‘Relative to everyone who could come after us, we are a tiny minority. Yet we hold the entire future in our hands.’ – Will MacAskill
Will MacAskill is becoming one of the world’s most important intellectuals. Acclaimed by the likes of Stephen Fry and Elon Musk, he is currently featured on the cover of Time magazine. He is an Oxford philosopher and co-founder of the Effective Altruism movement, which uses evidence and reason to help people maximise the good they can do through their career, projects and donations. That often means helping people thousands of miles away whom we will never meet or know.
Now MacAskill has widened the moral net further, and in his major new book What We Owe The Future: A Million-Year View he argues that we need to care about people thousands and even millions of years in the future. In September 2022 he came to Intelligence Squared to argue that influencing the very long term is the most urgent moral priority of our times – because the fate of future generations depends on the decisions that we make in our lifetimes.
As MacAskill explained, this is not just about climate change. Issues like nuclear war, engineered viruses and advanced AI are just as important and are radically more neglected. Many of his conclusions are counterintuitive: we should have more children, not fewer. We should buy coal mines and shut them down so that we have accessible coal if we need to re-industrialise after the collapse of civilisation. And we should worry far less about recycling or flying and think more about our donation and career decisions.
Is MacAskill right that we should care about people who are yet to be born, or should we focus our help on people who are living and suffering now?