Credit Bill MacAskill for a Big Think piece. It’s not every day, after all, that we’re asked to take a “million-year view” or to allow our imaginations to roam about in celestial star clusters populated by hypothetical humans a thousand generations from now. Love the chutzpah. Unfortunately, the correlation between a book’s ambition and its brilliance is not always linear. With What We Owe the Future, it’s inverse.
In making the case that we should morally account for the (potential) trillions of future lives yet to be lived over the coming eons, MacAskill argues that we—the present generation—should “act as trustees…helping to create a flourishing world for generations to come.” In the abstract, such a platitude is impossible to quibble with. He points out that, evolutionarily speaking, we are at the dawn of a typical mammalian species’ lifespan, and that even conservative estimates place the number of future human lives in the trillions. “Future people count,” he says, “there could be a lot of them. We can make their lives go better.” And so opens his sweeping and seemingly-provocative opus…
If only it were so simple.
The sheer enormity of MacAskill’s vision is partly why, I’m afraid, the book fails to make its basic case. Its precepts are so grand, its judgments so sweeping, that when he boils his “longtermism” arguments down to prosaic prescriptions (controversial au courant activist positions like “fixing climate change” or “going vegetarian”), they fall more than a little flat. What We Owe the Future leaves the reader feeling as if they’re reading an environmentally correct fraternity pamphlet masquerading as an ex cathedra sermon on the mount.
“Positively influencing the longterm future is a key moral priority of our time,” MacAskill gravely asserts, deploying an ethics-saturated rhetoric that underpins the rest of the book. “Morality,” he tells us, “…in central part, is about putting ourselves in others’ shoes and treating their interests as we do our own.” Fair enough, perhaps, in the most general sense, but it is precisely this moral positioning, and the grand normative claims behind them, that trip up the entire work.
“Positively influencing” the future? What exactly is that supposed to mean and by whose reckoning? MacAskill isn’t helpful, taking it as given which things are “good,” and which things are not. Conservation? Good. Factory farms? Bad. Feminism? Good. Climate Change? Bad. It is obvious, he says, that “collectively we have the power both to encourage…positive trends and to change the course of the negative trends.” But how are we to know which is which? MacAskill doesn’t provide any objective framework for telling—he just implies that “smart, socially-minded” folks like himself intuitively will know the difference.
This is not to say there is nothing worth pondering here—MacAskill is not generally known as a vapid dilettante. To be charitable, and in the interests of avoiding the sort of “glib dismissal” that MacAskill himself initially brushed off the topic of long-term thinking, we should pause a moment to take the argument seriously: Decisions have consequences. Our species is young. We are capable of inflicting great self-harm—sometimes by accident (rogue Artificial General Intelligence or toxic emissions) and sometimes with intent (nuclear warfare or engineered pathogens). We are also capable, he says, of establishing the conditions for better outcomes that, multiplied geometrically into the future, can have vast consequences. Fair enough, in the broadest sense.
But it is this “better outcomes” bit that will leave readers stumped. Anyone with the slightest Hayekian streak will wonder where such certainty over relative “betterness” comes from. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination (since the book dabbles in grand thought experiments anyway) to challenge even MacAskill’s premise that we should work to improve the future prospects of trillions of souls in the deep future. Even if such a program were feasible, how could we be sure, for example, that doing so wouldn’t simultaneously destroy the prospects of an as-yet unknown interstellar species—a species that, by his own reckoning, would be equally deserving of our moral attention? It’s turtles all the way down when you start up this logical-moral path.
While MacAskill isn’t willfully blind to these problems of relative value preference, he proceeds as if he is. He admits that “it is extraordinarily unlikely that, of all generations across time, we are the first ones to have gotten it completely correct. The values you or I endorse are probably far from the best ones.” Yet he builds logical prescriptions on foundations of what he sees as our recent history of moral “improvement.” He is keen, on this subject, to avoid what he calls “value lock-in,” where any one system gains complete ascendancy.
He advocates for a “diversity of responses” to various challenges, is supportive of Charter Cities, “fairly free migration,” and a “marketplace of ideas” a la J.S. Mill. So far so good—he almost sounds like an advocate for laissez-faire. But in the next breath he reveals his fundamental distrust in the phenomenon of emergent order and spends a great deal of the book building the case for some form of external, managing force:
…we would want to prevent any one culture from becoming so powerful that it could conquer all other cultures through economic or military domination. Potentially, this could require international norms or laws…
Who is this “we,” and how, given the deplorable history of “international norms or laws” would “they” (let’s just cut to the chase) effectively steer such a course? Perhaps they would be the same shadowy, omniscient ones he invokes for controlling speech?
It seems that techniques for duping people—lying, bullshitting, and brainwashing—should be discouraged, and should be especially off limits for people in positions of power, such as those in political office.
It astounds me that he can trot this out as some peculiarly profound insight. Just make lying politicians “off limits”? Why didn’t we think of that 3,500 years ago? It’s infantile. Who, precisely, gets to define “bullshitting” and who would enforce such “off-limits” protocols?
MacAskill does not say (though I’m betting his initials are not D.T.). He does go on to say (disturbingly) that these same norm-enforcers should be mobilized to prevent “…any single country from becoming too populous, just as antitrust regulations prevent any single company from dominating a market and exerting monopoly power.” “Too populous?” I shudder to consider the implications in that little slip of the pen. And even a perfunctory assessment of the history of “antitrust regulations” (Public Choice 101) should ring warning bells, especially when applied to matters as weighty as human reproduction.
MacAskill plunges gamely on: “How should we act when we know we don’t what the right thing to do is?” His advice is that we should “delay events which risk value lock-in. Such potentially irreversible events might include the formation of a world government, the development of AGI, and the first serious efforts at space settlement.” I’m with him on the world government thing, but this stop-the-presses approach to change is mystifying. In fact, unless I am sorely mistaken, the only force capable of any sort of global “delay” in technological development would be, well, a world government. You can’t help but wonder, then, if he really means it. The printing house that gives us this book is “OneWorld Press,” after all, a publisher intent on producing extremist Leftist tracts that invariably seek one-party domination of the commanding heights of political power.
No, I’m afraid MacAskill is excited by power and has little faith in spontaneous, undirected activity. His dirigiste penchants are on full display when he announces that, “if we wish to avoid the lock-in of bad moral views, an entirely laissez-faire approach would not be possible; over time, the forces of cultural evolution would dictate how the future goes…” and this is something MacAskill does not trust to get “right.” This, then, is the basic contradiction in MacAskill’s work: he doesn’t think we can allow any single entity to become too powerful or it will “freeze” moral progress and reduce the quality of life for trillions of future-folk. He also thinks, however, that we can’t just let things evolve willy-nilly, for they might end up in the moral ditch, condemning posterity to lives of misery. Instead, he suggests we place enlightened, socially-minded folks at the tiller—people with the moral training and refined sensibilities to steer this great ark toward a safer, distant shore. The basic thrust seems to be: it’s fine for power to be concentrated as long as it’s in the hands of the “right” sort of people.
Where does MacAskill derive such a faith in this new breed of philosopher-kings, with their special knowledge and their special brand of ethics? It seems to stem, as is so often the case, from an extraordinarily poor grasp of history and economics: his argument about the “special contingency” of the elimination of the slave trade (Quaker activism), for instance, rings hollow in light of evidence from economic historians showing how it really fell apart. He could stand to read Julian Simon or Matt Ridley to temper his concerns about the imminency of “burning through our finite fossil fuel reserves.” He should read Steve Koonin or Michael Shellenberger for a more thorough and nuanced view about the complex science of climate change. He makes ludicrous economic claims like, “thanks to long-standing policy support from environmentally motivated governments, the cost of solar panels has fallen by a factor of 250 since 1976…” and couples it with an equally ludicrous infatuation with German state-environmentalism (now imploding in the face of an energy crisis). “Longtermists” like MacAskill seem constitutionally disposed to dismiss the laws of economics in favor of “correct” ideas by leaning on taxpayer-funded state subsidies. But the truth will inevitably out: “costs” don’t really “fall” when you play shell games with other people’s money. Even when the project seems really really cool and feels really really good.
In short, MacAskill needs to do more homework. Doing so will, I suspect, affirm a steadier faith in the capacity of undirected human societies to chart extraordinarily interesting courses toward material and moral improvement. “There’s no inevitable arc of progress,” says MacAskill. “No deus ex machina will prevent civilisation from stumbling into dystopia or oblivion. It’s on us. And we are not destined to succeed.” On this point, history would suggest he is dead wrong. The human race has lurched and groped its way through many a scrape, somehow developing along the way the resources and institutions that have seen more people live better, happier, more fulfilling lives than ever before. Since that is MacAskill’s ostensible goal for the future, maybe we ought to leave well enough alone?
“By choosing wisely,” MacAskill tells us, “…we can be pivotal in putting humanity on the right course. And if we do, our great-great-grandchildren will look back and thank us, knowing that we did everything we could to give them a world that is just and beautiful.” Cute.
Such a sentiment, I’ll note, has been used to justify every centralized coercive program in history: Chairman Mao (also a devotee of the “long view”) made much the same point: “Both the name of our Party and our Marxist world outlook unequivocally point to this supreme ideal of the future, a future of incomparable brightness and splendor.” The number of great-great-grandchildren eliminated from the future by Mao’s “ideal of the future” is incalculable. I know MacAskill superficially seems to be advocating against Maoist-style social organization, but I’m not sure he recognizes just how vanishingly thin is the line between “choosing wisely” and the next Great Leap Forward.
And in any case, when I look back at my great-great-grandparents (which is rare) I’m not over-inclined either to thank or disparage them. It’s inconceivable that they could have foreseen any sort of “right course” open to their distant progeny, or any planned outcome for which I’d be especially thankful. Did a great-great-grandfather throw off some tyrannical yoke, or a great-great-grandmother board a ship to seek more freedom someplace else? Probably, if my genetic propensities are any indication. But do I appreciate their special foresight, their careful management of the unfolding of time in my direction? Not in the least. I’m glad, of course, that they were able to keep at least one of their children alive to procreate, but all else equal, I’m rather glad they didn’t engage in any kind of forward planning, since at least some of the values in vogue in 1847 (rigid Calvinism and strong attachments to all forms of porridge) aren’t especially interesting to me.
Yes, a healthy distrust of centralized planning and monolithic, humanity-crushing fundamentalism, is appropriate. On this point, What We Owe the Future, is spot-on. But that’s unfortunately not really the book’s primary takeaway. Instead, it’s largely an advocacy piece for a certain brand of self-consciously lefty causes. Gone unremarked is that humanity-crushing fundamentalism can come equally from the kind of enlightened Greens MacAskill extolls as from the Xis or Putins of the world.
What do we owe the future? We owe it our best now, our best efforts at solving current problems and seeking current happiness. We owe it the chance to unfold as it will, free from the fetters of arbitrary authority which presumes to know what is “good” for it.