What we've been reading - What We Owe the Future by William MacAskill

By Chris Mills (The Charity Service)

In this latest of our "What we've been reading" book review series, guest author Chris Mills (head of philanthropy at The Charity Service) explores William MacAskill's thought-provoking What We Owe the Future.

Unless you are entirely egotistical, you will care about your family and friends. If you give to charity, that probably indicates that you care about others too, even if you don’t know them personally. But do you also care about people that will live in the future? That could be your children, grandchildren or other descendants who have not yet been born. And what about people who will live in the year 2222, two-hundred years from now? What moral imperative is there for you to care about them and take action to ensure their lives are happy ones? These are difficult moral questions, the likes of which William MacAskill deals within his book, What We Owe the Future. It is a book that makes the case for long-termism, an ethical stance that encourages us to act in ways that will positively influence the long-term future.

William MacAskill is an Associate Professor at Oxford University. He is a utilitarian and guided by the principle that we should act in ways that generate the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This philosophy underpins both What We Owe the Future and MacAskill’s earlier best-selling book, Doing Good Better, which makes the case for Effective Altruism. As a philanthropy advisor, I am attracted to MacAskill’s work because he challenges philanthropists to think carefully about how resources are allocated to charitable causes.

MacAskill’s idea of long-termism encourages us to consider our moral responsibility for future generations. That’s likely to be many billions of people, which is far more than have ever lived until now. MacAskill argues that we should them into account when making decisions today.

...it is very readable and thought-provoking, and tackles complex moral issues in an accessible way.

As one might expect, the book covers climate change. It’s the one long-term issue that most people are aware of and that politicians around the world are currently grappling with. MacAskill argues convincingly that we need to do more to leave the planet habitable for future generations.

The book is about more than just climate change though. MacAskill highlights other threats. He considers catastrophic pandemics, losing control of Artificial Intelligence, nuclear destruction, and various extinction risks. Whilst the subject matter doesn’t make for cheerful reading, you are constantly reminded of why we should pay attention to these challenges before they get out of our control.

...we need to do more to leave the planet habitable for future generations.

Some readers may struggle with the concept of long-termism when, in today’s world, too many people are struggling to keep warm and feed themselves. Yet, this assumes that there are trade-offs between actions that benefit people now and actions that benefit the future. In many instances, positive actions will benefit both. In any case, I don’t think MacAskill is asking us to give up present day concerns. Rather, he is asking that we give a little more attention to future generations. If we could dedicate just 0.5% of GDP to looking after the long-term future, that would be a lot more than we currently do.

The book is both sweeping in its scale and meticulous in its detailed research. At times, it feels overly abstract and detached from the real world. That said, it is very readable and thought-provoking, and tackles complex moral issues in an accessible way.

In essence, MacAskill argues that positively influencing the long-term future should be a key moral priority of our time. If it convinces more of us to give a little to causes that protect the interests of future generations, that’s probably no bad thing.


Written by Chris Mills (head of philanthropy at The Charity Service).

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