The idea that we have a responsibility to consider those who come after us is embedded in many cultures and philosophies. The Native-American “seventh-generation” approach to decision making is a great example: will a choice be to the benefit of the seventh generation down the line?
Such thinking is at the core of a new book called What We Owe the Future by William MacAskill, an associate professor in philosophy at the University of Oxford and leader of the effective altruism movement, which is focused on how you can help others as much as possible with your time and money.
“Future people count. There could be a lot of them. We can make their lives go better,” writes MacAskill (p. 9) Forestalling climate change and preventing nuclear war are two clear examples where our actions can improve the fates of our descendants.
But MacAskill argues that we’re at a unique moment of accelerated change in the history of humanity. And he urges particular attention to areas including the development of artificial intelligence and the use of biotechnology to engineer dangerous pathogens, where he believes we today have an opportunity to institute better protections before the risks to humanity increase.
“Reducing the likelihood and severity of the next world war is one of the most important ways we can safeguard civilization this century,” MacAskill also writes. (p. 117) He estimates the probability that human civilization ends via extinction or collapse during this century at 1% or greater, which he suggests is actually high given the severity of that outcome and merits more focus than we give it. “If humanity is like a teenager then she is one who speeds round blind corners, drunk, without wearing a seat belt,” he wryly notes. (p. 142)
What We Owe the Future is in places a dense book about moral philosophy, wrestling with foundational academic debates about the ethics, for example, of whether it’s good in and of itself to have one additional person in the world.
But we’re writing about What We Owe the Future here because it also offers a high-level framework for making long-term decisions that is applicable across our lives and work. And the book provides strikingly clear and practical advice for how to approach your career.
“By far the most important decision you will make, in terms of your lifetime impact, is your choice of career,” MacAskill writes. (p. 234) He suggests three considerations:
- Learn. MacAskill notes that it’s impossible to know your best professional path right when starting out. And the most impactful issues for you to be working on could change over time. So he suggests approaching your career like an experiment where you have hypotheses that you try and test and revise. MacAskill calculates that it would be reasonable for someone to spend 5% to 15% of their career—or about two to six years—learning and exploring options.
- Build options. MacAskill advises pursuing roles that seem like long shots but where you could potentially have a lot of impact, and also have backup plans. He suggests investing in skills such as running organizations, communicating, and building new projects from scratch.
- Do good. “Use the career capital you’ve built to support the most effective solutions to the most pressing problems,” he writes. (p. 235) He also suggests that it’s important to find a career that fits you because it increases your impact and makes it easier for you to sustain your commitment to doing good over time.
Beyond your career, MacAskill suggest that there are four areas of personal decision that are especially high impact:
- Donations. He contends that making the right donations can do a greater good than just changes to our personal consumption, for example. So a $3,000 donation for clean-energy technology innovation could have a bigger impact on carbon emissions than foregoing eating meat.
- Political activism. The chance that you personally influence an election is small, but the impact is potentially enormous if you do succeed in doing so, given the difference it could mean in policy outcomes and the avoidance of catastrophic war or pandemic.
- Spreading good ideas. “Discussion between friends has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to increase political participation,” he writes. (p. 234)
- Having children. MacAskill sides with the view that it is a net good for people to have a child, disputing the belief that it’s unethical because more humans means greater stress on the planet. “Although your offspring will produce carbon emissions, they will also do lots of good things such as contributing to society, innovating, and advocating for political change,” he writes. (p. 234) His view also provides a moral case for space settlement, to increase the human population.
At a broader level, MacAskill’s framework for assessing long-term scenarios involves weighing three factors:
- Significance. How much worse or better is the world if this comes to pass?
- Persistence. Is it reversible, for example?
- Contingency. Would this happen sooner or later anyway?
To be sure:
- What We Owe the Future is an intellectually thrilling exploration of moral philosophy and human history in the hands of a very skilled thinker and clear writer. It’s also relatively academic and theoretical in parts. “The last 10 chapters have not been easy,” MacAskill acknowledges toward the end. (p. 245) Before diving into a discussion of population ethics, he notes that it’s “one of the most complex areas of moral philosophy, and at universities is normally studied only at the graduate level.” (p. 170)
- It would be great to see MacAskill apply this framework even more squarely to business ethics and the changes needed to workplaces.
Memorable anecdotes and facts:
- The world would have a population of 70 billion people if global population density increased to that of the Netherlands.
- As a long-term bet, Benjamin Franklin in 1790 invested £1,000 (about $135,000 in today’s money) each for the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, with the funds paid out fully after 200 years. By 1990, the donation was almost $5 million for Boston and $2.3 million for Philadelphia.
- Asked to rate their life satisfaction on a scale of 0 to 10, where 10 represents the best possible life, just 47% of people surveyed globally had mean scores over five.
- Researchers found that people would skip about 40% of their days if they could.
- A survey MacAskill commissioned found that 40% of people in the US said their life contained more happiness than suffering, while 16% said the opposite. Nine percent would prefer to never have been born, and 44% would live the exact same life again if given a choice.
- “Morality, in central part, is about putting ourselves in others’ shoes and treating their interests as we do our own.” (p. 4)
- “Relative to everyone who could come after us, we are a tiny minority. Yet we hold the entire future in our hands. Everyday ethics rarely grapples with such a scale. We need to build a moral worldview that takes seriously what’s at stake.” (p. 7)
- “Those of us in the present don’t need to be as influential as Thucydides or Franklin to predictably impact the long-term future. In fact, we do it all the time. We drive. We fly. We thereby emit greenhouse gasses with very long-lasting effects.” (p. 24)
- “Few people who ever live will have as much power to positively influence the future as we do. Such rapid technological, social, and environmental change means that we have more opportunity to affect when and how the most important of these changes occur, including by managing technologies that could lock in bad values or imperil our survival. Civilization’s current unification means that small groups have the power to influence the whole of it. New ideas are not confined to a single continent, and they can spread around the world in minutes rather than centuries.” (p. 28)
- “Others may mock you for being concerned about people who live on the other side of the planet, or about pigs and chickens, or about people who will be born in thousands of years’ time. But many at the time mocked the abolitionists. We are very far from creating the perfect society, and until then, in order to drive forward moral progress, we need morally motivated heretics who are able to endure ridicule from those who wish to preserve the status quo.” (p. 72)
- “Writing gave ideas the power to influence society for thousands of years; artificial intelligence could give them influence that lasts millions.” (p. 79)
The bottom line is that What We Owe the Future outlines an ethical approach with broad implications for how we approach decision-making in our lives and our work. The foundational questions it tackles are relatively academic in places, but MacAskill’s work is clear and thought provoking.