Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, July 7, 2022

Thursday, July 7, 2022: Maximum Shelf: What We Owe the Future

Basic Books: What We Owe the Future by William Macaskill

Basic Books: What We Owe the Future by William Macaskill

Basic Books: What We Owe the Future by William Macaskill

Basic Books: What We Owe the Future by William Macaskill

What We Owe the Future

by William Macaskill

To peer one million years into the future might sound like terrible advice to anyone attempting a "live in the moment" mantra. Eternity is slow and humans frenetic; time is vast and humans small. Why worry what tomorrow will bring when today has enough trouble of its own? But Oxford philosopher William MacAskill (Doing Good Better) makes a stirring--and oddly soothing--case for forward-thinking in his new work of nonfiction, What We Owe the Future. He calls for "longtermism," the belief that "positively influencing the long-term future is a key moral priority of our time." What We Owe the Future, in five parts, attempts to convince readers why this belief should become their own.

The result is a hopeful but grounded work of philosophy, both rigorous in its research and expansive in its subject matter, tackling civil rights as readily as technology and climate change. As MacAskill explains (in the interview below), his argument hinges on the anticipation that "we may be approaching a critical juncture in human history that determines whether future generations live lives of flourishing or misery--or never live at all." But what is most miraculous about MacAskill's book is not this urgency or the manner in which it's communicated, but rather how well MacAskill convinces readers that it matters at all.

In theory, readers should find caring about the future to be a rational task. After all, their children--or their friends' and family's children--are the future. But the further existence pans out from the present, the more impossible it becomes to connect, intimately, with future generations. How can readers care about someone whose life they cannot possibly imagine?

Well, as What We Owe the Future argues, this is a basic principle of empathy: the ability to care about those with whom we do not share identity, experience or--in this case--time. And it is absolutely vital to the survival of the planet and its people. "Distance in time is like distance in space," MacAskill writes. "People matter even if they live thousands of miles away. Likewise, they matter even if they live thousands of years hence." If readers want their descendants to flourish, they must start caring about them now. This truth gives What We Owe the Future the weight of prophecy.

Throughout the book, MacAskill uses clever illustrations to condense an otherwise enormous topic into digestible pieces. For instance, he harnesses the idea of an "imprudent teenager" to describe humanity's frequent disregard for the long game. But then he turns the analogy on its head, writing, "A teenager knows approximately how long she can expect to live. But we do not know humanity's life expectancy. We are more like a teenager who, for all she knows, might accidentally cause her own death in the next few months but also might live for a thousand years. If you were in such a situation, would you think seriously about the long life that might be ahead of you, or would you ignore it?" Chances are, most readers would--at the very least--take pause.

That pause is where MacAskill thrives. There are certainly moments when What We Owe the Future, like many works of philosophy before it, can boggle due to the immense bulk of the knowledge it aims to impart. But there are many more moments when the book is as clear as an epiphany. When it most often succeeds in grabbing attention, the book is exciting, even thrilling, and generates enormous fodder for both reflection and action.

This moral call to action is well and good, but it's only made real through What We Owe the Future's humble belief that the future could be worth fighting for. The future might be a good place! Maybe not great--MacAskill points out that the word "utopia" etymologically means "no-place"--but good. Most readers who pick up this book will have consumed enough doomsday news to feel as though the Earth is headed toward an inevitable crash-and-burn. And MacAskill concedes this is possible. But he also calls out dozens of powerful examples in history where circumstances have improved, largely through human intervention, discovery and hope. Circumstances changed because humans believed they could. Why should now be any different? A lot can change in a million years.

As the shelves of books about climate change, social justice and public health become increasingly overloaded, some might think they all have the same message: "Buckle up. Things have gotten bad, and they're about to get worse." In many cases, this is true. But many such books--MacAskill's very much included--do not end on a note of cynicism. They argue that life is long, and time even longer. We have time to make lasting change, but every second is precious. To give the future what it's owed, we all must consider the present--and how its ripple effect will remain long after we are gone. --Lauren Puckett

Basic Books, $32, hardcover, 352p., 9781541618626, August 16, 2022

Basic Books: What We Owe the Future by William Macaskill

William MacAskill: Playing the Long Game

(photo: Matt Crocket)

William MacAskill is an associate professor in philosophy and a research fellow at the Global Priorities Institute, University of Oxford, and author of Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference, and Moral Uncertainty. He is a leader in the effective altruism movement, which promotes the use of evidence and reason to help others as much as possible with our time and money. In What We Owe the Future (Basic Books,  August 16, 2022), he makes the case for longtermism.

What made writing this book feel so urgent now?

Working on What We Owe the Future has been my main focus since the spring of 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Covid was a brutal reminder of the major risks that humanity faces and the vulnerability of our global, interconnected society. These risks, combined with growing attention on longtermism from academics, philanthropists and policymakers, inspired me to write about the actions we can take today to benefit the long-run future of humanity.

When did "longtermism" first become your moral philosophy? You mention in the book that it took some time for you to "come around" to the concept. Can you tell us a bit about your background in philosophy and what ultimately convinced you of this principle?

In graduate school at Oxford, I helped start the effective altruism movement, a philosophy and community committed to using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible. I focused at first on global health, and in particular on cost-effective, evidence-backed interventions such as the distribution of bed nets to fight malaria.

Over time, I've become convinced that, due to rapid technological growth, especially in artificial intelligence and biotechnology, we may be approaching a critical juncture in human history that will determine whether future generations live lives of flourishing or misery--or never live at all. I came to see that we really can positively impact the long-term future.

What We Owe the Future depends on optimism. Without hope, there's no reason to invest in "longtermism." At a time when so many are feeling cynical about the future, how do you believe this book might change hearts and minds?

In What We Owe the Future, I show how the path of history can turn on individual decisions. We can point to activists, such as the Quaker radical Benjamin Lay, who helped bring about the abolition of slavery. No single individual can tackle the threats of civilizational collapse that we face today, such as extreme climate change and engineered pandemics, but collective action begins with individual choices.

That's why I think that cynicism is the wrong response to the global problems we face. We know that individuals can, and have, had a big difference in the past. It's up to us to have a big impact for the future.

You also write in the book that you relied heavily on research assistants. What sort of research went into this book? Can you illustrate the scope of the work involved?

What We Owe the Future covers a wide range of historical and academic domains, from the history of abolition to population ethics to the current state of artificial intelligence research. Across all these subjects, it was important to me that the book's claims were reliable and grounded in the latest scholarship. There's no way I could hope to achieve this level of rigor on my own, so we invested a truly enormous research effort into the book.

I estimate we spent over a decade's worth of full-time work, with almost two years of work on fact-checking alone. Six research assistants worked on the book with me, and I relied on heavy contributions from dozens of expert consultants. This work included literature reviews, adjudicating contentious academic debates, and a very considerable amount of original research, on topics as varied as long-run economic growth, the psychology of wellbeing, the prospects for societal recovery after collapse, and a formal analysis of long-term impact.

We ended up with over 1,000 endnotes and tens of thousands of words of supplementary materials that provide sources, nuance and context for the book's claims. In fact, we've had to host about half of the endnotes and all the supplementary materials on the book's website, rather than in the book itself, to save space.

It seems like it would be difficult to finalize, on paper, an argument this vast.

I started working on it five years ago, going full-time on it in early 2020. Writing it was the most difficult thing I've ever done. Trying to maintain exceptionally high levels of academic rigor, while at the same time making the book widely accessible, and while covering topics from history to evolutionary theory to climate science to macroeconomics to moral philosophy... well, it was a challenge, to say the least!

Do you have a favorite chapter of the book?

I think chapter 9 is my favorite. It assesses whether we should expect the future to be good, on balance, rather than bad. I look at whether the evolution of life has, so far, been a morally good thing, whether most people today have lives that they are happy to have lived and whether the world has been getting better over time.

It's such a huge and enormously important question, yet has had almost no discussion. Despite 17,000 articles and books that have been published on the psychology of wellbeing, not a single one, as far as I know, has looked at what proportion of people have lives that contain more happiness than suffering. In the end, I had to commission a study from leading psychologists to address it.

It's one thing to argue for longtermism as a concept. It's another to actually believe people will live in such a way as to protect the future. Do you think we, as a species, will protect the future? Or is the status quo too tempting? How do you keep your own hope alive--a hope that we might live selflessly?

I see concern for future generations as a natural extension of previous moral revolutions, like those that advanced women's rights and civil rights. This gives us grounds for hope--the women's suffrage movement and the civil rights movement were enormously successful, pushing forward moral progress, including from people who made large sacrifices because of what they believed in. They remind us that radical moral changes are possible, and indeed can happen quickly once the ideas take hold of a sufficiently large and passionate number of advocates.

But the biggest reason for my belief that we will protect the future is that the movement of people aiming to do so is already growing. Through the effective altruism movement, there are now thousands of people around the world dedicating their lives to trying to steer our future onto a better path, whether that's by working on preparedness against worst-case pandemics, AI governance and technical AI safety, reducing the risk of a third world war in our lifetimes, or helping make political institutions more nimble and responsive to evidence. --Lauren Puckett

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