Doing Good Better, by William MacAskill

 

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Every year, hundreds of billions of dollars are given to charity as we run in marathon fundraisers, attend galas, and donate to our local institutions, while our attention lurches from one disaster to another, usually occurring in a poor, far away part of the world. In the ongoing conversation about charity, giving, and inequality, certain questions are increasingly being asked. What exactly have we achieved through these efforts? Is any of this really helping people? Haven’t some of these efforts done more harm than good? And isn’t there, perhaps, a better way?

Across the world, the people thinking along these lines have coalesced into a movement known as “Effective Altruism”. Doing Good Better provides a highly readable introduction to the thinking behind that movement, and makes a convincing case that by carefully evaluating our choices regarding how we support the causes we believe in, we can have a far bigger impact on the world.

MacAskill is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford, but his writing seems to be more a reflection of his secondary role as the cofounder of the nonprofit organizations Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours. The writing is swift, helpful, and personal, and MacAskill has clearly invested not just his thought but his life in this cause.

Effective Altruism is largely inspired by Australian philosopher Peter Singer who has written eloquently about the moral foundations of charitable giving. MacAskill skips right past that and assumes that the reader is already on board. “Most people want to make a difference in their lives,” he writes, “and, if you’re reading this book, you’re probably no exception.” The question, however, is not just how can we avoid doing unintentional harm, but how can we do the most good. The rest of the book explores this question in various forms, such as evaluating charities, choosing a career, weighing the importance of various priorities, and presenting some generally useful tools for thinking about the world.

As MacAskill points out, we tend to use a different set of criteria for evaluating charities, than we would if we were hiring a company to accomplish some task. In the later case, what we care about is the bottom line: what can they deliver for what price. The question is why don’t we apply the same sort of hard-nosed thinking to trying to make the world a better place? If your objective in giving to charity is only to feel good about yourself, or to avoid having to say no to a fundraiser on the street, then it doesn’t really matter what charity you donate to. If you actually want to make a difference, on the other hand, it matters a great deal.

Much of the focus of the book is on the developing world, primarily because the same amount of money can make a much larger difference to someone living at the lower extreme end of global poverty than to someone living in a wealthy Western country. (For most people in North America, finding $20 on the street might make for a good day, but it certainly wouldn’t double our income for the week!) Larger economic factors also matter a great deal. An operation to cure someone’s sight in North America would cost tens of thousands of dollars, whereas the equivalent operation can be done in developing countries for tens or hundreds of dollars.

As anyone who knows anything about international development is aware, the the history of development is riddled with failures and missteps. MacAskill opens with the story of PlayPump, a merry-go-round style water pump that would (in theory) provide clean water from the power of children at play. The organization behind the technology was hugely successful in terms of fundraising and marketing. Unfortunately, their actual product was something that was overpriced, hard to repair, and impractical or embarrassing to use. Arguably, this organization did a great deal of harm by consuming charitable donations and displacing the deployment of more useful water pumps in villages across Africa.

The point, however, is not that all development efforts are destined to fail, but rather than we need to use the power of reason and evidence to decide what plans can succeed, and which have the potential to do the most good. MacAskill contrasts the story of PlayPump with that of Michael Kremer, an MIT professor who had the idea of using randomized controlled trials to determine what sort of interventions actually helped with improving school attendance in Kenya. After failing with textbooks, additional teachers, school uniforms, and so on, Kremer and his colleagues finally struck upon drugs to combat intestinal worms (which one of its supporters calls “probably the least sexy development program there is”). For a minuscule cost, the parasites which had been making children sick could be eliminated or held at bay, and this had a whole series of positive ramifications. Not only did the program reduce absenteeism by 25 percent, it had long term health and economic benefits which could be demonstrated thanks to the existence of a control group (a set of schools which did not receive the intervention).

Does this approach to charity involve some difficult choices and counter-intuitive conclusions? Absolutely. Thinking in these terms is contrary to our habits, and habits are hard to break. A selection of some of the challenging thoughts in this book include the fact that donating money to help in the aftermath of a natural disaster is usually not a good use of money, that past money spent on international development has actually done enormous good, that the average doctor saves very few lives throughout their career, and that we may be able to do the most good by earning as much as possible, rather than volunteering our time.

Some people will no doubt take issue with the conclusion that, for example, it’s usually not very effective to donate money to charities focused on domestic issues. In the end, however, if the purpose of charity is to help individuals, it’s pretty hard to argue with the position that you should help 100 people you’ll never meet rather than 1 that you perhaps will. For a more in-depth exploration of these issues, I highly recommend Peter Singer’s book, The Life You Can Save. There is nevertheless, plenty of discussion in MacAskill’s book of other causes beyond extreme poverty, including animal welfare, climate change, and other threats to the planet.

I only have a handful of criticisms of this book. First, although it’s nice that it’s an easy read, more depth would have been appreciated on certain topics. Second, the endnotes use the most annoying style, in which the note points back to the corresponding sentence, but not vice versa. Finally, the biggest weakness of the book, in my opinion, is it’s focus almost exclusively on individuals. Although MacAskill does encourage us to discuss these ideas with others, the emphasis is definitely on what you can do as a single person. He does discuss collective action briefly, but mostly as a way to illustrate the importance of thinking about the expected value of our actions (which is kind of an awkward fit). One of Singer’s most powerful points was that those in a position to convince large numbers of people to donate to effective causes, through mechanisms such as opt-out donating in the workplace, have the potential to do tremendous good, and I think MacAskill could have used more of that type of thinking.

Many of the factors involved in deciding what organizations involved are quite subtle, and I would encourage everyone to read this book to explore these issues further. In the meantime, however, here are some resources for those who can’t wait to donate:

www.givewell.org

www.80000hours.org

www.givingwhatwecan.org

www.effectivealtruism.org

www.thelifeyoucansave.org

 

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