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Will MacAskill on Doing Good Better

will-macaskillWill MacAskill is an Associate Professor in Philosophy at Lincoln College, Oxford. as well as the cofounder of two non-profits: 80,000 Hours,and Giving What We Can. He’s also the author of a new book called Doing Good Better, which is a thought-provoking read that challenges us to be more thoughtful about what we contribute to the world so that we can have more impact with our time, with our money, with our resources.

In this conversation, Michael and Will discuss:

  • Why our giving may not be as effective as we would like it to be
  • The biases that cloud our judgment and the “Identifiable Victim Effect”
  • How to sort through and find out where you should be giving your money
  • Ways to increase your positive impact on the world

If you are strapped for time, download it as a free podcast on iTunes and listen later or scroll below for extended notes.

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Full Transcript

Michael:  So my guest today has quite a few things in common with me.  Now, I have an M.Phil. from Oxford, a Masters of Philosophy. William MacAskill is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Oxford.  And I’ll just say that my M.Phil. sounds a little bit more impressive than it is and William’s, being an Associate Professor. sounds a little less impressive than it actually is but we have that in common, that kind of Oxford thing going on.  William is also the founder of the non-profit 80000 Hours, which is roughly the number of hours you’re going to spend in your life working.  And the heart of that website is about how do you find work that matters, work that has an impact, work that makes a difference?  And of course you know my work, Do More Great Work, all about how do we do less good work and more great work, so we have that in common.

But the thing that has brought me to chat with William today is the publication of his new book called Doing Good Better.  Now, William is also the co-founder of the Effective Altruism movement, and the subtitle of the book is How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make A Difference.  And some of you will know that some years ago, three years ago now I think, I put out a book called End Malaria, which was all about raising funds for Malaria No More.  And one of the reasons that I chose malaria actually is deeply connected to some of the insights that William has in his book.

And I’ll just get into this by just saying that in some ways it’s a bit of a tough book to read because, here’s the underlying thesis, as I understand it, which is:  a lot of the things that we do to try and do good in this world don’t actually work that well.  And what William is making a stand for is to say “How do we be more thoughtful about what we contribute to the world so that we can have more impact with our time, with our money, with our resources?”  So, we’re going to get into that.  So, William, welcome to the conversation.

William: Thank you for having me.

Michael: What else would you like people to know about who you are and how you’ve ended up being a champion for Effective Altruism?  And how did you get here from wherever you started?

William: Yeah, I was always interested in making a difference, like, in a vague way.  And I did some things that were  trying to do good.  I volunteered for the Scouts for disabled children, and I worked at a care home for the elderly.  But it was only when I was working as a fundraiser for Care International and spending all day every day talking about extreme poverty and talking to people who were just so apathetic in response and I thought “These people aren’t living up to their values”, and I was very angry.  And I thought “Well, I’m not living up to my own values, either”.

Michael: Isn’t that annoying when that happens?

William: It’s annoying when that happens.  And it was a time of real turmoil for me.  And I’d been pretty convinced by some of the arguments from the philosopher Peter Singer, who has argued that, you know, we have this obligation to give away most of our income over the course of our lives, in particular.  Because you can do so much to help those in extreme poverty, you know, you can save a life for just a few thousand dollars.

Which will only take away, you know, luxuries from yourself.  That gives you this very strong model reason to use as much of your money as you can to improve the lives of people on the other side of the world, in just the same way as if you saw a child drowning in front of you; you’d have no qualms at all about running in and saving the child’s life even if it was going to ruin your very nice suit that you were wearing.

And so it was when I arrived at Oxford I started asking around lots of academics who, you know, professed to be doing practical ethics and things that at least should have an impact. And as I was asking them “Well, what difference has your work been making?” and generally they would say, “None at all”.  But there was one exception which was Toby Ord and he’d had this idea from an organization called Giving What We Can.

Which encourages people to give at least 10% of their income to the charities that are most effective.  And in fact he had committed to give everything he earned above 18,000 pounds per year.  And this kind of blew me away.  But not only because of the commitment, but also because of how he approached it.  He was—you know, didn’t approach this as a duty or a sacrifice, he just thought that there was this amazing opportunity to do good in the world.  And from that kind of early conversation, which we actually had in a graveyard in the college that I was …

Michael: Oh, nice.

William: … that kind of doubles as the gardens in Oxford. You know, from there, I was, like, “Okay, I want to do the same and if I’m going to make this sort of commitment, I want to know that my time and money is going to be used as effectively as possible.”

Michael: Well, it’s interesting.  I mean, we actually interviewed Peter Singer as part of this podcast series so—and I think his book The Life You Can Save is a fantastic read for anybody interested in, you know, Altruism and Effective Altruism.  But, you know, you said something very interesting, which is, you know, the thought behind giving what we can is, you said, two parts to it, giving at least 10%, and we’ll come to that in a minute, but, to the most effective charities.  And I think that one of the things that becomes very clear in reading your book is that not all charities are created equal.  And not only is there not a difference between kind of ineffective charities and effective charities, but actually there’s quite a big difference between the very best charities and charities that are good, but maybe not the very best.  So, maybe you can just untangle that for us.

William: In the book, I talk about some disastrous cases of charity gone wrong. And, you know, those do get a lot of attention.  But even among very good charities, there’s a huge difference in how effective they are. 

So, for example, if I spend money to buy free school uniforms for children in Kenya, that’s going to make a difference in terms of educational outcomes and experimental evidence has shown that to be the case.  And by First World standards, it’s actually a very big difference; you’re making a really sizeable impact on peoples’ education.

But, by doing other things, like by spending money on deworming the school children, so, most people don’t know about this but there are these intestinal worms that affect over a billion people worldwide and they don’t kill that many people but they do make the lives of very many people, especially children, very sick.  And one implication of this is they end up not going to school.  And you can treat this condition for just 50 cents per child.  It’s incredibly cheap.  And if you spend your money on that, you’ll do a hundred times as much good as if you were spending the money distributing or giving out free school uniforms.  And remember that free school uniforms is already a good thing to do.  So even with a (indiscernible) of what things make a difference, there’s a huge discrepancy between the things that make a significant difference and the things that make up the most difference.

Michael: I mean, there’s a number of things that this all reminds me of.  I mean, part of it, it kind of pulls in, kind of, anybody who’s interested in the terrific books and podcasts around Freakonomics, around, okay, what’s the data behind what actually happens rather than what are we making up?  And, also, people like the Thomas Kahneman, Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, about how we make decisions and how we  entrust our gut but how it’s not always that reliable. 

And I’m sure there’s some sort of, and you’ll probably know this better than me, sort of cognitive biases that are at play in terms of what we think makes a difference in terms of where we may put our charitable, altruistic money and what actually makes a difference.

William: Yeah, that’s right.  There are a number of biases that I think, you know, cloud our judgment.  One that’s particularly interesting is called the Identifiable Victim Effect.

Where if you ask someone to donate to feed one child, they’ll give a certain amount.  If you ask someone to donate to feed two children, they’ll actually give less.  And then if you give them statistics about how much your charitable donation will do, they give even less again.  And the thing is that we’ve, you know, evolved to live in much smaller societies.  We live to empathize with, you know, individual people, not with statistics.

And that’s why you get what psychologists call “psychic numbing”, basically you just—ability to empathize or sympathize just gets completely overwhelmed by the scale of the problems in the world.  And that means you end up kind of not doing anything at all.  And, you know, I’d really like to try and overcome some of these biases by saying “Look, no, every 50 cents you’re giving, that is going to, you know, cure one child of intestinal worms”.  That is like a very significant impact.  And you don’t need to think about all the other problems in the world, if you’re thinking “Well, for this one child, merely 50 cents, it’s a huge amount of good, and I can do that kind of over and over again”.

Michael: And you know, one of the—the part about thinking, so when I launched the End Malaria book, which has raised I think about $400,000 now for Malaria No More, part of my thinking about it was, first of all, doing some research about, well, what are the big issues, kind of the U.N. Millennial Goals, and malaria was one of them.  And it just seemed to me that a malaria net at basically ten bucks a pop was a tangible thing that we could say “Buy a book and you donate to mosquito nets, and they save lives”.  And there’s something about that, trying to translate it down to something tangible about “this money does this thing”, makes it easier for people to give around that.  And you’re making that connection now between—but see, here’s the challenge that you’ve got, which is it’s a bit like the Mega-Fauna Challenge, isn’t it, which is “I’m happy to give money to save panda bears and tigers, but they’re not really at the heart of where our ecological concerns should be.”  And it’s like “I like giving books because that makes me—I like books, and it makes me feel good.  Curing intestinal worms, that’s a whole lot less sexy”.

William:  Yeah, that’s exactly right.  So, actually, the CEO of Deworm the World, one of these deworming charities, described deworming as the least sexy intervention there is, and I think that’s probably right. Yeah, so I think this is why what I’m encouraging in the book is for people to use, you know, not just their emotion.  So emotion’s great in terms of getting you off of your seat and wanting to do something.

But then guiding that with your ability to reason, your ability to reflect.  Because if we just go with our kind of emotional impulses, we’ll do what’s salient to us or maybe what seems like a really sexy program.  I talk about, in the book, about the play pump, which is … this children’s merry-go-round that pumped clean water, you know, via the power of children’s play.

Michael: And you got a ton of publicity.  I mean, when I read your book it reminded me of how many times I’d seen that as a kind of held-up example of what a great contribution to the developing world.  But it didn’t play out like that, right?

William:  So it got an absolutely huge amount of attention.  But, yeah, it was actually an absolute disaster.  So, unlike a normal merry-go-round which spins freely once pushed, this would require constant torque.  The children would get very tired, vomit from the spinning, or fall off and break limbs.  And because they didn’t want to play on this all day, it would be left to the elderly women. 

Just to get water, would have to push this brightly coloured merry-go-round all hours of the day and they found that more tiring than the hand pumps that they had previously. And they found it undignified and demeaning.  And all of this cost three times as much than a typical hand pump, even though it would pump less water for more effort.

And so there was some investigations and thankfully this all came to light and the program was more or less abandoned.  This is a great example I think of just getting really excited by this very sexy idea, it’s really compelling, but not actually using your ability to carefully reflect, to look at the evidence, to think “Okay, is this actually going to be a good thing?”

Michael: You know, you make similar points about natural disasters and how some natural disasters somehow rise to the top of the news cycle and get all our attention and suck up a perhaps disproportionate amount of support compared to other places around the world.  So whether it be a natural disaster or another charity or non-profit you want to support, how do you go about finding the charities that are actually the very best at what they do?  Because there’s a lot of charities out there.  How do you sort through and find out where you should be giving your money?

William: Yeah, for individual donors, I think the best thing to do is just to read websites.  Like givewell.org in particular have done, you know, years of extraordinarily in-depth research to work out, you know, what are the very most effective charities, those that do just, you know, a huge amount of good with the amount of money they are given.  And they recommend charities like deworming charities, Deworm The World, and Schistosomiasis Control Initiative.  They do recommend bed nets malaria charity. Against Malaria Foundation as well.  So I think you picked well with Malaria No More.  And also GiveDirectly, which simply transfers cash to the very poorest people in the world.

I think if you want to do your own research and not donate to one of those charities, it is a lot of work.  I mean, it’s very difficult because you’ve got to go through the empirical literature and the program the charity’s running as well as an assessment kind of how well is this program being implemented by the charity?  And does the charity even need more money at all?  And so, in general, I think it’s best just to defer to the people who spent so much time in it like GiveWell.  But in the book I kind of give a framework for if you want to assess charities yourself, what are the questions you should be asking.

Michael: Right.  Now let me ask you this.  One of the other things that I, I mean—it’s a bit like Freakonomics in that your book reminded me of in that there’s a bunch of kind of counterintuitive conclusions that you draw from the book, and one of them is look, should you be giving up your job as a doctor or accountant or whatever  and just go off and save the world, you know, actually try and roll up your sleeves and actually help or go and work on the front line in some form, whatever that might be for you?  And you’re saying that perhaps that’s not the best thing to do necessarily. Can you just tell us why staying in your job might be the best thing you can do in terms of Effective Altruism?

William:  Yeah.  So, the key piece of information is just that we in rich countries are really exceptionally rich.  If you’re earning, as a kind of single earner, more than $56,000, you’re in the richest 1% of the world’s population.  And almost everyone listening to this podcast I think will be in the richest 10 or 15% of the world.  And that actually means that the ability to donate is this incredible power that we have, basically. 

The money that we have can do a huge amount of good.  And if you just kind of run the numbers in terms of how many people will you impact, by how much will you improve their lives, I think there’s very often a very strong case for thinking that you should instead kind of continue with your—or go into a higher earning career in order that you can donate to fund really effective non-profits, rather than working at a non-profit yourself.  You can often just, you know, pay for several charity workers rather than being a charity worker yourself.

You could target your donations to the very most effective charities, whereas it’s harder to work only for the very most effective charities.  And you’ve got flexibility, so if what you come to believe are the most effective causes changes over time, maybe, you know, you thought it was extreme poverty to begin with and then you realized it’s climate change, it’s much more easy to move your donations than it is to, you know, quit your job and move into a different area.

Michael: That’s very interesting.  And, you know, you have such a focus on kind of an economic imperative that’s driving, you know we have a dollar, what’s the best use of that dollar that we as individuals can actually make with them?  One of the things that I hold on—I had to hold on with my fingernails to keep up with this, but just the fact that the dollar we have in Canada or the pound in the U.K., wherever it is, has so much more effect when it’s landing in a different country that’s not part of the kind of the wealthy Western part of the world.  And maybe you could tell us what the cognitive bias is here.  It’s kind of like underestimating the impact of the donations that we can give to the charities that are doing their very best work.

William: Here I think there’s a couple of things, and I think it’s not quite cognitive biases but the first is just that the scale of extreme poverty and global inequality is unimaginable, so, you know, a typical—even to someone earning the median income in, you know, the U.S. or Canada or the U.K.—is about 40 times richer than, you know, the poorest billion people in the world.  And because of cost of living being cheaper, you know, money going further overseas, will do about two and a half times as much in terms of purchasing power in poor countries than it will in rich countries.

Put those two numbers together and the kind of literature and economics of well-being means that if you decrease your income by 1%, you can increase other peoples’, 100 other peoples’, income by 1%.  And that’s the kind of—that’s like, one unit of happiness that you’ve lost and 100 units of happiness that have been gained for other people.  So you’ve done 100 times as much to benefit others as you, like, kind of, sacrifice you’ve made to yourself.  And that’s absolutely huge.

And then the second thing I think is that there are a lot of confusions about AIDS and helping.  So a lot of people now have the belief just, “Oh well, if, you know, you try to do good, it’s just going to not do anything.  It will get taken in by corruption, or it will just be squandered”.  And I think it’s—that’s kind of sad that that belief is so prevalent because while it’s entirely true that very many aid projects have been bad—in fact, been a disaster, not achieved anything, some have even been harmful—there’s just very, basically universal agreement that the best programs within global health, things in the past like polio eradication…

Michael: Smallpox.

William:  … smallpox eradication.  Yeah, smallpox, which saved 122 million lives and counting already at something like the cost per life saved was $12.  It was unbelievably effective.

And now still, just deworming, distributing bed nets, very simple, very concrete, very proven programs that can do a huge amount of good.  And no one really questions the impacts that those can have.

Michael: Right.  And so it’s almost like, on balance, the good is being done and if we can bring our attention to the very best of the charities and continue to contribute to them, particularly when they—the ones that need the money or they’re working in underserved sectors—that’s where we can continue to kind of scale our impact.

William: And that’s where you can have an absolutely huge impact.

Michael: So, part of the philosophy behind giving what we can is a suggested amount of 10%, and I’m curious how you came up with that number.  I mean, I know Peter Singer has his own formula, when you read his book The Life You Can Save, but why do you think 10%?  Is it just a kind of hangover from the kind of tithing days or is there something else behind it?

William: Yeah, well, it’s a nice round number.  It’s the number of fingers we have on our hands.  It’s the counting system we use and so on.  And I just think it works as a kind of balance, so Toby, my co-founder and I were planning to give away the majority of our income over the course of our lives.  Over, you know, this coming year I think I’ll be giving about—depending on how you count it—something between 50 and 75% of my income.

Michael: Right.

William: But that’s quite a big ask. And I feel—you know, I don’t think of this as a big sacrifice particularly.  I’m a tall, white, straight, heterosexual middle-class man, you know, I have all the trappings of privilege.  I do have a, you know, a wonderfully good life independently of my income.  And, you know, it would be too much I think to try and campaign to get everyone to do this.  Yet at the same time, you don’t want something small, like 1%, because then if, you know, you might sign up but you’d already be giving almost as much anyway, so the impact of this campaign would be smaller.  So we think of 10% as something that’s achievable for, you know, most to almost everyone in a rich country. 

 Yet, at the same time, is a real significant commitment demonstrating that, you know, we’re serious about this problem and enough to be doing, like, really, a huge amount of good.

Michael: Fantastic.  So, William, I mean, I see our time is almost done, so if people are, like, inspired by this, one of the things that they can do, of course, is pick up your book, which I would recommend, Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make A Difference, but I know you’re also present on the web.  So where can people find you and your work on the web?

William: If you want to follow me on Twitter, I’m @willmacaskill.  If you want to sign up for our newsletter, you get a free chapter of the book.  You can do that on effectivealtruism.org.  If you want to know more about really effective charities, you can go onto givewell.org, that’s the charity evaluator.  If you think, you know, you want to read the moral case for giving and would consider taking the 10% giving pledge, that’s on givingwhatwecan.org.  And, if you want to do good with your time, through your career, as well as or instead of through donations, then my non-profit 80000 Hours at 80000hours.org provides in-depth kind of career reviews and recommendations and a framework to help you ensure that you can have the biggest possible impact there.

Michael: Perfect.  And for people who were wondering, MacAskill is spelled M-A-C-A-S-K-I-double-L.  Well, it’s been a fantastic conversation, I think this is something that I’m passionate about, engaged in, I can say that we at Box of Crayons, we tithe our—we give a little more than 10% of our pre-tax revenue to charities that we support, and we’re very proud of that, for the same reason that you’re talking about, is that we, you know, we feel like we have a privileged life, we are benefactors of privilege for sure.  And we certainly feel that we’re lucky to be in a position where we can say we are able to give that money to the betterment of the world.

But thank you for bringing the message to me and to the folks listening in today.

William:  Great.  Thanks so much.

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