“Future people count. There could be a lot of them. We can make their lives go better.” These statements capture the essence of the argument made by the author of What We Owe the Future. William MacAskill is widely known as the primary exponent of effective altruism, an approach to “doing good,” in his words, that has as much impact as possible on the well-being of people across the world.
What We Owe the Future, by William MacAskill. Basic Books, 2022; 352 pp; ISBN 9781541618626.
In his latest book, William MacAskill, a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford University, has expanded his thinking to take in the well-being of people in the future. He calls this “longtermism,” or as he puts it, “the idea that positively influencing the longterm future is a key moral priority of our time.” While focused on the future, the book is an urgent call to action in the present. MacAskill suggests that to improve the future, we need to consider two goals: to ensure humanity’s survival and to change the trajectory of human lives. His provocative and wide-ranging book is structured around speculations about the possibility of achieving these two goals through actions we can take today. Unsurprisingly, his conclusion is that we have a moral imperative to try.
It is almost impossible for us, caught up as we are in the dramatic events and headlines of today, to consider how our actions might affect the future of millions of people who won’t be born for hundreds of years. Why is action today to secure our common future so urgent? MacAskill argues that we are at a unique and pivotal moment of change in human history. We are connected across the world in a way we have never been before. And we are grappling with the moral and human implications of rapidly developing new technologies such as artificial intelligence and bioengineering. We are living in an “age of plasticity,” says MacAskill, before technologies and values become rigid and change becomes impossible. Today, humanity has a diversity of moral worldviews. No single value system prevails across the globe. But it is possible and, based on history, even likely, in MacAskill’s view, that the world will tend toward value convergence and what he terms “value lock-in.” Instead, he advocates for building a “morally exploratory” world so that over time the norms and institutions that are morally better, that tend toward a more just society for all, are more likely to prevail.
We are living in an ‘age of plasticity,’ says MacAskill, before technologies and values become rigid and change becomes impossible.
Before we contemplate what would be required to build a morally exploratory world and to truly improve the future, we need to consider how to avoid the extinction or collapse of civilization itself. In several sobering chapters, MacAskill surveys, with relevant data drawn from a range of fields, the risks of species extinction or global civilizational collapse posed by bioengineered pathogens, great-power nuclear war, and global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels. While he concludes that the probability of the end of civilization in this century is about 1%, which seems low, it is still far too high for us to feel comfortable. As he vividly describes it, “if humanity is like a teenager, then she is one who speeds round blind corners, drunk, without wearing a seat belt.”
In the prevailing narrative of the present, we are living in an age of growth, innovation, and disruption. But MacAskill points out that in the next two centuries, global population, according to current fertility trends, will fall dramatically and productivity driven by innovation and technological progress may well stagnate. The returns on research and development will fall drastically as population decreases. While many today see slower growth as a solution to the climate emergency, it could in fact worsen it if technological progress slows and the world is unable either to replace fossil fuels or to sustain economic production. MacAskill suggests that stagnation could plausibly be one of the biggest sources of risk of extinction or permanent collapse that we face.
In counterpoint, he uses the analytics of moral philosophy to posit a more optimistic likelihood of a good future. From a philosopher’s perspective, the questions we pose ourselves are abstract but essential to guide our actions in the present. Should it matter if civilization’s life is cut short? Is future civilization, on balance, more good than bad? MacAskill reflects on these questions by seeking empirical evidence about the happiness or well-being of people in the present and over time. Although such empirical evidence is too scanty to be definitive, he believes that on balance people across the world have lives with positive and increasing well-being. If economic growth continues, people may well increase their happiness over the next century (barring the catastrophes that MacAskill speculates about earlier in the book). He is optimistic that the future will be better than the present because human beings are morally more motivated to pursue good than to pursue evil.
These donor-centric movements of altruism and ‘longtermism’ come into conflict with some very different currents of thinking in philanthropy today.
Where does all this speculation leave us? MacAskill’s final chapter is aptly named “What To Do.” He freely acknowledges that choosing how to influence the future in positive ways is fraught with unknowns. As he says, we must walk backward into the future, knowing only what is in our present or what is behind us in our past. What’s more, in his metaphor, the terrain we walk on is unexplored, it’s dark and foggy, and we have few clues to guide us. But he suggests rules of thumb for the journey: take good precautions (ones we can be confident are good), increase options, and learn more. We can take actions that make the long-term future go better across a range of scenarios. He gives the example of promoting innovation in clean technologies to keep fossil fuels in the ground, lessen the impact of climate change, advance technological progress, and increase health benefits due to lower pollution. Another example is investing in disaster preparedness, whether in anticipation of more global pandemics or global war. We could also take much more seriously the need for strong governance of artificial intelligence before it becomes too large or too autonomous to control. There are many actions that we know today would help human civilization to endure or rebuild in the future if catastrophic events occurred.
MacAskill himself has been very busy building movements around effective altruism and now longtermism. A serial academic entrepreneur, he has launched several organizations that now work under the Effective Ventures group banner. To foster longtermist thinking, he has created the Global Priorities Institute at Oxford and the Forethought Foundation. With a team of consultants and researchers, he ranges far beyond his field of moral philosophy to define risks to the global future, considering events in human history; developments in engineering and artificial intelligence; knowledge of the universe and planetary development derived from astronomy, physics, and climate science; and theories of economic growth and stagnation. MacAskill has controversially influenced several major donors, particularly in the United States, to become “effective altruists.” Some of these donors, such as Sam Bankman-Fried (the discredited crypto billionaire), have tarnished effective altruism by association.
The moral justification for effective altruism and longtermism is countered by the equally powerful justification for equity, justice, and community-driven philanthropy to create a better world today.
These donor-centric movements of altruism and longtermism come into conflict with some very different currents of thinking in philanthropy today. The case for trust-based philanthropy and the arguments for more urgent spending down of endowments to meet the needs of the moment decentre the priorities of donors. When effective altruists make the case for philanthropy to choose to work on the most pressing problems affecting our long-term future, with organizations that are the most effective at bringing about change, they focus on donors as the decision-makers, using data and tools of their choosing rather than trusting to the data, choices, and tools of organizations embedded in their communities. The moral justification for effective altruism and longtermism is countered by the equally powerful moral justification for equity, justice, and community-driven philanthropy to create a better world today.
Endowed foundations, with the advantage of long time horizon and low risk, can and should invest at least some of their assets to ensure our collective future.
Surely both justifications have merit. MacAskill leans on the argument for donor-driven long-term philanthropy because he is the moral champion for future people who are not able to claim their value in the present. “A movement of morally motivated people, concerned about the whole scope of the future,” he concludes, “is a necessity, not an optional extra.” If not us, then who will act on behalf of these equally important future humans? If not now, then when? MacAskill’s book urges us to lift our sights from the urgent present and consider what we can do, even in a small way, to improve the lives of future humans. If we are donors, activists, or simply want to be better moral actors, we need to take steps to ensure that their future is possible, and better. This is a case for long-life philanthropy. Endowed foundations, with the advantage of long time horizon and low risk, can and should invest at least some of their assets to ensure our collective future. Most such foundations want to have an impact on the present, of course. Giving with trust and with sustained commitment to communities will effectively meet present needs. Yet giving with conscience and rigorous thought to work that may be essential to future human survival is also morally compelling. Who better than endowed foundations to meet that call? The future will not take care of itself if we don’t ensure that there is indeed a future.