23 Aug 2022

What we owe to future generations

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 23 August 2022

The typical mammal species lasts about a million years before going extinct, which means we've got about 700,000 years left on the clock.

The fate of the world rests on the decisions we make today, says Will MacAskill, co-founder of the Centre for Effective Altruism and associate philosophy professor at Oxford University.

Humanity is in its adolescence, he says, and we know how bad teenagers are about thinking on the future consequences of their actions.

He explains why we have a moral obligation to humanity in the future, something he calls ‘long-termism’ in his new book, What We Owe the Future.

Will McCaskill

Photo: Screenshot

We're failing future generations, MacAskill tells Jesse Mulligan.

“It's about taking seriously just how big the future might be, how many lives are at stake and thinking about the things we can do to make the world better, not just for the present generation, but also for the generations to come.”

Initially he found the concept “a bit speculative, a bit hypothetical.”

“Over the time I realised there actually are really concrete things we can do, such as preventing future worst case pandemics, safely navigating the development of AI, and promoting better values that can help guide us to a better future.”

His first book was Effective Altruism and he see this new work as an extension of that.

“Often, I think the best thing to do is to look at those groups that are disempowered, disenfranchised.

“So, my other work and Effective Altruism has focused on global health and wellbeing and improving the lives of the global poor, who get too little of advice in the world today.

“And also, the lives of non-human animals who suffer enormously and unnecessarily on factory farms. And, of course, get no sway over political goal decision making. And the same is true for future generations.”

Actions to positively steer the future will make the world better for present generations too, he says.

“If we invest in clean technology, we are mitigating climate change, but we're also removing fossil fuel particulates from the air that kill a full 3.6 million people worldwide.

“If we invest in technology to protect against pandemics, yes, we're safeguarding ourselves from the end of civilization in the worst-case scenario. But we're also saving lives from future pandemics all but inevitable.”

We might act differently if our lifespan was 200 years rather than 100, he says.

“I think we would be a lot more attentive to risks from new technology where new technologies such as developments in biotechnology pose risks and benefits.

“Over time the risks are very likely to occur, but year by year they might be small. So, our ability to engineer new pathogens creates a risk of creating a virus that is used as a weapon or is used accidentally, or it kind of leaks out of a lab, and thereby kills hundreds of millions or billions of people.

“But the gains from biotechnology are great as well. And that means we're often wanting to accelerate technological progress, even in those cases where If we were longer lived, we would perhaps be a little bit more prudent, a little bit more cautious, continue to accelerate the positive technology, while being a little bit more slow and cautious on things that can pose great risks to the rest of the world.”

There are activities we consider normal today that are likely to be abhorrent to future generations, he says.

“One would be our treatment of prisoners, where we incarcerate, millions of people around the world, often for nonviolent offences, and their condition, we are taking them away from their families, and so their families are being punished, even though they're innocent of all crimes generally.

“And the conditions within prisons are absolutely horrific. In most countries. That's something I can imagine future generations looking back and thinking this was an absolute abomination what we did.”

Our treatment of animals too, he says.  

“The way we treat non-human animals, where 80 billion animals every year are killed for human consumption, and the vast majority of them are kept in conditions of horrific suffering.

“But then the final, I think, is the way we think about future generations, or more particularly the way we don't think about them.”

He believes the future could follow anyone of four paths.

“One is kind of continued business as usual, exponential growth, on about two to three per cent a year.

“Or the future could stagnate, we could slip, technological progress could slow down. I think that's perfectly plausible too

“The more extreme ends I think AI could lead to much faster rates of technological progress. So, we could have centuries of scientific and technological advancement within our lifetimes happening within years or decades.

“And then the final outcome could be catastrophe, a third world war, use of next generation weapons of mass destruction, like bio weapons, I think could kill most people on the planet. I think it's unlikely, but not extremely unlikely. And I think we should paying real attention to that possibility.”

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