Invasion of the World Savers

What We Owe the Future
by William MacAskill
Basic Books
352 pp., $32.00

Oxford Professor MacAskill is going to save humanity—but he needs our help. Or at least our willingness to put aside our selfish short-term goals and let the experts decide what’s best. This is his gospel of “effective altruism,” in which he claims that technocrats using cutting-edge, data-driven science can optimize the well-being of humanity, both in the present and future.

The key to MacAskill’s plan to save our future is what he calls ethical longtermism. This highfalutin’ idea from a thirtysome­thing Oxford don starts with “the idea that positively influencing the longterm future is a key moral priority of our time.” He elaborates, explaining that

Longtermism is about taking seri­ously just how big the future could be and how high the stakes are in shaping it. If humanity survives even a fraction of its potential life span, then strange as it may seem, we are the ancients; we live at the beginning of history, in the most distant past. We need to act wisely.

Fortunately for our future progeny (though less fortunately for us), MacAskill presents a seemingly impressive blend of philosophical argumentation, historical vignettes, thought experiments, hypothet­ical cases, real-world prescriptions, and charts upon charts of data to argue why the long-term future matters more than the present and more than pretty much everything else.

As one might expect, the gist of MacAskill’s book is that common people aren’t competent to make decisions that will benefit the greater good—these deci­sions must be made for them by far-see­ing data scientists. It is a worldview that is deeply disturbing on many levels and to­talitarian in its implications. It is the exact book one would expect from a cloistered academic who fantasizes about having the power to run the world. MacAskill’s intel­lectual hubris, which drips from nearly ev­ery page, is by turns comical and alarming.

MacAskill’s thought is a species of con­sequentialism, which is an ethical system in which the morality of an action depends upon its outcome. As such, his reasoning suffers from the same general objections as all “greater good” consequentialist rea­soning. Namely, it is nearly impossible to objectively measure the good based on out­comes—what is good to some may be bad to others. Furthermore, the idea that we can accurately forecast the results of our actions is dubious, even with the most ad­vanced data analysis available.

More importantly, MacAskill inexcus­ably dismisses deontological ethics, or the idea that actions are moral or immoral in and of themselves without relationship to their outcomes. Virtues, and duties to family, friends, and countrymen, are left out of the equation.

Even if consequentialism were some­how viable, MacAskill does not explain why his particular version and his partic­ular predictive models take primacy over other competing ones. More broadly, why should we care about consequentialism, future persons, or morality at all for that matter?

In the book’s first part, MacAskill at­tempts to lay out his moral argument for longtermism. Here he moves from the com­monsense assumption that “future persons count,” to the argument that future persons over the long run should count much more significantly than we commonly assume. After diffusing anticipated objections ap­pealing to partiality and concern for one’s contemporaries (such as friends and fam­ily), MacAskill moves on to argue for the importance of the aggregated well-being of all of future humanity.

Before one can doubt whether such a vast abstraction can be accurately mea­sured, MacAskill conjures the spectre of cataclysm. Humanity is at a precarious point in its history. What humans do now will have resounding effects, both posi­tive and negative, for the entirety of future civilization. Citing historical examples of Quaker abolitionists and early feminists, MacAskill argues that we are in an anal­ogous situation and are duty bound to change the status quo. He presents the reader with a varied and detailed list of doomsday predictions and existential risks ranging from engineered pathogens, to a world war between the great powers, and civilizational collapse from fossil fuel de­pletion, climate change, falling fertility rates, and economic stagnation. With this vast, weighty, and utterly terrifying list of eschatological prophesies, MacAskill fur­ther hammers home the theme of imma­nent existential risk if humanity doesn’t make well-informed decisions to promote its future aggregate well-being.

As if the future of humanity wasn’t a weighty enough problem, MacAskill also makes the case for why our present mor­al calculus should take into account not only the predicted aggregated well-being of future humans but the predicted aggre­gated well-being of future nonhuman sen­tient life, too. And as a secular humanist, MacAskill accepts the inherent goodness of progressive politics, feminism, gay rights, and access to abortion. All of these views are somehow related to mechanically em­ploying math and science to moral deci­sion making.

As such, data-driven technocrats should run the world’s governing organi­zations and use political and bureaucrat­ic influence to promote longtermist aims. MacAskill dreamily concludes by stating “there’s no better time for a movement that will stand up, not just for our generation or even our children’s generation, but for all those who are to come.”

Troubling dangers abound in MacAskill’s longtermist vision. First, such a view provides a convenient justification for both individuals and organizations to ignore their more immediate duties to fam­ily, friends, community, and fellow citizens. As a former Oxford philosopher myself, I too was once caught up in a worldview similar to MacAskill’s. Given the apparent severity and immediacy of the world’s ex­istential problems, I flattered myself with a heightened sense of my ability and pur­pose as an intellectual to solve them.

The hubris of the would-be class of world-controlling technocrats makes them inconsiderate, irre­sponsive, and contemptuous of their fellow humans. Any obstacle to longtermist solu­tions can justify any repres­sive act whatsoever, no mat­ter how heinous, irrational, or absurd, as long as it can be justified as part of the great­er good. We should warily eye every theorist, organi­zation, and movement that justifies its actions as bene­fitting all of future human­ity. Such utopian promises lead to corruption, hypoc­risy, and abuse, despite their good intentions.

A visualization of longtermism projecting humanity 800,000 years into the future.
Each small triangle represents 7.95 billion people.
(Max Roser / via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY)

Sadly, this book’s popu­larity, along with the popu­larity of the “effective altru­ism” concept more generally, reflects today’s deep and per­sistent spiritual bereftness. Having fully dismissed both God and his laws, the modern, sec­ular mind rushes headlong to refill His absence with inadequate man-made arti­fices and contrivances. Despite the com­plexity, sophistication, and cleverness of MacAskill’s ideas, there is no doubt that ab­surdity, ugliness, and evil will follow from their implementation.

There is still time left to rescue the past, present, and future from MacAskill’s ide­ological future savers. Effective Altruists must consider the real world beyond their charts, spreadsheets, and maximin utility calculations. MacAskill and his acolytes must exercise some much-needed self-re­flection and humility and then repent for all the damage that they’ve caused thus far. Heck, if I, a former Oxfordian caught deep in his ideological grasp could do it, then there’s hope for them as well.

After repenting, they should get to work on disassembling the Frankenstein monster they’ve unwittingly created. Then they can move on with their lives to begin doing human things in the present. Instead of saving a theoretical world that doesn’t yet exist and may never exist, they could start a family, open a small business, con­nect with their roots, volunteer at a soup kitchen, plant a tree, or take up beekeep­ing. Anything would be better than trying to save everything all the time. And while they wouldn’t get the same rush as they would from saving the totality of future humanity, the newly-enlightened might nonetheless come to discover that they’ve made their little corner of the world and the particular people in it a little bit better off by performing such boring, mundane, and simple day-to-day acts. In so doing, they would come to realize just how much they owe to the friends, family, and com­munity who made them who they are and, after that, what they owe to God.

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