MacAskill, a Scottish philosopher and a leading figure in the Effective Altruism movement, challenges traditional notions of philanthropy by advocating for thoughtful and strategic giving. He suggests that when you’re feeling compassionate, you should engage your head rather than your heart.

MacAskill’s Background
So where do his ideas come from? Born in Scotland in 1987, he earned a PhD from Oxford University, where he now lectures as an Associate Professor of Philosophy. But there’s much more to his story than academia. Beyond his philosophical pursuits, MacAskill actively encourages a more intentional approach to philanthropy through his writing, teaching, and direct work with charitable foundations.

Effective Altruism and Affiliations
William MacAskill is associated with several groups and academics in the field of effective altruism and moral philosophy. One of the most prominent groups he’s affiliated with is the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA), which he co-founded. The CEA promotes the principles of effective altruism and conducts research to identify the most effective ways to do good in the world. MacAskill’s involvement with the CEA has allowed him to collaborate with other academics and researchers who share his interests in effective altruism and moral philosophy.

MacAskill is undeniably instrumental in propagating the concept and principles of effective altruism. His primary contributions include co-founding Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours. The former is a global community committed to donating a considerable proportion of their earnings to the most effective and efficient charities, while the latter provides research and advice to individuals on how to make a substantial positive impact through their career choices.

“Traditional philanthropy aims to alleviate the symptoms of societal problems, but effective altruism goes further by trying to address their root causes.”

MacAskill’s Argument in What We Owe The Future
MacAskill argues that we often neglect the long-term consequences of our actions and fail to consider their impact on future generations. He explores various ethical dilemmas and challenges readers to think critically about how our choices today can shape the world for future generations. The book revolves around the moral obligations we have toward future generations.

The intended audience for What We Owe The Future is primarily individuals interested in ethical decision-making and the long-term consequences of our actions. This includes readers concerned about the impact of their choices on future generations and those who want to explore ways to make a positive difference in the world.

The ideas presented in MacAskill’s book have the potential to profoundly impact society and change the way we think about our responsibilities toward future generations. One of the key implications of the book is the concept of long-term thinking. MacAskill argues that we often prioritize short-term gains over long-term benefits, and this mindset needs to change. By encouraging readers to consider the long-term consequences of our actions, the book challenges us to make decisions that positively impact future generations.

William MacAskill makes a strong case in What We Owe The Future. He presents a compelling argument for why we have a moral obligation to consider the long-term consequences of our actions and make choices that benefit future generations. He draws on a wide range of evidence and examples to support his claims, including the potential impact of climate change, technological advancements, and resource depletion. By highlighting the interconnectedness of our actions and their effects on future generations, MacAskill argues that we should prioritize the well-being of future people in our decision-making processes.

MacAskill strengthens his argument through a thorough analysis of various ethical frameworks. He explores utilitarianism, deontology, and contractualism, among other moral theories, to demonstrate how they can be applied to the question of our obligations to the future. This comprehensive examination of ethical perspectives adds depth and rigor to his argument, making it more persuasive and thought-provoking. MacAskill also acknowledges potential counterarguments and addresses them with logical reasoning, further bolstering his case.

Critique and Challenges
What We Owe The Future is a thought-provoking book that offers valuable insights into our moral obligations toward future generations. However, the deeper I got into it, the more skeptical I became. A common objection is that we don’t know what the future will bring. In fact, we’re notoriously bad at predicting what’s coming down the track. The First World War was expected to be over by Christmas. Nuclear power was supposed to be “too cheap to meter.” The population was projected to grow so fast we’d all starve to death by the end of the 20th century. When it comes to the future, it’s fair to say nobody knows anything. So how does a philosopher propose to do any better?

The real problem lies in MacAskill’s prescriptions. He speaks approvingly of Benjamin Franklin, who left 1,000 pounds (a significant sum at the time) each to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia. The terms of his bequest were that the money should be loaned to young tradesmen to help them start their businesses and kept in trust for 200 years. Part of the money was to be released at 100 years, with the remainder due at the end of the 200-year period. The funds were to be used at these intervals to support public works, loans for young tradesmen, and other community benefits. By the time the trusts matured, they had grown substantially and were used to finance various educational and social projects in both cities.

While that’s a heartwarming story, it would have been a damp squib had someone done the same in Russia in the century preceding the 1917 revolution. MacAskill’s advice isn’t neutral either. Funding the banking system with investors’ money significantly contributes to maintaining the status quo. There’s a pattern here. Another suggestion is that, instead of engaging in activism or changing your lifestyle, it’s better to concentrate on your career and earn more money so you can contribute more to charity. Don’t make real changes—just write a check. His more concrete proposals also seem to favor the rich and powerful.

Coal mines? We might need them if civilization collapses to power a new industrial revolution. So, let’s mothball them in such a way that they can be reused by later generations. Presumably, the current owners would be compensated for this by contributors to the enlightened long-thinking institutions MacAskill has founded or approved of.

As I say, this isn’t a bad book and it has some thought provoking ideas. But one of the thoughts it provoked in me was “who’s funding this?”.

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