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Effective Altruism: Philanthropy’s New Frontier

by Kara Baskin

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In his revolutionary new book Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and How You Can Make a Difference, Oxford philosopher William MacAskill argues that the traditional ways of doing good—volunteering, donating money—aren’t always the most useful. Life Reimagined talked to MacAskill about his nontraditional spin on philanthropy, known as effective altruism.

What should people consider when making philanthropic choices?

People should think How much will this action improve others’ lives? If we want to do as much good as we can, we need to think about the consequences of our actions. Moreover, we should think about how our actions will turn into improvements to people’s lives. So, when making decisions, whether it’s in volunteering, choosing a career, or deciding to buy “ethical” produce, we should ask: How much does this activity cost, in terms of time or money? How many people does it affect? And, crucially: By how much does it improve people’s lives? This is the first step toward addressing the hard question of how to allocate our limited time and money.

Then ask Is this the most effective action I can take? In the context of helping others, the difference between a good use of money and a great use of money is huge. So we shouldn’t just ask: Is this program a good use of money? We need to ask: Is this program the best use of money? Thinking carefully about how you can do the most to benefit others doesn’t just allow you to do a bit more good— it enables you to do vastly more than you might have done otherwise.

We can make a much bigger difference by focusing on areas where comparatively fewer resources have been spent.

William MacAskill , Philosopher

How useful is my contribution, given what others are already doing? To decide the impact of what you do, you also need to consider what others are doing. If a lot of people are already working in some area, this is a reason for thinking that your own contribution won't be that big. We can make a much bigger difference by focusing on areas where comparatively fewer resources have been spent.

What will happen if I don’t do it? In addition to thinking about what others do, you should consider what others would do if you acted differently. The most subtle way in which we fail to consider this question is when we think about career choice. Suppose you want to do good and are considering two careers: medicine and software engineering. You think that by becoming a doctor, you could save many lives, whereas as a software engineer you’d work for a large company like Google and earn a lot of money, which you could then donate to cost-effective charities. These two careers differ in a very important respect, which is not often appreciated. If you decide not to pursue medicine, the hospital will hire someone else, and this person will save roughly as many lives as you would have. By contrast, if you don’t become a software engineer, the employee Google will hire almost certainly won’t donate nearly as much money. The overall lesson is that, in assessing how much good we can do, we need to pay attention to what would have happened otherwise.

How can people apply your principles to their philanthropic organizations?

There are two questions here. The first question is whether you should start your own charity to begin with. The answer is almost always no. This is because charities vary a lot in their cost-effectiveness, and unless you have a very good reason for thinking that your own charity will be much better than average, this organization will end up doing much less good than charities that already exist. According to the best estimates available, the Against Malaria Foundation can save a child’s life with about $3,400. Before launching your own charity, ask yourself if you can realistically expect it to do so much good with so little money. 


The second question is how to ensure that your charity is as effective as possible if you do launch it. Ideally, you should focus on a problem that is large-scale (affects many people), neglected (few other people are working on it) and tractable (we can make progress on it). Most charities are ineffective not because they are corrupt or badly managed, but simply because they fail to focus on the most important problems.


Many people struggle to feel they’re making a difference in their careers. What sort of questions should they ask before taking a job?


First, we shouldn’t just try to make a difference; we should try to make a big difference. All of us lucky enough to live in rich countries have the potential to do a huge amount of good, so we shouldn’t settle for anything less than that. Second, estimating how much difference we will make by pursuing a certain career requires us to take into account what would have happened if we had pursued a different career instead. One of the organizations I co-founded, 80,000 Hours, has done extensive research on the impact of a wide range of careers.


What are the biggest misperceptions about doing good?


That altruism requires big sacrifices. This is not so: How you spend your time and money is more important than how much money or time you spend. So, by using your own resources intelligently, you can help others more than you would have ever imagined and still enjoy a nice life for yourself