What do we owe future generations? And what can we do to make their world a better place?

Your great grandchildren are powerless in today’s society. But the things we do now influence them: for better or worse.

We make laws that govern them, build infrastructure for them and take out loans for them to pay back. So what happens when we consider future generations while we make decisions today?

The book cover of What We Owe the Future by William MacAskill. The author explores the concept of longtermism, or “the idea that positively influencing the long-term future is a key moral priority of our time.”

This is the key question in What We Owe the Future, a book by Oxford philosopher William MacAskill. It argues for what he calls longtermism: “the idea that positively influencing the long-term future is a key moral priority of our time.” He describes it as an extension of civil rights and women’s suffrage; as humanity marches on, we strive to consider a wider circle of people when making decisions about how to structure our societies.

MacAskill makes a compelling case that we should consider how to ensure a good future not only for our children’s children, but also the children of their children. In short, MacAskill argues that “future people count, there could be a lot of them, and we can make their lives go better.”

We can make the lives of future people better

Can we—and should we—justify focusing on future generations when we face problems now? MacAskill argues we can. He identifies some areas where we could do things that protect the future while also helping people who are alive now. Many solutions are win-win.

For example, the current pandemic has shown that unforeseen events can have a devastating effect. Yet, despite the recent pandemic, many governments have done little to set up more robust systems that could prevent the next pandemic.

MacAskill outlines ways in which we might be able to prevent engineered pandemics, like researching better personal protective equipment, cheaper and faster diagnostics, better infrastructure, or better governance of synthetic biology. Doing so would help save the lives of people alive today, reduce the risk of technological stagnation and protect humanity’s future.

The same win-wins might apply to decarbonization, safe development of artificial intelligence, reducing risks from nuclear war, and other threats to humanity.

Things you can do to protect future generations

Some “longtermist” issues, like climate change, are already firmly in the public consciousness. As a result, some may find MacAskill’s book “common sense.” Others may find the speculation about the far future pretty wild (like all possible views of the long-term future).

MacAskill strikes an accessible balance between anchoring the arguments to concrete examples, while making modest extrapolations into the future. He helps us see how “common sense” principles can lead to novel or neglected conclusions.

For example, if there is any moral weight on future people, then many common societal goals (like faster economic growth) are vastly less important than reducing risks of extinction (like nuclear non-proliferation). It makes humanity look like an “imprudent teenager,” with many years ahead, but more power than wisdom:

Even if you think [the risk of extinction] is only a one-in-a-thousand, the risk to humanity this century is still 10 times higher than the risk of your dying this year in a car crash. If humanity is like a teenager, then she is one who speeds around blind corners, drunk, without wearing a seat belt.

Our biases toward present, local problems are strong, so connecting emotionally with the ideas can be hard. But MacAskill makes a compelling case for longtermism through clear stories and good metaphors. He answers many questions I had about safeguarding the future. Will the future be good or bad? Would it really matter if humanity ended? And, importantly, is there anything I can actually do?

The short answer is yes, there is. Things you might already do help, like minimizing your carbon footprint—but MacAskill argues “other things you can do are radically more impactful.” For example, reducing your meat consumption would address climate change, but donating money to the world’s most effective climate charities might be far more effective.

Longtermism helps us better place our present in humanity’s bigger story. It’s humbling and inspiring to see the role we can play in protecting the future. We can enjoy life now and safeguard the future for our great grandchildren. MacAskill clearly shows that we owe it to them. The Conversation


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