Oxford philosopher William MacAskill’s new book, What We Owe the Future, caused quite a stir this month. It’s the latest salvo of effective altruism (EA), a social movement whose adherents aim to have the greatest positive impact on the world through use of strategy, data, and evidence. MacAskill’s new tome makes the case for a growing flank of EA thought called “longtermism.” Longtermists argue that our actions today can improve the lives of humans way, way, way down the line — we’re talking billions, trillions of years — and that in fact it’s our moral responsibility to do so.
In many ways, longtermism is a straightforward, uncontroversially good idea. Humankind has long been concerned with providing for future generations: not just our children or grandchildren, but even those we will never have the chance to meet. It reflects the Seventh Generation Principle held by the indigenous Haudenosaunee (a.k.a. Iroquois) people, which urges people alive today to consider the impact of their actions seven generations ahead. MacAskill echoes the defining problem of intergenerational morality — people in the distant future are currently “voiceless,” unable to advocate for themselves, which is why we must act with them in mind. But MacAskill’s optimism could be disastrous for non-human animals, members of the millions of species who, for better or worse, share this planet with us.
Read the rest on Forbes.