What do we owe future generations, really far in the future generations?
William MacAskill asks that question in his new book, “What We Owe the Future.” He is a professor of philosophy at Oxford University.
MacAskill writes of “longtermism,” what we do that will shape the future.
He starts by going back to the number one human, about 300,000 years ago in Africa. As the first person dies, you go back and become the second person and when you then die, you go back and become the third. One hundred billion years or so lives later, you are the youngest person alive today.
There have been about four trillion years of life, according to MacAskill, about 10 percent of it as a hunter-gatherer and 60 percent as a farmer, a full 20 percent raising children and over 1 percent suffering from malaria or smallpox. You spend 1.5 billion years having sex and 250 million giving birth.
MacAskill found that he was not paying attention to future populations but he should be.
“Longtermism is about taking seriously just how big the future could be and how high the stakes are in shaping it. If humanity survives to even a fraction of its potential life span, then, strange as it may seem, we are the ancients: we live at the very beginning of history, in its most distant past. What we do now will affect untold numbers of future people. We need to act wisely.
“It took me a long time to come around to longtermism. Over the past 12 years, I’ve been an advocate of effective altruism — the use of evidence and reason to help others as much as possible. In 2009, I co-founded an organization that has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to help pay for bed nets to protect families against malaria and medicine to cure children of intestinal worms, among other causes. These activities had a tangible impact. By contrast, the thought of trying to improve the lives of unknown future people initially left me cold.
“But some simple ideas exerted a persistent force on my mind: Future people count. There could be a lot of them. And we can make their lives better. To help others as much as possible, we must think about the long-term impact of our actions.”
How do you begin to know what actions you take today will have generations from now? How far will technology advance? Will advanced artificial intelligence be used for good or for ill?
MacAskill could have turned to the Native American leaders who subscribe to the seventh generation principle — what we do today must still benefit the tribe seven generations later.
According to the Working Effectively with Indigenous Peoples blog, “The Seventh Generation Principle today is generally referred to in regards to decisions being made about our energy, water, and natural resources, and ensuring those decisions are sustainable for seven generations in the future. But, it can also be applied to relationships — every decision should result in sustainable relationships seven generations in the future.”
In case you’re wondering, it’s not a new idea for the tribes — it has been traced back to 1420 to 1500 AD. “The Great Law of Haudenosaunee Confederacy formed the political, ceremonial, and social fabric of the Five Nation Confederacy (later Six). The Great Law of Haudenosaunee Confederacy is also credited as being a contributing influence on the American Constitution, due to Benjamin Franklin’s great respect for the Haudenosaunee system of government, which in itself is interesting from the perspective that the United States formed their Constitution not on the principles of European governments, but rather on that of a people considered ‘savages.’”
For MacAskill, if you want to figure out how to help the untold billions who will be living in the future, never underestimate the wisdom of the elders. Let them help you lead the way into the future.
Indiana or Kansas?
Voters in Kansas should be celebrated for their votes to beat back an effort to eliminate a right to abortion in the state’s constitution but the state to watch is Indiana, where the legislature was brought back into session to pass anti-abortion legislation.
And pass anti-abortion laws it did.
While there are exemptions for rape, incest, fatal fetal anomaly or to save the mother, the process to get that is complicated and as a whole abortion is banned from the time of conception. Of special note the legislation eliminates abortions in clinics, where 98 percent of abortions were performed in the state, and forces women to use a hospital. Doctors are obviously criminally liable if they perform an illegal abortion.
It got ugly in Indiana.
Rep. John Jacob (R):
“The body inside of the mom’s body is not her body. Let me repeat that: The body inside of the mom’s body is not her body. Not her body, not her choice,” said Jacob, a staunch abortion opponent who supported removing exceptions including for rape.
“Trying to end all abortion is not forced birth, but rather it is trying to end murdering children,” he said on the floor.
So yes, there’s that from a white male misogynist.
The problem going forward is many states have yet to take up the abortion issue but they will. Because many states are Republican controlled you can bet that more abortion laws will read like Indiana’s.
Thanks to the supreme court’s decision to toss abortion rights to the states, expect some legislative donnybrooks over the next several months. Wrangling over abortion used to be a national issue and it is now an issue state by state.
One shudders to think what new horrors legislators will come up with when it comes to reproductive rights.
— Kendall P. Stanley is retired editor of the News-Review. He can be contacted at email@example.com. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and not necessarily of the Petoskey News-Review or its employees.
This article originally appeared on The Petoskey News-Review: Kendall Stanley: To the future!