Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

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

Rate this book
Most of us want to make a difference. We donate our time and money to charities and causes we deem worthy, choose careers we consider meaningful, and patronize businesses and buy products we believe make the world a better place. Unfortunately, we often base these decisions on assumptions and emotions rather than facts. As a result, even our best intentions often lead to ineffective—and sometimes downright harmful—outcomes. How can we do better?

While a researcher at Oxford, trying to figure out which career would allow him to have the greatest impact, William MacAskill confronted this problem head on. He discovered that much of the potential for change was being squandered by lack of information, bad data, and our own prejudice. As an antidote, he and his colleagues developed effective altruism, a practical, data-driven approach that allows each of us to make a tremendous difference regardless of our resources. Effective altruists believe that it’s not enough to simply do good; we must do good better.

At the core of this philosophy are five key questions that help guide our altruistic decisions: How many people benefit, and by how much? Is this the most effective thing I can do? Is this area neglected? What would have happened otherwise? What are the chances of success, and how good would success be? By applying these questions to real-life scenarios, MacAskill shows how many of our assumptions about doing good are misguided. For instance, he argues one can potentially save more lives by becoming a plastic surgeon rather than a heart surgeon; measuring overhead costs is an inaccurate gauge of a charity’s effectiveness; and, it generally doesn’t make sense for individuals to donate to disaster relief.

MacAskill urges us to think differently, set aside biases, and use evidence and careful reasoning rather than act on impulse. When we do this—when we apply the head and the heart to each of our altruistic endeavors—we find that each of us has the power to do an astonishing amount of good.

From the Hardcover edition.

266 pages, Kindle Edition

First published July 28, 2015

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

William MacAskill

11 books609 followers
I'm Will MacAskill, an Associate Professor in Philosophy at Lincoln College, Oxford, and author of Doing Good Better (Gotham Books, 2015). I've also cofounded two non-profits: 80,000 Hours, which provides research and advice on how you can best make a difference through your career, and Giving What We Can, which encourages people to commit to give at least 10% of their income to the most effective charities. These organisations helped to spark the effective altruism movement.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
2,910 (44%)
4 stars
2,395 (36%)
3 stars
957 (14%)
2 stars
189 (2%)
1 star
42 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 799 reviews
Profile Image for Sophie Patrikios.
118 reviews8 followers
September 1, 2015
Easy to read, well researched, only didn't give it 5* because it proved my husband has been right about everything he's been saying for years. Very annoying.
Profile Image for Kony.
396 reviews240 followers
May 6, 2016
"Doing Good Better" is a misnomer. A more accurate title would be "Alleviating First-World Guilt With More Mathematical Rigor (and Enjoying the Delusion that Cost-Efficiency Translates to Moral Superiority)."

On the plus side, the book is well-intentioned and well-written. I appreciate the author's desire to discourage wasteful, counterproductive "charity," and to promote rigorous reflection about how best to deploy one's privilege. He does us all a service by pushing us to rise above emotion and think critically about what counts as doing good, about which do-gooding strategies are likely to produce desirable outcomes.

On the minus side, the author reasons as if people are primarily interchangeable widgets. Privileged people are interchangeable earners/laborers/donators, not members of communities. Suffering people are interchangeable recipients of help, not potential agents of change to be empowered. "Doing good" boils down to improving quantifiable outcomes; "doing good better" boils down to having a larger quantifiable impact.

I'm not against quantifying certain aspects of the good we seek to do, but unlike the author, I view quantification as a flawed and limited means to nobler ends. For this reason, I think his book is not only misguided but harmfully misleading. It's worth reading, but with a highly critical eye.
Profile Image for Amy.
930 reviews46 followers
February 7, 2023
As someone who works in the social profit (also known as the nonprofit) sector, I picked up Doing Good Better because the topic is endlessly interesting to me and because of his apparent emphasis on evidence-based programming. Unfortunately, this book was an all-around disappointment. Here's a short summary of my issues with this book:

1) MacAskill's apparent misunderstanding of programs and causes. CAUSES are things that individuals and organizations want to do. PROGRAMS are the means by which organizations and individuals try to affect their cause of choice. For example, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is built on the cause of preventing - and ultimately eliminating - drunk driving. In service to this cause, they run several programs such as a victim helpline and a Speakers Bureau (for educating the public). Causes, organizations, and programs are different but MacAskill treats all these like they mean the same thing.

2) MacAskill's emphasis on some causes over others (I pejoratively call these his 'worthy causes'). It is the worst sort of rankling to read about how some causes are inherently 'better' than others either because they 'affect more people,' 'they reduce suffering more' (note that this is by MacAskill's definition of 'suffering'), or some combination of the two. He consistently refuses to recognize that social profits improve people's lives in a variety of ways via innumerable different causes, and those causes each in turn affect other areas of people's lives unrelated to the original cause. None of these are easily quantifiable and they do have ripple effects that are difficult - if not impossible - to perceive, especially over the long term. Plus, there's the ethical issue of effectively saying that some people's suffering (as determined by cause) is more worth trying to fix than another's. There's just no getting around this, no matter how much he tries to dress it up with economics vocabulary.

3) MacAskill's constant conflating of programs and causes. Programs and causes are not the same thing, and looking at multiple programs that all try affect the same cause will show some programs to be more effective than others. I agree with him in saying that we should fund the ones and not the ones that don't, and I also agree that if works especially well for its chosen cause that one should be institutionalized, not supported by the charity of others. What is misleading is when MacAskill gives an example of an organization with an emphasis on only one of their programs (most organizations run more than one program). This leads the reader into thinking of that program and that cause as being the same (they are not) and by extension leads the reader into thinking about the cause whatever MacAskill says about the organization (spoiler alert: it's probably something bad). This is unfair to the cause that has been targeted via a backroad. There are some social profits that do not do good work for a variety of reasons, but this does not mean the causes they are meant to serve are ‘unworthy’ of our concern or effort.

4) MacAskill’s insistence on comparing causes that target different groups or that serve different areas of well-being. It is fallacious and misleading to try to compare distributing condoms to distributing bed nets in Africa, for example. Not only do the two target different groups (sexually active individuals vs. everyone), but they attempt to affect different causes (stop the spread of STDs, particularly HIV vs. stop the spread of malaria from mosquitos to humans) and encounter different difficulties (for example, condom use is attacked by religious conservatives in Africa as being ‘against the will of god’ and it has been documented that missionaries preach that condom use will result in the person going to hell).

5) MacAskill’s assumption that a social profit’s overhead (ratio or amount) has to do with their program’s effectiveness. There are cheap programs out there that result in very favorable overhead ratio as long as the organization has a decent revenue. But those programs may or may not be good programs, ones that positively impact the people they serve. There are also organizations that have a very high overhead by amount, but the overhead reflects the size and scope of the organization. Big Brothers, Big Sisters, for example, is a multibillion dollar social profit that operates thousands of clubs and serves hundreds of thousands of kids annually. The organization has been attacked over the CEO’s compensation, which seemed considerable in terms of pure numbers but was actually in line with CEO compensation for similar sized organizations. And why shouldn’t a social profit pay someone a proportionate, competitive salary that will attract a leader whose job it is to scale up the organization?

6) MacAskill’s willingness to ignore psychology when it is in his favor to do so, despite claiming to support rationality as applied to everything. It’s one thing to argue that people should support ‘worthy causes’ (by his standards) because it’s the most rational thing to do, but it is entirely another to refuse the realities of a very, very irrational world. Running evidence-based programs is someone is something that every organization should do, but the fact is that most donors want to donate to people, not causes. That is why advertising and outreach for social profits are structured around individuals and stories, and evidence is one the organization’s website. Trying to reverse the emphasis on the two would be an awesome way to alienate potential donors, volunteers, members, or others who could help the organization achieve its cause, something that will definitely not help the people that the organization is meant to serve.

7) MacAskill’s willingness to ignore the limitations of math and science when it is in his favor to do so. It is one thing to bring out statistics to support a claim, analyze the statistical claims of others, and point out flaws in methodology, but it becomes misleading when you refuse to apply the same standards to the stats in defense of your own side of the argument. Evidence is extremely limited for some of the claims MacAskill makes about particular causes (like one or two studies), but he fails to make clear during that argument that the data may or may not be trustworthy because outliers (positive or negative) are more likely to present themselves in smaller data sets, despite pointing out that exact flaw with regards to a social profit’s data earlier in an earlier chapter.

8) MacAskill's apparent refusal to properly cite sources in text. Instead of the typical method of in-text citation for nonfiction meant for the general public (a number at the end of a sentence that corresponds to a chapter-specific list of citations, making it easy for the reader to tell what has been cited and where to find the citation), there are no in-text citations at all. There is a section for citations at the end of the book sorted by chapter, but the lack of in-text citations makes it very difficult to tell (without constantly flipping back to the citations section, at least) what is opinion and where things cited as facts have come from.

9) MacAskill’s premise and general insistence that economics is the answer to everything. He unquestioningly promotes the assumption that altruism can be outsourced to others, and that not only is this good, but it is something that should be admired. I understand that not everyone can help in every way (not everyone has vacation days or the inclination to go to Africa, for example), but – again – it is one thing to promote donating to charity and completely another to promote donating to charity as a replacement for acting ethically yourself. This is especially important in light of the fact that preliminary studies regarding ethical behavior and economics are not encouraging. In the most commonly cited study of this nature, an Israeli daycare service started financially penalizing parents for picking up their children late. The fine (a financial incentive to pick up kids on time) actually caused an increase in the number of late pickups because a norm of the situation changed (‘I pick up my kid on time because it’s the right thing to do’ became ‘As long as I pay the fine, it’s not a problem if I pick up my kid late’). This has major implications for the kind of outsourced altruism that MacAskill is promoting, but he doesn’t even mention it. Additionally, he refuses to acknowledge the (admittedly, more fuzzy) issue of taking responsibility for oneself and one’s own actions. It’s one thing to donate to a ‘save the rainforest’ cause, but it’s completely another to say ‘this donation absolves me of all guilt for that unnecessary flight.'

All in all, I hated this book. The only reason I finished reading it was because I don’t feel right about reviewing books that I haven’t finished. I will definitely not be recommending it to anyone, and the copy that I unfortunately wasted my money on will end up in the trash where it belongs.
Profile Image for Caroline.
503 reviews564 followers
December 5, 2015

Read a fair amount of this book, but did not finish it...

I really wanted to be bowled over by it - but I wasn't. There was just too much statistical analysis for me to follow it comfortably. The first few chapters are fine, but as MacAskill continues with his arguments of convoluted logic - I was lost.

This doesn't mean this isn't a great book - it just means it isn't a great book for my aged brain. Because of this I am not going to award it any stars. I'm in no position to judge it.

What did I pick up from the few chapters I read?

Finally, towards the end the author gives the names of charities that his organisation recommends.

I am very glad this book was written - even in the few chapters that I read MacAskill brought up a lot of issues that needed airing.

Later add: Since reading this book I have found myself discussing it a lot with my friends. In spite of me not following all of the author's arguments, I think I got enough of the gist of it for the book to make a big impression on me.


Macskill's TED lecture on choosing a career that will most help others:

Profile Image for Kat Steiner.
165 reviews2 followers
September 10, 2015
Thinking of giving more to charity? Read this book. My personal favourite book on effective altruism so far. (I have also read The Life You Can Save and The Most Good You Can Do).

Will is clear and engaging. The book is structured well, with the first half including examples, personal stories, and analogies (for example to triage doctors) to argue gently towards the basic tenets of effective altruism. The second half discusses practical problems (choosing a career, deciding between very different causes to support, choosing charities within causes), presenting the real difficulties that people trying to apply these principles face.

Not everything will suit everyone (I am not particularly interested in choosing a career in this way, although I got more out of that chapter than I expected to), but it is light on abstract philosophy (which I see as a plus) and heavy on human stories. It opened my eyes a little more to the potential cause of factory farming.

I was also really interested in his discussion of Fairtrade, sweatshops, and low-carbon living. These are cases where people are explicitly trying to do 'the right thing', but actually not doing that may be better for the world (I think I disagree with Will on sweatshops, though.) I will definitely look into carbon offsetting via Cool Earth.

To be honest, Michael has better things to say about it on his blog.
Profile Image for Andy.
1,377 reviews467 followers
November 14, 2022
--Update 2022, in case you wanted more indications that there's something fishy about this guy's methods of assessing evidence: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/13/bu...

There is a desperate need for plain English sources of information that accurately describe what works and what doesn't. This book presents a scale for determining the effectiveness of charities, but something on the scale smells awfully fishy.

When the author gets to what you should donate to, he and his allies at GiveWell highlight Give Directly. Okay fine. Except that I looked up the evaluation paper and I also looked up the online supplement for the results: http://www.princeton.edu/~joha/public.... If you slog your way through to Table 45 you get to the relevant results, including:
*People who could afford treatment,
*Sick days,
*Children who died,
*Overall Health Index.
GiveDirectly does NOT significantly improve any of these outcomes!!

I'm not saying that GiveDirectly doesn't maybe do some kind of good in some way. But the author emphasizes how the yardstick to use is health improvement, and he admits that GiveDirectly does NOT improve health. Yet he calls it extremely cost-effective. How can it be cost-effective if it's not effective????!!!! ????????????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!????????????????

I don't know what's going on here. But if it smells like rotten fish, maybe you don't want to swallow it.
Profile Image for Simon Eskildsen.
215 reviews953 followers
September 12, 2018
Upon closing this book, I immediately changed the charities I support and increased my donations. It left me with the empowering feeling that donating can be a very real alternative to doing good in the 'traditional ways', e.g. working directly for those in need or humanitarian organizations. For every $3,600 donated to protect people from malaria with bed nets, you (statistically) save a life. For every $100 you donate to the rainforest, you save an acre or 260 tons of CO2 (the average North American is responsible for about 20 tons per year, so if you donate $8 right now to Cool Earth you're, statistically, CO2 neutral). If you've been hesitant to donate due to concerns with where your money ends up, the Effective Altruism movement thoroughly analyzes charities to maximize impact. The author is the hyper-rational economist type, laying out e.g. why donating consistently will save more lives than becoming a doctor in a first world country. That donating now will compound at much higher rates than an index. I've significantly reduced my meat intake over the past two years for environmental reasons, but the (again, hyper-rational) author lays out how donating $5 to the right charity to save rainforest (Cool Earth) will offset your meat intake if the environment is your primary concern (donate more, and you can go carbon negative to offset air travel, too). It gets a little too quantitative at times which I'm sure will set off some people.

You need to read this.
Profile Image for Robert Wechsler.
Author 12 books125 followers
April 20, 2017
MacAskill convinced me that effective altruism is not the way to go. He does make some good points, but his utilitarian philosophical approach is so narrow, it seems like something only Mr. Spock would consider appropriate. Charity is not just about doing the most good in terms of saving lives. There are so many different reasons to give money and one’s time. And even MacAskill’s idea of doing the most good is too narrow, in that he rejects the idea of giving to an organization that is taking various approaches, because some of them won’t work. Yes, but some of them will work well. That’s life.

This book is not about life. And the organizations MacAskill directs the reader to would have to become less effective if a lot of readers followed his advice. In other words, his advice is not good. Nor does it accept people’s humanness. It’s good to know as much as one can about where one’s money and time are going — which is a great argument for more transparency in the nonprofit world (and less marketing) — but there’s only so much we can know and so much that what we know can influence us, considering all the other variables.
Profile Image for Ryan.
990 reviews
August 19, 2020
In Doing Good Better, William MacAskill outlines effective altruism. Although I had already learned about these ideas from Laryssa MacFarquhar's outstanding Strangers Drowning and the 80,000 Hours podcast, I happily found Doing Good Better a well written, provocative work that still had much to show me.

The best reason to read Doing Good Better is that it's about doing good better. Aside from its effort to make a better world, I also appreciate its ability to reframe how we understand our lives. Here are three examples.

First, anyone who is lower middle class in the developed world is relatively well off, globally speaking, and they can therefore save lives. Reading this point produced complex feelings in me. For one thing, it seems OK to be aspirational or to want more from life. I'm not sure it's admirable to feel better about your life because someone else is literally dying right now. But it does seem admirable to feel fulfilled by the power to save that person's life.

Second, MacAskill invites people to view their career not as a passion project, but rather as a chance to make a difference. If you can make a lot of money and donate it to well run and effective charities, you would maximize the good you can do by following the money rather than your passion. I could imagine someone reading Doing Good Better and saying to their friend in the midst of existential angst, "No one cares about your passion and your angst. Try to help out for a change." And in fact, this is exactly how the Doctor on Star Trek: Voyager resolves his existential crisis.

Third, I began to think about other institutions the same way that MacAskill thinks about charities. Having just finished Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo's Dream, I thought about the catholic church as an institution. Has it done more good than harm?

MacAskill is persuasive, though I sometimes found it off-putting to consider his conclusions. Here are three worries about Doing Good Better. First, it was written in 2015, but when I checked MacAskill's website, it doesn't look like the climate change analysis and its highlighted charities have changed. But we learn more about the destructiveness of commonplace air pollution all the time. Surely the calculations should lead to slightly different conclusions within five to ten year windows. Second, how much is enough? Although I usually consider this question relative to maximizing profit, it seems relevant here, too. Third, MacAskill's logic can be used to disarm real worries about our society because, no matter the injustice, it's difficult to avoid the feeling that someone in some corner of the world is much worse off. It's not hard to find a guideline when studying the Holocaust to avoid comparisons of suffering, but effective altruism is more ready than I am to cross that line.

On the whole, Doing Good Better remains a fascinating work. And given that no one in my relatively small network has read it (which surprised me), let me encourage you to look into effective altruism by reading this book.

Some highlights and notes are hidden below:
Profile Image for Kamila.
206 reviews
March 20, 2017
If everyone read this book and took its message truly to heart, we could live in a very different world.

The two main takeaway points: (1) If you live in the developed world and make over $52,000 a year, you are in the global top 1%. No joke. You, me, we all are fabulously wealthy, and what's just a few dollars to us can make a huge difference in the lives of people in poor countries; (2) "The extremity of global poverty is almost unimaginable." This is why sweatshops are actually sought-after jobs in those countries, and our self-righteousness can inadvertently do harm when those workers lose their jobs without having any other viable employment alternatives. Fair trade isn't exactly all it's cracked up to be, either.

He also has an interesting take on career advice (the opposite of the standard "follow your passion"), which may feel counterintuitive but makes a certain logical sense. I'm a little too old at this point to follow it, but kids in high school and college will hopefully have a chance to read his perspective.

Check out Give Well.
Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book1,869 followers
January 30, 2019
I enjoyed reading this short book.The author tended to anticipate my objections to his arguments almost as I was in the act of first thinking them, and to provide me with reasons why I was wrong to think the way I did. His outlook is utilitarian. His thinking would feel right to John Stuart Mill.

I would have liked the book even more if MacAskill had acknowledged that his is not the only way of measuring the value of altruistic acts. MacAskill is a great leveler--he believes that, because we in modern times are all connected, and because the West is vastly, disproportionately wealthy when compared with the rest, that those who are so privileged are obligated to seek out and to help those in the world who need it most. His measure of value is primarily economic.

A prime example MacAskill cites, of a person "doing good better", is a doctor who realizes he can do more good by making as much money as he can from Western patients, and giving it away to the poorest of the poor in other countries--in this way he will save more lives than if he were to travel to a poor country and to devote his life to improving health care there one person at a time. But I wonder how Paul Farmer would fit into this scheme--a doctor who has not only devoted much of his life to improving health care in Haiti, but has written about Haiti as a first witness, always respecting its people, and doing more to publicize the poor choices made by relief organizations (and how to fix them) than MacAskill's theories can.
Profile Image for Xeon.
38 reviews256 followers
June 5, 2023
Let us do good even better! For what could be more altruistic than an analysis of effective altruism itself. Since it was not done besides mentions about the GiveWell charity, and to put the key questions of effective altruism to exercise, I shall try to do so here—however abysmally

1. How many people benefit, and by how much?
On the matter of how many people benefit, I would argue any person besides the 10% in the most dire of situations would. Whether in their psychological welfare and planning for life, or the benefits eventually provided to others.
The question of how much is a different matter. The technique of lower bound reasoning may be used here.
Utilizing more effective organizations which may be 33% better for the about $400 billion that is already given, working to give rather than volunteering locally which is some average of 50 hours each year for 25% of populations, donating even 1% to 10% of one's income, donating consistently each year say across 40 years, and better choosing one's career.
$400,000,000,000*1.33 + 50*$20*4,000,000,000 + 0.01*$10,000*4,000,000,000*40 = $4,548,000,000,000
So, if taught to everyone, and if most of those people do even the bare minimum based upon the tenets of effective altruism, that might result in at least $4.5 trillion dollars of goodness—Or something like that (˃̣̣̥ꇴ˂̣̣̥)

2. Is this the most effective thing you can do?
Well, if taking into account marginal utility of being the person that makes the difference in spreading such, it would be (1/4,000,000,000)*$4,548,000,000,000=$1,137
Though this does not do well in taking into account the network and amount of people one shares the ideas with
Regardless, as this comes from the cost of simply a few minutes or seconds from sharing or discussing, I think it is a most excellently effective thing to do.

3. Is this area neglected?
Based upon matters discussed throughout the book, the cause of effective altruism appears to be neglected in a variety of ways

4. What would have happened otherwise?
If not done, the status quo would continue with the possibility of becoming worse

5. What are the chances of success, and how good would success be?
Estimating further that the chance of success is even 10% in sufficiently teaching and executing upon effective altruism, that could still be a $455 billion or $114 benefit.

So it seems this writing has conferred at least a $114 benefit on the world! Now that I am ‘morally licensed’ and have outsourced my morality, perhaps I shall treat myself to a beef burger with air conditioning on full blast in a diesel car... 🤦‍♂️
3 reviews3 followers
August 9, 2015
Now this book is the kind of thing that can change your thinking radically - yet its conclusions are so evident that you wonder why nobody thinks about the topic this way.

Doing Good Better is well-written and well-researched. For people familiar with the subject matter there will be some repetition. However, I was positively surprised that compared to Peter Singer's 'The Most Good You Can Do', MacAskill's book is really full of new information and new ways of thinking about things.

MacAskill breaks effective altruism down into five key questions and a few core topics. Each of them is illustrated with examples that are actually good to know. That's a key difference to 'The Most Good You Can Do'.

For example, the chapter on ethical consumerism tells you which popular climate-saving measures are not really helping much (and which are) and the chapter on expected value helps you figure out which risks are worth taking, e.g. how bad it is to ride a motor bike compared to using ecstasy. The careers chapter contains some options I might actually try.

All of this culminates into a pretty decent understanding of how to make a big difference.The book ultimately provides ways to get involved with the effective altruism movement.

A read that's both entertaining and indispensable if you want to make a difference.
Profile Image for William Kiely.
21 reviews3 followers
July 30, 2015
Doing Good Better is a great introduction to effective altruism and the sort of rational, evidence-based reasoning that is extremely helpful to making sure that what we do in our lives actually effectively fulfills our values.

Without explicitly asking ourselves MacAskill's Second Key Question of Effective Altruism, "Is this the most effective thing you can do?" we may end up having a "merely very good" impact with our lives, which surprisingly is nowhere near as good as the best impact we potentially could have.

As MacAskill writes, "When it comes to doing good, fat-tailed distributions seem to be everywhere. It’s not always true that exactly 80 percent of the value comes from the top 20 percent of activities—sometimes things are even more extreme than that, and sometimes less. But the general rule that most of the value generated comes from the very best activities is very common" (p. 50).

If we don't consciously try to achieve the most good we can and purse that challenge with careful reasoning, then it's likely we won't achieve anywhere near our potential. That's why effective altruism is important and why I was very happy to learn that there is a growing community of people who agree about the importance of this sort of thinking.
Profile Image for Coleen.
973 reviews48 followers
July 4, 2015
This book is not a 'fast' read so much as it is a book that is so fascinating that one wants to keep going. And I certainly did, with many stops to take notes, jot things down, and look up names and references. I anticipated in advance that the author would be a liberal do-gooder, and of course, he is. But that did not diminish my respect for him and his writing. His photo makes him appear to be a young man, but he is one very smart young man.

Pay attention to what he writes because his analysis is right on target. Just when you might think...ah...but what about... he has the next issue ready to discuss. My understanding of economics and statistics is not great, but I was able to follow, I think, everything that he wrote. Not that I agree with him on everything. And to be very fair to the author, he does not expect agreement so much as using your own brain to make your own analysis to form your own judgment, whether that is your selection of a charity or your lifestyle or your career. He is skeptical himself, and deals with skeptics by providing questions that each one needs to answer to make decisions every step of any analysis.

He focused a great deal in the book on global proverty because it is such an obvious and undisputed area of need. And I don't disagree there. And where there is a health concern in a country or continent that could impact the rest of the world population, well, that is extremely important. No one wants to risk the human race being wiped out. But spending billions of dollars [or even mere millions], to better the economy or the education, or living standards of some countires? As an American, I know - and it is no secret - that most of the people who are the recipients of this goodness, hate Americans and the USA. They want to kill us and wipe us off the face of the earth. Are we helping them do that with the billions of dollars in aid that is provided not only by these charities, but by our government? Are we educating them to read books that teach hate and violence and weaponry and terrorism? Again it is no secret that they do not hesitate to accept our money and goods while despising us.

I believe the author is British, but he does mention the United States is his studies and statistics. The countries he is discussing may not hate England at all, or as much as they hate the USA. But it is a major consideration to many which was not addressed.

Ironically, I used the analysis the author provides for evaluating charitable giving - effective altruism - to the welfare and social programs of the U.S. Federal Government paid for with mandatory taxes, not voluntary funds. And not one of them would be the recipient of any money after considering the first question of cost effectiveness. Administrative costs eat up the large majority of the funds... the large number of federal government workers paychecks and benefits, the executive and the legislative departments, more of the same numbers. We can only hope that one percent of the funds actually reaches the intended recipients.

I was a very lucky winner of this book in a Goodread's giveaway, and I am lending it to others to read as well.
Profile Image for Hil.
29 reviews
August 1, 2015
If you're at all like me, you know how important it is to do your part by contributing your money and time to worthy causes, but the decision-making involved can be exhausting. Whenever you read statistics about global health crises and the number of people living in grinding poverty, it is easy to wind up feeling overwhelmed and guilty, like your efforts would be just a drop in the bucket. It can seem much easier to donate to domestic programs where you feel like you may identify with the recipients more and it may seem easier to see the effects of your donation.

William MacAskill has done a wonderful job of presenting a rational way to evaluate different causes and programs so that you can have the biggest impact with the money (and/or time) you donate. He very neatly lays out the argument that if you happen to be born and are living in the developed world, you've already hit the lottery, wealth-wise and by donating part of your income (income you likely won't even miss) you can vastly improve the lives of the extremely poor in developing nations. All of this is done in an upbeat way that makes you realize that you are in a position to make a HUGE difference in the lives of others.

MacAskill points out that the most efficient programs are a hundred-times more able to improve the lives of the extremely poor than good, but less efficient programs. For the amount of money that you can easily set aside even if you have a pretty unremarkable job in a Western country, you can save lives and raise the standard of living for someone else substantially. He gives one memorable illustration where he states that it is like you are in a bar where you can either buy yourself a beer for $5 or buy someone else a beer for 5 cents. As he said, you'd probably be buying people a lot of rounds!

MacAskill also has an interesting chapter about selecting the best career path to make a difference. Sometimes this is counter-intuitive. You might imagine that you would be able to do more by getting an M.D. and going to work in Kenya, when in fact, you'd be better off staying in your own country and donating a larger part of your greater compensation to effective charities. It's all fascinating stuff and I found myself tearing through the book in a matter of two days. If you are interested in effective altruism, I can highly recommend Doing Good Better.
Profile Image for SP.
165 reviews6 followers
August 31, 2015
This is the sort of nonfiction book that you really, really want to find. This is the best of all possible worlds: a thought-provoking nonfiction book that doesn't require an advanced science degree to understand.

MacAskill's ultimate goal is to help us find the most efficient ways to help others, and he applies empirical research to the task. Almost every chapter contains the sort of information and thoughtful discussion that made Freakonomics so popular. What sorts of charities give the maximum benefit to the poor from your charitable dollar. Why we should consider global climate change a problem -- and what makes the most sense to do about it. How Scared Straight, the program that was supposed to decrease juvenile delinquency by taking problem teens into real prisons, actually increased juvenile delinquency. Why "fair trade" purchasing doesn't appear to do much for the poor at all, and why fighting against sweatshops in the Third World may actually exacerbate poverty and suffering. (Because given how incredibly poor people are there, sweatshop jobs are the "good" jobs.) Agree or disagree, his points are always worth considering.

MacAskill writes to persuade, not to condemn, and his respect for the reader pays off. Interesting, well written, and I expect I will read it again in the near future. That's five stars.
Profile Image for Benno Krojer.
54 reviews6 followers
December 26, 2020
This will change my life by a lot. I've always had high ethical expectations of myself, which lead to a lot cognitive dissonance e.g. because I was too lazy and uninformed to fully switch to vegetarianism. I became a vegetarian almost two years ago and this book inspires me to go even bigger steps in order to live up to my own ideals of what it means to live a good life: I will most likely take a pledge soon to donate some amount of my future income after grad school. I will become a vegan soon, and my consumer behavior might change. I also consider my career in AI differently.

Next to this personal impact, the book felt very honest and was well researched (due to a lot team work in the background that helped MacAskill). MacAskill clearly put a lot of thought into making his ideas digestible and easy to remember, by summarizing and reusing ideas thoughout the book, and also by providing a summary of everything that's extremely to the point.
Now it is up to me to not let my words become empty words.
89 reviews1 follower
May 21, 2016
Fascinating look at how to prioritize your money and work life to do the most good in the world.
It takes a very dispassionate look at exactly where you can have the most bang for your effort in terms of quality of life and life expectancy. One of my favorite charities, Give Directly, is prominently featured. Worth a read.
Profile Image for Malin Friess.
675 reviews20 followers
February 23, 2016
5 stars. Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism can help you make a difference has been and will be my Goodreads Favorite book for 2016.

We all want to make a difference. But how can we make the biggest difference for the greatest number of people with limited money and time and resources? This is the question Macaskill seeks to answer; we can do good, but how can we do good even better?

5 key questions
1) How many people benefit and by how much? This can be measured in a sociologic unit called a QALY.
2) Is this the most effective thing you can do? MacAskill is a big proponent of earning to give like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerburg.
3) Is this area neglected? Is another non-profit already providing this service...
4) What would have happened otherwise? If you were not working where you are working..would someone else be filling your spot and duties..
5) What are the chances of success and how good would success be?

With these questions in mind MacAskill evaluates the effectiveness of charities and careers. In the developing world lack of education is a major problem. What would be the best way charity to improve schools--an experiment was done looking at three charities. The first hires more teachers to provide smaller classes, the second donates books from America, the third (and cheapest) provides deworming medication to children. The results could not have been more clear..more books and more teachers had no effect, but deworming children saw attendance rates skyrocket and testing scores improved.

If you had $10,000 dollars to donate and your choices were to pay for antiretroviral therapy for a mother with AIDS or Cataract surgery for a 20 year old who is going blind which should you choose? Is it worth it to train a seeing eye dog for $50,000?

Did you hear about the play-pump? Is was the darling of charitable ideas endorsed by the Clinton Initiative and the United Nations. It was a merry go round that could be installed in the third world. When kids spun and played and it pumped clean water to the surface. What could be better? At 14,000 dollars a pop they were installed all over South Africa and the charity raked in millions of dollars. A few years later a special report notices that the merry-go-round pumps sat unused and in disrepair. It turns out the complex mechanism could not be repaired by locals, the amount of energy to keep the toy spinning to pump water was so much that it was mostly mothers spinning the merry go round to get the water, and lastly most people preferred simple hand pumps on a lever mechanism.

A few good points:

-If you earn more than 16,000 per year (and are reading this review) you are in the top 10% of wealth.
-Progress has been made in sub-sahara Africa. Do not be discouraged. In 1950 life expectancy in Africa was 36.7 years, now its 56 years. The trillion of dollars in Aid had made a difference.
- the eradication of small pox (that likely saved 300 million lives) is a better investment than world peace
- MacAskill makes the argument that a doctor earing 200 k per year could make more of an impact saving lives by donating to a charity (such as Bed nets to prevent Malaria) than he could by being a doctor in a developing county; or what he calls Earning to give. This viewpoint is questionable..he only looks at organizations with a set number of positions (doctors without borders)..not volunteer opportunities such that if you were not there providing the service..no one would be there.
- There are about 878,194 doctors in the United States. Don't overestimate the difference one makes..if you weren't the 878,194th doctor--someone else would have taken your spot. It's the difference you would make compared to someone else.
-Politicians also over-estimate the difference they can make. Budget constraints typically lessen the impact of real change.

So after evaluating charities--MacAskill's favorites are the following:
1- Give Directly-- Satellite photos look for homes with thatched roofs in Kenya and Uganda (a sign of poverty) and 90% of donations go directly to the families.
2- Deworm the world initiative: Self explanatory
3- Against Malaria Foundation
4- Schistosomiasis Control Initiative

MacAskill also makes a moral case for Sweatshops. He contends that these jobs are sought after in the developing world.

Lastly MacAskill the pragmatist contends not to encourage youth to follow their passions with their career..as 90% of youth will mention they are passionate about sports, art or music. 1/1000 college atheletes make it to the pro's. Find your personal fit..job satisfaction is about 5 things. 1) Independence 2) Sense of Completion 3) Variety
4) Feedback from Job 5) Contribution

MacAskill finds it harder to evaluate larger charities like World Vision (because of their broad scope). He is typically down on climate change charities..the best things to do are change in lifestyle (drive less, eat less meat, and fly less). He is also not a big fan of locavore eating..sometimes the environmental cost of growing food in the winter in a climate like England costs more with greenhouse lights than shipping the food from a warmer climate.

5 stars. This book has recentered my thinking about effective altruism. I recommend this book to about anyone.

Profile Image for Ardon Pillay.
141 reviews18 followers
December 25, 2020
Before I read this book, when I thought of altruistic behaviour, it always felt very instinctive or emotionally driven, because of this inbuilt “need” to help others. Admirable as this “need” is, applied in isolation, it doesn’t accomplish as much good as we’d think.

MacAskill raises a good point; if we go out of our way at the supermarket to find groceries with the most bang for the buck, why aren’t we doing the same with charitable causes?

He advocates quantifying the impact every dollar you donate to each charity can potentially make, to give you a level playing field to evaluate how you can do the most good with your donations. The variable he tends to use a lot for this purpose is quality adjusted life years (QALYs), which is quite a useful variable for tracking the “good” your actions/donations do.

What I found quite intriguing was the fact that, by MacAskill’s estimate, doctors don’t save that many lives across the span of their careers. The optimal strategy for actually increasing the number of QALYs you generate in the world is to “earn to give,” which makes a lot of sense given how cost effective certain charities can be.

I’m still a newcomer to this idea of effective altruism, but I’m reasonably convinced, definitely an eye-opener.
Profile Image for Sonja.
15 reviews
March 30, 2021
Well researched (from what I can judge) attempt to find pragmatically / rational ways of doing good. Makes solid and reasonable points, but even though it is a fast and easy read I feel it could have been even shorter. You get the main idea after the first part, and following applied calculations becomes tedious after a while. Especially since there are sources linked for organizations which do exactly that (let’s be honest, if I want to be effective I am
Not going to do all the evaluation work on my own, but trust people that know what they are doing).
Profile Image for Jana Wuyts.
15 reviews18 followers
September 15, 2019
Een interessant, slim en belangrijk boek. Knappe voorbeelden, het geeft je echt nieuwe inzichten over hoe je op de 'beste' manier het goede kunt doen.
Profile Image for Zhijing Jin.
283 reviews41 followers
December 13, 2020
Controversial, but a useful read because the book brings up a long list of topics that should be brought forward to people's sight when doing good.

Good sides:

1. Motivational examples of effectiveness in doing good:

- Example-1: A common failure is that too often we focus on small-impact actions (like turning off lights) while ignoring high-impact ones. In fact, the most effective action can be exponentially better than normal actions.

- Example-2: Here are four programmes that keep children in school for longer. Their impact per $1,000 is as follows:
a) Cash transfers to girls: 0.2 additional years of schooling
b) Merit scholarships: 2.7 additional years of schooling
c) Free uniforms: 7.1 additional years of schooling
d) Deworming: 139 additional years of schooling
So deworming is not just a bit more effective than the other three programmes; it is orders of magnitude more effective.

2. The scope of your choices
There are lots of alternative choices that can do little harm to your own life, but help others a lot:
- Minor habits in your life, e.g., how much meat to eat, driving or taking the public transport
- Equivalent things: For the same $10 dollars to donate, which organization to donate to, e.g., different private charities/philanthropy organizations that alleviate different problems with different effectiveness, local Christian community that provides a shelter for homeless people, pay more tax to the government, buy goods that can foster an industry.
*Note that the most effective use can be exponentially better than the normal use, like the 80/20 rule.

3. Factors to consider when deciding what good to do
- How many people will benefit by how much?
- Is this action the most effective among all uses of money?
- Is my unit action making the most changes? (Sometimes the more new-born area, the more impact.)
- How much more good with you vs. without you in the area?
- Chances of success * how much benefit the success can bring -> low-probability events with outsize impact can be important, e.g., prevention of low-probability global catastrophes.

4. For many more, please refer to the book.

Controversial points:
- Oversimplification of complicated decision-making process when doing good, which should be highly tailored to what is the scenario and how dire is the person who needs help, over the simple statistics, e.g., by doing intervention X, Y% of people get Z amount of benefits.
- Shift of distribution: the most widely used experimental method is controlled random trials, but we cannot ensure that the subjects for a specific experiment is i.i.d. to the real distribution of the people that this intervention will be put on, also we cannot say that in the future the new distribution will not change. E.g., a typical distribution shift case can be a medicine passing the test on on young and strong people cannot be guaranteed to take effect on weak, elderly people.
- Quantification can be a flawed and limited means to nobler ends. Every life should be valued infinitely, and 2 lives can be as important as 20 lives.
- Earning to give sounds very weird. We should work to make income more balanced at the first place (fixing the upstream) than re-distributing by private philanthropy (fixing the downstream).

More reading:
- A nice book summary here
- Book list on global priority problems: poverty, global catastrophic risks, animal welfare, etc
- Effective altruism reading material for busy people
- Effective altruism books and podcasts
Profile Image for Jonathan Lu.
324 reviews17 followers
January 18, 2016
An outstanding book that has really made me rethink how I consider altruism, which as simple as it sounds, I had never framed in terms of economic principles of comparison as I do my other finances. The concept of "effective altruism" is now ingrained in my head considering the benefit that each dollar I donate has in terms of saving a life, with a QALY as the most quantifiable means of comparison. For someone who thinks as an analytical engineer, this is even difficult for myself to consider the trade-off between saving someone's life who is afflicted by malaria vs. cancer. While my donation will have a much larger QALY impact in terms of saving more life-years among developing countries, can I really compare that vs. saving fewer life-years in developed countries? On paper absolutely, but the human element in my brain prevents me from being able to make an apples-apples comparison. Nonetheless, this book has really made me think about the impact I want to make. I have a strong admiration for MacAskill's truly pragmatic outlook on life, even if I cannot embrace it as fully as he does. Another good example is with the choice of career. While we may salute those who choose to dedicate themselves to philanthropy and on-the-ground efforts in countries like Haiti that are in most need of assistance, an economic pareto comparison of career choice would absolutely validate that I can do much more good by letting those who are better skilled at performing aid go to Haiti, and by working as an engineering manager in the developed world with a high salary, that I can then use to finance effective altruism rather than perform by myself.

Onto a few notes directly that I found memorable:
Story of PlayPumps, a sexy idea to turn water pumps in African villages into a merry-go-round type game for children. Novel and interesting, this idea gained a lot of support and hundreds of millions of investment that otherwise would have gone to more effective causes – ultimately was a failure as it was never used as intended, and ended up making the lives of primary water bearers (women) more difficult given the increased challenge to pump water vs. a conventional pump. “What’s more, no one had asked the local communities if they wanted a PlayPump in the first place.” [p14] – A poor feat of engineering, user experience design, and practicality, as well as fitting the stuffwhitepeoplelike mantra of “knowing what’s best for poor people”.
Story of an out of the box approach to improving childhood education in Kenya – deworming. Parasitic worms were the cause of a huge percentage of school absences that do not garner as much attention since often non-fatal, but have a dramatic impact on long-term future. A small investment for de-worming (treatment costs of pennies per child) reduced absenteeism in Kenya by 25%! A success story of allocating resources efficiently for a large payout.
“One difference between investing in a company and donating to a charity is that the charity world often lacks appropriate feedback mechanisms […] Because we don’t get useful feedback when we try to help others, we can’t get a meaningful sense of whether we’re really making a difference.” [p21]
“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 research shown in these graphs, the 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 drop. We’ve already seen that we have the opportunity to provide a benefit for others that is one hundred times greater than the benefit we could provide for ourselves” [p30] Referencing the impact on lives that a small amount of money would benefit victims of malaria, vs. a much larger sum of money that would impact fewer people when directed towards cancer research.
The concept of quantifying impact made through philanthropic efforts – QALY: Quality-adusted life year, which is used (very stoically) to help make decisions about how to prioritize resources among different health programs. A difficult concept for most emotional humans to swallow, as it does effectively boil down to choosing whose life to save, based on resource efficiency. “When making decisions, whether it’s in volunteering, choosing a career, or deciding to buy ‘ethical’ produce, we should therefore 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?” [p42] Parallel to the concept of QALYs, easy to quantify on paper, but difficult to stomach in execution when having to choose who to save vs. who to let die.
As a contrast to Dambisa Moyo’s “Dead Aid”, which claims that philanthropic efforts have stunted development in African countries, while the sociological effects of preventing local companies from growing due to competition from foreign aid is absolutely true, MacAskill vehemently denies that the aid itself has not had a positive impact: “Even among the ‘bottom billion’ […] quality of life has increased dramatically. In 1950, life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa was just 36.7 years. Now it’s 56 years, a gain of almost 50 percent. The picture that Dambisa Moyo paints is inaccurate. In reality, a tiny amount of aid has been spent, and there have been dramatic increases in the welfare of the world’s poorest people.” [p44] MacAskill has a strong point here, in that the numbers can provide shock value when positioned as $1 trillion in aid given, but when considered over the course of 60 years that is only $17 billion per year which is a pittance compared to $87 trilliion in annual world GDP. Whether the poorest countries could have progressed even better without that aid is a fair speculative what-if, that could never be answered, as the undeniable fact is that aid has had a positive impact. “The eradication of smallpox is one success story from aid, saving five times as many lives as world peace would have done.” [p45] Again back to the QALYs question… on paper we can compare #’s of human lives saved… but can we unemotionally balance fewer deaths of children in Syria from bombings vs. fewer deaths to smallpox in sub-Saharan Africa?
Let’s try to quantify the cost of a life: “Imagine saving a single person’s life […] If you did that, it would stay with you for the rest of your life. If you saved several people’s lives […] you’d think your life was really special. You’d be in the news. You’d be a hero. But we can do far more than that. According to the most rigorous estimates, the cost to save a life in the developing world is about $3,400 (or $100 for one QALY).” [p50]
The natural emotional response to donate is high with natural disasters due to the emotion emoked from images in media – “we think – emergency! We forget there is an emergency happening all the time, because we’ve grown accustomed to everyday emergencies like disease and poverty and oppression […] Ironically, the law of diminishing returns suggest that, if you feel a strong emotional reaction to a story and want to help, you should probably resist this inclination because there are probably many others like you who are also donating […] consider donating to wherever your money will help the most rather than what is getting the most attention.” [p55]
What is the best career to make a difference in the world? Often thought of as being a doctor, but “one additional doctor in the United States provides a benefit equivalent to about four lives saved over the course of their career. That is still awesome. But it’s also less than you probably though before, all because of diminishing returns.” [p60] It’s certainly difficult to compare the impact of saving a life in the developing world vs. developed world, but the QALY quantification earlier suggests that $13,600 is sufficient to save 4 lives in the developing world. Becoming a doctor in a developing country, however, gives the ability to provide 300 QALY’s per year, or to save 300 lives over a 40yr career. This is not to say that a 3rd world doctor is the most resource-efficient occupation, as anyone who makes enough money so as to donate $1MM could also save 300 lives.
“We don’t usually think of achievements in terms of what would have happened otherwise, but we should.” [p63] If you choose not to become a doctor in the US, as a high demand profession you are not decreasing the pool of doctors as someone else who could not have gained admittance to medical school would then take your place. So by choosing not to go become a doctor in a 3rd world country, you are enabling someone else instead to still go and make the same difference that you would have made – while if you have the capability to make a high income, you could indeed make a greater difference in terms of QALYs.
Similarly, a man like Edward Jenner garners a lot of credit for discovering the cure to smallpox which saved 120 million lives. But the reality is that someone would eventually have discovered it. A man like Viktor Zhdanov, Ukrainian virologist, deserves much more credit than he is given, for lobbying the WHO to adopt smallpox eradication early – easily saving 10-20 million more lives than if vaccination had commenced later. “The good I do is not a matter of the direct benefits I cause. Rather, it is the difference I make.” [p63]
Parallel to QALYs is “micromort” – to compare the risks of death from dangerous activities where “one micromort equals a one-in-a-million chance of dying, equivalent to thirty minutes of expected life lost if you’re aged twenty, or fifteen minutes of expected life lost if you’re aged fifty.” [p74]
In consideration of the difference you make vs. the benefit you provide, consider social costs of child labor. “The reason there’s such widespread support among economists for sweatshops is that low-wage, labor intensive manufacfturing is a stepping-stone that helps an economy based around cash crops develop into an industrialized, richer society.” [p109] A good point, as every developed economy had the same manufacturing transition through the industrial revolution. So when you take factories out of countries where labor is low, what then is the impact? Those sweatshop employees are instead left to perform even more dangerous and lower paying tasks in the agricultural sector, which is even more detrimental.
Regarding marketing efforts such as Fairtrade” Though the evidence is limited (which is itself worrying), the consistent finding among the studies that have been performed is that Fairtrade certification does not improve the lives of agricultural workers […] In buying Fairtrade products, you’re at best giving very small amounts of money to people in comparatively well-off countries. You’d do considerably more good by buying cheaper goods and donating the money you save to one of the cost-effective charities” [p112] “the benefits of ethical consumerism are often small compared to the good that well-targeted donations can do.” [p121]
“Some of the top charities I’ve mentioned in this book are Against Malaria Foundation, Cool Earth, Development Media International, Deworm the World Initiative, GiveDirectly, and the Schistosmiasis Control Intiative. Pick whichever you believe to be the best and begin a habit of effective donations. Even a relatively small monthly donation to these charities will have a big impact.” [p159]
Profile Image for Lauri van Oosterom.
234 reviews6 followers
January 20, 2023
Quite easy to read and very interesting as well. Would highly recommended this book to anyone who is looking for more information about effective altruism.

So if you want to donate (more) money to charities, but don't really know to which ones, why and how: this book will serve as your guideline.
Profile Image for Alice Qi.
67 reviews2 followers
January 2, 2023
For any of us fortunate enough to be in a position where we have the time and/or resources to think about others, this book is a great guide on how we can most effectively help. What I liked is that the ideas in this book are so rooted in scientific evidence and rationality that the conclusions about what is most helpful usually weren’t showy and wouldn’t necessarily make you feel good. This book changed my way of thinking, and I will definitely be carrying some ideas into how I live my life. I highly recommend it to everyone, especially those who want to save the world!
Profile Image for Emil Salageanu.
5 reviews1 follower
November 24, 2016
When scientific methods are used to evaluate the effectiveness of charity programs, the results show that some charities can be up to 100 times more effective than others.
A relatively small donation from a citizen of a rich country to an effective charity can do a lot of good.
The book develops this idea, shows how charity programs are evaluated, and provides advice on how one could maximize his own impact on the world.
The book starts by presenting a very ineffective altruistic program - a pump powered by energy developed by children playing, that costed considerable amount of money. Proper scientific investigation showed how poor the results were.

The first part defines a framework to measure Effectiveness of altruistic programs, in 5 questions:

How many people benefit and by how much ?
- Introduces a unit, the QALY, for measuring the net benefit of a program. The QALY takes into account life extension ('saving lives') as well as quality of life (providing treatment for a disease).

Is this the most effective thing you can do ?
By choosing the most effective programs, the cost of saving one life is $3400

Is this area neglected
The more an area is neglected, the bigger the impact you make by donating in that area. Do no not donate to disaster relief that attracts a lot of attention anyways

What would have happened otherwise
It is not enough to count the good you make, but to compare it to whatever the situation would be without it. If you become a doctor, you need to consider the difference that you make compared to whom would have become a doctor in your place.

What are the chances of success and how good would success be
The expected value of an action is the risk multiplied by the value if the event does happen. Several examples are given that deal with very small probability of achieving a very high outcome. For instance trying to become a prime minister. Or going to vote for the event that there will be a perfect 50/50 and your vote will be the one that makes the difference for one of the parties. I found this last example not only counterintuitive but also hard to defend.

The second part is a set of guidelines of how to behave to make a bigger difference.

* A framework is proposed for evaluating charities and a couple of most effective charities are being evaluated.

* money spent in buying fairtrade goods would better spent by just donating the difference to effective charities

* offsetting gas emissions (donating to projects that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) is more effective than reducing your own emissions

* one should do a lucrative job and donate rather than follow one's passional

Things I learned I did not know before

* extreme poverty is defined at around the level of $1.5 a day. That I knew. What I did not know is that this actually means what someone could buy in US with $1.5, and not in their poor country. This also takes into account goods someone may produce (for instance agriculture) and consume, and considers them as income.

* doubling the income will increase subjective well being by the same amount: giving $1K to someone who makes $1K a year is equivalent to giving $50K to someone who makes $50K a year. Does this scale to daily or weekly income ?

* there is a unit used for measuring altruistic programs: the QALI (Quality Adjusted Life Year). It measures extension of life as well as improvement in quality of life.
1 QALY is 1 year someone gained, in good health. If someone's quality of life improved from 50% to 70% during one year, that makes 0.2 QALY. The subjective well-being (quality of life) is measured by asking people the questions such us:"For how many years in good health would you exchange 10 years with dialyse". If the answer is 7, then the quality of life with dialyse is considered 70%.

* eradication of smallpox in 1977 (saved 60 - 120 million lives) beats world peace since the same epoch (3 million people a year). This event by itself is enough to tell that, overall, money spent in charity in the developing world had a good impact.

* de-worming children had a huge impact on improving education comparing to education-centric programs

Profile Image for Sunjay Hauntingston.
202 reviews20 followers
December 13, 2016
Disclaimer: I'm not a real utilitarian because I care more about my family and friends than strangers.

This book is extremely useful to its target audience (namely, white folks in WENA who are currently in elite universities or recently graduated who want to make a positive impact), and I think applying an Effective Altruism framework to how you go about choosing a career if you're one of those folks can have an incredible impact for good. It also helps if you're looking to donate things to proven causes that directly help people who need it most. The appendix alone is hella useful, even if you don't read the book.

One of my two biggest disagreements is the Imperialism objection (basically, it is ethical for communities and individuals to empower themselves, which means democratic control is important even if it's not what the charitable orgs view as "effective"), which is most clearly demonstrated by his dismissal of Dead Aid (which has also been critiqued by people in the EA community).

My second disagreement is the "I didn't go to Oxford" disagreement. Though there are points in the book that try to be more inclusive career-wise (a section on most lucrative jobs for people without college degrees), in general the author tends to conflate "college graduates" with his peers. Many of the jobs that are listed as good choices (management consulting, financial trading, highly effective NGOs) are pretty much inaccessible to people not from top schools. Luckily, 80,000 hours is actively trying to expand their focus on jobs - there's a lot more profiles that hopefully are including jobs that college graduates from, say, an average state school in the US could conceivably access. (It's also possible that since I PERSONALLY have not felt those jobs were accessible that I am overestimating how elite they are - if this is the case please let me know.)

(Also: I tend to find a lot of EA and rationalist decision-making pretty intuitive. So, for example, before I started exploring 80,000 hours content I had already more or less followed the suggested path and tried narrowing down my options. I graduated a year and a half ago and already I know I don't want to be a researcher, teacher, or professional author, and now I'm pursuing a career as a web developer with plans to explore managing either through my volunteering or by taking on extra responsibilities, depending on where I can find a job. This means that IN GENERAL I am in agreement with the 80,000 Hours/MacAskill approach, but I also suspect that it may be unhelpful for people who aren't graduates from elite universities even beyond the specific reason I gave above. I'd love to see if there's discourse around this.)

(Also also: If anyone knows Topher Hallquist, I really want to know how he found a six-figure salary straight out of a coding bootcamp.)
452 reviews
April 21, 2017
An evidence-based, concrete, and measurable approach (big fan!) to deciding how to spend our resources - time and money - to have the biggest impact on the world, that is, to do good better. Turns out to be quite a narrow window - healthcare in the poorest African nations, although he does also include topics like consumption and climate change.

Presents counterintuitive cases for things like how boycotting sweatshop goods and switching to fair-trade products may do more harm than good. Tries to steer us away from emotion based giving - things like disaster relief or cancer research because we know someone who has cancer - and towards causes that deal with similar or worse death tolls every day.

Although he does acknowledge that our values do come into play when we’re deciding where to give, he doesn’t leave a lot of room to give to anything other than the “best” charities with a clear conscience.

Really appreciate the evidence-based approach and the spirit of his work. I’m not 100% on board yet, but he’s got me thinking about this stuff in ways I hadn't before.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 799 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.