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Effective Altruism: "Doing Good Better", by William MacAskill

How should we act, if our goal is to do the most good we can?

William MacAskill, a recent PhD graduate in philosophy from Oxford, adresses this question in his book “Doing Good Better”. (His dissertation on the same topic can be found here.)

He advocates a rational approach to giving in which one reflects on how to help most effectively. He argues that altruism does not need to arise spontaneously from personal experiences:

We very often fail to think as carefully about helping others as we could, mistakenly believing that applying data and rationality to a charitable endeavor robs the act of virtue. (pos 246-7)

He also compares donating to investment and points out that:

One difference between investing in a company and donating to a charity is that the charity world often lacks appropriate feedback mechanisms. (pos 259-260)

Instead, he proposes a strategy he calls “Effective Altruism”:

Effective altruism is about asking, “How can I make the biggest difference I can?” and using evidence and careful reasoning to try to find an answer. (pos 270-272)

As the phrase suggests, effective altruism has two parts, and I want to be clear on what each part means. As I use the term, altruism simply means improving the lives of others. Many people believe that altruism should denote sacrifice, but if you can do good while maintaining a comfortable life for yourself, that’s a bonus, and I’m very happy to call that altruism. The second part is effectiveness, by which I mean doing the most good with whatever resources you have. (pos 274-278)

Many economists will find MacAskill’s thinking and his proposals quite natural. He explains how absurd some parts of charity giving are. You first decide how much to give and then choose who to give it to. With everything else, you would first compare the options and then consider how much each is worth to you.

In economics, we have trouble comparing utility across people. But sometimes we have to, as when deciding who to tax or if policies are worth it that make some people better and some people worse off. For this, MacAskill proposes to use “quality adjusted life years” (QALYs) to measure the impact of one’s charitable actions. QALYs sound to me a lot like the present value of life-time utility (though without discounting). The clever thing is to normalize it to the value of expected normal life quality which makes them comparable across people. And he’s honest about the inherent problems in comparing suffering across people:

However, there are many harder cases: If you can prevent the death of a five-year-old or a twenty-year-old, which should you do? (pos 507-508)

I read MacAskill as being quite optimistic about the change that any one person can bring about:

The difficulty of comparing different sorts of altruistic activity is therefore ultimately due to a lack of knowledge about what will happen as a result of that activity, or a lack of knowledge about how different activities translate into improvements to people’s lives. It’s not that different sorts of benefits are in principle incomparable. (pos 580-583)

He argues against giving to causes that one knows personally:

If I were to give to the Fistula Foundation rather than to the charities I thought were most effective, I would be privileging the needs of some people over others merely because I happened to know them. (pos 609-610)

Well, but people are exactly like that. It’s honorable if he isn’t, but for most people that’s probably a good rule of thumb to follow.

What matters is not who does good but whether good is done; and the measure of how much good you achieve is the difference between what happens as a result of your actions and what would have happened anyway. (pos 976-978)

Where I think MacAskill goes wrong is by not taking into account people’s preferences and limitations. It’s ok to have a weighting function about other people’s suffering. The suffering of people close to you is probably more important to you than to that of a person in the next town or a person on another continent.

I also don’t think that he can explain why people act altruistically through expected utility. He writes that the reason people go to vote is not because they expect their vote to matter, but because you weigh everybody else’s benefits as well and decide that the potential costs and benefits are huge.

I disagree.

He cites Steven Levitt as saying that people vote because it’s fun and their wife will love them more for it. I don’t think so either. I think it’s because people have a sense of duty. Voting in important general elections is just what you damn well do. And yes, there’s the bit of kidding yourself to believe that you make a difference, and there’s the bit of wanting to seem like an honorable person to the people around you. But I do think that many people have a sense of civic duty. And in particular for the things MacAskill discusses – elections, political rallies, choosing what to eat – these kind of feelings of duty matter even more.

Maybe this taking into account our effect on other people’s wellbeing is what people should do, not what they actually do. And that is also the limitation of MacAskill’s book: He can prescribe us how to act given however altruistic we are, but he cannot describe how large groups of people actually act.

And in this way he’s diametrically opposed from how economists usually try to argue. This could be the contribution of moral philosophy in a book that else reads mostly like economics.

Effective Altruism is an argument for strict rationality in your giving. But I think it’s ok to strike a balance between rationality and personal involvement. And that is because we are at once altruistic and we also derive utility from our giving. And giving to causes I’ve seen first hand, I get a lot more utility from.

People also probably have an intrinsic preference for balancing highly abstract, rational altruism and very concrete, routine, human-interaction-based, contextual altruism. You might work for a central bank and think, “My work helps mitigate recessions and avoid the next financial crisis; and through that my country will be richer and be able to help more poor people.” And you might well be right about that. But many people might still do something concrete on the side, whether that is volunteering for a homeless shelter, working with refugees or having an “adopted” child in Africa. And maybe the fact that people do the second kind distracts them from the first kind. But I think people enjoy the second, more direct, altruism more. And I think that’s ok. MacAskill is right to point out that we should compare alternatives and be rational about it. But everybody strikes their own compromise.

In the end, it’s about being compassionate without feeling guilty. When I traveled in India, I was overwhelmed. I saw begging children and skinny men drove me around in bicycle rikshas for very little money. A good recommendation I’ve heard is to give little everyday. Don’t always hold back and then give 50 euros to that begging girl with the pretty green eyes or the man with little children who tells you his sad story. Instead, I set myself a budget (a good tip a I got here) and then I gave that out in little chunks.

MacAskill response might be that both of these strategies are wrong and instead I should have given to the most effective charity (such as Give Directly). To which I have no good response apart from that it’s really hard not to help people whose suffering you see before you.

People have an inner wish for altruism. To encourage this is the goal of much of childhood education, religion and cultural ceremonies. But that’s not what MacAskill has any arguments for. He needs to take this as given and cannot tell us how altruistic we should be.

I also read this book as an endorsement of randomized control trials and development aid to poor nations in general. And given that these are two things that Angus Deaton disagrees with, I read it as an opposition to Angus Deaton’s views.

I really like this bit (added emphasis):

Because cash transfers is such a simple program, and because the evidence in favor of them is so robust, we could think about them as like the “index fund” of giving. (pos 1604-1605)

“Earning to give” is an interesting concept. But this line of thinking can easily be made extreme. Why not rob a bank and spend all of that on malaria bed nets? Or kidnap a politician and ask for 100 million to be spend on deworming.1

Similarly with his good discussion on the effects of choosing to be a vegetarian. Again, he shows a real economist’s skills by discussion the general equilibrium effects and shows estimates for how much supply falls when we reduce demand. But this position, too, if taken to its extreme is easy to lead ad absurdum. If we really just optimize over the one thing “Eating as few animals as possible”, then why not go on a killing spree and reduce the number of humans eating animals?

Instead I think our morality is and should be more complex and multi-faceted. We’re walking in a certain space and time and face constraints. You probably want to work somewhere, because it gives you purpose. And you want to do good both abstractly and directly. And people differ in how altruistic they are.

As economists we’re trained to describe how groups of people behave and we only rarely prescribe how they should behave. But that is what MacAskill does. His preferred way of how people should act is a poor explanation for how people actually do behave. Why do people over or underestimate risks, smoke, buy the wrong kind of insurance, buy stocks when they’re too expensive, take on too much debt and why do they act altruistically? He cannot explain any of this and it’s not his goal. Instead he does something that economists rarely offer: He shows how a rational person should behave morally given their preference for altruism.

My strongest criticism of the book is the following: Altruism is – and should be – just one part of many in a well-rounded person’s life goals. Yes, it’s a particularly important one that we should encourage in our children. But there are many, many other things to our life and maximizing over only one thing – altruism – seems dangerous to me.


Further reading: Related posts:
  1. After finishing this review, I came across this interview (in German) by the Swiss Tagesanzeiger with MacAskill where is asked exactly this. His response is that property rights should be protected and that Effective Altruism is about making the best decision given one’s constraints. Just optimizing no matter what he calls “primitive utilitarianism”.