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Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a…

Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a… (2015)

by William MacAskill

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10821111,760 (3.73)3



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My thoughts on Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference

  Megan.Easley-Walsh | Dec 9, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Fascinating book about the inner workings (or not) of charities and how money can be given, spent and used to better society. ( )
  kurtabeard | Apr 25, 2016 |
A very fast read. It is also very clearly written, and well-organized. The arguments are supported both by statistics and anecdotes, and these are well-balanced. The statistics are never dry and the anecdotes are always to the point, never overwhelming or repetitive. The author maintains a consistent rational perspective.

Most of the information wasn't new to me, but reading it in one place still had an impact. And some of the examples I did find novel. For example, MacAskill tries to quantify the benefit of voting, and argues that it can be quite large based on the probability of your vote being the deciding one. He also gives statistics on how spending more on FairTrade certified coffee is an extremely ineffective way of helping poor coffee farmers. He argues that carbon offsets make considerable sense.

The book focuses on health and poverty in the developing world, arguing that some well-placed contributions can have 100x the impact of less-targeted interventions. There is only fairly perfunctory consideration of other causes---climate change gets a chapter, other causes get only a few paragraphs. I feel like one flaw of the book is that it neglects secondary effects, for example the effect of reducing poverty on climate change.

Another flaw is that it neglects the human need for feedback. The author himself says that his life was changed by volunteering in Ethiopia and seeing extreme poverty up close. But then he advocates fairly strongly for entering a career in which you can earn as much money as possible in order to give it away. For most people, I do not think this is a sustainable choice. He acknowledges this as a possible issue, but doesn't fully address it, concluding that "the experience of seeing what effective donations can achieve can be immensely rewarding." But the most effective charities, for which he advocates, e.g., giving to charities that will disburse cash to poor families in Africa, do not give the donor any direct feedback at all. ( )
  breic | Apr 17, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I really wanted and expected to like this book, but ultimately I really didn't.

The basic premise seems solid enough: when trying to make a difference in the world, we should take a rational, evidence-based approach to determine what will have the biggest impact. This is something that I can get behind pretty fully when it comes to choosing a charity. For the most part, it turns out that our money goes farther when it's donated to health-related causes in very poor countries; even if we personally care a lot about, say, education, donating to a charity like Deworm the World Initiative can make more of a difference by making children healthy and therefore more able to attend school than donating textbooks directly.

But what happens if you take this coldly rational approach to extremes, and start applying it to every aspect of your life? It turns out that, instead of choosing a career where you can make a difference directly, you might well have more of an impact by choosing the highest-paying career possible, and then donating that money to effective charities. Instead of doing volunteer work in your community, you might well have more of an impact by working overtime to earn still more money that you can donate to charities helping the most impoverished people in Africa.

This seems perfectly reasonable in one way, but perfectly horrible in another way. Is the ideal world really one in which all the best and brightest work 80-hour weeks in hedge fund companies, doing work they don't even believe in, just so they can have the greatest possible impact by giving away money indirectly to people across the world whom they'll never meet? That sounds like a pretty awful existence to me. It wasn't immediately obvious what the problem was, but reading a review on GoodReads led me to an idea of what was missing here: any sense of community. I think there's ultimately more to life than making the largest quantitative difference, and it involves some sense of investment in the people around you.

The author acknowledges all this to some extent, discussing the risk of losing your own values and becoming disillusioned if you spend all your time surrounded by colleagues who prioritize earning money above all else. But he blithely dismisses the concern by citing the examples of a few people like Bill Gates who have become very wealthy while still being devoted to philanthropy. It may be telling that the author himself doesn't practice what he preaches: he himself is a professor at Oxford, not an investment banker.

Again, I think he makes a lot of valuable points, especially when focusing on the early-career stage. He emphasizes the value of developing skills and career capital at the start, rather than going directly out of college to do low-skilled admin work at a non-profit. And I think that's valuable advice; investing some time in yourself can allow you to make more of a difference later on. But there's a difference between that and focusing exclusively on making the most money possible.

One of my favourite sections of the book was actually the one where he talked about the research on job satisfaction; it's not actually following your passion that leads to the most happiness, but instead whether the job has five other factors: independence, sense of completion, variety, feedback, and contribution. (As a side note, looking at these factors made it clear why I'm so much happier teaching than working exclusively on my dissertation.) Pursuing a career solely for the salary would fail on the "contribution" metric, and I'm not convinced that you could compensate for that with the knowledge that your money was making more of a difference indirectly.

One of my least-favourite sections of the book, and the one that caused me to put it down for six months in the middle, came when he abandoned his evidence-based framework and started making the case for his personal pet cause. He had spent the first half of the book telling us that we shouldn't try to help people in North America because our money can go farther helping people in Africa, that we shouldn't focus on education because we can have more of an impact by focusing on health (with the impact measured in QALYs, or quality-adjusted life years), and so on. And then suddenly he was talking about animal rights, and how we could have more of an impact with our $100 by donating to an organization that would convince someone else to become a vegetarian than we would by becoming vegetarians ourselves (the author is a vegetarian). The hypocrisy was pretty unbearable: there was no mention of how we could justify donating $100 to convince someone to become a vegetarian, when that money could instead be going to the Deworm the World Initiative or one of the other highly-recommended organizations focused on human health in the developing world.

And that brings me to the final problem with the book: for all its evidence-based veneer, the major decisions ultimately come down to subjective value judgements. The final section talks about how to choose a cause, and the author rates the magnitude of various issues on a scale from 1-4. Extreme poverty is a 3; US criminal justice reform is a 1; catastrophic global climate change is a 2-4, "depending on value judgements" (i.e., whether you think there's any value in continuing the existence of human civilization far into the future). Factory farming is "up to 3, depending on value judgements". In other words, the reader is ultimately invited to dismiss all data and decide for themselves what issues are most important. And that sort of defeats the whole purpose of the book.

This book still has a lot going for it. It's certainly thought-provoking, and the author makes a lot of interesting points. I finished it a couple of days ago and am nowhere near done engaging with the ideas that it raises. But it's also a fairly dry read, and one that ultimately doesn't reflect a vision of the world that I can support. I want to do more in life than earn a lot of money to help people I'll never meet, and I hope the people around me will choose to be more active agents of change as well. ( )
1 vote _Zoe_ | Apr 15, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I could barely slog my way through the overly-simplistic and repetitive writing style, but what I did manage to glean was better suited towards large companies giving rather than individuals. While the ideas suggested (giving to the poorest of the world's poor) are noble, this book is little to no help to the average individual who just wants to donate money and help society. ( )
  jillbone | Dec 30, 2015 |
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