Book Review – Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference by William MacAskill

You’re rich. No, really you are. Whether you’ve paid for a computer or smartphone to browse the TACOMOB website on, or even handed a few coins over at an internet cafe, you’re far richer than many of your fellow human beings.

If you earn above $52,000 (SGD 70,000) per year, then, speaking globally, you are part of the TOP 1%.

Don’t you feel much happier already?  After all, often it only depends on the perspective on life you take to feel grateful and happy!

On that note let’s talk about how you can make the world better with your riches.

 

The book Doing Good Better is full of counterintuitive insights and a great practical guide to leverage the compassion and kindness inherent in all of us (yes, you too) to get the biggest charity bang for our donations.

Unfortunately, we “very often fail to think as carefully about helping others as we could, mistakenly believing that applying data and rationality to a charitable endeavour robs the act of virtue. And that means we pass up opportunities to make a tremendous difference.”

The idealist William MacAskill has a skill (PUN intended) in making profound arguments on why you should not waste your time or money on those seemingly obvious charities. And then offers real alternatives in their place.

Doing Good Better is a thoroughly entertaining moral puzzle book; one that urges us to think differently; one that asks us to set aside biases; one that encourages us to use careful reasoning rather than acting on impulse; one that just happens to have the potential to save many lives.

 

Now, to follow his train of rational evidence properly I have chosen not to shorten his most compelling passages too much for this book summary.

Key Messages:

William MacAskill starts by holding up the mirror to check our own behaviour:

“Imagine, for example, that you’re walking down your local high street. An attractive and frighteningly enthusiastic young woman leaps in front of you, barring your way. She clasps a tablet and wears a T-shirt that says ‘Dazzling Cosmetics’. You agree to speak to her and she explains that she represents a beauty products company that is looking for investment. She tells you how big the market for beauty products is, and how wonderful the products they sell are, and how, because the company spends over 90% of its money on making the products, and less than 10% on staff, distribution and marketing, the company is extremely efficient and therefore able to generate an impressive return on investment.

Would you invest?

Of course, you wouldn’t.

If you wanted to invest in a company, you would consult experts or investigate different companies and compare Dazzling Cosmetics’ performance with the rest of them. Either way, you would look at the best available evidence in order to work out where you will get the most bang for your buck. In fact, almost no one is foolish enough to invest in a company that is pitched to them on the street – which is why the imaginary situation just described above never occurs. Yet, every year, hundreds of thousands of people donate to charities they haven’t heard of simply because a well-spoken stranger asks them to, or even simply shakes a bucket at them. And they usually have no way of knowing what happens to the money they donate. One difference between investing in a company and donating to a charity is that the charity world often lacks appropriate feedback mechanisms. Invest in a bad company and you lose money, but give money to a bad charity and you probably won’t hear about its failings.”

Because we don’t get useful feedback when we try to help others, we often don’t get a meaningful sense of whether we’re really making a difference.

Effective altruism is about combining empathy with evidence to answer ‘How can I make the biggest difference I can?’ It takes a scientific approach to doing good. Just as science consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what’s true, and a commitment to believe the truth whatever that turns out to be, effective altruism consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what’s best for the world, and a commitment to do what’s best, whatever that turns out to be.

His point isn’t to lay blame or to claim that some ways of doing good are ‘unworthy’. His point rather is to work out which ways of doing good are best and to do those first. This project is crucial because the best ways of doing good are very good indeed.

Each and every one of us has the power, if we so choose, to do extraordinary things.

Looking at how much we can benefit people via increasing their income gives us a particularly robust way of assessing how much we can benefit others compared to ourselves. It’s not often you have two options, one of which is a hundred times better than the other. Imagine a happy hour where you could either buy yourself a beer for $5 or buy someone else a beer for 5¢. If that were the case, we’d probably be pretty generous – next round’s on me! But that’s effectively the situation we’re in all the time. It’s like a 99% off sale, or buy one, get ninety-nine free. It might be the most amazing deal you’ll see in your life.

The 100x Multiplier. For those of us living in rich countries, you should expect to be able to do at least one hundred times as much to benefit other people as you can to benefit yourself.

Sometimes we look at the size of the problems in the world and think, ‘Anything I do would be just a drop in the bucket. So why bother?’ But, in light of the existing research, that reasoning doesn’t make any sense. It’s the size of the drop that matters, not the size of the bucket, and, if we choose, we can create an enormous splash.

 

Earning to Give – One very viable option open to many of us

Earning to give means exactly what it sounds like: rather than trying to maximise the good you do directly via your job, you instead try to increase your earnings so you can donate more, improving people’s lives through your giving rather than your day-to-day work. Most people don’t consider this option when choosing a career that ‘makes a difference’. But time and money are usually interchangeable – money can pay for people’s time, and your time can be used to earn money – so there’s no reason to assume the best careers are only those that benefit people directly through the work itself. If we’re serious about doing good, earning to give is a path we should consider.

Earning to give seems to be an enormously powerful way of doing good. It exploits the fact that even typical workers in developed countries are among the top income earners in the world, and that there are some charities that do huge amounts to help the world’s poorest people for relatively little money.

When trying to do good, we need to be sensitive both to the likelihood of success and to the value of that success. This means that low-probability, high-payoff activities can take priority over sure bets of more modest impact.

Our predicament with climate change is no different. If climate change is happening and we don’t take action, millions of lives will be lost and the world economy will lose trillions of dollars. If climate change isn’t happening and we do take action, the costs are much lower. We would have wasted some amount of resources developing low-carbon technology and slowed economic progress a bit, but it wouldn’t, literally, be the end of the world.

 

Fairtrade

William MacAskill deep-dives into the subject of Fairtrade labelling:

“If we’re thinking about buying Fairtrade ourselves, we need to ask how much we’re actually benefiting people in poor countries by shelling out a few extra dollars for Fairtrade versus regular coffee. The evidence suggests that the answer is ‘disappointingly little’. This is for three reasons. First, when you buy Fairtrade, you usually aren’t giving money to the poorest people in the world. Fairtrade standards are difficult to meet, which means that those in the poorest countries typically can’t afford to get Fairtrade certification. For example, the majority of Fairtrade coffee production comes from comparatively rich countries like Mexico and Costa Rica, which are ten times richer than the very poorest countries like Ethiopia.

Second, of the additional money that is spent on Fairtrade, only a very small portion ends up in the hands of the farmers who earn that money. Middlemen take the rest.

Finally, even the small fraction that ultimately reaches the producers does not necessarily translate into higher wages. It guarantees a higher price for goods from Fairtrade-certified organisations, but that higher price doesn’t guarantee a higher price for the farmers who work for those organisations. Professor Christopher Cramer at the London School of Oriental and African Studies led a team of researchers who conducted a four-year study on earnings of Fairtrade workers in Ethiopia and Uganda. They found that those Fairtrade workers had systematically lower wages and worse working conditions than comparable non-Fairtrade workers and that the poorest often had no access to the ‘community projects’ that Fairtrade touted as major successes.”

Similarly, the focus on buying locally produced goods is overhyped: only 10% of the carbon footprint of food comes from transportation whereas 80% comes from production, so what type of food you buy is much more important than whether that food is produced locally or internationally.

Cutting out red meat and dairy for one day a week achieves a greater reduction in your carbon footprint than buying entirely locally produced food.

 

Volunteering

As a volunteer, you’re often not trained in the area in which you’re helping, which means the benefit you provide might be limited. At the same time, you’re often using up valuable management capacity. For that reason, volunteering can in fact be harmful to the charity you’re volunteering for.

 

William concludes with:

“I’m not going to attempt to definitively answer the question of what cause is most important to focus on, which would be impossible to do in a whole book, let alone a single chapter. Instead, I’m going to introduce a framework for thinking about the question, and then use that framework to suggest some causes that, on the basis of research at GiveWell and the Centre for Effective Altruism, I think should be given high priority.

Again, bear in mind that decisions about cause selection involve value judgments to an even greater degree than some of the other issues I’ve canvassed in this book so the conclusions you reach might be quite different from the ones I reach. Though effective altruism aims to take a scientific approach to doing good, it’s not exactly physics: there is plenty of room for differences of opinion.”

 

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