“What We Owe the Future” Review: A Book About the Long-Term Impacts of Today’s Choices

What We Owe the Future,” by the philosopher William MacAskill, is a thought-provoking exploration of our ethical obligations to future generations.

MacAskill argues that our decisions and actions today have profound consequences for the world of tomorrow, and thus, we bear a moral responsibility to consider the long-term impacts of our choices.

MacAskill emphasizes the importance of the philosophy of affective altruism. Affective altruism advocates for the prioritization of actions that maximize positive outcomes for future generations. However, this utilitarian framework ranks certain causes over others, potentially leading to the marginalization of pressing issues that do not fit neatly into its prioritization scheme. While effective altruism offers a valuable framework for decision-making, it is crucial to recognize and address these critiques to ensure a holistic approach to social change.

Book cover of "What We Owe the Future" by William MacAskill

What is Longtermism?

The future will host tens of billions of new human lives, MacAskill predicts. He argues that it is morally wrong to discount the potential suffering of future generations simply because their lives have not yet happened. Longtermism is the idea that current generations have a moral obligation to invest of the well-being of future generations. MacAskill quantifies this framework in three domains: significance, persistence, and contingency.

Within this framework, “significance” is the average cost/benefit of a set of circumstances occurring. For example, if a particular species goes extinct, what value will we lose from the extinction? What is the sum total of the loss of the ecosystem services a species might have provided?

Persistence” is the length of time a set of circumstances might last should they come about. In the example of loss of species, we see an extremely persistent event, because an extinction event would last a long time. In fact, it would be permanent, barring our technological ability/desire to “resurrect” a species.

Contingency” is how inevitable the occurrence of a set of circumstances is. A highly contingent event is one that would not have occurred except for a very specific set of circumstances. One could argue that the invention of the written word is less contingent than, say, the authoring of “What We Owe the Future.” Forms of writing emerged multiple times independently; if a natural disaster had wiped out the culture of Mesopotamia before the invention of cuneiform, the written word likely would have been invented eventually by some other society. By contrast, the specific book, “What We Owe the Future” would not have been written without William MacAskill’s specific choice to write it.

MacAskill argues that the product of these three factors represents the longterm value of, “bringing about a certain state of affairs” (MacAskill, p.33). In effect, he has penned a numerical formula for making decisions that bring about the greatest good (longterm value = significance x persistence x contingency). If a harmful event is twice a persistent as another harmful event, we should expend twice as much energy preventing the more persistent event, all else being equal.

Longtermism as Pragmatism

There are many examples we can look to assess the merits of the philosophy of effective altruism and longtermism. The abolition of slavery, an example which is discussed thoroughly in the book, is a condition that MacAskill describes as highly contingent. He believes that abolition was not inevitable. Without intentional longterm investment and unfathomable sacrifice on the part of abolitionists, the United States would still have chattel slavery even today, he argues.

The adaptation to and mitigation of climate change is another example of a contingent event. Minimizing the harms of rising temperatures will not happen without serious investment on the part of those alive today – and specifically on the part of those in power, the majority of whom are not young enough to experience the absolutely worse consequences of the climate crisis. In order to prevent the worst harms of the climate crisis, it would require the action of a select few people in power who will not live long enough to realize the fruits of their investments. It would require those people to be ‘longtermists’. At its best, longtermism is a pragmatic and compassionate investment into the future of humanity.

Criticisms of Effective Altruism

When taken to its logical extremes, effective altruism can give way to extremely callous decisions in the name of “doing good.” In other words, proponents of the philosophy argue that the ends justify the means if there is a net positive to be realized. In the most ruthless interpretations of effective altruism, it would be permissible to kill someone on life support in order to redirect its associated monetary expenses towards providing malaria nets in developing nations.

In a more realistic example, MacAskill has publicly stated that working for “immoral organizations” (i.e. petrochemical companies) is morally permissible as long as you donate some of your money to charities. He calls this strategy, “earning to give.”

In fact, MacAskill himself introduced this concept and the philosophy of effective altruism to Sam Bankman-Fried (known as SBF), the disgraced founder of FTX, who has been charged with defrauding his investors. SBF took MacAskill’s philosophy to heart; he set out to earn as much money as he could in order to give huge sums to charities. It’s a perhaps noble cause, but it came at the price of $8 billion in missing customer funds. FTX’s charitable giving foundation claims to have donated $132 million to charity. Even in the most generous interpretation of SBF’s actions, the monetary cost far exceeded the benefit.

Critique of MacAskill’s Longtermism

The premise of maximizing the good one does in the world is a worthwhile pursuit. However, without safeguards and boundaries in place, this philosophy can cause enormous harm to others. In the pursuit of altruism, we should each consider what harmful actions are non-starters – no matter the potential benefits. If we apply the same critical lens to longtermism, we must be careful to not ignore the suffering of those alive today in order to prevent future suffering. The certainty of alleviating suffering today should be just as important, if not more important, than the possibility of preventing suffering tomorrow.

While “What We Owe the Future” presents a compelling framework for contemplating our obligations to future generations, its recommendations can’t replace our current moral toolbox. Its emphasis on long-term thinking is commendable, but MacAskill occasionally loses sight of the very real suffering of those alive today. By striking a balance between the immediate needs of today and the ethical considerations for tomorrow, we can effectively address the challenges at hand while still working towards a more sustainable and equitable future. Only by embracing both perspectives can we fulfill our responsibilities to both the present and the generations yet to come.