What We Owe the Future Is Liberalism
What We Owe the Future, by William MacAskill, Basic Books, 352 pages, $32
“When we look to the future, there is a vast territory that civilization might expand into: space,” the Oxford philosopher William MacAskill observes in What We Owe the Future. “There are tens of billions of other stars across our galaxy, and billions of galaxies are accessible to us.”
MacAskill is a founder of the effective altruism movement, which encourages philanthropists to use evidence and reason to direct their time and money in ways that help others as much as possible. Critics claim this amounts to little more than urging people to “do good well.” After all, no one wants to back ineffective altruism. That complaint seems too harsh. The world is littered with well-intentioned programs that squandered vast resources while doing little to improve the circumstances of the people they aimed to help.
As the leading proponent of longtermism, a term he coined in 2017, MacAskill asks readers what we can do now that will positively affect people’s welfare over trillions of years. While effective altruists ask how our charitable impulses can do the most good for the most people, longtermists extend the idea by taking into account the well-being of future people.
In a thought experiment, MacAskill asks readers to take the perspective of humanity, imagined as a single person who experiences every life that has ever or will ever be lived. “If you found out that the human race was certain to peter out within a few centuries, would you greet the knowledge with sadness because of all of the joys you would lose or with a sense of relief because of all of the horrors you would avoid?” he asks. Has the human story been, on balance, one of happiness or sorrow?
For me, a near-term end of humanity (and of our transhuman descendants) would induce a profound sense of sadness and loss. In other words, I am optimistic about the possibility of a future in which most human beings live flourishing lives. But as MacAskill notes, whether we get such a future depends partly on choices we make now.
“The primary question is how can we build a society such that, over time, our moral views improve, people act more often in accordance with them, and the world evolves to become a better, more just place,” MacAskill argues. “The future could be very big. It could also be very good—or very bad.”
The good futures involve the extension of progress already underway. MacAskill notes how much life has improved for most people during the last couple of centuries.
Average life expectancy at birth has risen from less tha
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