On MacAskill’s *What We Owe the Future*, Part 1

by Eric Schliesser on November 24, 2022

The effect of such extreme climate change is difficult to predict. We just do not know what the world would be like if it were more than seven degrees warmer; most research has focused on the impact of less than five degrees. Warming of seven to ten degrees would do enormous harm to countries in the tropics, with many poor agrarian countries being hit by severe heat stress and drought. Since these countries have contributed the least to climate change, this would be a colossal injustice.
But it’s hard to see how even this could lead directly to civilisational collapse. For example, one pressing concern about climate change is the effect it might have on agriculture. Although climate change would be bad for agriculture in the tropics, there is scope for adaptation, temperate regions would not be as badly damaged, and frozen land would be freed up at higher latitudes. There is a similar picture for heat stress. Outdoor labour would become increasingly difficult in the tropics because of heat stress, which would be disastrous for hotter and poorer countries with limited adaptive capacity. But richer countries would be able to adapt, and temperate regions would emerge relatively unscathed.–William MacAskill (2022) What We Owe The Future, “chapter 6: collapse” p 136.

Two ground-rules about what follows:

  1. I ignore all the good non-longtermist, effective altruism (EA) has done. It’s mostly wonderful stuff, and no cynicism about it is warranted.
  2. I ignore MacAskill’s association with SBF/FTX. I have said what I want to say about it (here), although if any longtermists associated with the EA movement come to comment here, I hope they remember that the EA community directly benefitted from fraud (and that there is an interesting question to what degree it was facilitated by the relentless mutual backscratching of the intellectual side of the EA community and SBF); and perhaps focus on helping the victims of SBF.
  • Perhaps, for some consequentialists (1) and (2) cancel each other out?

Anyway, after my post on MacAskill’s twitter thread (here) and my post on the concluding pages of Parfit’s Reasons and Persons (here), I was told by numerous people that I ought to read MacAskill’s What We Owe the Future. And while I am going to be rather critical in what follows (and subsequent posts), I want to note a few important caveats: first, MacAskill is asking very interesting social questions, and draws on a wide range of examples (also historically far apart). I am happy this is a possible future for philosophy today. Second, he is an engaging writer. Third, What We Owe the Future is — as the first and last chapter make clear — quite explicitly intended as a contribution to movement building, and that means that the standards of evaluation cannot be (say) identical to what one might expect in a journal article. In a future post, I’ll have something to say about the relationship between public philosophy and movement building, but in this post I will be silent on it. Fourth, if you are looking for a philosophically stimulating review of What We Owe the Future, I warmly recommend Peter Wolfendale’s essay here for a general overview (here). If you are especially interested in objections to the axiology, I warmly recommend Kierin Setiya’s piece in Boston Review (here). It’s also worth re-reading Amia Srinivasan’s high profile, prescient critique of MacAskill’s earlier work (here).*

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