William MacAskill's book was no doubt written with the best of intentions. It presents some important ideas, particularly that we owe something to the people who will come after us. But it is tainted by an unexamined thread of colonialism that runs through it and results in some disturbing conclusions.
Chapter 8 is called, "Is It Good to Make Happy People?" although perhaps it should be called, "Is It Worth a Mass Extinction to Make More Mildly Happy People?" It examines what the late philosopher Derek Parfit called The Repugnant Conclusion.
The Repugnant Conclusion states that increasing the human population is always good, as long as the new people have lives that are even slightly happy. So a world with six billion very happy people is not as good as a world of twelve billion slightly happy people, which is not as good a world of 100 billion people who are barely happy at all.
Taking this principle to its logical conclusion, humanity's ideal is to increase the population as much as possible while decreasing happiness to the bare minimum. You want a world simply stuffed with people who are miserable much of the time but happy slightly more of the time. Indeed, the two things are inversely proportionate. After all, beyond a certain point, human happiness is likely to decrease as population increases, because living in a desperately crowded world is much less pleasant than living in a world with space for wilderness, peace and quiet. But the Repugnant Conclusion dictates that we must give up on such things, for it is more ethical to fill up the wild spaces we love with more cities and people, as long as we can induce the slightest bit of happiness in those people, perhaps through a combination of drugs, sex, art and television.
Intuitively, there is something wrong with this conclusion, as Derek Parfit knew. Some, such as myself, might even think it a recipe for dystopia. William MacAskill refutes all the arguments against it that he is aware of, and ultimately embraces it.
The arguments he presents are solid. But he doesn't question the assumption that human life can be considered in a vacuum, divorced from the other species that inhabit the planet. This is a colonialist view. Colonialism requires that we draw a circle around our own class, culture, species, etc. and say, "We're the ones that matter. Everything outside this circle is beneath consideration." It's the philosophy that enabled Europeans to perpetrate terrible harms such as slavery on the Indigenous people of other lands.
MacAskill recognizes slavery as a bad thing, and discusses it at length earlier in the book. Yet he does not break out of his colonialist box enough to question the philosophy that led to it.
The final challenge to the Repugnant Conclusion that MacAskill refutes is the Critical Level View. This is the view that there is a critical level of happiness below which humanity must not fall. MacAskill demonstrates that the Critical Level View does not hold up to scrutiny. But of course it doesn't, because it still looks only at humans. It still considers humanity in a vacuum, divorced from other species.
If on the other hand, one takes other species into account, one might introduce another critical level: biodiversity. Humans have already been degrading biodiversity for centuries, so it's not a matter of finding a perfect level of biodiversity that we can point to and say, "We must achieve that." Or if there was, we are probably already below it. It's more a matter of recognizing that more biodiversity is better than less, just as more happiness is better than less, and that it would be a good thing if we could put the brakes on this Sixth Mass Extinction we're currently fuelling.
Many people already recognize that, which is why there was a COP15 Biodiversity Conference. One cannot keep growing the human population indefinitely while maintaining biodiversity. Accepting its importance requires recognizing that unlimited human population growth is a bad thing.
But it's evident that MacAskill did not attend COP15, nor has he had this recognition. Indeed, his colonialist philosophy requires that he devalue the lives of other living things, which he does in Chapter 9. He writes, "It's very natural and intuitive to think of humans' impact on wild animal life as a great moral loss. But if we assess the lives of wild animals as being worse than nothing on average, which I think is plausible (though uncertain), we arrive at the dizzying conclusion that from the perspective of the wild animals themselves, the enormous growth and expansion of Homo Sapiens is a good thing."
Here we see that the Repugnant Conclusion, wielded by William MacAskill, is a double-edged sword. Applied to humans, it leads to the conclusion that we should endeavour to make them a tiny bit happy and multiply them indefinitely. Applied to non-humans, it leads to the conclusion that we should not even try to make them even a tiny bit happy, but should drive them into extinction indefinitely.
The double standard is clear, and it is repugnant indeed. It also requires overlooking two points: brief versus protracted suffering, and human-caused suffering.
MacAskill claims, "A turtle ripped apart by a killer whale experiences no less pain than one strangled by the plastic loops that held together a six-pack." This assertion serves as a justification for humans to go on carelessly causing non-human suffering. I maintain that it is quite wrong, for a couple of reasons.
- Being ripped apart by a killer whale is much quicker than being gradually, over months, strangled by a plastic loop. Furthermore, when one is mauled by a predator, the body responds with a release of endorphins, which block pain perception. There's a discussion of this phenomenon in the book Pain: the Fifth Vital Sign by Marni Jackson, including some fascinating first-person accounts.
- A thriving ecosystem is likely to contain a great deal less protracted suffering than a human-degraded ecosystem. If many wild animals are currently experiencing more suffering than joy in their lives, it is probably due largely to human activities. When humans destroy your ecosystem, you don't usually die in a flash. Most likely, you starve to death, a protracted form of suffering which does not cause endorphin release.
The human race could choose to tip the balance in favour of less animal suffering merely by making a few "sacrifices." Seen correctly, these aren't really sacrifices at all, since thriving ecosystems and biodiversity are essential to optimal human happiness. We would merely be acting with enlightened self-interest, rather than the blind self-interest under which our societies usually operate.
Therefore, MacAskill "dizzying conclusion" that we're doing animals a favour by driving them to extinction is flipping reality on its head. It's entirely wrong. So why did MacAskill overlook these (fairly obvious, I think) objections to his pro-extinction conclusion?
I believe it's because MacAskill's conclusions--in favour of human multiplication and animal extinction--are self-serving. He needs them to justify colonialism's greatest dream, which he also holds dear: "The practical upshot of this is a moral case for space settlement," he writes at the end of Chapter 8.
This also explains why his examination of the Fermi Paradox is so perfunctory, when he is so rigorous in most of the rest of the book. An impartial observer can see that the Fermi Paradox, while an interesting thought experiment, proves nothing. We simply don't have enough data on the rest of the universe to draw any conclusions about extraterrestrial life.
On the other hand, a mind steeped in colonialist values needs to believe that the Fermi Paradox proves an "empty universe," ripe for unlimited human expansion. It needs to believe that there is no other life in the universe, or if there is, it's not "intelligent life," defined as "thinking in a similar way to us humans." It's life outside the circle of things that matter.
It's a view that could, in the distant future, lead to as much (or more) Indigenous suffering on other planets as humans have already caused on Earth.
The central thesis of What We Owe the Future is that we have a moral obligation to all the humans who may come after us. It is a principle that can, and should, be applied to lifeforms on other planets as well. Even if there's nothing but single-celled life on those other planets, we have a moral obligation to consider that life as important and worthy of existence. After all, what about all its future generations? What might it become, given time?
We ourselves evolved from single-celled organisms. If a space-faring colonialist bunch of aliens had landed on our planet eons ago, looked around and said, "This is a perfect new home! Nothing here but useless single-celled life forms," we would never have come to be.
Those of us who grew up in colonialist cultures (this includes Parfit, MacAskill and myself) are often tempted to embrace the self-serving rationalizations that bolster our fantasies and paper over our collective crimes. We tend to want to bargain, so that we can maintain our view of the world and our way of life. We think, "Yes it's true, my cherished philosophy led to that bad thing, and even those other bad things. But the basic principles are sound. We need do no more than tinker at the edges, maybe expand the circle a bit. Anything beyond that is too radical to consider."
It's not enough to expand the circle. We need to eliminate it altogether, and recognize the sacredness of all living things, as Indigenous peoples do. Derek Parfit was not able to free himself of the Repugnant Conclusion, and all the other repugnancies of colonialism, capitalism and species-ism. But we can, if we make the right choices. Let's start by taking from MacAskill's book what is good in it, and soundly rejecting what is not.
William MacAskill, What We Owe the Future (London Oneworld, 2022).
Marni Jackson, Pain: the Fifth Vital Sign (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2002), 280-82.
MacAskill's look at the Fermi Paradox starts at the bottom of page 117 and extends to page 119.
For a clever challenge to the Fermi Paradox, illustrated through fiction, check out "The Fermi Paradox Is Our Business Model" by Charlie Jane Anders, available for free at Tor.com.
This is one of the themes of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. It's a great read that I highly recommend.