How Future Generations Will Remember Us

History is a long series of moral abominations.

An illustration of a person looking ahead into the future
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic

The Romans enslaved people, enforced a rigid patriarchy, and delighted in the spectacle of prisoners being tortured at the Colosseum. Top minds of the ancient Western world—luminaries such as Aristotle, whose works are still taught in undergraduate lectures today—defended slavery as an entirely natural and proper practice. Indeed, from the dawn of the agricultural era to the 19th century, slavery was ubiquitous across the world. It’s hard to understand how our predecessors could have been so horrifically wrong.

We have made real progress since then. Though still very far from perfect, society is in many respects considerably more humane and just than it once was. But why should anyone think this journey of moral progress is close to complete? Given humanity’s track record, we almost certainly are, like our forebears, committing grave moral mistakes at this very moment. When future generations look back on us, they might see us like we see the Romans. Contemplating our potential moral wrongdoing is a challenging exercise: It requires us to perceive and scrutinize everything that humanity does.

Some of our sins are obvious with even a small amount of reflection. Take, for example, how we treat incarcerated people. Unlike the Romans, we mostly no longer stage the suffering of prisoners as public spectacle. Still, we subject them to conditions—such as extended solitary confinement—that enlightened future generations will likely regard with horror. The massive harm we inflict on incarcerated people (and their innocent families) is often greater than the harm inflicted by beating and caning—practices we’ve rightly left behind.

Or consider how we treat animals. Every year, humanity slaughters 80 billion land animals to satisfy our culinary preferences. Most of these are chickens, and their lives are miserable: Male chicks of layer hens are gassed, ground up, or thrown into the garbage, where they either die of thirst or suffocate to death; female chicks have their sensitive beaks cut off, and most are confined to cages that are smaller than a letter-size piece of paper. On average, a regular meal containing chicken or eggs costs at least 10 torturous hours of a chicken’s life—and more chickens will be killed within the next two years than the number of all humans who have ever lived. Similarly, pigs are castrated and have their tails amputated, and farmed cattle are castrated, dehorned, and branded with a hot iron—all without anesthetic. If animals matter at all, our treatment of them is a crime of epic proportions.

These ethical failures share a pattern. Disenfranchised and marginalized groups—such as the global poor, incarcerated people, migrants wrested from their families by our immigration system, and even humble farm animals—are out of sight and out of mind. Future generations will observe how we hid these groups from society’s gaze, allowing ourselves to ignore their basic interests. This is not a new point. But there’s another dimension that’s less discussed. When future people look back on us, they are bound to notice our disregard for another disenfranchised group: them.

Future generations can’t vote in our elections, or speak across time and urge us to act differently. They are voiceless. It’s easy to imagine that in the year 2300, our descendants will look back on us and deplore our failure to take their interests into account. And the stakes of this potential failure are incredibly high. Because of the sheer number of future people, and because their well-being is so utterly neglected, I’ve come to believe that protecting future generations should be a key moral priority of our time. When we consider which groups we’re neglecting, it’s all too easy to forget about most people who will likely ever live.

Here’s just one example of our disregard for future people. Despite the devastating wake-up call of COVID-19, most governments remain almost entirely underprepared for future pandemics. For instance, the U.S. still spends only less than $10 billion a year on preparing for pandemics, compared with about $280 billion on counterterrorism. Since 9/11, about 500 people have died on U.S. soil as a result of a terrorist acts. More than a thousand times as many have died from COVID: The excess-death toll from COVID in the U.S. is more than a million people. If we don’t massively ramp up our meager attempts to prevent the next pandemic, it’s highly likely that a pathogen much deadlier than the coronavirus will eventually cause devastation. The risk of accident from experimentation on the very deadliest pandemics will only increase, and soon, as such dangerous research becomes rapidly more accessible.

If our descendants live in a postapocalyptic dystopia, how will they see our failure to prevent catastrophe? And what will our descendants think of our choice to spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? Carbon dioxide will pollute the air they breathe for thousands of years; sea level will continue to rise for 10,000 years. And when it comes to climate change and pandemic preparedness, there are concrete steps we can take today. We can invest in the most promising clean-energy technology, like batteries, solar panels, and enhanced geothermal power, to mitigate climate change. To avoid the next pandemic, we can develop next-generation personal protective equipment and early-warning systems that detect new pathogens in wastewater, and we can get the cost of far-UVC lighting down low enough so that we can easily and safely kill viruses in the air. If we don’t act now to safeguard the future, our descendants will predictably—and fittingly—judge us for our shortsightedness.

But climate change and pandemics aren’t the only catastrophes that deserve much more attention. How can we mend a breakdown in international relations and mitigate the risk of spiraling into World War III? Artificial intelligence is rapidly progressing—how can we prevent it from being weaponized by bad actors, and how can we ensure it stays aligned with humanity’s values? And how can we prevent authoritarian and illiberal ideologies from gaining currency, and ensure that moral progress continues long into the future?

These are difficult problems. But over the past decade or so, we’ve made real progress on them. Groups such as the Alignment Research Center are working to ensure that AI benefits humanity rather than destroys it. Forecasters at sites such as Metaculus are learning how to make careful, evidence-based predictions about the future, and how to score those predictions impartially. And organizations such as Alvea, the Nucleic Acid Observatory, and the SecureDNA Project are developing concrete solutions to protect people, now and in the future, from biological catastrophe.

But there is so much more to be done. Society still devotes an embarrassingly small portion of its time and resources to tackling the most important problems. We need more impact-driven research, forecasting tournaments, prediction markets, and truth-seeking public debate. We need a social movement committed to protecting the future, and public-advocacy campaigns for the interests of our descendants. We need creative experiments to represent future people—and other powerless populations—in our political institutions. We need to continue expanding the circle of moral concern so that it includes the global poor, incarcerated people, immigrants, animals, and all other beings that can flourish or suffer—now and far into the future.

We also need to recognize just how much we might be missing. The most important moral causes in previous centuries might be obvious to us now, but they were only dimly apparent at the time. We should expect the same to be true today. So we can’t address just the problems that strike us, today, as most obviously pressing. We must also cultivate our society’s wisdom, foresight, and powers of reflection—so that we, and our children, can make progress in discovering what the most important problems truly are. This process of moral reflection could take considerable time, but it’s one we can’t afford to skip.

To truly understand the most important problems we face, and to find the most effective solutions, is no small task, and we’ve barely gotten started. But with hard work and humility, we can steer toward a future that our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, will be glad to inherit.

What will future generations think of us? Perhaps they will see us as selfish and myopic. Or perhaps they will look back on us with gratitude, for the steps we took to leave them a better world. The choice is ours.