[I primarily wrote this for other philosophers, but sharing the intro & conclusion here in case it's of interest.]
What We Owe the Future defends longtermism: “the idea that positively influencing the longterm future is a key moral priority of our time.” How could we hope to influence the longterm future? The book focuses on two broad possibilities: (i) improving values, including via liberal institutions that leave space for continued moral development rather than premature “value lock-in”, and (ii) reducing the risk of premature human extinction. I’ll discuss each approach in more detail, below.
First, a note on the book’s aim. WWOTF is to longtermism what Animal Liberation was to anti-speciesism. Targeted at a general audience, it advocates for an important kind of moral circle expansion—urging us to take more fully into account morally significant interests or considerations that we otherwise tend to unduly neglect. (Like much of the best applied ethics, it clearly draws inspiration from utilitarian moral theory, without actually committing the reader to anything stronger than the importance of beneficence.) It’s interesting and engaging to read, seamlessly combining vivid thought experiments and philosophical reasoning with empirical research and moral lessons from history to yield revisionary (yet compelling) conclusions about how we ought to live.
Note that, because it’s targeted at a general audience, the book doesn’t probe at edge cases or test longtermist principles in extremis in the way that academic philosophers might prefer. So, don’t expect discussion of whether it would (in principle) be worth torturing everyone alive today in order to reduce extinction risk this century by some tiny fraction of a percentage point. (If you’re after this sort of pure philosophy, see ‘The Case for Strong Longtermism’, Bostrom’s ‘Astronomical Waste’, or Beckstead & Thomas’s ‘A paradox for tiny probabilities and enormous values’.) Instead, this book sensibly focuses on the urgent yet undeniable point that we really ought to take greater care not to wipe ourselves out (or otherwise neglectfully slip into a bad long-term trajectory).
Like many of the most important claims in practical ethics, this shouldn’t be controversial, once it’s drawn to our attention. But it does involve a major change in mindset. So the real value of the book, as I see it, is to bring this basic moral insight to our attention, and guide us in applying this new lens to see things in a new light.
As is probably clear from the above, I think this is a very important book! The practical upshot:
We can steer civilization onto a better trajectory by delaying the point of value lock-in or by improving the values that guide the future. And we can ensure that we have a future at all by reducing the risk of extinction, collapse, and technological stagnation.
If you’re already broadly sympathetic to EA principles, then the best indication of what you can expect to get from the book may be what Will himself learned:
I take historical contingency, and especially the contingency of values, 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. Over time, I became reassured about civilization’s resilience in the fact of major catastrophes and then disheartened by the possibility that we might deplete easily accessible fossil fuels in the future, which could make civilizational recovery more difficult.
If you’re not the slightest bit sympathetic to EA, then I don’t know what to say. Hopefully you’ll at least find the book thought-provoking? (Write a reasonable critique and maybe you’ll win $20k!) Reading this book should at least provide one with a much clearer understanding of what longtermism looks like in practice.
The book wraps up with three rules of thumb for improving the future in the face of uncertainty:
First, take actions that we can be comparatively confident are good [e.g. general capacity-building]…
Second, try to increase the number of options open to us…
Third, try to learn more.
Seems like good advice! General capacity-building might flow from direct work, well-targeted donations, or “political activism, spreading good ideas, and having children.”
Re: learning more, maybe start with reading this book!
Overall, I highly recommend it. It’s more sensible and down-to-earth than the most provocative academic papers on the topic, which may be viewed as good or bad depending on what you’re looking for. I expect it’d be a lot of fun to base an undergraduate class around. (In my experience, students love how accessible MacAskill’s popular writing is. And I think this one has more depth than Doing Good Better.) Supplement with some of the papers linked above, to test how far the ideas can be pushed. But don’t forget that you needn’t go all the way to total utilitarianism in order to accept the basic moral insight that future generations matter, too.