January 17th, 2023
Review: What we owe the Future
How should thinking about the very long future - including human civilizations that are completely unknown to us - affect our individual and collective decision-making?
Nonpathological people care about the future. But there is a difference between caring about what one is going to have for dinner tonight, caring about one’s retirement, caring about one’s children’s future, and, in the extreme, caring about future generations hundreds of years from now. How should we navigate, and choose between, these time horizons? How should thinking about the very long future – including human civilizations that are completely unknown to us – affect our individual and collective decision-making? Or should we simply discount the far away future altogether and focus on more immediate concerns? The intriguing, shocking, and “bullet-biting” conclusion of the “long-termist” ethical position (advocated, among others, by William MacAskill, Derek Parfit, and Tyler Cowen) is that we should massively care about future generations. Indeed, if this perspective holds, we should probably direct the majority of our social and economic resources to ensure the survival and flourishing of humanity thousands of years into the future.
It goes to the credit of William MacAskill, as an academic popularizer, that he manages to popularize the ivory-tower philosophy of Derek Parfit (who really kickstarted this whole branch of long-termist ethics) and make it immediately relatable and plausible. But perhaps this is a skill that MacAskill picks up from his other main influence, the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, whose career has always managed to bridge the gap between academia and the popular press. And MacAskill obviously has been doing public outreach for a while. His book Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference is already a modern classic in the field of charitable giving and the ethics of redistribution. The Effective Altruist (EA) movement, despite the bad press given to it by the Sam Bankman-Fried fiasco (which I will not tackle here), is not going anywhere. Its basic principle is sound and attractive, namely, that we should use cutting-edge social science, and prudent pragmatic decision-making, to strive to maximize the amount of good we can do in the world, instead of relying on empty words, promises, and emotions.
But how does the “long-termist” project fare in comparison to the more modest claims of the original Effective Altruist movement? This can be separated into two questions: 1) Will ordinary people and politicians be sufficiently convinced by the long-termist philosophy to turn it into a concrete policy agenda? 2) Will philosophers, social scientists, and thought leaders be attracted to the idea? I believe that the latter course is much more plausible than the former. Influencing public opinion directly might be a tall order since long-termism is heavily counterintuitive to many people. But influencing the intellectual atmosphere through subterranean means, such as converting philosophers, artists, scientists, bureaucrats, and politicians to the cause, is much more plausible. This way, popular opinion may be indirectly shifted in the EA direction.
I salute MacAskill for bringing these issues to popular consciousness, and for providing an admirably clear summary of this branch of cutting-edge practical utilitarianism. The book successfully shows, I believe, that caring about the survival of the human species (and of conscious life in general), should be a top priority for any ethical worldview that cares about human flourishing beyond the present moment. Even if we believe that future generations have significantly less value than the present generation (for whatever reason), we should probably ensure that life as we know it goes on – and not merely goes on, but goes on in an upward, flourishing trajectory. This means giving more attention to uncomfortable but timely questions such as the management of existential and catastrophic risks (e.g., nuclear holocaust, AI-driven human extinction, asteroid impact, pandemics). This is the only way to fulfil our duty to ensure that consciousness and happiness have a future. MacAskill rightfully points out that, while having 99% of humanity killed would indeed be an epic tragedy, having 100% killed would be infinitely worse, since this would end our civilization. The real tragedy, in the full apocalypse, would be to prevent countless generations of future human flourishing from ever coming into being. This follows from the utilitarian recognition that happy sentience, now or later, is valuable.
Despite my praise for MacAskill as a writer and for the book’s utilitarian underpinnings, I have two major disagreements (and worries) about the project. The first one is an economic one. It seems to me that MacAskill underemphasizes both the normative importance and the empirical possibility of everlasting economic, technological, and scientific growth/development (understood as the continuous generation of improvements, innovations, and adaptations). On the contrary, it seems to me that Tyler Cowen is right, in his Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, that continuous socioeconomic growth – or rather, our social evolvability and innovation capacity – is the most plausible candidate for an institutional framework that acts as the main driver of humanity’s long-term wellbeing. My second criticism is even more serious. Indeed, it seems to me that unless this criticism is taken seriously, the whole enterprise might collapse. There is an element of massive hubris, or control mania, in MacAskill’s philosophy – and, indeed, in the Oxford-driven EA movement in general. It was only a century ago when the British Empire ruled the world. It is no coincidence that the hubristic arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes has a scholarship named after him… at Oxford. And although it would be foolish to charge the EA movement as carrying the torch of British imperialism (since their imperialism is more of the cosmopolitan variety) there is still a strong element of elitist hubris, and technocratic fervor, in its universalistic and cocksure pronouncements. And although the youngest generation of EA scholars are humbler than the know-it-all philosopher kings of the past, they could benefit from integrating much more systemic humility, uncertainty, and democratic participation into their models of the world. This is an extremely important caveat since caring about the long-term might be used as an excuse for implementing radical policy change even against the democratic wishes of the population. It might become the latest justification for increased social control, “nudging,” and “end-justifies-the-means” authoritarianism. As it stands, the new genre of “population ethics” could become a reprisal of progressive eugenics. To prevent this, long-termist scholars need to embrace some Humean skepticism and humility regardless of where they land on the spectrum of progressivism, liberalism, socialism, or conservatism.
Despite my concerns about the whole enterprise, I do believe that MacAskill is raising important – indeed vital – questions that need to be debated philosophically and democratically. Fusing the insights of Peter Singer, Derek Parfit, and contemporary social sciences is a valuable task in itself, even though the concrete details of MacAskill’s proposal have many holes in them. Nothing about the present book should be taken as the God’s gospel. It is best taken as much-needed “Viagra of the mind”: something to invigorate our thinking, take our mind into new directions, and, ultimately, to reevaluate our norms and institutions in a new light. While the critics of the long-termist project are surely partially right that we cannot ever control or predict the future, or even be sure that our present ethical principles are up to the task of effectively caring about future generations, MacAskill’s book is a useful reminder that we need a) to insure our institutions against civilizational ruin and b) to pay more attention to all those beautiful people, and forms of life, that yet remain unborn. This view of the world, if stripped of its hubris, can become equally useful and inspirational – and extremely valuable in both what it gets right and what it gets wrong.
The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.
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