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Will MacAskill

Will MacAskill is an influential figure in the world of philosophy and altruism, renowned for his pioneering work in effective altruism, a movement that seeks to use evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to benefit others. Born on March 24, 1987, in Glasgow, Scotland, MacAskill is an Associate Professor in Philosophy at the University of Oxford and a co-founder of several organizations focused on effective altruism, including Giving What We Can and the Centre for Effective Altruism. His academic work specializes in ethics, decision theory, and the philosophy of philanthropy, where he explores the implications of taking a long-term view of the future of humanity. MacAskill's influential book, "Doing Good Better," has been a key text in spreading the ideas of effective altruism to a broader audience. MacAskill's contributions have been pivotal in shaping a global community focused on using altruism as a rigorous, analytical tool for doing good, fundamentally changing how individuals and organizations approach philanthropy and social impact.

Books Mentioned People I Mostly Admire #84 - Will MacAskill:

A Million-Year View on Morality: Exploring the Philosophy of Will MacAskill

Introduction: Pioneering Thoughts on Long-Term Morality

In episode 86 of the podcast “People I (Mostly) Admire,” host Steven Levitt engages with a fascinating conversation with William MacAskill, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University and a pioneer in the effective altruism movement. MacAskill’s unconventional approach to morality and altruism challenges us to consider the impact of our actions not just in the immediate future but across millennia.

The Essence of Effective Altruism

MacAskill introduces the concept of effective altruism, which emphasizes using time and money to make the most significant positive impact. He outlines key principles like cause prioritization, focusing on neglected issues, and seeking tractable problems. This approach, blending moral philosophy with economic efficiency, aims to optimize charitable efforts by emphasizing evidence-based interventions, like global health and development initiatives.

Long-Term Perspective in Moral Philosophy

One of MacAskill’s most intriguing ideas is the need for a long-term perspective in moral decision-making. He argues that the future, even a thousand or a million years away, holds moral significance. This view challenges the conventional short-term focus of both individuals and institutions, suggesting that the impact of our actions on distant future generations is just as crucial as their immediate effects.

Economic Rationality in Altruism

MacAskill’s views resonate with economic principles. For instance, he discusses the concept of “earning to give,” where individuals work in highly lucrative roles to donate significant portions of their earnings to altruistic causes. This idea has sparked debate but highlights a pragmatic approach to doing good, balancing personal capabilities and broader impact.

The Moral Weight of Future Generations

A central theme in MacAskill’s philosophy is the moral weight of future generations. He argues that future people matter morally and should be considered in our present-day decisions. This long-term view raises compelling questions about the sustainability of economic growth and the ethical implications of technological advancements.

The Evolution of Economic Rationality in Altruism

In the second part of the “People I (Mostly) Admire” podcast, episode 86, Steven Levitt continues his engaging dialogue with philosopher Will MacAskill. They delve deeper into the economic rationality behind effective altruism, a key aspect of MacAskill’s philosophy. The discussion revolves around the idea of “earning to give,” where individuals work in high-paying jobs not for personal gain, but to donate significant portions of their income to altruistic causes. This concept, though initially controversial, illustrates a pragmatic approach to maximizing the impact of one’s contributions to society.

Addressing Global Poverty: A Rational Approach

MacAskill emphasizes the effectiveness of rational decision-making in addressing global poverty. By applying economic principles, effective altruism advocates for targeted interventions that promise the greatest return on investment, such as addressing neglected issues or contributing to scalable solutions. This approach underlines the importance of efficiency in philanthropy, ensuring that resources are allocated to causes where they can make the most significant difference.

The Moral Implications of Future Generations

A central theme in the conversation is the moral significance of future generations. MacAskill argues that our actions today should account for their impact on people thousands or even millions of years into the future. This perspective challenges the conventional focus on immediate or short-term outcomes and urges us to consider the long-term consequences of our decisions, particularly in areas like technology and environmental sustainability.

The Economic Growth Paradox

A thought-provoking part of the podcast addresses the paradox of continuous economic growth. MacAskill points out that, although economic growth has been the norm in recent history, it is unlikely to sustain indefinitely due to physical and practical limitations. This observation leads to intriguing questions about the future of humanity, the potential for technological advancements, and the implications of a world where economic growth is no longer a given.

A Radical Shift in Perspective

In the final third of the “People I (Mostly) Admire” podcast episode 86, host Steven Levitt and guest William MacAskill explore the radical and thought-provoking concept of long-termism. MacAskill, a prominent figure in the effective altruism movement, extends his philosophy to encompass not just years or decades, but millennia and beyond, urging us to consider the far-reaching consequences of our actions today on future generations.

Long-Termism: A New Moral Paradigm

MacAskill introduces the idea of long-termism, which suggests that our primary moral obligation is to positively influence the long-term future. This viewpoint challenges traditional thought by prioritizing the well-being of future generations over immediate concerns. MacAskill’s argument hinges on the idea that future people matter morally, just as much as those in the present, and that the impact of our decisions today could span thousands, if not millions, of years.

The Scope of Human Civilization and Its Future

A striking aspect of MacAskill’s philosophy is the emphasis on humanity’s potential longevity. He suggests that, compared to the lifespan of a typical mammal species, humans might just be at the beginning of their existence. This perspective dramatically shifts our focus from the present to a much broader temporal canvas, where our actions today could shape the trajectory of humanity for an unimaginable duration.

Rethinking Economic Growth and Its Sustainability

MacAskill and Levitt also delve into the sustainability of continuous economic growth. MacAskill points out the improbability of maintaining current growth rates over long time spans, challenging the conventional view of economic expansion as an indefinite trend. This raises important questions about resource allocation, technological advancements, and the eventual plateauing of economic growth.

The Risks of Man-Made Pandemics and Extinction

One of the more alarming discussions revolves around the risks of man-made pandemics. MacAskill argues that artificially engineered pathogens pose a significant threat to humanity’s future, with the potential for widespread devastation. This portion of the conversation underscores the urgent need for careful consideration and action in our scientific endeavors, particularly in fields like biotechnology.

Conclusion: Embracing a New Ethical Framework for Humanity

Will MacAskill’s conversation with Steven Levitt in this podcast episode provides a profound and challenging perspective on morality and our responsibilities towards future generations. His advocacy for long-termism and effective altruism offers a new ethical framework, encouraging us to think beyond our immediate surroundings and consider the vast expanse of time ahead of us. This philosophy not only redefines our understanding of altruism but also compels us to reassess our approach to life, technology, and the future of humanity itself.