Book Review: Doing Good Better

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

Effective altruism is a movement dedicated to applying rationality and scientific (particularly economic) thinking to charitable causes. The cynical view of classical charitable giving is that it’s about signaling to your friends how good of a person you are, and what the charity actually does is mostly irrelevant (my own example would be giving to a church that you yourself attend; some altruist). Effective altruism says: if you actually care about affecting the world for the better, you need to shut up and calculate.

MacAskill enlists the following procedure for evaluating a charitable action:

  1. How many people benefit, and by how much?
  2. Is this the most effective thing you can do?
  3. Is this area neglected?
  4. What would have happened otherwise?
  5. What are the chances of success, and how good would success be?

He uses the example of becoming a doctor, as many people enter the medical profession with a desire to help other people. And they definitely do, but consider points #3 and 4. A shortage of doctors is not the most pressing problem facing medicine in advanced economies. Even more damning is the fact that you become a doctor probably just displaced the next marginal med student, so the likely scenario is that you’ve improved the quality of one doctor very slightly.

Much better are global health initiatives. The disparity in wealth between rich, advanced economies and the poorest countries (typically in Africa) is startling, which means that now is the time where you can maximize the amount of good per dollar spent, as we expect the world entire to be richer in the future. A number of such charities like Give Directly and the Against Malaria Foundation are discussed and evaluated. Givewell is a good place to get a quick list of the top effective altruist charities with justifications. Other areas that are harder to change but with a lot of expected good are criminal justice reforms (stop sending so many non-violent offenders to prison) and increased migration/open borders (let the poor move to the advanced economies). Probably the greatest in the long run would be to increase economic growth rates, but I don’t think we know how to do that reliably or easily.

There’s a discussion at the end about global catastrophic or existential risks where there’s a small chance of truly terrible things happening. An example not in the book would be the threat from asteroids. Civilization-destroying asteroids are very uncommon, but the damage they do is an extinction-level threat, so when you multiply a small probability by a massive expected gain through mitigation, maybe we should devote some of our resources to tracking meteors (is this area neglected? Do you even know?).

Effective altruism is a fairly young movement with a lot of potential. If it can convince even a small number of people to devote themselves to such issues, we’ll all be able to reap the rewards of a healthier, richer, and wiser planet. Highly recommended.

Check out EconTalk for an interesting discussion with the author and for a list of related links.

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