Making a better future for the next generation in North Carolina.

What We Owe the Future – Book Review

by | Oct 27, 2022 | Book Review, Future, Future Planning, North Carolina, Reviews | 0 comments

By acting wisely, we can put humanity on the right course. And if we do, our grandchildren’s grandchildren will look back and thank us, knowing we did everything we could to give them a world of justice, hope, and beauty. – William MacAskill

I admit Chapter 8 was a slog to get through. Other than that, reading William MacAskill’s What We Owe the Future was mind-blowing! It changed forever the way I will think about future generations and what we should do to help them thrive.

North Carolina 2040 has the modest goal of making the future better for the next generation in one American state. I am an old man with not that much time left, so it’s good to be humble about what the blog can accomplish. William MacAskill, a youngish associate professor of philosophy at Oxford University, has cast modesty aside to speculate about the entire future of humanity.

MacAskill – and several hundred of his friends and advisors listed in his acknowledgements – have thought deeply about longtermism, that is “taking seriously just how big the future could be and how high the stakes are in shaping it.” Longtermism’s basic ideas are:

• Future people have the same moral standing as we do.
• There may be a huge number of future people.
• Life could be very good or very bad for them.
• We can make a difference in which way it turns out.

There could be trillions of humans before we meet our end

He points out that most extinct mammal species existed for a million years on Earth before meeting their end. Scientists believe that our species of humans have been on earth for 300,000 years, so there is the potential for many more billions of future people to live. Perhaps there will be trillions of them if we colonize space. Like today’s children, none of these future people can influence the world they will inherit, so it is up to us to make it safe and abundant for them.

For future people to thrive, our generation will have to navigate major threats like nuclear war, climate change, an unsustainable rate of economic change, domination by artificial intelligence, engineered pandemics, political collapse, collisions with asteroids, and many threats we have not yet thought about. MacAskill writes about all of these. He offers a framework to think about them by evaluating their significance, persistence, and contingency. While we cannot predict the future, we can take actions to eliminate or minimize threats based on those factors.

I found MacAskill’s work entirely compatible with the approach of North Carolina 2040, but at a different scale. First, he deals with major global issues that cannot be solved within the borders of one state – we play on a smaller stage. Second, he thinks in terms of hundreds and thousands of years while NC2040 focuses on the next twenty.


With longer time frames, changing values seems more important to MacAskill than policy changes. His book has an extended discussion about the role of “moral entrepreneurs” in changing values – a process that may take a century or more. NC2040 takes the values people hold as a constant, especially the value of creating opportunity for our children. With values held constant, NC2040 focuses on changing policies – that is the ways we use our resources to fulfill our values. Policies may change several times within a decade as we experiment with different ways to accomplish our values.

What is the right thing to do?

Finally, in a chapter titled, “What to Do,” MacAskill provides some advice that should work equally well when facing the 20-year or the 200-year future’s uncertainty:

• Take actions (or implement policies) that should be good under many different future conditions. Making sure our kids get a good general education would be an example.
• Keep your options to switch strategies or policies open as much as possible because the future is unpredictable and conditions can change.
• Invest time, effort, and resources to learn as much as we can about future trends and what is driving them.

The bottom line

Other than Chapter 8, “Is It Good to Make Happy People,” which covers some very detailed philosophical arguments, this is a very engaging book to read and reflect on. Even Chapter 8 is worthwhile to slog through, but don’t expect it to be fun. I recommend buying and reading this book! If you would like a different introduction to these ideas, there are many resources on williammacaskill.com.

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