On What We Owe the Future, Part 2 (some polemic)

by Eric Schliesser on November 26, 2022

This is the second post on MacAskill’s book. (The first one is here; it lists some qualities about the book that I admire.)

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?

A full account of abolition would require a book in its own right and would cover the countless acts of resistance, subversion, and bravery by enslaved people throughout history. It would also cover efforts from formerly enslaved people such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman in the United States and Luís Gama in Brazil, who shed light on the horrors of slavery, fostered public opposition, and pushed for legislative action.
Here, though, I look at just one part of this narrative. Because I’m interested in whether or not abolition was contingent, I’m interested in those parts of the history that seem unexpected or difficult to explain. And, as leading historian of abolition Professor Christopher Leslie Brown puts it, “The causes of slave resistance do not seem particularly mysterious.” What is surprising, he notes, is that slavery was attacked by those who benefited from it. Moreover, enslaved people have very often throughout history powerfully resisted their oppression. So why was there a successful abolitionist campaign in Britain in the early 1800s and not in any of history’s previous slave societies?

I think that the activism of a fairly small group of Quakers in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries provides part of the answer. Their efforts were hugely important in one of the most surprising moral about-faces in history. There were many important figures in this story, but among the early Quaker activists, the most striking was Benjamin Lay….

The abolitionists demonstrate the importance of making moral change, but we can look to them as inspiration for how to make moral change, too. Earlier, I mentioned that in the late eighteenth century, abolitionist Quakers would keep a print of Benjamin Lay in their house as a source of continued moral inspiration. I have followed their lead; a print of Lay sits next to my monitor, and he watches me as I write this book.
Lay was the paradigm of a moral entrepreneur: someone who thought deeply about morality, took it very seriously, was utterly willing to act in accordance with his convictions, and was regarded as an eccentric, a weirdo, for that reason. We should aspire to be weirdos like him. Others may mock you for being concerned about people who live on the other side of the planet, or about pigs and chickens, or about people who will be born in thousands of years’ time. But many at the time mocked the abolitionists. We are very far from creating the perfect society, and until then, in order to drive forward moral progress, we need morally motivated heretics who are able to endure ridicule from those who wish to preserve the status quo.—William MacAskill (2022) What We Owe The Future, “Chapter 3: Moral Change,” pp. 49 & 71-72

Once you have read What We Owe The Future, it is no surprise that MacAskill singles out Lay and does not even mention Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, John Brown, or Lincoln. (Equiano, Cugoano, and Wilberforce receive a passing comment each.) MacAskill prefers to think about moral entrepreneurs, who generate moral change, not about political violence or politicians. In MacAskill’s narrative moral change ended slavery not revolution, war, or the buying off of slaveowners. In his account, the significance of slave revolt is primarily to trigger moral change, or prevent it. (277 n. 17; p. 69) The Haitian revolution gets mentioned (especially in the endnotes), but if you don’t know what it’s about MacAskill doesn’t inform you. I don’t recall seeing the US Civil War mentioned at all. As he puts it in a slogan (in the context of praising the admirable, Leah Garcés, and Mercy for Animals), “Revolutionary beliefs; cooperative behaviour.” (73)

Because MacAskill relies heavily on Christopher Leslie Brown’s Moral Capital: Foundations of British Abolitionism, who is relatively dismissive of Baxter and not very interested in Tryon (who was greatly admired by Lay), he also ends up systematically downplaying the significance of non Quaker and non utilitarian British abolitionist ideas pre-Lay, and, subsequently, ignoring influential philosophers like Beattie, Priestley, and Adam Smith (who almost certainly influenced Wilberforce). In fact, while some endnotes exhibit much more nuance, in the main body of the text MacAskill promotes a rather one-sided narrative about the historical ubiquity of slavery to imply that moral progress is something distinctly late modern, and the effect of moral entrepreneurship working on/in a small movement (with the Quakers as model). He shows no interest in the ancient cynics (who clearly influenced Lay’s behavior and provided a model for him through the writings of the historian of philosophy, Thomas Stanley), the early Stoics (who arguably were anti-slavery), or — as Graeber and Wengrow explore in The Dawn of Everything — the many cultures that did without slavery. (Catholic anti-slavery is shunted to an endnote.)

As I noted in my first post on his book, MacAskill has remarkably little theoretical interest in social institutions and the role of violence in them, and ending them when necessary. If I were a Marxist, I would accuse him of the bad, right-Hegelian idealism. Even when he promotes “political experimentalism,” he cashes this out in terms of “increasing cultural and intellectual diversity.” (p. 99) The one political experiment he mentions approvingly is local: Deng Xioping’s charter cities in China. (p. 100; the massacre at Tianamen Square is passed over.)

It’s not that political violence is absent in the book (Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, and Pope Innocent III [of the Albigensian crusade] are all mentioned), but uniformly it is represented as something negative. Of course, I don’t mean to deny that the world needs peace-loving (Schumpeterian) moral entrepreneurs, who are disruptive of existing social norms. But it doesn’t only need them. MacAskill explicitly cites J.S. Mill approvingly (but no nod to Thoreau, Dewey or Elizabeth Anderson)  to suggest that political and social experimentation can be a source for good (p. 99). He also falsely (recall this post and follow the citation to Jill Gordon 1997) goes on to attribute to Mill the idea “of a marketplace of ideas, where different ideas can compete and the best ideas win.” (p. 99)

In fact, his concern over the effects of moral homogeneity leads him to be rather critical of the possibility of “world government.” (158)+ Now, I share his suspicion that a world government might suppress certain valuable practices, but it is odd that MacAskill does not confront the tension in his own argument. For, in the context of criticizing the possibility of world government, he praises military rivalry for its innovative technological side-effects (p. 158) in one chapter, but only two chapters earlier he worried that great power war — another foreseeable effect of such military rivalry — might lead to human extinction (pp. 114-116). Again, while one should never be cynical about moral change MacAskill exhibits, as also I noted in my first post, a cavalier attitude toward thinking about social theory and social institutions; his near total disregard of the significance of political even violent contestation reflects a kind of infantilization of philosophy.

And while like him, I would welcome more social experimentation, I was a bit taken aback when he noted that “homogeneity in the global response to Covid-19…was responsible for millions of deaths.” (p. 97) Strikingly, in a book with about 800 official endnotes, this claim is offered ex cathedra. MacAskill is a big fan of human challenge trials and selling vaccines, and so I followed the only citation in the previous paragraph to the end-note and then the website in order to realize it was a citation to a 2020 Blog post by the well-known economist John Cochrane. But even Cochrane doesn’t make this point (about millions of deaths), or even advocates for challenge trials in it. (Cochrane does think vaccines should be sold “to the highest bidder.”) Neither MacAskill nor Cochrane addresses the obvious objection that not all purported vaccines offered to the public will work (and so somehow these don’t enter the deaths/cost ledger). I am not against all challenge trials in all contexts, but the idea that they are unproblematic is dangerous, too. Maybe he is right that the global response to Covid-19 was responsible for millions of deaths, but like I intimated in my first post, when I observed the frequently opaque nature and sources of the probabilities mentioned by MacAskill, some of the data he mentions seems to materialize out of thin air.

Let me close with a final thought. One person’s moral entrepreneurship is another person’s dude with a savior complex on steroids. And while this may seem harsh in light of MacAskill’s non trivial contributions to helping actual others, it is notable that MacAskill insists repeatedly that our age is special: “At present, society is still malleable and can be blown into many shapes.” (6, emphasis added.) And he regularly returns to this point, especially in the context of technological and moral stagnation, suggesting that “the glass is cooling, and at some point, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, it might set. Whether it sets into a sculpture that is beautiful and crystalline or mangled and misshapen is, in significant part, up to us.” (p. 102) Even if this were true (and I’ll return to his arguments in a future post), he never explains what gives him (and here he echoes (recall) his much more socially cautious hero, Parfit), and his fellow self-elect, the authority to act as the philosophical legislators of much of the future.*

To be continued.




+In fact, running through his argument one might well detect a strain of anti-Americanism that his American reviewers have been too polite to mention or, perhaps missed, because MacAskill phrases his argument in terms of “cultural convergence,” “homogeneity” (p.96) and the effects of “modern secular culture” or a “single global culture.” (158)

*It is undeniable that his intentions are noble, but that’s irrelevant in a consequentialist framework like his.



Oscar the Grouch 11.26.22 at 7:40 pm


Phil 11.26.22 at 9:20 pm

The “marketplace of ideas” misrepresentation of Mill is of a piece with the naively instrumentalist reasoning McAskill displays elsewhere. There are three claims involved:
1. More true ideas = social progress; if all society’s ideas were true no further progress would be required.
2. We can establish a set of social conditions tending to optimise for true ideas.
3. Those conditions are broadly laissez-faire.

Against which Mill would (or did) say

The measure of progress is how society organises itself; true ideas help societies organise themselves better.
We can’t know whether (or when) the proportion of true ideas is increasing, but can only intervene in ways likely to achieve that end, in ways that can’t be specified in advance…
…but which are likely to be disruptive.

Which is more consistently utilitarian than McAskill and, I think, more consistently rational.


Alex SL 11.26.22 at 10:22 pm

The most interesting observation to me is the final one: “At present, society is still malleable and can be blown into many shapes [but] … at some point … it might set”

This highly implausible statement must be motivated reasoning, because, if we think about it, for their ideology to make any sense, longtermists have to believe that the future is malleable now but will soon become set into a straight path. If one were to acknowledge that the distant future was still equally malleable by actors in a hundred years, or by actors in five hundred years, or by actors in one thousand years, with the possibility of contemporary achievements being reversed by some 0f those later actors, then one would immediately realise to what hilarious degree individual contemporary “moral entrepreneurs” or EA billionaires or philosophers overestimate their own ability to forecast and their own impact on the imagined shape of imaginary events happening millions of years from now. And also, in their arrogance, overestimate their influence compared to that of billions of others, who they effectively visualise and treat as non-player-characters, a form of dehumanising others.

And the insight that future actors still have the same freedom to shape their world as we do today might reduce the likelihood of a longtermist being considered a very important person right now or of somebody donating to MIRI and similar undertakings, which is what matters to longtermists in practice. I am not even saying this in the sense of it all being a fraud (although I find it very, very difficult to believe that the likes of MacAskill and Bostrom can actually, really believe the stuff they argue for publicly, given that they are by all accounts smart people), but in the sense that in their own logic they need to gain such influence and funding to shape the future for what they see as the better. This is not the case for philosophies centred on becoming a better person oneself, for example.


Ebenezer Scrooge 11.26.22 at 10:26 pm

So to review the bidding:
– Moral entrepreneurship is insufficient (a point Eric convincingly makes);
– But is it ever necessary? And if so, when and where?


Gar Lipow 11.27.22 at 7:39 am

One thing that strikes me as deeply stupid about longtermism: that we can prioritize thousands of years in the future over the next few hundred years. Not that we should not care about the long term. But if we do not survive the next few hundred years we will not be around as a species to do anything about millenia. Simarly, if we don’t survive the next three or four decades as a species the next few hundred years won’t matter for the same obvious reason.

The same thing applies to creating a society that is livable for everyone rather than descending into a disutopian nightmare. Our current level of inequality requires huge amounts of repressention. Aside from the obvious moral reason to oppose it, severe inequality requires a huge drain on resources, huge inefficiencies to maintain. Effective altruism would require caring about injustice and cruelty today a great deal, not putting them on a back burner for the sake of future crisises. Climate change is a perfect example of a long term crisis that could have been solved before it became a current crisis. What stymied tackling it was not that it was long term, but that various immediate problems required solving in order to address it. People are coming to terms today with something I was saying back in 2008 and wrote a book about in 2012. That the climate crisis requires addressing inequality within and between nations, between classes, races and genders and also addressing wars. I documented this largely from peer reviewed analysis and cases studies available at the time, and gave concrete examples of various type of inequality directly and indirectly leading to pollution including emissions. Of course it was a book about political economy, with a smattering of lay sociology. But if you want an example of pragmatic altruism it is worth looking at. “Solving the Climate Crisis through Social Change,” Praeger Press, 2012. https://www.abc-clio.com/products/a3615c/ Academic books are priced very high so I strongly suggest using interlibrary loan rather than buying your own copy. To be effective of course it would have needed more commercial success than it had. Much of what was considered kooky when it was published is now conventional wisdom in left and many liberal circles. Unfortunatley I think the parts that are still not yet conventional wisdom are important.


Alison 11.27.22 at 8:02 am

Alex SLs analysis is spot on, and I’m going to remember it. We are bound be acutely aware of our own agency, and – in the nature of things – to be less aware of others’ agency. And awareness of agency becomes more muted as we contemplate events farther from ourselves in space and time. And this tendency increases I imagine for the rich and powerful. I’m thinking of that pro-natalist couple recently who said that they would have 8 children, and if all their descendants had 8 children, in 11 generations their genes would dominate the species. It’s an incoherent nonsensical plan, but must be tempting to imagine ourselves as powerful and quasi-immortal. Their own descendants are NPCs in this model.


J-D 11.27.22 at 11:09 am

I’m thinking of that pro-natalist couple recently who said that they would have 8 children, and if all their descendants had 8 children, in 11 generations their genes would dominate the species. It’s an incoherent nonsensical plan, but must be tempting to imagine ourselves as powerful and quasi-immortal. Their own descendants are NPCs in this model.

Clearly they have not read The Languages Of Pao.


engels 11.27.22 at 12:12 pm

I’m thinking of that pro-natalist couple recently who said that they would have 8 children

I hope they’ll call the eighth one Octavius/Octavia.


malloyjames 11.27.22 at 2:51 pm

It is clear that inequality, local to global, is our past, present and future. Some work hard, some think and figure out things folks need, others wait and follow. We have charity and empathy on the local and global level to make the our existence a bit more tolerable for all.

Henry Miller said ‘you can’t change the world; you can change how you think about it’ that is the beginning the middle and the end of it. The more each person takes responsibility for everything ( and I mean all the stuff that is not directly one’s fault as well), the more we all grow.

Everything that is theorized with EA is all about letting “smart” others solve the problems in our own lives. Very attractive but very dead end and paternalistic.

Why do we need grand schemes and saviors ? To help prevent us from looking inside to the true causes of our struggles.


bekabot 11.27.22 at 3:39 pm

“Clearly they have not read The Languages Of Pao”

They read Hillbilly Elegy, which was alien enough for them.


nastywoman 11.27.22 at 5:44 pm

with this giving – ‘Giving ALL of your dough for a good cause’ -(and hopeful most of it for fighting Climate Change) and as I am one of the people who has the duty to get as much dough as I can for fighting the Climate Crisis – and really couldn’t care less if I get the money the (EA) or any other way. AND I#m especially proud if I get the money from people or organizations who once were the HUUUGEST stinkers.
And saying that –
let’s also agree that ‘in light of MacAskill’s non trivial contributions to helping actual others, it is notable that in his interpretation of ‘longtermism’ he pretty much ignored the Climate Crisis – and that’s the HUUUUGE FAIL of his book and really
‘One person’s moral entrepreneurship is another person’s dude with a savior complex on steroids’.


nastywoman 11.27.22 at 6:00 pm

OR can’t we see it like the (the very nasty) Millionaire we got our latest contribution from for fighting the Climate Crisis.

He is very old and as he has become so old by doing all kind of nasty stuff he now confesses every time he goes to church now – and he never before went to church that often before – as he was far to busy in order to commit all the sins he is confessing now – AND that’s why he also bought a (gods) waiting room for a lot of dough from our nonprofit – BE-cause he now know that far sooner than later he will be sorted out for either HELL or HEAVEN –
(so he believes) AND that’s why he just told US:



both sides do it 11.28.22 at 2:53 am

Would love a follow-up post that talks about MacAskill in the light of Contingency, Irony and Solidarity


Joe B. 11.30.22 at 7:29 am

McAskill clearly has no quantitative grasp of climate science (Reply to Part I) . I have been an atmospheric and climate researcher for almost 40 years and I recoil in horror at the thought of a 5 degree warming. But 7-10 degrees of global warming? We really don’t have a good idea what will happen above 3 degrees warming and even at 2 degrees there is a lot of uncertainty. And I’m just referring to the physical climate changes.

The abolition argument seems like yet another “white savior” narrative hence very apt for justifying longtermism.


KT2 11.30.22 at 11:04 pm

nastywoman said;
“AND I#m especially proud if I get the money from people or organizations who once were the HUUUGEST stinkers.”

Reminds me of the urban legend, a priest in Italy who was regularly given a suitcase full of cash by a mafia boss.

The priest ended up in court in money laudering charges.

His defence. I take dirty money and use it for clean charity works.
Sentence. Suspended.

Moral philosophy is tricky.


KT2 11.30.22 at 11:06 pm

This may be of interest as it is motivated by What We Owe the Future.
““Utilitarian longtermism is objectionable. Longtermism sans consequentialism is another matter” — Elliott R. Crozat (Purdue Global) considers deontological longtermism”

“The Aporetics of Longtermism: Are You Morally Obligated to Future Persons?

by Elliot R. Crozat
October 2022

“In What We Owe the Future, moral philosopher William MacAskill claims that the case for longtermism is not particularly controversial (p. 9), and that it rests on common sense (p. 10). … MacAskill, however, his argument is questionable, as Kieran Setiya (2022) notes. For example, it seems that longtermism rests on dubitable utilitarian assumptions. Utilitarianism is a controversial moral theory, and as Émile Torres (2021) writes, a utilitarian-charged longtermism is objectionable.

“Why does this topic matter? If longtermism is correct, every human person alive now is morally obligated to contribute to the welfare of future persons with respect to their physical environment, their intellectual resources, and the moral values that their societies will accept. For example, environmental sustainability is the idea that those alive now are morally responsible for conserving the earth’s environment in the present and for the future. Longtermism makes this idea more precise by holding that we are obligated to future persons to protect the environment for them and their flourishing.

“Furthermore, as MacAskill argues, it is plausible to hold that we have a duty to future persons to “lock-in” moral values that will benefit them.11 These are formidable tasks and it is unclear how best to accomplish them. Yet if longtermism fails or if future persons do not exist, then arguably we have no duties whatsoever to them, even if we are still morally responsible for the environment and the moral health of our civilization.

“Moreover, the concerns raised by Torres regarding utilitarian longtermism are matters of existential significance. The idea of a group of politicians who are willing to break millions of current eggs for the sake of a larger future omelette is a dreadful idea indeed. Much of practical significance thus rides on the truth value of longtermism. For this reason, we ought seriously to examine longtermism as a theory, posing critical questions about it, raising objections to it, and considering its consequences for human life.

Elliott R. Crozat is Professor of Philosophy and the Humanities at Purdue University Global. He also worked for several years as an analyst with the U. S. Department of State on issues in applied epistemology and international affairs. His areas of emphasis are ethics, epistemology, and philosophy of religion.
“Works Cited



dilbert dogbert 12.01.22 at 7:30 pm

The debt is paid. We gave the future life.

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