The moral philosopher Jonathan Glover tells a story about attending a conference of ethicists in Poland. The itinerary included a visit to Auschwitz. On the coach ride there, the academics earnestly discussed topics such as whether it could ever be morally justifiable to tell a lie. Then they toured the camps where more than a million people were murdered and saw a display of 25,000 pairs of shoes taken from the victims — the result of a single day’s work in the gas chambers. On the return journey, the coachload of moral philosophers was silent.
I have never forgotten Glover’s philosophy lectures, and his insistence that the discipline must have something to say about the questions that really matter.
William MacAskill, a young philosopher at Oxford university, shares Glover’s conviction that moral philosophy needs to explore the big questions. He is a vegetarian, having concluded that the suffering of animals matters too much to be eating cheeseburgers. After realising that what is pocket change to him might save a life in Somalia or Afghanistan, he gives much of his money away. He has become a figurehead for the “effective altruism” movement, which aims to identify the very best charitable causes and ensure they are well funded. Philosophy changed his life; he hopes it will change yours.
Having taken seriously the moral value of animals, and of very poor people who live far away from us, What We Owe the Future argues that there is another group whose interests we must consider: those who have not yet been born. This claim seems plausible enough. What makes it radical is the realisation that future people may dramatically outnumber us. If the planet sustains 10bn people for another 2,000 years, then the cumulative future population will be about 20 times larger than the current one. If the human race lasts much beyond that, future people will outnumber us by 10,000 to one or more. All of this assumes we don’t wipe ourselves out.
That becomes one of the imperatives of the book as MacAskill ticks off some of the apocalyptic scenarios — a bioengineered pandemic, an asteroid, a robot takeover — but his book is much more than a list of potential disasters. It is also a profoundly optimistic exploration of the opportunities our descendants might enjoy, and the steps we might take to help them.
The optimism is justified. The human population of 2022 CE is healthier than that of 22 CE. It is both vastly richer and vastly larger. Despite many injustices there is clear moral progress in many countries: slavery is illegal; democracy is widespread; torture is rare and shameful; sexism and racism are deplored; there is more freedom of religion, sexual identity and personal expression. It is not hard to imagine that many of these positive trends might continue.
While some of the conclusions of the book flow immediately from the premises, there are plenty of insights and surprises along the way. MacAskill argues, for example, that we are living at a decisive moment. The past century has seen unprecedented economic growth and the globalisation of culture. Such growth rates cannot continue indefinitely, which suggests the growth spurt of the 19th and 20th centuries may prove an anomaly. Our globalised culture — providing a single point of cultural failure — may also prove anomalous on a very long timescale: if humans colonise the stars, instant communication between colonies will be impossible. MacAskill makes plausible the idea that the current century may prove unusual — and pivotal — given a 10,000-year view.
Though admirable, this book is not without flaws. MacAskill acknowledges his “extensive team of consultants and research assistants”, but they have tempted him to make digressions into topics such as evolutionary fitness landscapes. While not wordy or tedious, it could have focused more sharply on its core claims.
Such indulgences contrast with the brisk treatment of some fundamentals. MacAskill does not seriously engage with the question of the human propensity to discount the future. Given the choice between some immediate pleasure and the same pleasure 10 years’ hence, most people feel that sooner is better. We pay a premium for that preference. Why does the same logic not apply to future generations?
“Harm is harm,” says MacAskill. That is true “whether it’s a week, a decade, or a century from now”. This suggests a discount rate of zero, although the term does not appear in the book’s index. It is a radical suggestion, but he offers no argument in favour of this view, declaring it “intuitive”. I’m not sure he’s wrong, but I’m not sure he’s right, either.
If he is right, how could I justify giving £10 to a food bank today when I could set up a charitable trust, let the money accumulate centuries of compound interest before lavishing the proceeds on future generations? Are we morally obliged to live at subsistence levels to maximise the resources available for investment and research so our great-great-great-great-grandchildren will thrive? Such questions have been discussed and analysed at great depth in the literature on climate change. It is surprising to see them waved away with a few sentences here.
Still, in focusing on the interests of future generations stretching into an indefinitely long future, MacAskill has thrust an important and neglected argument into the spotlight, while making it vivid and fun to read. He hopes this book will change the world, and it might.
Whether discussing the abolition of the slave trade or an alternate history in which the Nazis won the second world war, and the shoes pile up at Auschwitz for a thousand years to come, this is a writer who believes that one of the greatest opportunities is moral progress, and one of the greatest risks is that we lose our way, ethically — perhaps forever. MacAskill, like Glover, never stops believing that moral thinking matters.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 20 September 2022.