• bessieodell

The Case for Longtermism?: A Review of Will MacAskill's 'What We Owe The Future.'


First Impressions

'In 2017, I had dinner with Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, and was given the opportunity to pitch her on one policy. I chose pandemic preparedness, focusing on worst-case pandemics. Everyone laughed, and the host of the dinner, Sir Tom Hunter, joked that I was ''freaking everyone oot.'' (p.114)

MacAskill's latest book, 'What We Owe The Future' brings a characteristically human touch to existing discussions on longtermism - that is, the idea that a key priority of our time is to positively influence the longterm future. Indeed, the affable Scotsman recognises that a number of the topics covered in the book - from extinction, and catastrophic pandemics, through to the collapse of civilisations - might (understandably) '[freak] everyone oot.' Thus, he deploys clever tactics, from humour through to visualisation, in order to convey his key message: Future people count. There could be a lot of them. We can make their lives better.' This, MacAskill highlights, is the case for longtermism in a nutshell.

The aim of the book is to stimulate further work in the area of longtermism, as opposed to drawing definitive conclusions about the choices we make about the future. That being said, What We Owe The Future bills itself as 'a guide for making the future go better,' and it does not shy away from making strong recommendations. This ranges from providing advice on which global priorities you should focus on (Chapter 10: 'What to Do'), through to outlining practical steps for deciding upon a career path (1. Research your options, 2. Make your best guess about the best longer-term path for you, 3. Try it for a couple of years [..], and so forth). What is clear is that this is not a book intended to sit idly on a bookshelf. Rather, it is designed to be grappled with, to provoke a wake up call, to encourage reflexivity, and to inspire positive action. It practices what it preaches too - with all proceeds from the book being donated to the Longtermism Fund, which is dedicated to funding highly effective organisations working to safeguard the long-term future of humanity.

Common Sense, Intuition, and a Touch of Wit

The book comes with some stellar reviews. Amongst them is a glowing statement from none other than the applauded author and 'phenomenon' that is Stephen Fry, who describes What We Owe The Future as 'a miracle for which MacAskill should be greatly applauded.' Similarly, journalist, feminist, and human rights activist Lydia Cacho calls it a 'profoundly new perspective on human civilization and our place in it.'

On inspection, it is hard to disagree that the book should be applauded. As well as being incredibly well researched (10 years of research in the making, naturally), it is robustly referenced. Not only that, but it is introspective, much in the same way that it expects of its readers. Consider for example, how it details anticipated arguments against longtermism in its Appendices, and how MacAskill reflects on his own uncertainties (How much should we in the present be willing to sacrifice for future generations? I don't know the answer to this). It has a remarkable ability to convey complex philosophical arguments into digestible, understandable language. Mostly though, it positions longtermism as both a relatable and a critical consideration - not just for philosophers in their ivory towers, but for the lay public.

How does MacAskill achieve this feat? Firstly, he makes sustained appeals to reader's common sense and intuition throughout the book. Consider for example, his argument that harm is harm, wherever it occurs. He paints the following picture: suppose were you to be out hiking and you drop a glass bottle knowing that if you don't clean it up, then a child will later cut herself badly on the shards. Why does it matter when deciding to clean up the glass when the child would cut herself - whether in a week, decade or even a century? (p.10). He applies this similar intuitive logic to argue that even remote possibilities of existential threat or global catastrophe should be taken seriously. Imagine you were stepping aboard a plane, he muses, and you were told that it had ''only'' a one-in-a-thousand chance of crashing and killing everyone on board. Would you feel reassured? No, I reflect. I certainly wouldn't. As a matter of fact, I'd be positively terrified.

The use of metaphors in What We Owe The Future is also quite striking: civilisation is akin to a giant ball rolling rapidly over a rugged landscape (p.28), civilisation's technological advance is like a climber scaling a sheer cliff face (p.163), and humanity often acts like the author's own 'reckless self' (p.39). This has the effect of grounding (what could easily be abstract) arguments for longtermism in everyday situations - making them both more digestible and more appealing.

Overcoming Scepticism

MacAskill is both cognisant of, and forthcoming with, details of his own initial scepticism of longtermism. He muses for example, how 'the idea that we could affect the longterm future, and that there could be so much at stake, might just seem too wild to be true. This is how things initially seemed to me' (p.26). As a reader, I found this relatable - I too have grappled with scepticism. When considering longtermism, I have often experienced cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, I recognise the need to account for future people. More than that even, I deeply care about what happens to people in the future. However, my focus is often pulled to those presently in need - how can I help to treat depression? How can I be the most altruistic in my career choices? How can I reduce the suffering of those closest to me? What We Owe The Future helped me to reframe these concerns, and understand how longtermism can fit into the picture. MacAskill suggests for example that 'we can positively steer the future while improving the present, too' (p.24). Further, he clarifies that whilst he is claiming that future people matter significantly, that he 'is not claiming that the interests of present and future people should always and everywhere be given equal weight' (p.11).

What adds to the compelling nature of this book, is that it is not just an exercise in academic impartiality. Quite the opposite - the author makes it clear what his personal views are. For example, MacAskill explicitly states that in his opinion, reducing the likelihood and severity of the next world war is one of the most important ways that we can safeguard civilisation in this century. Further, he views the abolition of slavery as 'one of the most important value changes in all of history' (p.52). In displaying a willingness to be forthright with his own opinions, MacAskill provides impetus and space for readers to do the same. In a sense, it feels as though this provides a precursor for readers to translate their own views into decisive action.

What is reassuring though, is that as readers we are encouraged to keep an open mind - and this includes changing and updating opinions. We are told for example, that during the course of writing his book, MacAskill changed his mind on a number of crucial issues: I take historical contingency [...] much more seriously than I did a few years ago. I'm far more worried about the longterm impacts of technological stagnation than I was even last year. The use of visualisations also helps to drive home key messages. Consider, for example, how this standout visual impresses upon the reader both (a) how vast the future (potentially) is, and (2) how many lives are at stake (Image 1, below):

Image 1. (This is an abridged version by the way - the actual visualisation spans across 5 pages).

There is also a little something for everyone. History your thing? There are whole sections detailing the Cold War, the history of slavery, and even Quaker history. Prefer English literature? Chapter 5 on Extinction begins with a detailed passage from Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama, a science fiction novel published in 1973. Social science your bag? There's a conceptual framework (The Significance, Persistence, Contingency Framework; see Image 2, below) used for thinking about the future (p.33). Actually, are you more inclined towards quantitative information? Perhaps you prefer pouring through probabilities and statistics rather than reading old novels? That's ok, there are plenty of basic figures provided (see Image 3):

Image 2.

Image 3.

We can assume that for the large part, people who pick up this book to read will (aside from avid Effective Altruism (EA)/ longtermism community members) be presented for the first time with a largely unfamiliar and emerging topic (longtermism), and some frankly quite alarming scenarios (e.g., the end of civilisation or an AGI takeover). However, readers can no doubt take comfort from the fact that there are many relatable elements to this book, and topics which they are already interested in - even if they are now being explored from an angle that is completely new to them.

To Read or Not to Read?: That is the Question

In total, What We Owe The Future is 335 pages long. 261 pages form the main chunk of the book, and are comprised of the following chapters (which are themselves delineated into 5 parts). As you can see, they are largely self-explanatory:

Chapter 1: The Case for Longtermism

Chapter 2: You Can Shape the Course of History

Chapter 3: Moral Change

Chapter 4: Value Lock-In

Chapter 5: Extinction

Chapter 6: Collapse

Chapter 7: Stagnation

Chapter 8: Is It Good To Make People Happy?

Chapter 9: Will the Future Be Good or Bad?

Chapter 10: What to Do

The further 74 pages comprise of acknowledgments, appendices (these seemed to me to be particularly helpful), further resources, and the like. It took me a few days to read (around 5-6 days on and off, mostly in the evenings after work), and this felt like an adequate amount of time to digest what was being presented. If you were to read the book on holiday (i.e. sat on a beach, with very few other tasks for the day), I'd imagine it could be read in 2-3 days or so. Reading it in this manner might also help to soothe some of the anxiety that comes with reading about engineered pandemics and out-of-control machines (I'm only half joking). In any case, the commitment required to properly peruse What We Owe The Future is fairly minimal, even if your time is precious.

So, should you read the book?

Reasons to read it:

  • You are new to longtermism and want to learn more. This book is a great introduction, from the horse's mouth (the proverbial horse here being one of the originators of the EA movement).

  • It is entertaining and informative at the same time. That is, it doesn't feel like a chore to read, but at the same time you feel as though you are learning things: both a) general knowledge (e.g., historical facts), and b) specific information (e.g., what longtermism is all about).

  • As above, it probably won't take up too much of your time.

  • If you are unsure about reading it, then it is probably better to just read it. As MacAskill himself reiterates in the book, we are often faced with (and put in positions of) uncertainty. However, action often trumps inaction, and in general it is better to learn more than to not.

  • You have read related literature before, and are looking for a follow-up book. Unsurprisingly (given their close connections), this book is a great addition to books such as Toby Ord's The Precipice and Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence.

Reasons not to read it:

  • You might prefer to skim-read it, or only read a few passages. The book lends itself to both of these approaches, given that it is written with a lay audience in mind, and that it has self-contained chapters.

  • You already have a good understanding of longtermism. One of the drawbacks to this being a book for the mass public is that, particularly if you are well-versed in longtermism, you might find it a little basic. No doubt you'll find the narrative (such as the aforementioned touch of wit) interesting, but you might struggle to engage with the key ideas - feeling as though you've encountered them before.

  • There are fantastic interviews you can watch, and podcasts you can listen to instead (see below). MacAskill has done a great job of promoting his new book. As a product of this, there are a number of visual and audio resources you can use, which give a very good insight into his ways of thinking. In fact, some of the passages of the book are repeated elsewhere (for example, in his podcast interview with Tim Ferriss). Perhaps like me, you prefer spending a few hours listening to new ideas whilst you're out for a long *slow* run.

Further Reading & Resources

1. Doing Good Better: MacAskill's first book (from 2016), focused on 'How Effective Altruism Can Help You Help Others, Do Work That Matters, and Make Smarter Choices about Giving Back.'

2. This Ted Talk on 'What are the most important moral problems of our time?' also by Will MacAskill:

3. This detailed discussion between Will MacAskill and Tim Ferriss on the value of longtermism, AI, and how to save the world (also available as a podcast). I'd highly recommend this one.

4. The (arguably even more detailed?) talk between Will MacAskill and YouTuber Ali Abdaal [at nearly 3 hours long, you will want some popcorn at the ready. When they say it's a 'deep dive', they mean it].

5. For a solid introduction to longtermism, this BBC Future article.

About the (Book) Author

(Taken from What We Owe The Future)

William MacAskill is an associate professor of philosophy and senior research fellow at the Global Priorities Institute, University of Oxford. At the time of his appointment, he was the youngest associate professor of philosophy in the world. He has focused his research on moral uncertainty, effective altruism, and future generations. A TED speaker and past Forbes 30 Under 30 social entrepreneur, he also cofounded the nonprofits Giving What You Can, the Centre for Effective Altruism, and Y Combinator-backed 80,000 Hours, which together have moved over £200 million to effective charities. He is the author of Doing Good Better and lives in Oxford.

About Me

For the sake of transparency, like MacAskill I too live in Oxford and am based at the University of Oxford. However, that is where our affiliation ends. You can read a little more about me here, here and here. In summary though, I am relatively new to the (also relatively new) field of longtermism - having taken an interest in it a year or so ago following a summer fellowship in legal longtermism. I am now slowly working my way through the corpus of existing literature, and figuring out where is best to direct my attention going forwards.

Please leave a comment and let me know what you think (either about the book, or this blog post!) below.

58 views0 comments


Thanks for submitting!