IT’S not often – indeed, not ever – you see a young Scottish philosopher make the cover of Time, the leading American news magazine. But there is Glasgow’s William MacAskill this week, under the headline “How to do more good: a growing movement seeks to improve the world today – and for generations to come”.

MacAskill’s new book is called What We Owe The Future, and it heralds him as the leader of Effective Altruism (EA). It’s a movement that has swept the world of technology and venture capital, primarily in the US but also globally. Its ambition is to “do good better”, by targeting philanthropic resources towards initiatives that provably save and enhance the biggest number of lives – and away from those that don’t.

Yet there’s a huge debate raised by this ambition, which in the last few years has undergone a major shift. EA originally asked its adherent to personally commit 10% of their income to empirically effective initiatives, doing good socially, developmentally or environmental. This was guided by utilitarian philosophy: the maximum benefit for the greatest number.

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Yet recently, this number has been expanded to include the potential trillions of humans in the future, not yet born. The impetus comes from thinking about “existential risk” – the variety of means that humanity has invented to terminate itself. Nukes (deliberate or accidental), a burning climate, bioengineered hazards, AI running out of control, failing to shoot down the asteroid ... you can count the ways.

Effective altruists want our current toxic behaviours to be shaped by our sense that we should serve these future generations. Imagine that “humanity failed to manage the dangers of its own genius”, MacAskill writes. “We in the present day recklessly gamble, not just with our lives and our children’s lives but with the very existence of all who are yet to come. Let us be the last generation to do so.”

We need innovation right now, continues MacAskill, because “humanity needs to be able to generate and store clean energy, detect novel diseases when they can still be contained, and maintain peace between the great powers without relying on a delicate balance of nuclear-enabled mutually assured destruction.”

But EA wants us to build these solutions for ambitious reasons, not defensive ones. “We are not used to seeing ourselves as one of history’s first generations; we tend to focus on what we have inherited from the past, not what we could bequeath to the future. This is a mistake”, concludes MacAskill.

Personally speaking, I’m pretty attracted to all this. For one thing, it’s not as if you can’t point to a massive, popular interest in possible worlds of the future (or parallel universes in the present).

The small screen and the big screen, computer games and literary publishing – all of them teem with science-fiction and fantasy. Most of it, sadly, toys with apocalypse and catastrophe. Effective altruists might begin to ask the dream industries to dream better.

Couldn’t we project more integrated and less pathological visions of future human societies? Are there any other fictional “universes” – apart from the spandex-stretching realms of Marvel and DC – that might entertain and promote the idea we are living “at the beginning of history, not the end”, in MacAskill’s words?

What also seems admirable is EA’s focus on personal commitment, especially at a time when the call from party-political ideology often seems so risible, so lacking in credibility. From what I’ve been able to garner about his biography, this is pretty deep-wired in MacAskill.

His background in Glasgow seems to be privileged, according to a recent New Yorker profile – attending an unnamed high-achieving local private school, one of his parents a senior NHS doctor.

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But from childhood he showed “a precocious moral zeal”, writes Gideon Lewis-Kraus. “At 15, when he learned how many people were dying of AIDS, he set out to become a successful novelist and give away half of his earnings. He volunteered for a disabled-Scout group and worked at a care home for the elderly, which his parents found baffling”.

“In his milieu,” continues Lewis-Kraus, “the brightest graduates were expected to study medicine in Edinburgh, but MacAskill, as class dux, won a place to read philosophy at Cambridge. Robbie Kerr, MacAskill’s closest schoolmate, told me the Glasgow attitude was best summed up by a school friend’s parent, who looked at Will and said, ‘Philosophy. What a waste. That boy could have cured cancer.’”

MacAskill, now a philosophy professor at Oxford, seems to derive much of his moral authority in this movement from his walking of the talk. He lives on £26,000 a year (despite being funded by some financial tech billionaires), devoting the rest of his income to “good” initiatives – including all the profits from his new book.

There is an undercurrent of critique in much of MacAskill’s coverage. One wave of EA suggested that it would be best for a talented young expert not to give it all up and do social or community work, but to head for the highly-paid career (hedge-fund manager, tech pioneer, etc), and tithe most of their oversized earnings to good causes.

AS many have pointed out, doesn’t that leave the systems that are causing the degradations of society and planet – for example, the flow of capital that seeks the best returns, regardless of context – entirely untouched? While, at the same time, unduly flattering the egos of young twenty-something “talent”. Can they make better investment decisions for social good than seasoned public officials?

Another school of critique is worried about the “longtermism” avowed by some effective altruists. The charge is that they are technocrats, and not democrats. Meaning that they’re happier to fantasize about post-humans soaring among the planets and stars in the future, than alleviate suffering and inequality through tough structural reform in the here and now.

Endorsements for MacAskill’s book from the Mars-addled Elon Musk – “worth reading, this is a close match for my philosophy”, he tweeted this week – will only reinforce these anxieties.

To my eyes, this can be a “both-and” instead of an “either-or”.

Effective altruists want our current toxic behaviours to be shaped by our sense that we should serve future generations

We can both encourage what looks like a new secular religion for Generations Z and Alpha: one that finds a way to combine their acute desire for personal agency with their need to be connected to big causes. And we can try to harness humankind’s inexhaustible appetite for novelty and invention to serious, non-destructive ends. We need plans, and optimists, to make the latter happen. Effective altruists, at least in their more earthbound moments, will be the citizens that can support the ministries of the future.

Meanwhile, MacAskill seems not to have mentally left this parish much. Asked by Tyler Cowen to think of “inefficient things he loves the most”, he suggests ScotsCare, an active charity founded in the early 17th century to support indigent Scots in London. For him, it illustrates the “dead hand problem”, where the founding idea of a charity becomes increasingly irrelevant over time.

“I think it’s a good and heartening lesson for people who are trying to do good, looking into the future, too,” continues MacAskill. “You want to have aims that can be sufficiently flexible that, as the environment or things change, they still keep making sense.”

Mark this young man down for the brains trust for indy – one of those “sufficiently flexible aims ... that still keeps making sense”.

Power on, William.

What We Owe The Future, by William MacAskill, is out in early September.