William MacAskill, What We Owe The Future: A Million-Year View
In “What We Owe The Future (WWOTF)”, William MacAskill makes the case for longtermism, the idea that positively influencing the longterm future is a key moral priority of our time. By ‘longterm’, MacAskill means the really longterm: the book is subtitled ‘A million-year view’. MacAskill says his case is based on three premises:
- Future people count.
- There could be lots of them.
- We can make their lives go better.
He remarks ‘these premises are simple, and I don’t think they are particularly controversial. Yet taking them seriously amounts to a moral revolution’ (p. 9). His main proposals are to focus on reducing the chance of premature extinction, allowing continued moral development by strengthening liberal institutions, and growing longtermism as a research field.
The book certainly marks an evolution in MacAskill’s own thinking: he is a leading light in effective altruism, the research field and social movement that aims to find the best ways to help others. MacAskill recounts that he used to believe that this meant focusing on the global poor, but others eventually persuaded him of longtermism. Although MacAskill states his aim was to ‘write the case for longtermism that would have convinced me a decade ago’ (p. 6), the book is clearly aimed at the general public, not academic philosophers. Instead of dense, technical text and a creeping barrage of thought experiments, we are treated to flowing prose and a whistlestop tour of history; it was joyful, even moving, to read.
Given the objective of persuading others, the book must count as a runaway success. For its launch, MacAskill pulled off a media blitzkrieg, with either a profile of himself, or a review of the book – in either case usually glowing – seeming to materialise in every outlet this author had ever heard of. He even featured on a US late-night talk show, not the normal domain of philosophers.
However – and although I wanted to share MacAskill’s enthusiasm for longtermism – I found the case unpersuasive. Further, it seems too bold to claim that the premises are simple or uncontroversial or, if taken seriously, would amount to a moral revolution.
To be clear, my concern is not that MacAskill does not treat his topic with the painstaking rigour he is clearly capable of – that would be unreasonable, given he is writing for a general audience. Rather, it is simply that MacAskill does not do enough to identify or anticipate, then address, the weaknesses in his argument. At times, I found the book uncomfortably polemical, as if MacAskill had set out to convince the reader, as effectively as possible, to share his conclusion, even if they would not fully understand the reasons for it and the challenges to them. Before I elaborate on my concerns, I will summarise the book.