books generosity

Doing Good Better, by William MacAskill

doing-good-betterI’ve written a little bit about the Effective Altruism (EA) movement. For ordinary people who want to make a difference with their time and money, it’s one of the most useful ideas out there. If you’re such a person and haven’t come across it, I hope to convince you to look into it.

The concept itself is valuable, but another reason why I’ve enjoyed watching EA blossom is that it’s something of a case study in how to spread a good idea and build a community around it. In the course of about five years there have been conferences, books, a network of organisations, and hundreds of millions of dollars mobilised for charity, but you can trace the whole movement back to a small handful of individuals. One of those people is William MacAskill, co-founder of Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours, and a coiner of the term Effective Altruism. Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a radical new way to make a difference is his guide to what EA is and how you can get involved.

Effective Altruism has grown out of the observation that, at the risk of sounding flippant, altruism can be effective. Giving can work. Despite claims to the contrary, aid to developing countries has notched up some remarkable successes. It is quite possible to make a difference, and every one of us can save lives through our giving. But in order to do so, we have to give to the right causes.

As the book describes, there are a lot of popular causes that don’t actually work. MacAskill singles out the story of PlayPumps, the roundabouts that tapped the energy of children at play to pump water. It attracted celebrity backing and millions of dollars, but didn’t actually work. That was money wasted, especially since those same dollars could have been given to charities installing the traditional pumps that local communities would have chosen if they’d been consulted. Conversely, donations to overlooked and unglamourous causes, or small and specialist charities, can have disproportionately big benefits.

To tell the difference, you need to be able to assess whether or not a charity is doing a good job, and whether its programmes deliver. For that you can call on randomised control trials, independent monitoring, and rigorous statistics. “Effective altruism is about asking ‘how can I make the biggest difference I can?’ and using evidence and careful reasoning to try and find an answer” says MacAskill. “It takes a scientific approach to doing good.”

At the heart of the book are five questions that help to maximise the good we can do – questions such as ‘how many people benefit from a given cause, and by how much?’ Or ‘what are the chances of success?’ I’ll come back to these questions another time, as there is a lot to learn from them. The second half of the book applies those questions to the real world and looks at who to give to, which causes are the most important, and how to pick a career that will make a difference. All of this is written with admirable clarity, plenty of good examples and case studies, and a counter-intuitive perspective that regularly made me pause to think something through.

There are problems with Effective Altruism, in my view. One is that it is too focused on the difference that individuals can make, and weak on collective action. So there’s a section on how one’s vote might have a slim chance of being the deciding vote in an election, but the benefits of casting that vote make the odds worthwhile. Surely the simpler answer is that the democratic process is a collective one. Provided that votes are fair and equal, running the maths on whether or not our vote can ever be one that makes a difference rather misses the point.

That’s worse on the matter of climate change, where the book implies that the most effective way to lower your carbon footprint is just to offset it instead. I’m not against offsetting in the right context, but it’s not just about our individual carbon account and whether we’re taking responsibility for it. Lifestyle changes are also about cultural change, solidarity, social justice. We model the alternative to our friends and neighbours, and multiply our impact. We live the transition into existence, in a community, in a particular place. Effective Altruism, in its drive to be rational above all else, can kind of lose contact with the ground sometimes.

It also suffers from an absolutism that often hampers movements. The drive for 100% organic is a false ideal that holds back the organic movement, for example. By insisting on vegetarianism rather than eating less meat, we set the bar too high and miss the opportunity to reduce emissions. Likewise, Effective Altruism isn’t just about doing more good, but doing the most good. The desire to maximise the effectiveness of donations can lead to narrow interests, and esoteric arguments about what’s best and how to measure it. Are we out to save lives, or to reduce suffering? Or is the best cause (though MacAskill doesn’t mention it) to prevent existential threat? There’s a mathsy rationalism that gives EA rather uncompromising edge, and that risks alienating some people.

Those are my personal concerns, and in no way should either of them stop you from reading this book, or from looking into Effective Altruism. I’m going to write more about it, as there’s no doubt that by taking the advice of the Effective Altruists and thinking through how you give, you can do far more good in the world than you may have imagined.


  1. I’ll certainly look more at EA. Your ‘mathsy’ comment reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s ‘nowadays people know the cost of everything and the value of nothing’ which ,coincidentally, I’d been thinking of earlier. Look forward to your further blog on the subject and wondering how your book (with your brother) is coming on.

    1. I’m wondering if I should do a little series at some point. There’s a lot to explore.

      The book I’m working on, you’ll be pleased to hear, is making good progress and is out for expert review at the moment. They will tear it apart as best they can, and then we will make it better! That’s a different project from the one with my brother though. The book is written with Katherine Trebeck from Oxfam.

  2. I very much enjoyed the book and find its focus on results very pleasing in a world where too many people choose their opinions in order to strike a social pose, where looking like you care is more important than actually improving the lives of the poorest. [For the absence of doubt this is not aimed at you]

    Given the powerful rationality brought to bare here possibly his discounting of the collective is because it isn’t as effective at improving things for the poorest as you think.

    A problem that very utilitarian rationality risks is over-focusing on what is seen as the best. Unconditional cash transfers may work better than everything else if we spend $1 billion on it but not if we spend $1 trillion. Funding the second and third best things is also important.

    Rationality isn’t the be all and end all (sadly). If we insisted money given to donkey charities was given to aid work the donors wouldn’t go along with it but keep the money themselves. There needs to be an emotional connection. As a dessicated calculating machine myself the recent months have driven the need for that connection home to me.

    1. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the book too. One of the things that I kept thinking was ‘what if everyone did this?’, and of course if we only gave to things that we can prove save lives, then we’d massively empoverish a whole bunch of other things that make life worth living. Any art or sport, or museums or heritage preservation, zoos or national parks, would have to be purely commercial. Other charitable causes, such as conservation, mental health, youth services, even homelessness in developed countries, have no real place in current EA thinking. And like the donkeys, I’m not sure most donors would go along with that.

      So there has to be a balance, and as you say, room for personal connection. The effective altruists allow for some of that, but it can be a bit dogmatic.

      Perhaps as the movement matures, its insights will be applied to broader modes of philanthropy. How could we support the arts more effectively is still a great question. Can we just give money directly to artists through crowdfunding, for instance. What are the best ways to address homelessness in our own home towns? Which conservation charities or strategies deliver the most benefits?

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