What We Owe the Future

Book Review
What We Owe the Future, by William MacAskill, Basic Books, Oneworld Publications, 2022, 352 pages

July 11, 2023 | Opinion | Volume 27 Issue 14D
Paul Redekop | Special to Canadian Mennonite
Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lay, painted by William Williams. (Wikipedia Commons)

In a time of great uncertainty, do we give up on worldly concerns, or try to return to a storied past? Or do we look ahead to what we can do for the future?

In his 2022 New York Times bestselling book, What We Owe The Future, Scottish author William MacAskill makes the case for what he calls longtermism: the idea that, morally speaking, people in the future should count for as much as people in the present, that there may be very large numbers of people in the future, and that we can contribute to making their lives much better, or worse, depending on the things we do today.

MacAskill, 36, quotes an old proverb: “A society grows great when old men plant trees under whose shade they will never sit.”

MacAskill asks us to imagine a rich British man in 1700, with access to the best food, health care and luxuries of the time. We might imagine him wanting the same for everyone. Yet his quality of life would have been far worse than even a very average person in our society today, in terms of health care, freedom from early death by disease, opportunities to travel and much more. All of which would have added up to a life expectancy of about 37 years, compared to a life expectancy of 82 in Canada today.

As Christians we pray, “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” In an example of what we might see as Christians bringing about the Kingdom, MacAskill writes about the work of Quakers in the 1700s. At that time, slavery was widely practiced and accepted throughout the world.

Yet it was eventually abolished, due in large part to Quakers in England and the U.S. such as Benjamin Lay, who regularly called out those of his Quaker brethren who themselves owned slaves. Once, after being expelled from a Quaker Meeting for doing so, he lay down in the mud outside the meetinghouse so that every member of the congregation had to walk over him.

The abolition of slavery benefitted not only those 400,000 who were enslaved in the U.S. at the time of abolition, but the tens of millions more African Americans in subsequent generations who would be born free. Abolition was also a precursor to the broad acceptance of basic human rights.

While he acknowledges the possibility of disaster for humanity in coming years, MacAskill looks forward to the future, seeing the possibility of many more billions of humans living ever more fulfilling lives. Taking the longtermist’s view, he points out that even if 99 percent of the human race was destroyed, that would still leave 80 million human survivors; more than enough to rebuild humanity and make possible the happy lives of many billions more.

The more philosophical later chapters regarding the possibility of future human lives and their projected value can be a struggle to read. However, Christians can take away a sense of optimism regarding humanity’s long-term future, and continue to affirm our faith that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Paul Redekop is professor emeritus of Conflict Resolution Studies at Menno Simons College in Winnipeg.

Quaker abolitionist Benjamin Lay, painted by William Williams. (Wikipedia Commons)

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