The Romans enslaved people, imposed a rigid patriarchy, and reveled in the sight of tortured prisoners in the Colosseum. The great minds of ancient luminaries of the Western world such as Aristotle, whose works are still taught in undergraduate courses today, championed slavery as an entirely natural and proper practice. Indeed, from the dawn of the agricultural era in the 19th century, slavery was ubiquitous throughout the world. It is difficult to understand how our predecessors could have been so horribly wrong.
We have made real progress since then. Although still very far from perfect, society is in many ways considerably more humane and just than it once was. But why should anyone think that this journey of moral progress is nearly over? Given the history of mankind, we are almost certainly, like our ancestors, making serious moral mistakes right now. When future generations look up to us, they might see us as we see the Romans. Contemplating our potential moral harms is a difficult exercise: it forces us to perceive and scrutinize all that humanity does.
Some of our sins are obvious with even a small amount of thought. Take, for example, the way we treat incarcerated people. Unlike the Romans, we generally no longer stage the suffering of prisoners as a public spectacle. Yet we subject them to conditions such as prolonged solitary confinement that enlightened future generations will likely view with horror. The massive harm we inflict on incarcerated people (and their innocent families) is often greater than the harm inflicted by the beatings and beatings we rightly left behind.
Or consider how we treat animals. Every year, humanity slaughters 80 billion land animals to satisfy our culinary preferences. Most of them are chickens and their lives are miserable: male chicks of laying hens are gassed, crushed or thrown in the trash, where they die of thirst or suffocate to death; female chicks have their sensitive beaks clipped, and most are confined to cages smaller than a letter-size sheet of paper. On average, a regular meal containing chicken or eggs costs at least 10 hours of torture in a chicken’s life, and more chickens will be killed in the next two years than the number of all humans who have ever lived. Similarly, pigs are castrated and tail docked, and farmed cattle are castrated, dehorned and hot branded without anesthesia. If animals matter, our treatment of them is a crime of epic proportions.
These ethical failures share a pattern. Disenfranchised and marginalized groups such as the world’s poor, the incarcerated, migrants torn from their families by our immigration system, and even lowly farm animals are out of sight and out of mind. Future generations will observe how we have hidden these groups from society, allowing us to ignore their core interests. It’s not new. But there is another less discussed dimension. When the people of the future look at us, they are sure to notice our contempt for another disenfranchised group: them.
Future generations cannot vote in our elections, or speak through time and urge us to act differently. They are speechless. It is easy to imagine that in the year 2300, our descendants will turn on us and lament our inability to take their interests into account. And the stakes for this potential failure are incredibly high. Because of the large number of future people and because their welfare is so completely neglected, I have come to believe that the protection of future generations should be a key moral priority of our time. When we consider which groups have been overlooked, it’s all too easy to overlook most of the people who are likely to live one day.
Here is just one example of our contempt for future people. Despite the devastating wake-up call from COVID-19, most governments remain almost entirely unprepared for future pandemics. For example, the United States still spends less than $10 billion a year on pandemic preparedness, compared to about $280 billion on counterterrorism. Since September 11, approximately 500 people have died on American soil as a result of terrorist acts. Over a thousand times as many people have died from COVID: The excess death toll from COVID in the United States is over a million people. If we don’t massively step up our meager attempts to prevent the next pandemic, it’s highly likely that a far more deadly pathogen than the coronavirus will eventually wreak havoc. The risk of accident from experimenting on the deadliest pandemics will only increase, and soon, as such dangerous research rapidly becomes more accessible.
If our descendants live in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, how will they view our failure to prevent catastrophe? And what will our descendants think of our choice to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? Carbon dioxide will pollute the air they breathe for thousands of years; sea levels will continue to rise for 10,000 years. And when it comes to climate change and pandemic preparedness, we can take concrete action today. We can invest in the most promising clean energy technology, such as batteries, solar panels and improved geothermal energy, to mitigate climate change. To prevent the next pandemic, we can develop next-generation personal protective equipment and early warning systems that detect new pathogens in wastewater, and we can reduce the cost of far-UVC lighting enough to be able to easily and safely kill viruses. in the air. If we don’t act now to safeguard the future, our descendants will predictably and appropriately judge us for our myopia.
But climate change and pandemics aren’t the only disasters that deserve much more attention. How can we mend a breakdown in international relations and mitigate the risk of a spiral into World War III? Artificial intelligence is advancing rapidly, how can we prevent it from being weaponized by bad actors and how can we ensure that it remains aligned with the values of humanity? And how can we prevent authoritarian and illiberal ideologies from gaining ground and ensure that moral progress continues long into the future?
These are difficult problems. But over the past decade, we’ve made real progress on them. Groups such as the Center for Alignment Research work to ensure that AI benefits humanity rather than destroying it. Forecasters at sites like Metaculus learn to make careful, evidence-based predictions about the future and to record those predictions in an unbiased way. And organizations like Alvea, the Nucleic Acid Observatory, and the SecureDNA Project are developing practical solutions to protect people now and in the future from biological disasters.
But there is so much more to do. The company still spends an embarrassing amount of its time and resources tackling the issues that matter most. We need more impact-focused research, prediction tournaments, prediction markets, and public debates in search of truth. We need a social movement committed to protecting the future and public advocacy campaigns for the interests of our descendants. We need creative experiences to represent the people of the future and other disempowered populations in our political institutions. We must continue to expand the circle of moral concern to include the world’s poor, the incarcerated, immigrants, animals, and all other beings who may thrive or suffer now and far into the future.
We must also recognize how much we could miss. The most important moral causes of centuries past may be obvious to us today, but they were barely apparent then. We should expect the same to be the case today. We cannot therefore deal only with the problems which strike us today as the most obviously urgent. We must also cultivate the wisdom, foresight, and thinking power of our society so that we and our children can advance in uncovering the issues that matter most. This process of moral reflection can take a considerable amount of time, but it’s one we can’t afford to skip.
Truly understanding the most important issues we face and finding the most effective solutions is no small task, and we’ve only just begun. But with hard work and humility, we can move towards a future that our grandchildren and their grandchildren will be happy to inherit.
What will future generations think of us? Maybe they will see us as selfish and myopic. Or maybe they’ll look at us with gratitude, for the steps we’ve taken to leave them a better world. The choice is ours.
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