Legal Priorities Research

We aim to establish “legal priorities research” as a new research field. Legal priorities research consists of two core elements. First, determining which problems legal researchers should work on in order to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. We refer to this as “meta-level research.” Secondly, legal priorities research includes conducting research on the identified problems, which we call “object-level research.”

Our approach to legal priorities research is influenced by our concern for the long-term future. The associated view in moral philosophy has been referred to as longtermism, which holds that the primary determinant of the value of our actions today is how those actions affect the very long-term future. Longtermism is based on two assumptions. First, when assessing the moral value of our actions, all consequences matter equally, independent of when or where they occur. This suggests that we should not only consider the welfare of our current generation, but also that of future generations. Second, in expectation, the future is vast in size. If the human species does not go extinct prematurely, there could be millions of future generations. Together these two assumptions suggest that an actor who wants to maximize welfare should focus on positively shaping the long-term future, 100 or even 1,000+ years from now.

Legal priorities research can also be viewed as a subset of global priorities research. Global priorities research is a novel research field that aims to determine how individuals and institutions should spend their limited resources in order to improve the world by as much as possible. Relevant research organizations include the Global Priorities Institute at Oxford University, and the Forethought Foundation. While global priorities research is located at the intersection of philosophy and economics, legal priorities research focuses primarily on legal studies, although it is still highly interdisciplinary.

Focus Areas

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Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) could significantly shape the long-term future. It could pose existential risks for humanity, or produce benefits of astronomical scale. There seems to be a general consensus among EA organizations that positively shaping the development of advanced AI is one of the world’s most pressing problems. Even though the law seems to play an important role in this respect, there is surprisingly little legal research addressing the long-term implications of AI.

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Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology – for example, in the form of engineered pathogens – might be one of the highest existential risks this century. Even though the current COVID-19 crisis has significantly increased the resources spent on preventing natural pandemics, the pandemic risks from synthetic biology remain relatively neglected – especially within legal research. We are currently not working on this cause area, but would like to engage more with the subject in the future.

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Climate Change

While there is considerable research on the science of climate change, the particular risks in extreme scenarios – where temperatures rise more than 5°C – are more neglected, especially within legal research. The challenge that the climate crisis represents for the law is extremely multifaceted and requires interdisciplinary research in a wide variety of legal disciplines, including tax law and geoengineering regulation. Climate law is also of crucial importance for national and global security.

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Institutional Design

While the other focus areas directly address specific problems, there are promising measures to tackle a wide range of problems indirectly. Since we may not be aware of some future threats or incapable of addressing them now, it is desirable to improve our institutional capacity to tackle many different future threats. This includes improving institutional design, institutional decision-making, and the impact and evaluation of laws – especially with future generations in mind.

Research Agenda

We are currently working on a research agenda for legal priorities research. The research agenda will be divided into two parts. In the first part, we outline the foundations of legal priorities research. We argue that cause prioritization in legal research is both important and neglected, provide an overview of the longtermism paradigm, and disclose our methodological approach. In the second part, we present our current focus areas, list promising research projects, and provide an overview of relevant literature. In the appendix, we list a number of other promising cause areas and related research fields. We hope to publish the agenda in December 2020.

Ongoing Research Projects

Legal priorities research: A research agenda

Legal longtermism

The challenges of artificial judicial decision-making for liberal democracy

Cognitive underpinnings of legal longtermism

Towards a dual-process theory of criminalization

Survey on legal priorities

Legal theory survey

Position statement on experimental jurisprudence

A legal definition of AI

AI risk survey

Corporate governance of artificial intelligence in the public interest

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Long-term challenges of AI for the judiciary

EA and climate law

Valuing future generations: From cognitive irrelevance to legal protection

Valuing future generations: On the implications of experimental intergenerational jurisprudence

Longtermist institutional design and policy

Intergenerational legitimacy

Algorithmic decision-making and discrimination in developing countries

Discrimination’s effect on future generations

Associative normativity, historical accountability, and the beneficiary pays principle

Nature urbanized: Ecological management of the spatial commons

Defining the public interest

Representing the interests of future generations in the U.S. democratic process

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