Doing Good Better: William MacAskill on ‘Effective Altruism’ & How To Maximize Positive Global Impact

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“The challenge for us is this: How can we ensure that, when we try to help others, we do so as effectively as possible?”

William MacAskill


Most of us want to do good.

We devote our precious time to causes we deem worthy. We donate our precious funds to charities that appear to make a difference. We pursue 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.

So how can we do better?

In an effort to determine a career personally optimized for maximum positive impact, Professor William MacAskill began to ask himself this very question.  While a young researcher at Oxford, 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 a modality of thought that would later birth the movement known today as effective altruism: a practical, data-driven approach to “doing good” that proffers the best options to make a tremendous positive difference.

In other words, “doing good” (or a well-intentioned act aimed at doing good) is not enough.

We must do good better.

William is a 28-year old Scottish born scholar and author who is associate professor of Philosophy at Lincoln College Oxford. Previous to this chair, William was a research fellow in philosophy from Emanuel College at Cambridge and a Fullbright scholar at Princeton.

If all of this still fails to impress, while still in his twenties (because after all he is still in his twenties), William co-founded 2 successful non-profits, which combined have raised over $400 million in lifetime pledged donations to charity and helped to spark the effective altruism movement:

  • 80000hours.org is an extremely cool and impressive ethical careers advisory service – sort of like an altruistic AI online career counselor — which provides research and advice on how you can best make a difference through your professional life.
  • Giving What We Can encourages people to commit to give at least 10% of their income to the most effective charities.

Walking his talk, William has officially pledged to donate any and all earned income in excess of $35K USD to such effective charities. This makes for a very interesting line of questioning during today’s conversation.

William shares his ideas — some of which are controversial and at times iconoclastic — as a contributor to The Atlantic and in several prominent international publications (see below show notes) and he and his organizations have been featured in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and TED, among other media outlets.

Although William lives in Oxford, I was able to sit down with him in Silicon Valley a few weeks ago as his noon-profit 80000hours.org was one of the very first non-profits ever invited to participate in the highly prestigious accelerator program hosted by prominent seed venture fund Y Combinator. For context, this is the fund and program that launched companies like Dropbox, AirBnB, and Reddit among many others.

William recently released his first book, Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help you Make a Difference. I couldn’t put it down. It forever changed how I look at giving. And it has breathed new life into how I contemplate the most effective way I can make a positive difference in the world I will someday leave behind.

This is a pretty intense and at times heady conversation that covers a lot of ground, including:

  • the definition of effective altruism
  • altruism v. materialism in the happiness equation
  • removing emotion from philanthropy
  • how global wealth disparity enhances your impact
  • philosophy of conscious capitalism
  • how to properly evaluate a charity
  • reasons to choose a career path
  • the psychological motives behind charitable giving
  • why ‘fair trade’ isn’t always fair
  • why the sweatshop issue is more complex than you think; and
  • what was wrong with the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’?

William is an exceedingly bright and incredibly impressive young man. It was an honor and a pleasure to probe his philosophical mind. A conversation that left me wondering just what the world would look like if everyone heeded William’s call and committed to an effective altruistic path.

How can you do good better? I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below.

I sincerely hope you enjoy the exchange.

Peace + Plants,

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SHOW NOTES

Connect With Will: Website | Twitter

The mission of the Center For Effective Altruism is to foster projects, which use evidence and analysis to help others as much as possible. Check them out at centreforeffectivealtruism.org.

Check out Will’s two organizations: 80,000 Hours, a non-profit that 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.

Background, Context & Reference:

Notable People Discussed in today’s podcast:

Related Podcasts You Might Enjoy:

Production, music & sound design by Tyler Piatt. Additional production by Chris Swan. Graphic art by Shawn Patterson.

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