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Research Agenda

Our research agenda for legal priorities research is divided into three parts. In the first part, we argue that cause prioritization in legal research is both important and neglected, provide an overview of our philosophical foundations, and describe our methodological approach. In the second part, we present our current focus areas (namely, artificial intelligence, biosecurity & pandemic preparedness, institutional design, and meta-research), identify promising research projects, and provide an overview of relevant literature. In the final part, we discuss two cause areas for further engagement (namely, space governance and animal law).

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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.” Second, 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 three 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. Third, interventions now could play a significant role in mitigating existential risks and ensuring a more positive long-term trajectory. While more research is needed to feasibly predict to what degree and how legal mechanisms might impact future generations, in a survey of legal academics, a majority agreed that there are predictable, feasible mechanisms to influence the long-term future, at least 1,000+ years from now. Together these three 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 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 has been focused on philosophy and economics, legal priorities research focuses primarily on legal studies, although it is still highly interdisciplinary.

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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 could play an important role in shaping the risks and and potential realized, there is surprisingly little legal research addressing the long-term implications of AI.

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Biosecurity & Pandemic Preparedness

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 and attention dedicated to natural pandemics, risks due to engineered pandemics and other biotechnology remain relatively neglected – especially within legal research.

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Institutional Design

While other focus areas directly address specific fields, there are promising measures to tackle a wide range of problems indirectly. Since we may be unaware of some future threats or unable to address them now, it is desirable to improve our institutional capacity and capability to tackle many different future threats. This includes improving institutional design, judicial decision-making, and the impact, evaluation, and uncertainty of laws – especially with future generations in mind.

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Meta-Research

Since choosing the right research project is one of the most important factors that determines the positive impact of a legal researcher’s work, we are also engaging in a number of meta-research projects. Instead of competing with the existing organizations, our research in this area is significantly more specific as we identify and tackle problems that legal researchers encounter when prioritizing causes and specific projects, such as whether to focus on international, comparative, or national law.

Publications

Recent Highlights

Legal priorities research: A research agenda

What are the greatest risks and opportunities for humanity, and what is the role that multidisciplinary-informed legal research can take? How can we prioritize so as to increase the chance of a flourishing and long-lasting future of humanity? How can we cooperate most effectively with those whom we will never meet, but whose lives lie in our hands? Choosing to address these questions and prioritizing carefully among them may be one of the great opportunities of our time to positively change the human trajectory, and is the guiding theme of this agenda.

Protecting future generations: A global survey of legal academics

What do legal experts believe about the protection of future generations? In this paper, we surveyed law professors (n=516) from leading universities around the English-speaking world regarding their views on the feasibility and desirability of protecting future generations and influencing the long-term future via the legal system.

All Publications

2022

Extreme climate change (upcoming new chapter of LPP research agenda)




2021

See all our working papers on SSRN

Ongoing Research Projects

International law of existential risk

Experimental studies on the effectiveness of legal norms to reduce catastrophic risk

Legal longtermism (encyclopedia entry)

Legal priorities research (encyclopedia entry)

The robust case for legal longtermism

An empirical study of how law students perceive existential risk and concerns for future generations

The prospects of longterm impact litigation

Three lines of defense against risks from AI

Power to the future people: Designing longtermist political institutions

Longtermist institutional design and policy

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