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William MacAskill

A Guide to Ethical Living for the Fate of Our Future

4.3 (222 ratings)
21 mins
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    What We Owe the Future
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    Why do future people matter?

    What would you do if you knew that you were going to have to live through the full lives of every person in the future, from their birth to their death, no matter how good or bad? Would you want us, in the present, to reduce carbon emissions to increase the quality of your life? Would you want us to be careful with new technologies? Would you want us to pay attention to how our actions today impact conditions tomorrow?

    Your answer to all of these questions is probably “yes.” Of course you’d want us to do our best to create a good future for you. 

    After all, there could be a lot of future people. And according to longtermism, we have both the obligation and the ability to improve their lives. 

    The amount of future people is relevant for a simple reason. If you were faced with saving one person or ten people from a burning building, all else being equal, you should save ten. 

    In the case of humanity, our species’ lifespan could be dizzyingly long. If we survive until Earth ceases to be habitable, in hundreds of millions of years, there could be a million future people living for every one person alive today.

    All of those lives could be either flourishing or wretched –⁠ and we have influence over the outcome. Collectively, as the past two hundred years of history have shown, we have the power to improve life expectancy, reduce poverty, increase literacy, and influence all sorts of other positive trends. On the other hand, we can also create very bad outcomes, like the totalitarian regimes that arose in the twentieth century. 

    Of course, just as our future could be much longer, it could also be much shorter –⁠ if we cause our own extinction. Avoiding that outcome is a big part of our responsibility, and we’ll talk about it a lot in the next several sections.

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    What is What We Owe the Future about?

    What We Owe the Future (2022) makes the case for longtermism –⁠ the idea that people today have an obligation to create a good future for successive generations. Using philosophical reasoning, historical anecdotes, and social science research, it argues that the current moment could decide whether future people will live happy, flourishing lives or extraordinarily miserable ones. By carefully considering our actions with respect to issues like AI safety, biotechnology, and value lock-in, we increase the chances that future people will thrive –⁠ just as many of us do, now, thanks to people from the past.

    Who should read What We Owe the Future?

    • Activists and charity donors who want to maximize the good they do
    • People interested in moral philosophy and ethics 
    • Anyone concerned about the future of humanity

    About the Author

    William MacAskill is a philosopher and ethicist working as an associate professor and senior research fellow at the University of Oxford. He co-founded three organizations: Giving What We Can, the Center for Effective Altruism, and 80,000 Hours, all of which aim to produce long-term social and economic impact. He is also the co-author of Moral Uncertainty, a book about decision-making, and the author of Doing Good Better, about effective altruism.

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