What We Owe the Future: A Million-Year View by William MacAskill - review by Julian Baggini

Julian Baggini

Save the Children’s Children

What We Owe the Future: A Million-Year View


Oneworld 352pp £20

‘Future people count. There could be a lot of them. We can make their lives go better,’ writes William MacAskill. If these three short sentences seem boringly obvious, their implications are anything but. For MacAskill, they sum up the argument for long-termism, the view that ‘positively influencing the longterm future is a key moral priority of our time’. If he’s right, we need a radical shift in our moral priorities. The wars raging around the world, the global pandemic, the cost of living crisis – all these are destined to be mere details of history. According to MacAskill, the morally serious person has bigger fish to fry.

Think about the major forks in the road humanity imminently faces. Most obviously, there is climate change. If we finally act decisively, we could still have a habitable earth for as long as the universe permits. Get it wrong and for centuries, even millennia, our descendants will be struggling to survive. The stakes are even higher when it comes to the development of bioweapons and the management of nuclear weapons, both of which pose existential risks to humanity. Then there is the possibility of the invention of an artificial intelligence so powerful that it will either lord over us itself or allow a despot to enslave us all.

MacAskill’s argument is given power by his sharpening of the vague phrase ‘future generations’. If Homo sapiens lasts as long as the average mammalian species, 99.5 per cent of human lives will be lived in the future, even if the population falls to a tenth of its current size. The vast majority of human history could still be unwritten. What we do now could determine whether we get a heroic epic or a one-act tragedy.

Given that we don’t even know what the world in 2032 will look like, trying to influence the progress of humankind beyond the near future might seem to be hubris. In practice, however, MacAskill’s programme does not require us to imagine distant millennia. The best way to secure our long-term good is to focus on more short-term goals. This is illustrated in the two frameworks for thinking MacAskill offers.

The first, the SPC framework, asks us to consider the ‘significance, persistence and contingency’ of the state of affairs we are trying to create. ‘Significance’ points to the average value of change over time; ‘persistence’ is how long that change lasts. So, for example, reducing plastic bag usage in a country like the UK is a laudable goal, but compared to, say, reducing the overall quantity of plastic packaging, its positive environmental impact is very low. On the other hand, were we to break society’s reliance on plastic bags, we might never return to using them. The probable persistence of this change, once brought about, counts in its favour.

Finally, there is ‘contingency’. Some things will happen anyway. The transition to renewable energy, for example, is almost inevitable, given its efficiency. Action today will only affect the pace of change. The loss of huge areas of rainforest, however, is far from inevitable. So campaigning for rainforest preservation has the potential to make more of a difference than campaigning for clean energy. In each of the examples discussed by MacAskill, significance, persistence and contingency have to be taken into account and balanced.

The ITN (‘importance, tractability and neglectedness’) framework is designed to help us decide which global problems to prioritise. It was developed by Holden Karnofsky, co-founder of the research and grant-making organisation Open Philanthropy. The first stage of his approach is, unsurprisingly, an assessment of a problem’s importance. This may yield surprising results. Climate change might decimate the population but bioweapons or feral AI could wipe us out altogether. Climate change scores high on the second criterion of tractability, in that we know all we need to know in order to arrest it; controlling rogue users of tech, by contrast, is almost impossible. The third consideration is whether a problem is currently neglected. If attention to climate change means people are overlooking the threat of an asteroid impact, maybe we need to shift some of our focus to the latter.

Long-termism is an important counterweight to our instinctive short-termism. But there is something disconcertingly Olympian about MacAskill’s approach. He claims that ‘morality, in central part, is about putting ourselves in others’ shoes and treating their interests as we do our own’. This is only half true. Morality does require that we recognise the equal value of all human lives. But all lives having equal value does not mean that we as individuals are required to treat all lives equally. A parent who does not believe that every child in the world has as much right to love and care as their own is a moral monster. But so is a parent who does not give their own child more love and care than other children.

To be human is to have particular concern for friends, family and neighbours, to be tied in relationships of special responsibility to some and not others. So by insisting we grant equal concern to everyone who will ever live, long-termism asks us to become more like gods than human beings. MacAskill acknowledges that ‘special relationships and reciprocity are important’, but he brushes these aside in a single page, saying ‘they do not change the upshot of my argument.’ But they do. We have some responsibility to people on the other side of the planet as well as to those in the future, but not as much as we do to those we share our lives with now.

The audacity necessary for thinking about our long-term future needs to be balanced with a modesty about how much we can know, plan and change. We also need to be tentative about our claims to know what is best for our descendants. Despite his occasional overreaches here, I think MacAskill would agree. His key recommendations are that we ‘take robustly good actions’, ones that are incontrovertibly beneficial, ‘build up options, and learn more’. If humanity can start doing that, its future might be brighter than it currently seems.

MacAskill leaves us with the consolation that if we do mess up and 99 per cent of humanity is wiped out, we’ll still be left with 80 million people, the same size as our population in around 2500 BC, but with all our modern knowledge. That makes me wonder whether in the long run we’ll be fine after all. It’s the coming century I’m worried about.

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