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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