Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference Hardcover – Jul 28 2015
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“Beautifully written and extremely smart. Doing Good Better should be required reading for anyone interested in making the world better.”—Steven D. Levitt, #1 New York Times bestselling co-author of Freakonomics and When to Rob a Bank
“This is the most valuable guide to charitable giving ever published. Even readers who disagree with MacAskill’s conclusions about the value of particular charitable donations will make smarter decisions by learning from his analysis.”—Paul Brest, co-director, Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and former president, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
"A straightforward guide to help anyone make the largest possible difference in the lives of others." —Sue Desmond-Hellman, CEO of the Gates Foundation
"We research hotels and headphones and sushi bars—but not charities. That is lunacy. And in this powerful and persuasive book, William MacAskill shows us how much we stand to gain from a little bit of thoughtfulness: The same donation could do hundreds of times more good if given to the most effective charities, rather than the least"—Dan Heath, co-author of the New York Times bestsellers Made to Stick, Switch, and Decisive
“Effective altruism—efforts that actually help people rather than making you feel good or helping you show off—is one of the great new ideas of the twenty-first century. Doing Good Better is the definitive guide to this exciting new movement.”—Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and author of The Better Angels of Our Nature
“Doing Good Better is a superb achievement. This must-read book will lead people to change their careers, their lives, and the world, for the better.”—Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, author of Animal Liberation and The Most Good You Can Do
“Doing Good Better is a must-read for anyone with both a heart and a brain. MacAskill demolishes the lazy myths of nothing-you-can-do-ism and demonstrates the power of asking the right questions. This is an important book. It's also surprisingly fun. Figuring out what really helps people is a challenging scientific puzzle, and these pages are full of unexpected twists—enlightening and invigorating.”—Joshua Greene, director of Harvard's Moral Cognition Lab, author of Moral Tribes
“Humanity currently spends more money on cigarette ads than on making sure that we as a species survive this century. We've got our priorities all wrong, and we need effective altruism to right them. If you want to make a real difference on the biggest issues of our time, you need to read Doing Good Better.”— Jaan Tallinn, cofounder, Skype and Kazaa
“Doing Good Better has rare combination of strikingly original ideas, effortless clarity of delivery, and a thoroughgoing practicality that leaves the reader inspired to get out of their chair and take on the world. Humanity faces some big challenges in the 21st century; this is a much-needed manifesto for social change, and Will MacAskill is the ideal ambassador.”—Eric Drexler, founder of nanotechnology and author of Engines of Creation
“MacAskill tackles a monumental question: how can we make the biggest difference for the greatest number of people? His answer is a grand vision to make giving, volunteering, spending, and working more worthwhile.”—Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Give and Take
“Are you interested in giving away money more effectively? This is the very best book on how to do that.” —Tyler Cowen, Holbert C. Harris Professor of Economics at George Mason University and author of Average is Over
“I wish I'd had this structure and insights twenty years ago!”—Caroline Fiennes, Director, Giving Evidence
About the Author
William MacAskill is an Associate Professor in Philosophy at Oxford University and the cofounder of the nonprofit organizations Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours. These nonprofits have raised over $400 million in lifetime pledged donations to charity and helped to spark the effective altruism movement. He is a contributor to Quartz, the online business magazine of The Atlantic and he and his organizations have been featured in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and TED, among other media outlets. He lives in Oxford, England.See all Product Description
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I sometimes got the feeling that MacAskill enjoys being a contrarian, which can get in the way of his objectivity. His recommendations also sometimes seem sounder in theory than in practice. For example, he recommends that people donate to Cool Earth as a way to offset their greenhouse gas emissions, but Cool Earth doesn't actually provide a way to purchase offsets -- you can save an acre or save a tree, but you can't currently purchase an area of forest that stores an amount of carbon equivalent to your personal footprint. Similarly, the "don't follow your passion" advice may prove difficult for many people to follow over the long term, and in fact at least a few early adopters of the "earning to give" concept have since switched careers.
The techniques he proposes are widely used in other situations and if one had a predisposition to use them one would be doing so already. He's preaching to the choir.
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That only covers the intro and the first chapter, and I feel that the book was interesting for a while after that but then went steadily downhill. MacAskill is an associate professor of philosophy at Oxford University, but I was surprised that most of his book is based on economics, and it’s strange that it lacks both the wider and deeper perspective that I would have expected based on his chosen field. But then, he got his PhD barely three years ago. In short, he attempts to reduce everything to a number – how much difference do you make by donating to one charity versus another. I’m a scientist – I believe in objective evaluation of data to reach a conclusion. But MacAskill’s book has several problems. Maybe it’s better if I go through them as a list.
1. His calculations are extremely rough – some of them are built on so many assumptions that the conclusions are almost meaningless (GIGO, as one reviewer put it). I cringed a bit while reading his attempts to calculate how much good (in dollars) a student may do if she becomes prime minister or an MP, versus the odds of it happening. It’s not without some value to see him try to work this out but really, the book is about quantifying good – he needs to step it up a bit.
2. It lacks a broader perspective. His calculations on lives saved versus dollars spent leads to a very short list of specific charities that he recommends. You can see these at givewell.org. The top one supplies bed nets to repel mosquitos in Africa. There’s no doubt that bed nets save lives. However, the book I happened to pick up next, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa gave the example that distribution of free nets by charity organizations has put some African net makers out of business. Perhaps a better way would be for charities to buy from local net makers and then distribute these nets, or to subsidize costs for local net makers. There are pros and cons of both approaches, but MacAskill doesn’t address them. He’s a philosopher, not an economist, and yet he reduces everything to dollar values, and says very little about other values and issues.
3. By attempting to be surprising or interesting, he ends up being very misleading on certain issues. I was looking forward to chapter 8 since it covers ethical consumerism, but when I saw the chapter heading, “The moral case for sweatshop goods,” my heart dropped a little. MacAskill is trying so hard to write a book that surprises people by challenging their assumptions (in a Malcolm Gladwell kind of way) that he ends up making some statements that are extremely unbalanced and misleading. He makes the point that sweatshop jobs are sought after since they provide much needed income and therefore he quotes some bloke who said the problem is “not that there are too many sweatshops but that there are too few.” Nice job – you succeeded in shocking us. It’s only as almost an afterthought that he mentions that we could buy clothing from companies that have higher labor standards (People Tree, Indigenous, Kuyichi) but he doesn’t want to detract too much from the shock value of his chapter by spending more than a sentence to mention that conditions in sweatshops can be improved in response to consumer choice. Then, just in case you are thinking of looking into clothing companies that have better worker conditions, he follows the statement about higher labor standards with the sweeping statement that “I’m not so sure that ‘ethical consumerism’ works as intended.” He then goes on to say that the Fairtrade system is not useful – most of his references for this trace back to the same source, ignoring the wealth of evidence that Fairtrade and direct trade, although not perfect, are beneficial to farmers and communities. He then goes on to almost mock the idea of saving energy at home when you can just buy carbon credits to offset your emissions. Offsetting emissions is fine, but the idea of not making any changes in your own life is a problem I’ll address in the next point. A casual reader could easily get these messages: buy sweatshop clothes without any discernment, avoid buying products that claim to be fair or direct trade, and don’t bother saving energy.
4. Where will all of this lead us? MacAskill devotes a lot of space to the idea of “earning to give,” looking at a case study where a doctor can do more good by earning a high salary in the West, rather than working directly in Africa, as long as they donate a good portion of their salary to effective charities (e.g. mosquito nets). This idea is economically sound. Chapter 9, entitled “Don’t follow your passion” (Woah! I’m shocked!) explains that you should not attempt to have a career in your dream area (let’s say sports or music) because very few succeed in these areas. You should choose something lucrative like management consulting or marketing, and then “earn to give” and save more lives that way. Again, the (associate) professor’s logic is sound – as far as numbers go. My concern (which increased with my progress in the book) is that the whole premise, the quantification of lives and accounting of “good” purely on dollars, could lead us astray if we’re not careful. The practice has some value – we do need to evaluate whether charitable work or altruistic action is effective. But there is short-term accounting and then there is long-term growth. Let’s say I join a marketing firm in order to “earn to give,” ignore my impact as a consumer, ignore my energy use (but offset it with carbon credits), and donate some of my earnings to a charity that supplies mosquito nets in Africa. The possible dangers that I can see here are that I am taking almost no responsibility for my immediate actions, except for the grand gesture of offsetting them with my donations – is there any real possibility of personal growth here? Will I end up reducing (or abandoning) my donations to maintain the life I’m now accustomed to as I adjust to the ethos of my workplace? Is there any real improvement of global conditions if we express no preference for the corporations that we support as consumers (or employees)? And are we really just maintaining dependence of African nations (and others) on Western aid? Don’t get me wrong – we should do some good with our money. But whatever we do needs to empower people and also improve the social and environmental impact of the corporations that control most of the commerce (i.e., distribution of money) on the planet.
To some extent I’m playing devil’s advocate in this review. But I think it’s needed because MacAskill often chooses shock-value over balance. I’m not sorry I read the book, but I think some of his ideas are short-sighted. As a specialist in philosophy I’m sure he understands that our character determines the world we live in, our global macrocosm is a reflection of the individual microcosm. To make compromises in the ethics of our personal lives in order to serve a greater good is a dangerous game. (Check out his blog post: “Working for a hedge fund could be the most charitable thing you do.” In fact, you’ll get the gist of the book if you check out williammacaskill.com, givewell.org and 80000hours.org) I’m pretty sure that he means well, but sometimes I get the feeling that his Oxford-Cambridge background has perpetrated a kind of imperialist attitude to the rest of the world. The end does not always justify the means.
My guess is that many people reading this review are charitable people who want to know if their hard earned money is well spent when they give it to their favorite charity. In his new book, William MacAskill, cofounder of the Effective Altruism Movement, gives us a thoughtful method for determining what charities will make best use of our contributions and make a genuine difference for good in the lives of desperate and destitute people.
In Part One of his book he answers these questions:
1. How many people benefit, and by how much?
2. Is this the most effective thing you can do?
3. Is this area neglected?
4. What would have happened otherwise?
5. What are the chances of success, and how good would success be?
In order to accurately answer these questions, economists have developed a metric called the quality-adjusted life year (QALY). Time and again MacAskill will use this metric to highlight effective and ineffective organizations. Toward the end of his book he gives us a list of those charities that pass the QALY muster such as GiveDirectly, Deworm the World International, Against Malaria Foundation, etc.
Part Two of MacAskill's book shows us Effective Altruism in Action. From beginning to end he tells us interesting stories about people who make a difference for good. He makes the point repeatedly that even small contributions that are well placed can significantly impact the quality of life of poor and sick people. He often challenges our assumptions about strongly held beliefs such as that we should avoid purchasing products made in sweatshops. We are not wrong about the dreadful conditions in many of these workplaces, but the true fact is that work in a sweatshop is much to be preferred over even worse alternatives.
As we think about our own pattern of giving to charity, MacAskill encourages us to establish a regular habit of giving and to evaluate carefully whether our time spent serving in a charitable organization or working to earn money to give the organization is more valuable. We need to plan carefully what we will do to incorporate altruism into our everyday lives. MacAskill suggests that we join the effective altruism community (effectivealtruism.org), put our name on their mailing list, and invite our neighbors to do the same.
From beginning to end Doing Good Better is about enlightened behavior; that is, thinking less about self and more about connecting with networks that make a difference for good in the lives of the poor and unfortunate people of this world. People who read MacAskill's well written and thoughtful book have a game plan for action, not only in how to contribute meaningfully to worthy charities, but also to consider how to structure their lives to get the most from their talents and the best opportunities to use these talents to help others.
I mentioned at the beginning of this review that Americans are a giving people. William MacAskill gives us a plan and a program to channel our best tendencies and motivations in directions that will do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Highly recommended.
My only qualm is that the author is, unfortunately, a speciesist (like most other people), and therefore while talking about the suffering of animals in animal farms, doesn't go as far as questioning our right to use animals for our pleasure (such as for food). Other than that, I think it's a fantastic book.
So much so, that I've decided that I actually wrote an Amazon review (this is my first). I highly encourage you to read this book.