Synopses & Reviews
An up-and-coming visionary in the world of philanthropy and cofounder of the effective altruism movement explains why most of our ideas about how to make a difference are wrong and presents a counterintuitive way to think about how each of us can do the most good possible.
Most of us wish we could make a difference in the world. We donate our time and money to organizations and causes we think will make an impact, choose careers we deem meaningful, and patronize businesses and buy products we think make the world a better place.
Unfortunately even those who make doing good a prioritydonating a portion of their income or time to causes they deem worthyoften end up doing very little to effect change. Why? Because we rarely have enough information to make the best choices. You wouldnt invest in a company without knowing how your money would be spent, but we often invest in charities because we feel good about doing so and assume our contribution will be put to good use. But, like for-profit companies, not all altruistic endeavors are created equal.
While studying philosophy and figuring out which career to pursue in order to have the greatest impact, William MacAskill confronted this problem head on. As a result, he developed the concept of effective altruism, a practical, data-driven approach to making a difference.
Effective altruists operate by asking five key questions before they decide on what action to take: How many people benefit, and by how much? Is this the most effective thing you can do? Is this area neglected? What would have happened otherwise? What are the chances of success, and how good would success be? Through these, he shows that many of our assumptions about how to do good are misguided. For instance, he argues that one can potentially save more lives by working on Wall Street than becoming a heart surgeon; measuring overhead costs is not the best way to determine a charitys effectiveness; and individuals should stop donating to cancer research.
Though some will find his statements controversial, MacAskill forces us to think differently, set aside biases, and use evidence and careful reasoning so that each of us can do the most good possible.
“Will MacAskill is one of the rising stars of moral philosophy. I've learned a great deal from his writing and from listening to him speak. His achievements through Giving What We Can, 80,000 Hours, and the Centre for Effective Altruism are astonishing for someone of his age. His ideas are insightful and important, and his writing is clear, accessible and exceedingly engaging. Doing Good Better will be a must-read for anyone who wants to make a difference in their lives.”
— Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University author of Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics and The Life You Can Save, and one of TIME Magazines top 100 most influential people.
“For many years I've been gathering some of the worlds economists to work out where within the worlds myriad problems we can do the most good for each dollar spent. Will MacAskill's terrific idea is to incorporate those same principles of cost-effectiveness and prioritization into your own life. It is a wonderful idea, and Wills book will make a captivating read. I'm excited to see the effective altruism movement grow, and I eagerly anticipate reading his completed book."
— Bjorn Lomborg, President of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre and author of The Skeptical Environmentalist; one of TIME Magazines most 100 influential people in the world.
“Humanity currently spends more money on lipstick research than on making sure that we survive this century as a species. We've got our priorities all wrong, and we need effective altruism to right them. Will MacAskill is leading the charge and helping to catalyse a whole generation to think about and tackle the biggest issues of our time.”
— Jaan Tallinn, Cofounder, Skype, Kazaa and Metamed.
Most of us want to make a difference. We donate our time and money to charities and causes we deem worthy, choose careers we consider meaningful, and patronize businesses and buy products we believe make the world a better place.Unfortunately, we often base these decisions on assumptions and emotions rather than facts. As a result, even our best intentions often lead to ineffective and sometimes downright harmful outcomes. How can we do better?
While a researcher at Oxford, trying to figure out which career would allow him to have the greatest impact, William MacAskill confronted this problem head on. He discovered that much of the potential for change was being squandered by lack of information, bad data, and our own prejudice. As an antidote, he and his colleagues developed effective altruism, a practical, data-driven approach that allows each of us to make a tremendous difference regardless of our resources. Effective altruists believe that it s not enough to simply do good; we must do good better.
At the core of this philosophy are five key questions that help guide our altruistic decisions: How many people benefit, and by how much? Is this the most effective thing I can do? Is this area neglected? What would have happened otherwise? What are the chances of success, and how good would success be? By applying these questions to real-life scenarios, MacAskill shows how many of our assumptions about doing good are misguided. For instance, he argues one can potentially save more lives by becoming a plastic surgeon rather than a heart surgeon; measuring overhead costs is an inaccurate gauge of a charity s effectiveness; and, it generally doesn t make sense for individuals to donate to disaster relief.
MacAskill urges us to think differently, set aside biases, and use evidence and careful reasoning rather than act on impulse. When we do this when we apply the head and the heart to each of our altruistic endeavors we find that each of us has the power to do an astonishing amount of good."
The cofounder of the Effective Altruism movement presents a counterintuitive approach anyone can use to make a difference in the world.
While studying philosophy at Oxford University and trying to work out how he could have the greatest impact, William MacAskill discovered that most of the time and money aimed at making the world a better place achieves little. Why? Because individuals rarely have enough information to make the best choices. Confronting this problem head-on, MacAskill developed the concept of effective altruism, a scientific, data-driven approach to making a difference that operates by asking these five questions:
- How much will this action improve others lives?
- Is this the most effective action I can take?
- How useful is my contribution, given what others are already doing?
- What will happen if I dont do it?
- What are the chances of success, and how good would success be?
Applying these principles, he demonstrates that many of our assumptions about doing good are misguided: he argues that one can potentially save more lives by working on Wall Street than as a heart surgeon, that cancer charities are not the best use of money, and that buying sweatshop-produced goods is a form of ethical consumption. MacAskill challenges us to think differently but argues that if we set aside our biases and rely on evidence and careful reasoning, each of us can make a tremendous difference.
About the Author
William MacAskill earned a PhD in Philosophy from Oxford University, studied at Princeton University as a Fulbright Scholar, and is currently a Research Fellow at Cambridge University. He lives in Cambridge, England.