What We Owe the Future: A Million-Year View, or How to Look at the World from the Philosophical High Ground

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By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health.

I have been digging around in the primary literature on COVID-19 vaccines and approaches to coronavirus vaccines in general.  Progress has been promising at times, but also halting.  The COVID literature is a bit of a mess at the moment and looks to remain in that condition. [1]  So, I would like to complete a three-part series of reviews that began with consideration of An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity by Wes Jackson of The Land Institute and Robert Jensen in February.  As might be surmised by the title, Jackson and Jensen are hopeful, if we act intelligently and with purpose to manage the inconvenient apocalypse they describe, but they are not particularly optimistic.

That was followed by discussion of Peter A. Victor’s recent comprehensive biography of Herman Daly: Herman Daly’s Economics for a Full World: His Life and Ideas.  Herman Daly and his close colleagues, who founded the discipline of ecological economics, were the most assiduous advocates of a genuine sustainability rather than the common shibboleth, one that requires development without growth in the form of increased throughput in economy, so that the world can last as long as possible for as many people as possible.  Yes, there is no escape from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and eventually the universe will (probably) run down, knowing what can be known.  But there is nothing to be done about that.

Along with Wendell Berry, I would put both Peter Victor and Herman Daly in the hopeful but not optimistic camp when it comes to our prospects in our current political economy.  Not so for the Oxford philosopher and intellectual entrepreneur William MacAskill, who at the time of his appointment “the youngest associate professor of philosophy in the world.”  Last year MacAskill published What We Owe the Future: A Million-Year View.  If the great Stephen Fry (of Cambridge, and V for Vendetta) is correct, MacAskill is definitely on the optimistic side of the argument.  A blurb is only that, but herewith Stephen Fry:

I was captivated by MacAskill’s rolling out of the possibilities of a longtermist approach to the now.  It is vital to do as he does, to take ethics out of the safety of lecture-hall thought experiments, paradoxes, and what-ifs and into the turbulent real world. Where dynamic winds of history blow and where is massing on the horizon that monstrous, swelling tsunami we call the future.  This is a book of great daring, insight, and imagination.  To be simultaneously so realistic and so optimistic, and always so damned readable…well, that is a miracle for which he should be applauded.

I have no doubt this book, which is indeed very readable, has made a huge splash in the usual circles. [2]  But the question is why?  A plausible answer is that people don’t want to talk about our recent fairly recent past, the 200 years during which the consolidation of capitalism has culminated in the triumph of neoliberal market fundamentalism in our dismal present.  Not that markets are bad!  They provide what we need and cannot make for ourselves.  But to most sentient humans the present could be better, while the near future seems even bleaker, Build Back Better and its successors, notwithstanding.  Perhaps if we can get through the next 200 years, then humanity may have a future.  Still, it is easier for some to think of the next million years, and this is what MacAskill has done.  His thought experiments and metaphors are remarkable and often breathtaking.

The first of these is to imagine that you lived the life of every of every human being who has ever lived.  According to his arithmetic, which I have not tried to parse, that would take 4 trillion years, or nearly 300 times the age of the universe, if the universe began 14 billion years ago with the Big Bang.  MacAskill presents “this thought experiment because morality, in central part, is about putting ourselves in others’ shoes and treating their interests as we do our own…this book is about longtermism: the idea that positively influencing the longterm future is a key moral priority of our time.”

Yes, and one way MacAskill intends to do this is by Giving What We Can, one of the more prominent of his serial entrepreneurial initiatives.  This form of secular tithing, also known as effective altruism, looks at the world through the lens of the Hollywood Canteen, which was both noble and effective during World War II, but only then.  The bright lights represented by Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis and John Garfield plus a cast of thousands from behind the camera did God’s work for the final three years of WWII, as did the Stage Door Canteen in New York.

MacAskill’s previous book Doing Good Better lays out his view of effective altruism in detail.  I read it so you don’t have to, although it is a quick read.  My short summary: Aside from being the stated motivation/justification/excuse of Sam Bankman-Fried and FTX, neither of which can or should be laid at the feet of William MacAskill, the import of effective altruism, to hijack another common trope of our recent political past, can be explained in less than twenty words “Even with a thousand points of light in the night sky it can still be very dark on the ground.”

MacAskill uses three primary metaphors to illustrate his thesis.

  • Humanity as the imprudent teenager whose life is so far ahead of him that he takes no heed of reality in making life-determining choices.
  • History is as molten glass, which at some point hardens and is no longer malleable.
  • The path towards longterm impact as a risky expedition into uncharted terrain.

What to say about all this?  While it is certainly not universally true, teenagers as a group are not known for their prudence.  Rather than an imprudent teenager, I propose that a better choice to explain where we are and where we are going would be the impudent adult.  History as molten glass that will harden soon?  Maybe, but I would rather view history as plastic and contingent upon our actions (the latter of which MacAskill spends some time arguing well).  Malleable implies the malleus, or hammer.  History is not something that can be hammered into shape like a piece of near-molten iron, despite the desires of nation builders among us.  Glass would shatter.  As for uncharted terrain, all one can say is, “yes.”  But this has always been true.


I now believe the world’s long-run fate depends in part on the choices we make in our lifetimes.  The future could be wonderful: we could create a flourishing and long-lasting society, where everyone’s lives are better than the very best lives today.  Or the future could be terrible, falling to authoritarians who use surveillance and AI to lock in their ideology, or even to AI systems that seek to gain power rather than promote a thriving society.  Or there could be no future at all (due to) biological weapons (or) nuclear war.

One might add anthropogenic climate change and ecological collapse that leads to the dissolution of civilization.  The definition of the “very best lives today” is left to the imagination.  Does that mean “GDP”?  With his repeated retreats into the fantasies of “growth economists,” perhaps.  Figure 1.5 (p. 26) illustrates “World economic output since AD 1.”  It is unsurprising that the line is flat until 1850 and is a nearly vertical line beginning in 1950, reaching $100 trillion by 2010.  While I have no doubt the econometric legerdemain responsible for this graph is generally valid, the meaning remains unclear.  Yes, people have always had to farm to eat and work to live.  But the concept of GDP may not be particularly relevant in the year 267 CE.  It is not a good measure of wellbeing in the twenty-first century, either.

Bhutan is often considered to be the happiest nation on Earth, with a GDP in 2021 of about $2.5 billion according to the World Bank.  That would pay for 14% of the USS Gerald R. Ford, laid down in November 2009, departed Naval Station Norfolk on her first full length deployment on 3 May 2023, last week.  The likelihood that “authoritarians (will) use surveillance and AI to lock in their ideology” is probably not a bad bet, especially given the current hysteria about AI and ChatGPT (which is glib but not intelligent).  Both are neoliberal desiderata; those of us of a certain age remember well “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste…”, which was carefully placed on countless dorm room walls in the 1970s.  And although she does not seem to appear in the index or the 81 pages of approximately 1100 references in the bibliography (I printed it out: ~60,000 words) compiled by Max, Stephen, and John, I am guessing that MacAskill has heard of Shoshana Zuboff.  Regarding the no-future-at-all option, one can re-read this from Monday morning.  For anthropogenic climate change and climate collapse, take your pick: David Wallace Wells for a slap in the face or Rebecca Solnit and co-editors if you want to read that it is Not Too Late.

The main point of MacAskill’s argument is that “people count, but we rarely count them.”  No.  That all depends on who is doing the thinking and counting.  Among many others, including countless poets, scholars, philosophers, and writers, the entirety of the life and work of Herman Daly was to show a way forward, to make a world that lasted the longest time for the most people who lived a good life in a hospitable environment.  Jackson and Jensen point out that we have probably overshot our margin of safety by some measure and that we should prepare for the coming apocalypse as rationally and as fairly as we can.  While MacAskill may not agree with this, it is nevertheless clear that he recognizes our peril at some level.  What he does not seem to appreciate is that the peril is right now staring us in the face.

Still, moral change (Chapter 3) can work its magic as it has in the past, illustrated, for example, by the life and work of one Benjamin Lay, a Quaker born in Copford, England in 1682 who eventually settled in Philadelphia in 1732 after some time as a shopkeeper in Barbados, which was the first British Caribbean slave society.  Lay was by all accounts an observant and remarkable man.  He was small, only a little over four feet tall, and fierce.  As noted by MacAskill, his “moral radicalism took many forms.  He opposed the opposed the death penalty and consumerism [3]…a vegetarian who refused to wear leather or wool…wore undyed fabrics and refused to drink tea or eat sugar.”  He would have fit right in during the late-20th and early-21st centuries.

Benjamin Lay is remembered as one of the original abolitionists, and the world has much to thank him for.  In MacAskill’s words “Lay was the paradigm of a moral entrepreneur, someone who thought deeply about morality, took it very seriously, was utterly willing to act in accordance with his convictions, and was regarded as an eccentric and a weirdo, for that reason.”  Naturally we all “should aspire to be weirdos like him.”  And of course, “changing society’s values is particularly important from a longtermist perspective…along with the “significance and contingency of values changes.”   Yes.

At this point MacAskill uses the biological/evolutionary concept of a fitness landscape in his explanation of the contingency of values in human society.  Contingency in biological evolution has long been accepted, and the best accessible explanation is still, to my knowledge, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, by great Stephen Jay Gould.  The thesis is that if you rerun the tape of evolution, things are unlikely to turn out the same the second time around. [4]  Thus, morality matters, contingently.  And what we believe determines how we act.  Perhaps moral change can be modeled as a fitness landscape, provided that fitness (an inherently slippery biological concept since the 19th century) is properly defined.

I have argued in the first instance, following Jackson and Jensen and Herman Daly among another who will not surprise a regular reader, that the fitness landscape of our contemporary world of late neoliberal capitalism is seriously maladaptive if the Earth and the ecosphere are to continue to support Creation.  That our fitness landscape is thus contingent upon the present political economy is a given.  And the “Value Lock-In” (Chapter 4, “history is like molten glass”) that MacAskill fears may be nearly complete, in my view.

Perhaps a better biological metaphor is that developed by Conrad Waddington, who was a pioneering embryologist before the revolution that was modern molecular biology.  He developed the concept of the “canalization of development” to explain why animal development is robust enough to withstand environmental perturbations.  It is, mostly because development is regulated by genes in a sequential if not in a strictly deterministic manner.  Rather than a three-dimensional surface with various adaptive peaks (analogous to democracy, fascism, socialism, anarchism, free-market fundamentalism in the schema of MacAskill), Waddington’s metaphor was that of a developmental marble rolling down a three-dimensional slope with various canals (shallow valleys) that are taken somewhat at random depending on environmental contingencies.  There was no route back to the top of a higher valley and perturbation can lead to the wrong endpoint.  The analogous endpoint, according to MacAskill, is the subject of moral and political philosophy.  This is beyond the scope of this review, but there are lessons in the book.  For example:

In the future, countries that maintain high rates of immigration and cultural assimilation (and GDP) will grow in size and power: indeed, the journalist Matt Yglesias recently proposed that, in order to maintain global influence, the United States should radically increase immigration, aiming to have a population of one billion people.

Or, instead of “power” what if “the indispensable nation” just minded its own business and became a source of care and support for the wider world instead of maintaining more than 700 military installations circling the globe while trying futilely to be the equivalent of a magnetic monopole in a multipolar world?  We have the wherewithal, physical, social, and cultural, to do this on a very high adaptive fitness peak.

Another lesson explains how:

A cultural trait can gain influence is if it gives one group greater ability to survive or thrive in a novel environment than some other group.  You might think that this consideration is not terribly important, because people already inhabit almost all of the remotely habitable areas of the earth.  But when we look into the future, there is a vast territory that civilization might expand into: space…If one culture made greater efforts to settle in space or had greater ability to do so, then eventually it would dwarf any culture that chose to remain earthbound.

The mind, it reels, but this will give warm fuzzies to our intrepid space pioneers of today.  Still, it would seem rude, wouldn’t it, to tell an Associate Professor of Philosophy at one of the homes of modern moral philosophy (here and here, for example) that 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, and Star Wars are Science Phantasy, sometimes considered Science Fiction, instead of documentaries.

And next we jump to the fact that:

Many of the most powerful countries today are powerful, in part, because of high fertility rates…Nigeria looks set to become a far more important geopolitical actor by 2100 because its population is projected to grow from 200 million to 730 million, making it the third most populous country in the world.

As I have noted before in a similar context, this is Julian Simon-level reasoning that takes no heed of what will probably happen within the next 50 years, much less the next 100 or 1000 years.  Herman Daly and the community of ecological economists dispensed with this Ultimate Resource mythology repeatedly, but it has the gift of eternal life. Anyway, regarding Nigeria, I have no doubt that the people of Nigeria could feed themselves if given the chance outside of the so-called “world food economy,” but 730 million might be a stretch, just as the one billion Americans desired by Matt Yglesias.

The next chapters are devoted to extinction, collapse, and stagnation, including spurious estimates of their likelihood.  MacAskill notes regarding extinction that “Just as smoking increased the risk of practically all forms of cancer (somewhat debatable), great power war also increases the risk of a host of other risks to civilization…it diverts spending away from things that improve the safety and quality of life (and) destroys our ability to cooperate.”  Given the current state of Eastern Europe and much of the rest of the world, there is nothing to add to this true and simple statement.

Regarding collapse, MacAskill seems to not realize that industrial agriculture is a category mistake rather than a contingent fact of our current, locked-in political economy.  While it suits Big Ag and Big Biotech, it does nothing much for our ability to feed ourselves in the long run, due to its propensity to turn soil into inert dirt.

As far as stagnation goes, technology will come to our rescue, especially “green technology,” which will enable sustainable (sic) growth (almost) forever, because “Economists almost universally agree that in the long run, economic growth is driven by technological progress.”  No, actually.  The only solution on a finite planet with a finite ecosphere with a carrying capacity that has long been exceeded is a steady state economy.

Regarding technological progress, or the magic fairy dust that will save us:

Over the past century, we’ve seen relatively steady, though slowing technological progress.  Sustaining this progress is the result of a balancing act: every year, further progress gets harder, but every year we exponentially increase the number of researchers and engineers.  For instance, in the United States, research effort is over twenty times higher today than in the 1930s.  The number of scientists in the world is doubling every couple of decades…exponential growth in the number of researchers has compensated for progress becoming harder over time…Historically, increasing population sizes have been a major factor in rates of technological progress.  As Noble Prize (sic) – winning economist Michael Kremer has noted, sheer population size seems to explain a big part of the very long-run comparative development of different geographic regions.

That depends on the definition of research and scientists.  And while the common definition of “exponential” means “increasing,” I would expect an Oxford philosopher to use the technical definition that implies exponential growth of anything in the natural world leads inevitably to collapse.  Moreover, whether all these new scientists and engineers can technologize us out of our current trajectory is not a serious question.  The answer is no, except at the occasional far margin.  And I must come near to the end with this:

Advances in biotechnology could provide another pathway to rebooting growth (after the inevitable stagnation).  If scientists with Einstein-level research abilities were cloned and trained from an early age, or if human beings were genetically engineered to have greater research abilities, this could compensate for having fewer people overall and thereby sustain technological progress.

Hmm…But MacAskill immediately notes that there would be questions of “technological feasibility” and “regulatory prohibitions and strong social norms against the use of this technology – especially against the most radical forms (whatever those might be), which would be necessary to multiply effective research efforts manyfold.”  Well, that would depend on which norms and values were “locked-in,” to use MacAskill’s model.  He then notes that having decided not to go forward with human cloning “may well be for the best, as human cloning could plausibly increase the risk of bad value lock-in.”  Or perhaps bad value lock-in will make human cloning perfectly acceptable?  It seems to me that one of these determinative sequences is as likely as the other when taking a million-year view of humanity.

In any case, all of this is in pursuit of “just one society (that) can hit on a sustainable high-growth culture, then the world as a whole will start to technologically advance again” after avoiding extinction and surviving collapse and stagnation.  Nevertheless, a “sustainable high-growth culture” is impossible if this actually means growth, i.e., increased physical throughput in an economy in a finite world, rather than development of what we can and should be as human beings, definitions to be determined.

After re-reading this book quickly, I can see why it has pleased so many.  The presentation is exhilarating throughout, resembling a 261-page TED Talk, albeit with 50 pages of 6-pt single-spaced end notes and an 81-page bibliography to be downloaded from its own website (note to publisher: a serious book without an attached bibliography is less than optimum for the reader).

But the reader will have to ignore some crucial details, such as the utter nonsense of entertaining trans-galactic human polities, cultures, and societies as a solution to our destruction of the Earth.  No (known) law of physics permits such a thing.  We have one and only one home in this universe.  So perhaps we should think in the shorter term, and take care of our problems as we can see them?  Seems like a promising, alternative idea, to me.

The book concludes with what we can and should do as longtermists.  Young people should choose their “careers” seriously, because, after all, they will spend 80,000 hours doing whatever they choose.  I suppose so, although many of these eager and willing young people may rightly wonder what a career actually is in this neoliberal, market fundamentalist world of ours.  In the longtermist view, all will be right in a world full of happy people who get that way and stay that way as organizations such as the Global Priorities Institute, the Future of Humanity Institute, and Open Philanthropy lead us into our long term that has no apparent temporal limit (as long as the sun shines or we figure out how to hop to another solar system, another galaxy, maybe another universe).

Finally, I am reminded of a passage in an essay from Bertrand Russell (1872-1970, born when Ulysses Grant was President of the US and died during the administration of Richard Nixon) that I read a very long time ago.  If I knew which storage box the book was in, I would look for it. [5]  It is one of his very few statements that I immediately disagreed with.  Russell was a committed humanist who nevertheless experienced “difficulties” in his personal life.  He wrote something to the effect that love of humanity is possible because love is infinitely extensible.  No, actually.  It is not.  Love extends to those individuals close to you, either as family or by choice.  This does not mean that other humans and all of Creation are not essential objects of our affection and solicitude as intentional human beings.  Creation and our “others” make life livable.  And “good” in the conception of William MacAskill and virtually every other philosopher worth paying attention to.  Herman Daly wrote that concern for those who come after us is a public good in the technical sense.  Yes, it is that.  And an indeterminant longtermism has nothing to do with it.


[1] As of the evening of 7 May 2023, “Covid” as the query returns 352,897 results in PubMed since October 2019.  Over the same period “Cancer” returns 875,715 results, so it could be worse.  But these numbers also indicate it is time for a complete rethink of how we do basic research in our academic, medical, and governmental institutions, while leaving Big Pharma to do their natural work of optimization, production, and distribution.  All this in a universal healthcare system that is not free by any stretch of the imagination but is no-cost at the point of delivery.  Yes, I repeat myself.


[2] Sam Harris: “No living philosopher has had a greater impact upon my ethics than Will MacAskill.  And much of the good I now do is the direct result of his influence.  In What We Owe the Future, MacAskill has transformed my thinking once again, by patiently dismantling the lazy intuitions that rendered me morally blind to the interests of future generations.  This is an altogether thrilling and necessary book.”  Another blurb, sorry.  But I will leave it to Dr. Harris to explain how a public intellectual of his eminence could have forgotten to think about what happens the day after tomorrow, or the decade after this one, or in the 22nd century.


[3] I confess this is fascinating to me, but I have not had time to look deeper.  A foe of “consumerism” before it really existed in the largest part of our world is worth getting to know.


[4] A very interesting if not altogether convincing dissent can be found in Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe by Simon Conway Morris, the paleontologist who early on appreciated the importance of the Burgess Shale fauna.


[5] I need more shelves for my stuff, mostly books; five minutes of comic relief from the master (NSFW).

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  1. Henry Moon Pie

    Thanks for this review and the sources you’ve pulled together.

    I’m wondering if MacAskill mentions John Rawls and the veil of ignorance in his discussions of empathy. My old professor’s work seems to be drawing new attention these days.

    I strongly agree with you here:

    We have one and only one home in this universe. So perhaps we should think in the shorter term, and take care of our problems as we can see them? Seems like a promising, alternative idea, to me.

    When I look around, humans’ biggest problem seems to be hubris, and there are several people among those you discussed that I think would agree with me like Berry, Jensen and Jackson. That leads me to believe that we get into trouble whenever humans get too far from a foundation that we are animals, evolved on this planet, whose brothers and sisters are the primates and whose cousins are the mammals. Otherwise, we seem to head off into the old problem of the second Genesis story which is turning out to be a piece of genius as myth. Transhumanism, wildly popular among our elites, is the latest manifestation of this mad desire to become gods. Instead, let’s do as you suggest: remain grounded in who and what we really are, and deal with all these problems of our own making day by day.

    1. KLG

      Third try: No mention of Rawls that I remember. He does not appear in the index. But Stephen Jay Gould on contingency in evolution did.

  2. DFWCom

    And no mention of energy – what Nate Hagens calls ‘the carbon pulse’ – that we’re drawing down a finite resource of fossil energy and when it’s gone, well, it’s gone.

    Our GDP correlates almost exactly with energy, our 8 billion population requires energy, as does our agriculture, manufacturing, technology, transportation, all the work we do, and, fundamentally, growth. Nate Hagen, again, says we’re ‘Energy Blind’.

    Conjecturing and fantasizing about the future, without a keen awareness of our need for energy, does not give me much confidence in MacAskill or what he has to say.

    1. KLG

      A major point in An Inconvenient Apocalypse by Jackson and Jensen is that humans have searched for and depended upon concentrated, low entropy energy sources from the beginnings of the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago. MacAskill is aware that “fossil fuel depletion” will have serious effects. But then he writes, “Easy-to-access coal would be especially important to a post-collapse world in which we have regressed to preindustrial technology.” That regression is coming. The world will get smaller, but that doesn’t seem likely to be a bad thing for the ecosphere.

    2. GC54

      Stored, concentrated energy released = physical power. Fossil fuels are our Trojan Horse. Can we switch from energy stocks being depleted ONE MILLION times faster than their source flows? Do we really think we can boost capture of those ultimately solar and gravitational flows a million fold to maintain our lifestyle, let alone expand them yet another tenfold to bring the rest of the world along for the ride? Shouldn’t happen w FF and cant. So we revert to stocks without carbon release. Nuclear could do that but with immense problems precisely because it is so concentrated. We need something a thousand times less potent, between nuclear and molecular binding energies. Physics hasn’t found it. Powering down would give us perhaps a tenfold reduction, drop in the bucket.

    3. eg

      This is precisely what I was thinking when KLG observed the flat trajectory of human growth until 1850 — that inflection point seems to occur right around the early exploitation of fossil fuels.

      I don’t gamble, but if I did, my money would be on “the Jackpot” as our civilization’s contribution to the cycle outlined in Jared Diamond’s Collapse.

      Enjoy the ride — while it lasts …

  3. farmboy

    What are the outlines of our apocalypse? Certainly AI is now front and center. Taming and harnessing this technology is not just practically useful, but necessary for any future of any kind. Can we keep our humanity is and has been the central issue in the face of any technology. There are thousands of new applications every day. Where the leverage, the crux is, is in biology, i.e. beginning with plant breeding. Banning GMO and highlighting advances of CRISPR is the edge of the explosion of innovation we are about to see. Breeding organisms to solve any and every environmental problem will happen seemingly overnight. Capture and sequester CO2, robotic surgery, facial recognition, crypto currencies, you name it’ll be solved. But at what price, a lab leak of some exotic organism (covid a preview?)or more likely some unwitting consequence of some cheerily benign cancer curing not quite a drug, not quite a bug, not quite a threat causes some genetic change in some unknown bacteria that turns us into ???? Can we have enough faith to even pursue a future? Unintended Consequences will rule, like we have been informed, the unknown unknown’s are the horizon. So evolution at light speed, exponential with no end in sight and there is no genie to put back in the bottle. Can we even describe what we are about to witness? Good thing the crop is planted, now let it rain.

  4. juliania

    Taking the long view:

    I don’t know where I copied this information from, but I have it that the north celestial pole of the earth precesses, wobbling in a slow circle in the sky that takes fully 26,000 years to complete. [Precession of the equinoxes] Which I would combine with the opening of that ancient Greek trilogy of plays we have from Aeschylus, ‘The Oresteia’. Therein, we find the initial speech is from a watcher of the skies, a servant placed on the roof of the palace to report the return of the king from war as heralded by a series of mountain top fires. As he waits, he is observing the more visible motions of the constellations of stars over his head, while we who have learned these things may also say he is unknowingly also exposed to that greater precession of the equinoxes infinitesmally happening within the course of his own human existence.

    To me, these plays tell us predictions are futile, and that as we have presently seen, unexpected consequences follow the seemingly horrendous political decisions to which we have recently been exposed. Many of those consequences, in the short long run, appear to have been fortuitous, as in the final play of the trilogy. I’d prefer to think that is going to happen again, as our beloved earth wobbles along its slow circle in the sky. I won’t be around 26,000 years from now, but we’re all part of the flow.

    I didn’t know Bertrand Russell had that thought about love. I would tend to agree with it in the long run.

    Thank you, KGB.

    1. juliania

      Sorry, I’m not very good with letters – senior moment!

      I very much meant thank you, KLG.

    2. Susan the other

      Yes, thank you KLG. Always sobering. I agree completely with the necessity for good housekeeping, although I have always been a lousy housekeeper. Maybe therein lies one of the problems. It’s not easy to find the sublime in a simple breath of clean air. We’ve all got a great-escape-mentality. That’s obviously a big factor in our survival … up until now. Not so much anymore. But that instinct still feeds our every reaction. It’s more than tad uncivilized when you think about it. If we all decided to get our lizard impulses under control and get serious about a sensible human solution there’s little chance free market capitalism would be the paradigm. Good socialism would be the paradigm. We are headed there. A few good mood-smoothing drugs are also not a bad idea. Whatever gets us through the day. I think that palliative has been religion so far. But religion is also a big culprit, telling us that we humans are the pinnacle of creation and the hapless planet is there for the taking. And. other tragic misconceptions. A million years is a long time. For certain we don’t have a million years at the pace we are going. A million years ago we had perfected walking upright and were busy taming fire, never suspecting that the combustion engine would bring us to the brink of extinction. And a million years from now the Milky Way will be swirling in probably a violent tangle with the mighty Andromeda. Worth contemplating as we gaze at the sky. You can see Andromeda – it is a faint speck just off the big point of Cassiopeia. On a clear night you can see it at 3 in the morning in the east.

  5. Craig H.

    My short summary: Aside from being the stated motivation/justification/excuse of Sam Bankman-Fried and FTX, neither of which can or should be laid at the feet of William MacAskill, the import of effective altruism, to hijack another common trope of our recent political past, can be explained in less than twenty words “Even with a thousand points of light in the night sky it can still be very dark on the ground.”

    The bolded bit seems to be controversial.


    1. Craig Dempsey

      If anyone would like to see a more theatrical version of the Truthdig article, check out this Philosophy Tube dismantling of effective altruism. Also, a little disambiguation, while I am responding to Craig H., we have no known connection.

  6. John Merryman

    I think there are some basic observations about culture and nature being overlooked.
    As executive and regulatory function, government is analogous to the nervous system, while money and banking are reflective of blood and the circulation system.
    With public government and private banking, the banks rule. Less oversight, no election cycles and control the finances of anyone running.
    Consequently the one thing government seems really good at is running up the public debt the banks need to function.
    As linear, goal oriented creatures in a cyclical, circular, feedback generated reality, people see money as signal to save and store, while markets need it to circulate. Consequently Econ 101 describes it as both medium of exchange and store of value, but in the body, blood is medium and fat, as well as bone and muscle, are store. What if the body tried storing a lot of excess blood?
    Yet that’s exactly what our society is trying to do.
    As a medium, money is a quintessential public utility, like roads,air, water. That is one of various issues we’re doing wrong and I could list a few more, but my luck in getting people to think outside the box is poor.
    Eventually the box is going to break and we won’t have any choice.

    1. Susan the other

      You convinced me early on. I probably react too far but I think “financial assets” are not assets at all, they, like crypto, are almost a form of counterfeit money. Counterfeit liquidity. Where excess profits go so as not to crash the whole ponzi. The best assets as a store of value over time are the environment and society. Those two giants of well-being actually protect the long term value of “money”. And blablah.

  7. Kouros

    Good read, thank you.

    Yes, morality is the linchpin and one cannot point that fact too many times.

    The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity provides the glimpse of different trajectories that have been pruned out by the Iron Law of Oligarchy and the Iron Law of Bureaucracy respectively.

    The main effort has to be to devise a sociopolitical framework that would deal with these two laws for the long term, across countless of generations while putting morality on the Emperor’s Throne. Without having a Puritanical approach, because humani nihil a me alienum puto…

  8. davejustdave

    Bertrand Russell’s What I Believe can be accessed various places – I just downloaded it from


    Maria Popova has a thoughtful essay about it


    I am reminded of a song by Todd Rundgren, from his album A Cappella – a couple of verses go

    The prophets of a brave new world
    Captains of industry
    Have visions grand and great designs
    But none have room for me

    They see a world where everyone
    Is rich and smart and young
    But if I live to see such things
    Too late for me they come

    [end of quote from Todd Rundgren]

    I once talked to a best-selling philosopher – here’s an account of that encounter, followed by the last two paragraphs of Erich Fromm’s The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil


    The scene: Buffalo, New York,
    late 1970s or early 1980s,
    the campus of Buffalo State College.

    The Philosophy Department sponsored a talk by Robert Nozick
    open to the general public
    and scheduled in the early evening.
    Three or four dozen people showed up, as I recall,
    including myself, a graduate student in a different discipline
    from a neighboring institution of higher learning.
    Nozick was wearing a blue wool blazer, a white turtleneck sweater, and blue jeans.

    During the question period, I asked,
    “You’ve mentioned two ways of examining the morality of an action –
    whether it corresponds to a received code of conduct,
    and what its effect will be on those who are the object of the action.
    But what about its effect on the person who DOES the action?”

    Nozick thought for a minute before replying
    (an actual minute – I don’t mean 10 seconds that felt like a minute),
    said, “I need to consider that more”,
    and went on to another question.

    How did I feel? Triumphant, in having shut up the famous author? Amused? Heartbroken?

    As I recall, I was saddened.

    In my current view, the problem that Nozick had in answering my question
    comes from the fact that, in his tradition,
    all the heavy lifting is done by the intellect,
    and life’s persistent questions are treated as academic exercises.

    The last paragraphs of Erich Fromm’s The Heart of Man are relevant here:

    Man’s heart can harden;
    it can become inhuman, yet never nonhuman.
    It always remains man’s heart.
    We are all determined by the fact that we have been born human,
    and hence by the never-ending task of having to make choices.
    We must choose the means together with the aims.
    We must not rely on anyone’s saving us,
    but be very aware of the fact that wrong choices make us incapable of saving ourselves.

    Indeed, we must become aware in order to choose the good —
    but no awareness will help us if we have lost the capacity to be moved
    by the distress of another human being,
    by the friendly gaze of another person,
    by the song of a bird, by the greenness of grass.

    If man becomes indifferent to life there is no longer any hope that he can choose the good.
    Then, indeed, his heart will have so hardened that his “life” will be ended.
    If this should happen to the entire human race or to its most powerful members,
    then the life of mankind may be extinguished at the very moment of its greatest promise.

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