For the inaugural edition of Asterisk, I wrote about What We Owe The Future. Some highlights:
What is the longtermist worldview? First — that humanity’s potential future is vast beyond comprehension, that trillions of lives may lie ahead of us, and that we should try to secure and shape that future if possible.
Here there’s little disagreement among effective altruists. The catch is the qualifier: “if possible.” When I talk to people working on cash transfers or clean water or accelerating vaccine timelines, their reason for prioritizing those projects over long-term-future ones is approximately never “because future people aren’t of moral importance”; it’s usually “because I don’t think we can predictably affect the lives of future people in the desired direction.”
As it happens, I think we can — but not through the pathways outlined in What We Owe the Future.
The stakes are as high as MacAskill says — but when you start trying to figure out what to do about it, you end up face-to-face with problems that are deeply unclear and solutions that are deeply technical.
I think we’re in a dangerous world, one with perils ahead for which we’re not at all prepared, one where we’re likely to make an irrecoverable mistake and all die. Most of the obligation I feel toward the future is an obligation to not screw up so badly that it never exists. Most longtermists are scared, and the absence of that sentiment from What We Owe the Future feels glaring.
If we grant MacAskill’s premise that values change matters, though, the value I would want to impart is this one: an appetite for these details, however tedious they may seem.