a journal of modern society & culture

What We Owe the Past: William MacAskill, Effective Altruism and the Wrong Life

James Kent and Michael Lazarus

‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living’

–  Karl Marx

It was, after all, too good to be true. Following the aftermath of the allegations of corruption and bankruptcy of the cryptocurrency exchange company FTX Trading Ltd., William MacAskill’s Twitter fell silent.  The Oxford philosopher was closely associated with FTX founder and CEO, Sam Bankman-Fried. Bankman-Fried had promoted crypto as a means to do good, his trading was said to have a social purpose. The more money made, the bigger the donation to charity. In March 2022, MacAskill sent Elon Musk a text after seeing the billionaire post about buying Twitter to save free speech. MacAskill suggested his ‘collaborator’ Sam Bankman-Fried might be a worthy business partner since he also wanted to buy the company and make it ‘better for the world’. Musk’s reply was simply, ‘Does he have huge amounts of money?’ MacAskill wrote back, ‘Depends on how you define “huge” He’s worth $24B, and his early employees (with shared values) bump that to $30B. I asked about how much he could in principle contribute and he said: ~$1-3b would be easy ~$3-8b is maybe possible but would require financing’.

In these text messages, released as part of court proceedings investigating Musk’s Twitter take over, MacAskill promotes Bankman-Fried as a vision for the future. Musk asks ‘Do you vouch for him’, MacAskill replies ‘Very much so! Very dedicated to making the long-term future of humanity go well’. MacAskill introduces the two, writing ‘You both have interests in games, making the very long-run future go well, and buying Twitter’. MacAskill linked Musk to his ‘Future Fund’ which he co-ran and FTX financed, claiming it would move ‘$100M to $1B this year to improve the future of humanity’.[1] By November FTX had collapsed and under Musk, Twitter was being run into the ground. In a thread of tweets, MacAskill publicly distanced himself from Bankman-Fried and logged off, not to return to the platform till June 2023.

It could appear that this is a question of embarrassing friends. Why point to MacAskill’s private texts, when his public comments about the allegations of FTX fraud are in general laudable? MacAskill no doubt felt some moral imperative to explain his close association with a man who had just been arrested for defrauding thousands of people of their savings. However, MacAskill’s attempt to broker a deal between Bankman-Fried and Musk makes explicit the political upshot of his philosophical project. More broadly MacAskill probably felt the need to defend the close association of his moral commitments outlined in his writings to a now failed (not to mention potentially criminal) economic venture. The old story still rang true. Billionaires and technocrats had taken the money of everyday people under the guise of moral rightness, and spent it on themselves. It was a bad look for someone who had staked their moral position and career on a so-called ‘long termist’ commitment to the future of all of humanity.

MacAskill is a principal figure in the Effective Altruism ‘movement’. This philosophical and social movement, in MacAskill’s own words, ‘us[es] evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and tak[es] action on that basis’.[2] He co-founded ‘Effective Ventures’, a ‘federation’ of ten research centres, charities and philanthropic enterprises all promoting effective altruism. In 2017, MacAskill made Forbes ‘30 under 30’ list of ‘Social Entrepreneurs’ for his efforts to research and action the most efficient means for ‘the most good for the most people’. MacAskill’s much publicised What We Owe the Future (2022) is an attempt to lay out a popular presentation of ‘long-termism’, the core tenet of effective altruism.

MacAskill’s fundamental claim is that positively prioritising the future is the key moral consideration. In a long line of utilitarian philosophers, like Peter Singer, MacAskill’s argument rests on the assumption that effective moral decisions are arrived at by a disinterested, rational agent from a neutral, universal perspective. The philosophy of effective altruism is designed to directly map onto the various organisations set up to promote social entrepreneurship. But since the organisations are created by the effective altruists themselves, it is genuinely hard to see if the philosophy informs the entrepreneurship or the entrepreneurship informs the philosophy. Effective altruism may be the first attempt to remove any distinction between moral philosophy and business enterprise.

In this article, we assess the philosophy and politics of effective altruism by giving close attention to MacAskill’s What We Owe the Future. This approach deepens our previous attempt to criticise the politics of utilitarianism, which we argue is in essence, a philosophy of the status quo.[3] First, we outline the foundation of MacAskill’s ‘long-termist’ position. The book provides a long historical narrative which is intended to support the moral argument, however despite this, MacAskill’s moral philosophy is positivist and determinist, showcasing a strangely naive understanding of history. Second, we address a concrete example of this view of history, specifically his account of the British abolition of slavery. Third, we locate the politics of effective altruism within a broader conception of social change. Effective altruists claim to provide a philosophy to practically improve the world. We argue that not only is effective altruism unable to make good on this claim, but its politics reinforce structural inequality and antagonistic class relations. Fourth, drawing on Walter Benjamin and T.W. Adorno, we argue for a moral philosophy that confronts, rather than reinforces social domination. We suggest this confrontation requires coming to terms with what we owe the future as something that is predicated on what we owe the past.

 1. Doing Badly

What We Owe to the Future opens with MacAskill’s fundamental claim: ‘Future people count’.[4] He suggests that while there is a common intuition that future people ‘matter’, it has not been taken seriously enough by ‘activists, researchers, policy makers’. In this first part, we will argue that MacAskill’s moral position, regardless of its good intentions, is hindered by a positivistic, and ultimately deterministic account of the relation between moral action and the future. MacAskill argues that the future of humanity is at a turning point and unless we change the way we think about our future, we are at risk of discounting the moral worth of those who are not yet born, and hence are without a voice in public affairs. Indeed, MacAskill suggests his vision of ‘long-termsim’ is an extension of struggles for civil rights and against oppression,

Though we cannot give genuine political power to future people, we can at least give consideration to them. By abandoning the tyranny of the present over the future, we can act as trustees—helping to create a flourishing world for generations to come.[6]

From this premise, MacAskill quantifies the problem by relating future population growth with predictions about the ‘life expectancy’ of humanity.[7] According to his ‘long-terminst’ view, if there is going to be a large global population that will live for longer, then we need to think about the future. He asks the reader to:

assume that our population continues at its current size. In that case, there would be eighty trillion people yet to come; future people would outnumber us ten thousand to one.[8]

The notion that ‘future people matter’ is indeed a significant moral issue, but MacAskill does not quite start there, in fact it takes a long time for him to introduce his major philosophical interlocutor, Derek Parfit (to which we will return). Instead, MacAskill makes a number of predictions about the human species that reach hundreds of thousands of years into the future. MacAskill declares he is making ‘informative estimates’ but it is hard to see the analytical value of setting up a moral argument about an unknown future from this data.[9] As a result, his discussion struggles to get past speculation: his predictions are not just wildly unknown, but are question begging, insofar as there is a basic assumption about how certain major socio-cultural and technological trends will unfold.

This is, in essence, the old nineteenth century story of the history of progress. Not content with speculation about the entire future of human beings, MacAskill seeks to ground his account in a story of progress – of measurable improvements to bring people out of poverty, improved medical care and individual freedom. The declarations about the future are strangely turned to the past, as MacAskill, in a chapter titled ‘You Can Shape the Course of History’, whizzes through prehistoric times to demonstrate how decisions made a long time ago can affect the future. As an example of the contingency of human action in history, MacAskill describes how the hunting practices of early hunter-gatherers wiped out the megafauna on many continents such as Europe and South America, but not in Africa, due to the fact that African species evolved alongside Homo sapiens for longer, and thus had more time to adapt.[10] What might be seen as a fairly straightforward case of the contingency of historical events, is given a strange moral register by MacAskill. While he understands that hunter-gatherers could not have foreseen the implications of species extinction, MacAskill suggests that if they had our modern knowledge ‘of ecology and evolutionary biology, they would have understood what it is for a species to go extinct and the potentially irrevocable loss that was at stake.’[11] He depicts the hunter-gatherer with a degree of patronising sympathy – as if they were simply too ignorant to know the stakes of a human life.

However, crucially for MacAskill, ‘we in the modern era can do better’.[12] MacAskill completely ignores the fact that the hunting behaviours of the earliest human beings might be reflections, not of moral or evidential ignorance (thereby enforcing this story of moral progress) but entirely different moral codes, or the kinds of life pressures wherein his moral presuppositions are rendered entirely meaningless. In other words, MacAskill reduces human history to an almost linear story of growing moral awareness, and ignores the fact that certain actions and behaviours of past people may require an account of the historically specific forms of life to situate a period that is now largely remote and unknowable. Instead, MacAskill forces pre-historical people into his nineteenth century understanding of human development. Perhaps even more importantly, while he recognises that history can be influenced by contingent events, he fails to take seriously the idea that human societies have been equally shaped by material factors, as the internal ‘developments’ of our rational and moral faculties. As a result, while he pays lip service to the idea that human beings can radically remake themselves during key moments of history, as we discuss below, MacAskill ultimately falls into a highly deterministic theory of human development and moral change.

In Part Two of What We Owe the Future, MacAskill addresses two key ideas: the ways in which moral attitudes and values can and do change over time, and the extent to which some or all of these values are ‘locked in’, whether by virtue of elements of our biology, history, or power dynamics. He suggests that human history is marked by ‘moments of plasticity’ wherein ‘ideas or events or institutions can take one of many forms’, which are followed by ‘a period of rigidity or ossification…[where] further change is impossible without remelting’.[13] MacAskill is of course talking about changing norms and he points to an immense variety of instances, including the division of Korea, the formation and changing of the US constitution, nuclear weapons and climate change.[14] MacAskill believes that our current moment is a ‘period where the values that guide civilisation are still malleable’, meaning that we are at a crucial period in which human beings can actively shape our future.[15] We are, in other words, at a moment of historical juncture, where there are many paths to choose from. Of particular concern for MacAskill is the ongoing development of various forms of technology, particularly Artificial Intelligence. While he sees enormous potential for humankind in these developing technologies, he also worries they may be a vehicle for what he calls ‘value lock in’, in a way not entirely dissimilar to the persistence of values derived from the major religions:

What if AGI [Artificial General Intelligence] is still centuries away? It would still be of enormous importance because it creates a date at which the predominant values of a time could get locked in…Values could become even more persistent in the future if a single value system was to become globally dominant. If so, then the absence of conflict and competition would remove one reason for change in values over time.[16]

This is the crux of MacAskill’s moral position in its relation to historical time: human beings lurch from periods of moral and value ‘plasticity’, or opportunity, in which the world can be remade, to periods of moral ‘lock in’, where value becomes rigid, and change is either very difficult or impossible. He rightly recognises the manner in which new technologies like AI might be co-opted by the powerful forces in human societies, and correctly sees this as a serious moral concern. The significance of the threat for MacAskill seems to derive from the fact that such an event would deprive human beings of ‘value competition’, a situation in which moral norms emerge victorious in a liberal marketplace of ideas. From this perspective, value competition is a necessary condition for genuine moral change.

But if MacAskill is so worried about the serious implications of, for example, an alliance of technology and power that would condemn human beings to a world in which the values and ideologies of the powerful were ‘locked in’, perhaps permanently, why does he side so instinctively with the powerful? Perhaps more tellingly, why do the powerful seemingly love what he has to say?[17] Further, why does he consider today a period of ‘malleable’ values, rather than one of extraordinary ideological hegemony (a claim that is at the very least arguable and defensible)? The reasons are not due to nefarious intentions on behalf of MacAskill, but rather the naive nature of the effective altruism paradigm, of which he is a key representative. This movement, which as MacAskill himself says, uses ‘evidence and reason’. Although he never spends any time reflecting on what is meant by these two ideas. Reason is assumed to be a natural, and largely neutral faculty that human beings employ, and evidence is considered to be neutral data that the rational faculties can process in order to reach a purely rational judgement. MacAskill ignores the fact that human concepts are themselves historical, and by extension marked by ideologies. He also seems uninterested in the idea that empirical evidence is almost never entirely ideologically neutral and must in any case be mediated by those very concepts. The explanation is that MacAskill, along with the rest of the Effective Altruism movement, are restricted to a very narrow positivistic account of what constitutes as evidence and reason, in which only some data is taken seriously, and only some accounts of the future of humanity are taken to be an example of urbane, neutral consideration. That the picture painted in such a theory follows the fantasies of the wealthy (we see depictions of both technological utopianism mediated by neurotic fears of the destruction of the planet) should come as no surprise, but they point to an important fact about MacAskill’s argument. His positivism leads to a form of historical and technological determinism. While his model might allow for historical fluctuations between moral plasticity and rigidity, the bigger picture remains the same: moral progress relies on the commitment of individuals to choose wisely in the marketplace of ideas, in a quasi-Hobbesian competition of values. This kind of reason and evidence can only point to more of the same because the historical and ideological basis of its agenda emerges entirely from the status quo, from the ideas that are sanctioned by political and economic power. In what follows below we provide some concrete examples of the ways in which this approach leads to dubious and shallow readings of the historical sources and a highly limited philosophical understanding of social and moral change.

2. History Gone Wrong

The historical grounding for MacAskill’s moral argument comes in a lengthy chapter devoted to the British abolition of slavery. This example is given considerable weight to provide an illustration of what moral change can do for future generations and at the same time helps tie his ‘long-termist’ view with struggles for rights. Indeed, his discussion of British abolition is one of the few parts of the book to address historical injustice. Unfortunately, his understanding of abolition, which he presents as closely following current scholarship, in fact betrays MacAskill’s own political assumptions. Curiously, MacAskill declares at several points that Eric Williams’ famous thesis in Slavery and Capitalism (1944) – that slavery had lost its profitability in the global emergence of capitalism – now ‘doesn’t hold up to scrutiny’.[18] Strangely, rather than introduce or engage readers with central issues in the history of abolition, MacAskill just dismisses Williams’ position out of hand. Without any primary analysis, MacAskill paints Williams’ thesis as simply one of economic inevitability, and instead offers a narrative of ‘contingent’ changes to moral attitudes as the decisive factor. While there are many reasons to question Williams’ argument, its continuing relevance is to refuse explanations of slavery that fail to acknowledge the relationship between capitalism and slavery.[19] William’s Slavery and Capital plays this role in many contemporary accounts of slavery.[20] Ironically, Williams is used by MacAskill as a strawman in What We Owe the Future precisely to deny such a link.

The only time ‘capitalism’ is mentioned in the entire book is when the word appears in Williams’ book title. Yet, the history of slavery cannot escape capitalism. The assumption underlying MacAskill’s discussion is that moral factors and economic ones act relatively independently; the past, present and future of moral good is isolated from the history of capitalism. We will return to this point to argue that this approach reveals a major defect in his account of social change. But what we will focus on now, is that MacAskill’s dismissal of Williams’ thesis is less the careful approach of a considered objection, but rather evidence of a thesis that Williams himself attempted to challenge: that slavery was ended by British liberals with a faithful mission of moral progress. Williams was urged to change the title of Slavery and Capital. Struggling to publish the book, itself an adoption of a near heretical Oxford doctoral dissertation, Williams refused and was determined to publish the text with its now famous title. As Nick Nesbitt notes,

The mere titular conjunction of these two substantives, capitalism and slavery, in itself constitutes an ideological intervention, uniting what liberal, imperialist ideology had studiously held apart: the moral odium of slavery and the glorious historical progress of capitalism. Williams’s considered formulation of this object of inquiry forced historians to confront the relation of these two social forms as a single variegated and historically evolving totality, initiating a debate that has only intensified with the passage of time.[21]

More significantly, MacAskill is at such pains to discredit Williams that he fails to consider the scholarship that he has himself provided as evidence. To take one example, MacAskill quotes the work of Robin Blackburn, a Marxist historian of slavery. MacAskill does not just draw on the statistical analysis Blackburn offers in his seminal The Making of New World Slavery (2010), but goes so far as to cite him as an ally against Williams and what he takes to be the economic explanation of abolition.[22] This is a surprising claim indeed, since as Blackburn maintains, the exhaustive empirical work in The Making of New World Slavery is ‘consistent with the strong version of the “Williams thesis”’.[23]

Regardless, MacAskill rejects an economic explanation to place greater power in the hands of the individual who can agitate to shift moral values. MacAskill presents changing attitudes in the work of activists who challenge values and shift popular mindsets. While it is unfortunate that MacAskill only mentions the resistance of the enslaved in passing, he spends considerable time telling the story of the radical eighteenth-century Quaker, Benjamin Lay. MacAskill relies entirely on Marcus Rediker’s wonderful The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist (2017) to tell the story of this incredible figure. Rediker excavates Lay’s life and thought to show the impact of activism to fight for social change. However, problems with MacAskill’s scholarship emerge once again. A key part of Rediker’s argument is erased from MacAskill’s selective narrative. Rediker makes clear that Lay ‘believed that abolition must inform a revolutionary revelation of all life, premised on a rejection of the capitalist values of the marketplace’ and ‘would fold his antislavery principles and practices into a broader, more radical vision of human possibility’.[24] A central aspect of Lay’s moral motivation to fight against abolition, as Rediker demonstrates throughout his book, was his politics.[25] Lay saw the struggle against slavery as part of a struggle for a just political order against slavery and capitalism. Of course, MacAskill might disagree with Lay and Rediker that there is a connection between capitalism and slavery, but it is strange to use this account as evidence for his position and remove such a core aspect of the political motivations in Lay’s story.

These problems in MacAskill’s use of historical sources points to a more fundamental issue in his understanding of history. It is telling that MacAskill’s historical account so deliberately avoids politics, because it tells us something crucial about the philosophical tradition in which he is working, and its fundamental limitations when it comes to thinking about how human societies might be other than what they are.

3. Philosophy and Social Change

The question of history raises its head again and again in MacAskill’s analysis, by virtue of its absence. What We Owe the Future not only showcases a lack of historical analysis, but also a lack of curiosity about the question of history itself, and by extension the changes human societies have undergone (again, supposedly a core interest of MacAskill).

Indeed, MacAskill’s approach must be situated in its own history and immanent logic. We suggest that this is a vital aspect of analysis, as it highlights the intellectual debts MacAskill relies upon in What We Owe the Future, and the philosophical tradition in which it can be situated, as well as showing clearly why it is a failed project from the outset. The two major problems of MacAskill’s project are interlinked: it begins with a lack of engagement with the historical tradition of moral philosophy, typical of the kind of moral philosophy in which he is working, and ends, (once his project’s limitations begin to appear on the horizon) with the resignation of philosophy’s capacity to affect change in an historical moment. At best, philosophy can simply be an assistant to the mechanisms of contemporary power. Philosophy can request more funding, but little more. This initial historical ignorance, we argue, goes beyond a mere lack of knowledge or interest in ‘the history of ideas’, the latter phrase implying that the past is simply a matter of curiosity, and not an active site of rational engagement. On the contrary, the failure to engage seriously with the rich tradition of moral philosophy, leads MacAskill to an ahistorical and naive ‘first principles’ approach, which overlooks contemporary and nuanced engagements with the very problems he seeks to answer. The result, in the end, is the abdication of philosophy’s genuine normative potential.

One philosopher to whom MacAskill owes a great intellectual debt is Derek Parfit, one of the leading Oxford moral philosophers of the second half of the twentieth century. MacAskill, who considered Parfit a mentor, is open about these debts. The beginning of the chapter ‘Is it Good to Make Happy People?’, is devoted to introducing the lay-reader to the mythos of Parfait’s life. Here was a man who ‘lived almost all of his life in educational institutions’, who was ‘utterly single-minded in his pursuit of improving our moral understanding’, and who ‘would read philosophy while brushing his teeth’.[26] MacAskill quotes a New Yorker profile: ‘The driving force behind Parfit’s moral concern was suffering. He couldn’t bear to see someone suffer’.[27] As Stephen Mulhall recently wrote in the London Review of Books, ‘You don’t have to be Nietzsche to see in Parfit’s adult life a particularly stark version of an ascetic ideal that has its historical roots in the religious framework his family inhabited, but which has mutated into a variety of avowedly secular cultural forms, in science, art, and philosophy’.[28] This asceticism led in the end to a form of intellectual withdrawal. Despite Parfit’s obvious genius, what he lacked was an account of how philosophy might engage seriously with its intellectual tradition, in part because he considered our moral traditions to be too steeped in religious doctrine. This worry led to a style of philosophy highly reliant on counterfactual thought experiments that sought to extract the grounding of our moral intuitions. But his fierce intellect was almost entirely unmoored from the tradition of moral philosophy, and did not recognize the engagement with its history as a feature of genuine philosophical reflection. There is a similarly ascetic streak to MacAskill’s own approach (he preaches simple living and vegetarianism, and gives away a significant portion of his income) which sits awkwardly with his orientation towards the rich as collaborators. Living a simple lifestyle, but looking for capitalist patrons cannot but help excuse the excesses of capitalism. While we do not doubt either Parfit or MacAskill’s good intentions, we suggest that their brand of ascetic utilitarianism is reflective of an intellectual tradition that has no conception of how philosophy relates to its past. As we will show, this has profound philosophical implications.

MacAskill’s failure to engage with a serious account of social change derives from a failure to understand the relation between the past, and an alternative future. A core part of MacAskill’s argument concerning our debts to future people, deals with the non-identity problem, the paradox popularised by Parfit in his landmark Reasons and Persons (1984).[29] The problem, part of the sub-area known as ‘population ethics’, grapples with the idea that an act may still be wrong if it does not directly harm anyone in particular. The paradox emerges from the troubling observation that it is impossible to simultaneously hold three core beliefs: one, that for an act to be wrong it must harm someone (person affecting), two, that bringing someone into existence whose life is pleasurable although flawed is not a bad thing for that person and, three, that some acts that bring people into existence are wrong even if they do not harm anyone.

Talking in broad strokes, the traditional route here in analytic philosophy of the past fifty years has been to deny the first of these beliefs (person-affecting) but in a manner that suggests this is a radically new and ground breaking position. It ignores entirely the fact that there are several intellectual traditions that accept it as a given that this first belief is clearly false. While Parfit to his credit saw the need to overturn the person affecting view, he saw it as a radically new path in philosophy, and one in which he struggled with for the remainder of his life. As a committed utilitarian, how was one to ground an account of the good that simultaneously maximised the utility of as many people as possible, while also accepting that some things could be wrong without directly affecting someone or, to put it another way, without affecting the ledger of utility? This is, of course, a serious challenge within the domain of utilitarianism, and one that Parfit was never able to fully address successfully. But Parfit was unwilling to look beyond his methodology of poking at our moral intuitions by increasingly obscure counterfactual thought experiments. This is a process that largely ignored the question of radical normative transformation and assumed an almost naturalised account of the utilitarian basis of our collective moral common sense, and simply looked to discern the reasoning behind our already established moral commitments. This is typical of the ahistorical approach of the tradition in which MacAskill is operating: it is not simply a case of historical ignorance, but rather a case of failing to engage philosophically with core arguments. In short, it is actually quite straightforward to conceive of an account of moral wrongness that is unrelated to how it affects someone. Problems like climate change, a popular example for the non-identity problem, can be (and perhaps may have to be ) conceived as wrong (and wrong in a manner that catalyses ethical action) in ways that do not focus on the experiences and harm of the atomised subject. But for the utilitarian, this is a serious impasse.

MacAskill is similarly stuck, but for different reasons to Parfit. Where Parfit rejected the so-called ‘Repugnant Conclusion’ (a situation in which a world with many more only marginally satisfied people can be counted as having a greater net utility than a world in which a smaller number of people are fabulously happy), MacAskill, somewhat controversially, is open to accepting the repugnant conclusion.[30] This preference for the ‘Total-View’, in his own words the view that ‘one population is better than another if it contains more total wellbeing’, leads him to conclude that, ‘we should hope that future civilisation will be big. If future people will be sufficiently well-off, then a civilisation that is twice as long or twice as large is twice as good’.[31] MacAskill visualises a utopian future, with humanity living for a million years, exploring and colonising space, a case of exponentially expanding utility. He argues that the repugnant conclusion is inescapable because it rests on what he considers three incontrovertible arguments.[32] The arguments themselves are less important than the process of argumentation – all of the arguments are confined entirely within the intellectual domain of utilitarianism – that this approach to ethics is the best is simply taken for granted. For MacAskill, the repugnant conclusion, a worldview that consigns an entire population to what Parfit described as ‘listening to Muzak and eating potatoes’, is the best option because, in his view, the others are even more repugnant.[33] That these are the only options possible for living a human life is seen as self-evident and is dictated purely by the weight of numbers. We are left, then, with differing modalities of a repugnant future.

While MacAskill wants to depict the potential future of humanity in optimistic, utopian terms, it is difficult to see the justification for this, given his argumentation. This level of repressed resignation is a product of his historical blindness, the cul-de-sac of technical and complex population ethics a direct result of his failure to engage with other moral traditions. Again and again, he does not recognise, or simply ignores, that such traditions have existed since the beginning of philosophy: for example, Aristotelian ethics, or neo-Aristotelianism as shown in the moral writings of Alasdair MacIntyre. There is not a single reference to John Rawl’s account of justice, or indeed to other Kantian accounts. Kant’s idea of the moral law has provided many contemporary moral philosophers with a rigorous account of why something may be wrong, not for its consequences, but because it violates norms to which we might rationally aspire. For instance, according to Christine Korsgaard’s moral philosophy, itself an interpretation of Aristotle and Kant, human beings act by rationally evaluating reasons that bear normatively on the ends we value.[34] Our moral self-evaluation requires acting on laws that are self-legislating, that is, norms which we take to be binding on our own action and meaning as moral beings. Similarly, but unsurprisingly, MacAskill omits the rich criticisms of modern moral thinking (utilitarian and otherwise) in G.W.F. Hegel and Friedrich Nietszche, as well as contemporary thinkers as varied and important as Charles Taylor, Martha Nussbaum, Iris Marion Young, and Robert Brandom. While MacAskill might very well disagree with these arguments and points of view, to fail to engage with the core of the Anglo-American moral tradition in which he claims to take part, betrays not just a mere disagreement, but a failure of philosophical process. Engagement with such scholars would not necessarily affect the popular style of What We Owe the Future, since the book cites a wide range of disciplines. In fact, the absence of engagement with philosophical scholarship is noticeable, as if MacAskill’s employment as a professional philosopher makes detailed analysis of other philosopher’s work unnecessary. Aside from the engagement with Parfit, out of the 42,500 words of notes and 22,000 bibliography – which must be accessed at https://whatweowethefuture.com/ – philosophical discussion is seldom cited, drawn on or engaged with. Simply put, the book is not supported by sufficient philosophical argument.[35]

Despite the secular framing of MacAskill’s project, and in particular his focus on applied problems of moral philosophy, his admiration for Parfit the man betray the real roots of this particular brand of Twentieth century analytic moral philosophy: namely, a fundamental retreat from the world, an ascetic refusal to engage with reality itself. This may seem a strange claim about a book that’s core concern is the material welfare of future generations, and a philosophy that purports to want to be accessible to everyone beyond the ivory tower of academia. However, the architecture of MacAskill’s claims are symptomatic of an intellectual tradition that has lost entirely any genuine understanding of how critical reflection may alter the lives and social reality of human beings.

That this future will be mediated by rampant population growth, particular forms of economic organisation, and the increasing presence of AI is taken for granted, and thus naturalises one comparatively recent account of human beings’ socio-historical reality. There is no serious engagement with the phenomenon of social antagonism (class or otherwise), and almost no confrontation with how happiness (net utility), relates to social relations and power structures. Contextualised within the history of the utilitarianism of the past fifty years, MacAskill’s work can be seen as a form of treading water intellectually the dead end was reached some time ago, but the full implications of that death are still to be fully borne out. Rather, once the highly-abstract methods like Parfit’s were seen to lead nowhere, when the supposed ‘purity’ of utilitarian thought experiments and first principles reasoning failed, moral philosophy was reduced to an instrumental role. It abdicated its responsibility to whatever the reigning ideology considers most effective: the charities, the policy makers, the ruling class. In short, in a book about humanity’s future, and of how we might escape the disasters of our past, there is no understanding of human beings as historical creatures and, by extension, what is actually required for human beings to re-imagine and remake our material conditions.[36] While MacAskill would undoubtedly deny this charge, and point to the ways in which What We Owe the Future is geared towards practical research and policy, it is very notable that beyond some of his broader speculations about how states might reconcile their antagonistic relationship with future challenges like climate change and AI, his specific normative directives are almost entirely focused on the actions of the individual. The role of ethics, once again, and as Adorno warned, is reduced to a form of personal administration: who to vote for, which charity to donate to, and which billionaire to root for.

4. What We Owe the Past

In the final (and curiously short) chapter entitled ‘What to do’, MacAskill unwittingly conjures an image that gets to the heart of a fundamental tension of his moral philosophy. Although his book is predicated on the necessity of making educated projections about the future, he also concedes that it is intensely difficult to know what the future may look like.[37] MacAskill muses that some of this difficulty derives from the grammatical form of almost all languages, the necessity of grammatical tense in some way mediating our collective comprehension of our relation to the future and the past: ‘the future is ahead of us and the past is behind’.[38] A model for  reorienting our perspective comes, he argues, from the Aymara language, in which ‘the future is behind us and the past is in front of us’.[39] For the Aymara people, life is predicated on what can firmly be known: namely, the present and the past. Their thinking about the future is inferred from what we know about the past. MacAskill suggests: ‘The implicit philosophy is that, when making plans for the future, we should take much the same attitude as if we were walking backwards into unknown terrain’.[40] Here, MacAskill unconsciously conjures the historical metaphor of Benjamin’s Angel of History, without any of the associated implications. Benjamin writes of the Angel,

His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. His face is turned towards the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe…The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings…This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.[41]

Benjamin’s famous passage is much disputed in the scholarship, but it strikes us that in some key respects it is precisely MacAskill’s vision of morality and history that Benjamin was seeking to criticise, not merely as a philosophical exercise, but also as a crucial political act. Benjamin sees the Angel’s plight as representative of a broader, deterministic perspective on humanity’s predicament in a world operating under the ideology of progress. It embodies a situation in which human life in the present (in particular the ways we organise ourselves politically) is linked in a very specific and ossified way to our understanding of the events of the past. We are, in a sense, products and prisoners of a gradual historical progress. This blind adherence to the status quo eliminates any other articulations of what it might mean to live a free human life, and the ways in which the past might be used productively to catalyse such an articulation. Benjamin understood that a real moral philosophy, derived from a renewed interrogation of our relationship to our past, might assist in re-imagining humanity’s relationship to power. Instead, Benjamin suggests that ‘conformism’ to such a status quo stultifies thought. He argues that class struggle which is so often written out of history, provides a conception of change in terms of ‘the tradition of the oppressed’. For Benjamin, history is not a story of linear progress, but a struggle for emancipation. To look forward towards emancipation requires renewing the past, to ‘wrest tradition away from conformism’ in the name of future shapes of freedom.[42]

Despite suggesting that, all things being equal, the present is largely a positive ‘place to be’, MacAskill simultaneously seems to want to use the past as an important anchor for an account of our ethical commitments to those who are not yet born. As we have outlined, he spends a good deal of time in the opening chapters arguing for the ways in which human beings can influence the future, and the manner in which the future is not set. He argues that ‘the future could…be very good – or very bad.’[43] But he also maintains that things are for the most part better now than they were in this nebulous time before the present. While he insists that progress is not inevitable, that a positive future for humanity rests on our moral actions (both individual and collective) today, he nonetheless assumes in his model that the future will be marked by much the same set of political, social, and economic relations that the liberal understanding of historical progress deems likely.[44] Notably he seems to consider the spectrum of possibilities for humanity future to range from a dystopian  ‘one where a single totalitarian regime controls the world, of where today’s quality of life is but a distant memory of a former Golden Age’ to a ‘world where everyone lives like the happiest people in the most well-off countries today.’[45]

What Benjamin understood, and what MacAskill fails to consider, is that if we are to think seriously about human life and its future, our moral lives cannot just be generated by a mere looking towards the future and an uncritical acceptance of whatever common sense deems important about our past. While the question of the good life may involve a gazing upon the past as a renewed point of orientation, as MacAskill clumsily suggests, Benjamin shows that it is not simply a case of looking back at the ‘barbaric’ past and thinking about how it might be improved. In particular, Benjamin illuminates the way the myth of progress hides the fact that all the great achievements of humanity were also marked by the violence of power; that human history was not a story of gradual liberation, but one in which even the greatest achievements of human beings was a testament to its barbarism. For Benjamin, these traces of the past, both legacies of barbaric cruelty, as well as unfulfilled other possibilities for a free human life, can be recognised in the present, and generative of a genuine interruption to the status quo. These ‘lost’ possibilities of the past can thus be, in a sense, redeemed, for the sake of those living now and, by extension, those who will live tomorrow. We suggest that by taking seriously the examples from history (even if only half-remembered in fragmented form) that refuse to be subsumed into the victorious narrative of progress, that  alter our collective understanding of what humans beings were and might still be, there is a genuine promise of re-imagining and re-making the present.

Ultimately, Benjamin’s account gestures to a nuanced understanding of how a serious historical understanding that acknowledges the past both as a series of disasters, but also as a locus of hope, can orientate our moral actions today. This allows us to see the past not as something chronologically behind us, and a series of past events to ‘learn from’ in a march to progress, but rather a contested site in which human beings seek to articulate an alternative way of living and acting together. Thus, our future will need to have a history. In our view, our moral orientation cannot detach one from the other. Because MacAskill has an uncritical concept of history, and of how things might be different, it makes sense that his practical morality leads him to ally himself with the powerful entities that could change at least some things in our current historical moment. But of course, this change would be conditional on things staying the same. As Benjamin’s use of the Angel of History shows, MacAskill’s understanding of what might change is highly restrictive, and implicitly accepts the premises of only one particular account of what the relationship between the ethical and the political might be. Uncritically accepting the power dynamics of the present day, he fails to see that it is this understanding of humanity’s future – wherein a particular social relation between human life and happiness is reified – that dooms us to continue on the trajectory he rightly suggests may ‘lead to the complete destruction of civilisation’. [46] Again, capitalism must be named.

The implications of Benjamin’s critique of progress, in particular the moral dimensions of such a view, are taken up more concretely by his friend and colleague T. W. Adorno. In a 1963 lecture, Adorno spoke of the possibility of moral philosophy in the present:

On the question of whether moral philosophy is possible today, the only thing I would be able to say is that essentially it would consist in the attempt to make conscious the critique of moral philosophy, the critique of its options and an awareness of its antinomies.[47]

Adorno understood that the very historical conditions that humanity found itself in following the Second World War (conditions that continue to obtain now) made the possibility of a genuinely moral life extremely precarious. The antinomies of philosophy reflect the dualism of a form of life defined by the production and exchange of commodities.  Adorno is deeply critical of moral trends that restrict thought and maximise action, the intellectual origins of which he considered to be forms of domination.[48] Adorno argues that approaches to moral action that seeks to undercut the critical reflection immanent within are not moral and, instead, serve only the goals of reigning ideology. The reason for this was because such an individualistic approach to moral action becomes an atomised, administrative form of personal regulation and development; it contains no self-reflective moment wherein one ‘hold[s] fast to moral norms, to self-criticism… and at the same time to a sense of the fallibility of the authority that has the confidence to undertake such self-criticism.’[49] In other words, it contains no critical moment that interrogates the material conditions in which a subject strives to be moral, and the extent to which those conditions may render moral action impossible. He concludes, thus, that there can be ‘no ethics…in the administered world.’[50] This is, in short, morality that has degenerated into ideology.

Adorno’s position is often interpreted as pessimistic, of essentially ruling out the possibility of a moral life in modernity. We consider this mistaken, in particular when Adorno is understood as adopting Benjamin’s commitment to the re-imagining of the present. Adorno’s criticism of moral philosophy was strictly the criticism of its possibility in a specific historical moment, and in particular the unreflective assumption that the conditions in which a human being thought had no bearing on her capacity to act morally. Adorno’s insight that this form of thought cannot produce anything new, and certainly cannot alter the status quo, we think, actually contains a critical insight into our collective situation. Such a ruthless and honest appraisal of the dire nature of the present (whether social, economic or political) is arguably the best perspective from which to engage seriously again with the problem of the good life, and what it means for us all. MacAskill’s failure is that he has not engaged with this problem at all. Much less, MacAskill assumes that what we owe the future is compatible with capitalism. On the contrary, as Adorno helps show, MacAskill’s philosophy is an administrative morality. It takes for granted the nature of history, and its relation to power, and instead tells the atomised subject what to do in that series of relations.


The central issue with MacAskill’s utilitarianism is that it leads to the intellectual cul-de sac of positivism. Here is a world in which all thought, all forms of reflection, have been reduced to their purely instrumentalised forms, whereby thought can only be of moral use when it is aligned explicitly with capital and technocratic endeavour. The morality of doing good is always mediated by the structures that already dominate our lives: states, banks, corporations, celebrities, charities, NGOs. The question of the good life is forfeited for what good one can do and just as quickly becomes one of buying into the relations of domination The broader question of what it might mean to think and act ethically in such a historical moment is abandoned in favour of logistical questions. Indeed the act of taking the time to reflect is almost seen as suspicious – thinking looks almost gratuitous, almost a waste of time, when so many people are, and will be, in need. But as the last gasp of positivism, we are left alone; MacAskill leaves us without an ability to think, let alone change, our collective situation.

James Kent teaches philosophy at the University of Melbourne. His research focuses on the intersection of aesthetics and ethics. He has been published in journals including History of Philosophy Quarterly, International Journal of Philosophical Studies andCritical Horizons.

Michael Lazarus teaches politics and philosophy at Monash University. He has published on a range of issues related to Hegelian and Marxist themes in venues including ConstellationsPhilosophy and Social CriticismHistorical Materialismand Thesis Eleven. His work has also appeared in non-academic publications, such as The ConversationThe Saturday PaperJacobinand Australian Book Review. His two edited books, A Renewal of Hegelian Marxism: Debating Martin Hägglund’s This Life and Hegel and MacIntyre: Reason in History are forthcoming with Routledge.

[1] Twitter, Inc. v. Musk, C. A. 2022-0613-KSJM (Del. Ch. Sep. 22, 2022).

[2] William MacAskill, ‘Effective Altruism: Introduction’, Essays in Philosophy. 18:1 (2017), 2.

[3] James Kent and Michael Lazarus, ‘Peter Singer is the Philosopher of the Status Quo’, Jacobin, 21/10/2022.

[4] William MacAskill, What We Owe the Future (London: Oneworld, 2022), 9. Subsequent references, WF.

[5] WF, 9.

[6] WF, 9.

[7] WF, 13.

[8] WF, 13.

[9] WF, 13.

[10] For reasons that seem unrelated to the argument, MacAskill even provides a chart for us to visualise what it might have meant, physically speaking, to inhabit a world alongside the Dire Wolf, or the towering Megatherium (a giant ground sloth).WF, 29-30.

[11] WF, 31.

[12] WF, 31.

[13] WF, 40.

[14] WF, 40-43.

[15] WF, 43.

[16] WF, 92.

[17] MacAskill’s first book was praised, for example, by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. See https://medium.com/bill-melinda-gates-foundation/the-case-for-putting-your-head-where-your-heart-is-e5523da22f50, accessed 11/8/23/. Elon Musk also expressed his admiration, see https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1554335028313718784, accessed 11/8/23.

[18] WF, 63.

[19] Nick Nesbitt, The Price of Slavery (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2022), 13-31.

[20] For instance, Thomas Piketty, A Brief History of Equality (Cambridge: Belknap, 2022), 55 and H. Reuben Neptune, ‘Throwin’ Scholarly Shade: Eric Willaims in the New Histories of Capitalism and Slavery’, Journal of the Early Republic, 39 (2019).

[21] Nesbitt, The Price of Slavery, 15.

[22] WF, 282.

[23] Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery (London: Verso, 1997), 542. See also Nesbitt’s critique of Blackburn, The Price of Slavery, 41-51.

[24] Marcus Rediker, The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist (London: Verso, 2017), 7, 95.

[25] Ibid., 116, 133, 137, 141.

[26] WF, 167.

[27] WF, 168.

[28] https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v45/n11/stephen-mulhall/non-identity-crisis, accessed 15/6/23.

[29] See Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 351-79.

[30] See Parfit, Reasons and Persons, 381–90. See also WF, 181-4.

[31] WF 179, 189.

[32] WF, 181-84.

[33] Derek Parfit, “Overpopulation and the Quality of Life,” Applied Ethics, ed. Peter Singer, 145–164 (Oxford University Press, 1986), 148.


[34] Christine Korsgaard, Fellow Creatures (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 45.

[35] We struggled to find over thirty references to specifically philosophical sources in the bibliography and where we did – ten references are entries from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,another ten to introductions to Chinese philosophy and six  to Parfit.

[36] In a review of the book for the Effective Altruism affiliated “Giving What We Can”, Michael Townsend lists a series of things he learnt and further questions he has after coming to grips with MacAskill’s argument. Very notably, almost all of them are configured around questions of individual action and ambition. See https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/about-us, accessed 7/8/23.

[37] WF, 224.

[38] WF, 223.

[39] WF, 223.

[40] WF, 224.

[41] Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’, in Selected Writings: Volume Four, 1938-1940, ed. Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 392.

[42] Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’, 391, 394.

[43] WF, 19.

[44] ‘There’s no inevitable arc of progress’. WF, 245.

[45] WF, 21, 20.

[46] WF, 21.

[47] T. W. Adorno, Problems of Moral Philosophy, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Oxford, Polity, 2001), 167.

[48] Ibid, 171. These trends ‘ceaselessly confront people with demands, without leaving them time to reflect: All right, so what are you going to do about it?’

[49] Ibid, 169.

[50] Ibid, 176.