books

What we owe the future, by William MacAskill

William MacAskill is a pioneering thinker, and one of the movers and shakers behind the Effective Altruism movement. His book Doing Good Better is a brilliant introduction, and I’ve written a fair number of posts about the movement here on the blog in the past. I’ve learned a lot from Effective Altruism, been inspired by the questions it asks, and I’ve used some of its ideas in my life, my work and my giving.

I also have some reservations about the movement, and one of the biggest is its interest in extreme long-term thinking and existential risk. I’m willing to challenge my scepticism about that and I’ve got plenty of time for MacAskill, so I’ve been looking forward to his new book What We Owe the Future. It takes “a million year view” of the future, expounds some moral and philsophical principles, and concludes that “positively influencing the longterm future is a key moral priority of our time.”

The book begins with an explanation of how short the human experience is on a geological scale. Looking to the future, it’s quite likely that we are in the early stages of the human story, which means that the future is “where almost everyone lives and where almost all potential for joy and misery lies”. These future people shouldn’t be discounted, and our actions today can shape their lives.

So far, so good, and MacAskill makes the case that future generations matter with imaginative thought experiments, analogies and anticipated questions. He then goes on to show how decisions can shape outcomes for those that come after us, using historical examples such as abolition. We live at an important moment in time, he argues, where our choices could affect billions of people – potentially forever. The opportunity to shape the future might not remain open for long though. Looking at Chinese philosophy, MacAskill shows how history moves from times where there are competing schools of thought, to eventual dominance that can endure for centuries.

We live at a time of ‘plasticity’, where there are multiple visions for a good society, which is a good thing – it’s an opportunity to evolve and develop. Sooner or later, a set of values might get ‘locked in’ and hard to change. That lock-in could arrive with the advent of general artificial intelligence, and at this point the author warns us himself that the book is going to “discuss some ideas that will sound weird or sci-fi”.

That’s an observation I returned to in the second half of the book, as it ventures into some more obscure branches of contemporary moral philosophy. One of them is population ethics, which MacAskill reckons hasn’t been presented to a non-academic audience before. It asks a series of questions about future humans, about their potential happiness, about when you can say a life is worth living and when it’s better not to be born. It’s abstract, sometimes controversial, and readers’ tolerance for it will vary.

Ultimately, considering the possibility of a long and flourishing human future leads to the conclusion that safeguarding the future matters. Extinguishing civilization – whether that’s through climate change, nuclear war or manufactured pandemics – would not just harm life today, but snuff out the possibility of flourishing life in the future. And that future life and happiness would be vastly greater than life today, making existential risk a vital moral priority.

This is where the difficulties with the Effective Altruism crowd emerge. For some, existential risk is so important that it has to be the first priority. But in focusing on future life, they risk turning their backs on those suffering now. The result is philanthropy without solidarity, without empathy, reduced to abstract mathematics and balance sheets.

This is the preserve of the privileged. If you’re homeless and hungry right now, the potential flourishing of future billions (possibly in space) are not your concern. Philanthropy for combating hypothetical risk is an idea that could only come from those who can take their material comfort for granted. Too many others are already facing existential dangers themselves. I found myself thinking of Gil-Scott Heron’s poem Whitey on the Moon, and that while the ideas in What We Owe the Future might find a welcome audience in Oxford or Silicon Valley, they’d be irrelevant or even insulting to many others.

I’ve presented some arguments around this before and I won’t repeat them. Ultimately What We Owe the Future didn’t change my mind on existential risk, but there’s no question that it’s a thought-provoking, original and profound piece of work. It has a lot to offer on long-term thinking, on how we see ourselves and our present moment, and the idea that there is just so much of the future to fight for. Like MacAskill’s previous book, there are strikingly good points throughout that I wouldn’t want you to miss out on. Read it, argue with it, and make up your own mind about it.

3 comments

  1. Thanks for your own insightful comments, which I found very helpful. I do wonder if there’s not such a dichotomy in practice between prioritising existentially-challenged people now, vs those in the future. I suspect the surest pathway towards safeguarding future humans lies in demonstrating full compassion to those suffering today. Arguably that’s a necessary condition for creating the enlightened and humane society that will properly embrace the arguments and needs concerning future existential challenges? And even in purely pragmatic terms, the lives of ‘million-year thinkers’ will be too precarious if we remain callous about people suffering right here and now.

    1. It shouldn’t be an either-or, no, and plenty of people care about both. As you say, I’d view my work on climate change and poverty as a good way to protect long term futures. In practice, longtermism as a philosophy seems to have proved pretty distracting to the movement that MacAskill set up.

      What concerns me is the way that longtermist activists have got hung up on certain issues – artificial intelligence in particular – over concern for poverty and injustice. The Effective Altruist web forums are a good example. They could be full of smart and generous young people discussing how to make a difference on education, sanitation and health in poor countries. Instead they’re all about AI and who’s not taking it seriously enough. To my mind, it pretty much derailed a promising movement that was only just getting started.

      If you were a generous young person looking for a cause to support right now, longtermists would point your generosity towards existential risk. Your donation would go to global risk thinktanks and silicon valley AI ethicists, rather than to people without water or sanitation. I think that’s a bit of a tragedy.

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