument can be restated differently. The longtermist project has, so far, been steeped in progressive sensibilities. I think the longtermist project would be better off if it took conservative sensibilities seriously too.

Note the “irony of longtermism.” In pursuit of the future billions of years hence, many longtermists end up extremely focused on the short-term, e.g. making sure AI goes well. I think Burkean longtermism shows the potential for a more patient longtermism.

Note also that Burkeanism is the sort of conservatism that still admits the necessity of change: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation” (p. 21). Conservation and correction are twin principles. Rather, at the core of Burkeanism is time as test; we ought to evaluate institutions and ideas for how they withstand this test of time.

Most of all, I simply hope that more will take seriously the long arc of time. For me this is made visceral by my great-grandmother, born in 1934, in Germany. She witnessed the firebombing of Dresden; she would tell me about the pangs of post-war hunger and the decade-long absence of her father, a POW in Siberia; the poverty and persecution of East German communism. Not long after the Wall fell, her granddaughter would marry a West German. Now, her great-grandson is in America, a place to her that is more mythical than real. Maybe she’ll even be around long enough to witness the birth of a great-great-grandchild. What is it that my lifetime will bring? Let alone that of my own great-grandchildren?

Our civilization is an intergenerational enterprise, as Burke puts it, a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” When I think of our role in this epic enterprise, I think of the inscription on Columbia’s Low Library “… maintained and cherished from generation to generation - for the advancement of the public good - and the glory of Almighty God.”

I am grateful to Collin Burns, Applied Divinity Studies, Stephen Malina, and Sam Enright for their invaluable feedback on earlier drafts.

Appendix: Some other favorite Burke quotes

These are only semi-relevant. But I couldn't help myself. They are too good. From Reflections on the Revolution in France.

On the limits of reason

You see, Sir, that in this enlightened age I am bold enough to confess that we are generally men of untaught feelings, that, instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages. Many of our men of speculation, instead of exploding general prejudices, employ their sagacity to discover the latent wisdom which prevails in them. If they find what they seek, and they seldom fail, they think it more wise to continue the prejudice, with the reason involved, than to cast away the coat of prejudice and to leave nothing but the naked reason; because prejudice, with its reason, has a motive to give action to that reason, and an affection which will give it permanence. Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision skeptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.
Your literary men and your politicians, and so do the whole clan of the enlightened among us, essentially differ in these points. They have no respect for the wisdom of others, but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own. With them it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things because it is an old one. As to the new, they are in no sort of fear with regard to the duration of a building run up in haste, because duration is no object to those who think little or nothing has been done before their time, and who place all their hopes in discovery. They conceive, very systematically, that all things which give perpetuity are mischievous, and therefore they are at inexpiable war with all establishments. (p.96)
What your politicians think the marks of a bold, hardy genius are only proofs of a deplorable want of ability. By their violent haste and their defiance of the process of nature, they are delivered over blindly to every projector and adventurer, to every alchemist and empiric. (p.189)
But the age of chivalry is gone. That of the sophists, economists; and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. (p. 84)

On the test of time

We procure reverence to our civil institutions on the principle upon which nature teaches us to revere individual men: on account of their age and on account of those from whom they are descended. All your sophisters cannot produce anything better adapted to preserve a rational and manly freedom than the course that we have pursued, who have chosen our nature rather than our speculations, our breasts rather than our inventions, for the great conservatories and magazines of our rights and privileges. (p. 35)
Whilst they are possessed by these notions, it is vain to talk to them of the practice of their ancestors, the fundamental laws of their country, the fixed form of a constitution whose merits are confirmed by the solid test of long experience and an increasing public strength and national prosperity. They despise experience as the wisdom of unlettered men; and as for the rest, they have wrought underground a mine that will blow up, at one grand explosion, all examples of antiquity, all precedents, charters, and acts of parliament. They have “the rights of men”. Against these there can be no prescription, against these no agreement is binding; these admit no temperament and no compromise; anything withheld from their full demand is so much of fraud and injustice. Against these their rights of men let no government look for security in the length of its continuance, or in the justice and lenity of its administration. (p. 64)
Old establishments are tried by their effects. If the people are happy, united, wealthy, and powerful, we presume the rest. We conclude that to be good from whence good is derived. In old establishments various correctives have been found for their aberrations from theory. Indeed, they are the results of various necessities and expediencies. They are not often constructed after any theory; theories are rather drawn from them. In them we often see the end best obtained where the means seem not perfectly reconcilable to what we may fancy was the original scheme. The means taught by experience may be better suited to political ends than those contrived in the original project. They again react upon the primitive constitution, and sometimes improve the design itself, from which they seem to have departed. I think all this might be curiously exemplified in the British constitution. At worst, the errors and deviations of every kind in reckoning are found and computed, and the ship proceeds in her course. This is the case of old establishments; but in a new and merely theoretic system, it is expected that every contrivance shall appear, on the face of it, to answer its ends, especially where the projectors are no way embarrassed with an endeavor to accommodate the new building to an old one, either in the walls or on the foundations. (p. 192)

On conservation

When ancient opinions and rules of life are taken away, the loss cannot possibly be estimated. From that moment we have no compass to govern us (p. 87)
Besides, the people of England well know that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation and a sure principle of transmission, without at all excluding a principle of improvement. It leaves acquisition free, but it secures what it acquires. (p. 34)
We wished at the period of the Revolution, and do now wish, to derive all we possess as an inheritance from our forefathers. Upon that body and stock of inheritance we have taken care not to inoculate any cyon alien to the nature of the original plant. All the reformations we have hitherto made have proceeded upon the principle of reverence to antiquity; and I hope, nay, I am persuaded, that all those which possibly may be made hereafter will be carefully formed upon analogical precedent, authority, and example. (p. 32)
Through the same plan of a conformity to nature in our artificial institutions, and by calling in the aid of her unerring and powerful instincts to fortify the fallible and feeble contrivances of our reason, we have derived several other, and those no small, benefits from considering our liberties in the light of an inheritance. Always acting as if in the presence of canonized forefathers, the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity. This idea of a liberal descent inspires us with a sense of habitual native dignity which prevents that upstart insolence almost inevitably adhering to and disgracing those who are the first acquirers of any distinction. By this means our liberty becomes a noble freedom. (p. 35)

On religion

We know, and what is better, we feel inwardly, that religion is the basis of civil society and the source of all good and of all comfort. (p. 100)
We know, and it is our pride to know, that man is by his constitution a religious animal; that atheism is against, not only our reason, but our instincts; and that it cannot prevail long. But if, in the moment of riot and in a drunken delirium from the hot spirit drawn out of the alembic of hell, which in France is now so furiously boiling, we should uncover our nakedness by throwing off that Christian religion which has hitherto been our boast and comfort, and one great source of civilization amongst us and amongst many other nations, we are apprehensive (being well aware that the mind will not endure a void) that some uncouth, pernicious, and degrading superstition might take place of it. (p. 101)
When the people have emptied themselves of all the lust of selfish will, which without religion it is utterly impossible they ever should, when they are conscious that they exercise, and exercise perhaps in a higher link of the order of delegation, the power, which to be legitimate must be according to that eternal, immutable law in which will and reason are the same, they will be more careful how they place power in base and incapable hands. (p. 105)

On history and depravity

History consists for the greater part of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites which shake the public with the same. … The vices are the causes of those storms. Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, rights of men are the pretexts. The pretexts are always found in some specious appearance of a real god. (p. 157)

On diversity

These opposed and conflicting interests which you considered as so great a blemish in your old and in our present constitution interpose a salutary check to all precipitate resolutions. They render deliberation a matter, not of choice, but of necessity; they make all change a subject of compromise, which naturally begets moderation; they produce temperaments preventing the sore evil of harsh, crude, unqualified reformations, and rendering all the headlong exertions of arbitrary power, in the few or in the many, for ever impracticable. Through that diversity of members and interests, general liberty had as many securities as there were separate views in the several orders. (p. 37)

On population

Among the standards upon which the effects of government on any country are to be estimated, I must consider the state of its population as not the least certain. No country in which population flourishes and is in progressive improvement can be under a very mischievous government. (p. 142)
I never will suppose that fabric of a state to be the worst of all political institutions which, by experience, is found to contain a principle favorable (however latent it may be) to the increase of mankind. (p. 145)