Skip to main content

What if you experienced every human life in history?

2,929,889 Views

233 Questions Answered

TEDEd Animation

Let’s Begin…

Imagine that your life began as one of the planet’s first humans. After dying, you're reincarnated as the second human ever to live. You then return as the third person, the fourth, the fifth, and so on – living the lives of every human that’s ever walked the Earth. How will your actions in one life impact your future selves? Explore the ethics of the philosophy known as longtermism.

Additional Resources for you to Explore

In the book What We Owe the Future, ethicist William MacAskill details the philosophy of longtermism. Longtermism, a primary concept within the social movement of effective altruism, makes a case for considering the wants and needs of future people as much as we consider the wants and needs of people alive today when making ethical decisions. In fact, if we were to take a strict utilitarian stance — striving for the greatest good for the greatest number of people — the math hugely favors the enormous population of individuals who do not yet exist.

Of course, it’s not particularly intuitive to choose our actions by heavily weighing the well-being of people we haven’t met, nor will ever meet. This is the value of MacAskill’s thought experiment, which forces us to put ourselves in the shoes of those future individuals whose welfare is so often disregarded in the realms of technology, environmentalism, and public health. MacAskill describes these future beings as a “disenfranchised” group in this opinion piece he penned for The New York Times, and he argues that our responsibility to them only increases as the global consequences of our actions continue to grow.

To learn more about MacAskill’s work and the philosophies of longtermism, read about the Global Priorities Institute at Oxford University and the Forethought Foundation — two organizations MacAskill cofounded to continue his research on global ethics. MacAskill’s TED talk about effective altruism and “the most important moral problems of our time” is also available here

Next Section »

About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Director Jay Septimo, Khoo Siew May, AIM Creative Studios
  • Narrator George Zaidan
  • Storyboard Artist Khoo Siew May, Jay Septimo
  • Animator Jay Septimo, Helgil Siega, Khoo Siew May
  • AIM Creative Studios Producer Tiago Ribeiro
  • Illustrator Khoo Siew May, Tammy Leow
  • Composer André Aires
  • Sound Designer André Aires
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Producer Anna Bechtol
  • Associate Producer Abdallah Ewis
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler

More from The Big Questions