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Three Sentences That Could Change the World – and Your Life

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Three Sentences That Could Change the World – and Your Life

The philosopher William MacAskill lays out the case for longtermism: “Future people count. There could be a lot of them. And we can make their lives better.”

The New York Times,

5 min read
4 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Human beings have moral obligations to future generations.

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Ezra Klein’s conversation with British philosopher William MacAskill probes what “longtermism” could mean for humanity’s future. If humanity survives existential crises such as nuclear war and climate disaster, there could be billions, even trillions of people in the coming millennia. What can people do today to vouchsafe their success? MacAskill posits that a broad moral framework can guide long-term thinking, and society should have a nuanced approach to transformative technologies. While the future is always shifting, humans have a moral obligation to their species’ future.


“Future people count. There could be a lot of them. We can make their lives better.”

William MacAskill’s “longtermism” philosophy posits that people today bear some responsibility for future humans’ success – or failure. It’s possible that their numbers could be vast, outnumbering current humans by up to a million to one. The human species is currently 300,000 years old, and to reach a typical mammal species’ survival, it has about 700,000 years remaining. Technology could mitigate that to add millions more years. To do this, humanity needs to avoid extinction in the coming centuries due to nuclear war, civilizational collapse or allowing totalitarianism to dominate. 

However, longtermism raises ethical questions. For instance, do future people count more than current people, because there are more of them? What are humanity’s moral obligations to people in need today, and should they be given priority? How do you calculate those priorities? To MacAskill, caring about future generations is proof that humanity is making “moral progress.” Generally, investments in the future benefit everyone, ...

About the Podcast

Ezra Klein is an American journalist and host of The Ezra Klein Show podcast for The New York Times. He is the author of Why We’re PolarizedWilliam MacAskill is a Scottish philosopher and ethicist. He is an associate professor in philosophy at the University of Oxford and the author of What We Owe the Future.

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