March 26, 2017
Review of ‘Doing Good Better’, by Will MacAskill
I recently read Doing Good Better by Will MacAskill, after it was recommended to me by a few friends. I devoured it in under 24 hours, and for 8 of those hours I was at work. I haven’t read a book that fast since Harry Potter when I was 13 — what higher praise can there be than that?!
What has a book about altruism got to do with futurism, you may be wondering. We started Manchester Futurists not just so we could spend many hours chatting about technology and the future, but also so we could help shape it into something positive. The framework laid out in this book can help us do that. Additionally, it looks at how to prioritise global challenges, and one of the main challenges facing humanity at the moment is technological acceleration and the growth of AI. This is listed on 80,000 hours (a website associated with the book) as one of our most pressing problems and a great way to have a positive impact.
In case it’s not already obvious, the book had a profound effect on me. It clearly lays out in a considered, methodical manner the most effective ways to ‘do good’. Like many people, it’s important to me that I try and make the world a better place — but it can be hard to know how to do this and how to measure success. As someone who values evidence-based thinking, I was relieved to hear there are strategies to do this, and that there is a growing community of ‘effective altruists’ who want to maximise their positive impact on the world using critical thinking and scientific reasoning.
Often, the conclusions that arise from applying this thinking to altruism can be surprising and counter-intuitive. One example is how for most people, they will probably have a greater positive impact on the world not by becoming a doctor, a teacher, working for an NGO or going into any of the other professions we tend to consider noble, but by simply earning as much money as possible and giving it away to effective charities. The book lists a number of case studies of individuals who had the motivation and skills to work in these areas but, after some analysis, instead chose to pursue high-earning careers in finance or software engineering in order to give much more away. This is known as ‘earning to give’ and is a popular strategy in the effective altruism community. Another example of a counter-intuitive finding is that buying ‘ethical’ products such as fair-trade food or ‘no-sweatshop’ clothing may in fact be causing more harm than good — I was very sceptical of this until I read the chapter. If we are serious about doing good in the world, we much be able to distinguish between what makes us feel like we’re doing good and what actually does do good. The great thing about Doing Good Better is that it makes you realise there are quite simple things that you may not have considered that can have an incredible impact.
The main way ‘good’ is measured in the book is through ’QALY’s (Quality Adjusted Life Years). This aims to consider both quantity and quality of life. So, one year at 100% health equals one QALY, as does two years at 50% health. The assumption is that doing good is about maximising QALYs. One of the main conclusions of the book is that for a given amount of cash, you can achieve far more QALYs in developing countries than in developed countries, and therefore that is where most of our money should go. Based on this (and a few other factors), the book suggests that the most effective use of our donations is to give to anti-malaria and deworming charities which hugely reduce poverty in developing countries. See GiveWell for more information.
QALYs give us a helpful framework to think about impact, but one issue I had with this approach was that it seems to encourage short-termism. The book suggests that the money used to provide a guide dog for a blind person in the western world could be used to provide medical treatment to improve the vision of many more people in the developing world, so the latter is a more effective use of the money. However, as my friend Julia pointed out in our discussions; helping someone in the western world might enable them to be a more productive member of society, earn more money, and enable them to give away much more money than the original amount invested in them. Another example is how currently, the easiest way to maximise QALYs is to focus on global health, which means charities that work to promote human rights and equality are not considered a priority. However, there is a strong link between poverty and inequality and many argue that investing in, for example, empowering women would eventually have a greater effect even if it might take longer to come to fruition.
Another conclusion that I’m still not 100% convinced by is that we should resist the urge to donate to charities we feel an emotional response to or have a personal connection with, because the money would be better used elsewhere. While this makes sense in principle, pragmatically I doubt many people will take the £20 sponsor money they were planning to give to their co-worker to run the Race for Life and give it to a deworming charity instead. Aside from the social pressure of taking part in such activities, I think there is something to be said for being joyful in giving, which may come more easily when it is a cause close to one’s heart. However, as mentioned earlier, we must take care to ensure we are still doing good (even if it is perhaps not maximally good when measured by QALYs) and not just doing things that make us feel like we are doing good.
Having said this, I hope it is abundantly clear that I unreservedly recommend this book. It is easy to read and provides a convincing framework for thinking about effective altruism. It addresses a number of areas, including charitable giving, ethical consumerism and choosing a career. I would also highly recommend watching this video series by 80,000 hours, an organisation associated with the book that gives the only career advice I’ve ever come across that is actually worthwhile.
Thanks to Julia Wilson and Fran and Alice Brooke-Hall for pointing me towards the book and for many hours of fascinating discussion.
Updated Jul, 21 2020