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

By September 20, 2015January 19th, 202412 Comments

“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:

  • 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 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,


Listen & Subscribe on iTunes | Soundcloud | Stitcher



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

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.

*Disclosure:Books and products denoted with an asterisk are hyperlinked to an affiliate program. We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

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  • Nick Patenaude says:

    Love this one, you should check out Level Ground Trading from here in Victoria, BC! They have a truly Fair Trade / Direct Trade system that they implement! It’s really cool, and they have full transparency regarding how much they pay for their material and what the ‘market-value’ is, and how much goes to the farmer/co-op directly! It’s a really great initiative!

  • Tommy F says:

    To give.. is to receive. Whether it be our time, money or kindness. When we help others, with the intention of reducing/eliminating their suffering, our emotions let us know how in-alignment we are, with our higher self. We feel happy 🙂 So we should give often. But like Rich advises, first honoring ourselves with Meditation, Breathful Exercise and Plant-Based Food (aka “The Oxygen Mask”).. otherwise our giving may emanate from a place of out-of-alignment with our higher self.


  • bereniceweber says:

    What an inspiring talk, it is so refreshing and uplifting to listen to this talented young professor focusing his brilliance to do good. I added his book to my reading list. Thank you once again Rich Roll for introducing us to great people.

  • sasha says:

    very interesting and like the challenging conversation, I am going to go on Giving well and check out where I donate and make sure I ask some questions for those I donate too, keep ’em coming

  • Jonny Carnage says:

    That was an awesome podcast, I think it would be great to have more podcasts that ask these kind of questions.

    I am not yet convinced by all of the arguments that William put forward, I do however have a huge respect for what he is doing. Maybe I misunderstood him but it seems that if I were to follow his rationale then if for example I had the opportunity to donate money to a local charity that helps care for the elderly in my local community then I would decline that opportunity in favour of donating to a charity that saves lives in a third world country. In fact it seems there would never be a case for giving charitable donations to local charities since conditions in Third World countries will always be much worse than where I live.

    I definitely believe that it is a moral imperative not to cause harm to other beings but do we also have a moral imperative to go out of our way to help others?

    I believe that the majority of the problems in developing countries are actually caused by the developed countries in the first place. The global economy exploits Third World countries, distorts local markets and funds corrupt governments. I would much prefer a situation where we focus on non exploitation in the first instance rather than charitable giving. It currently feels like we screw poor countries over and then give them some loose change later to make ourselves feel better. That just can’t be right.

  • Kirsty Dean says:

    Thought provoking podcast and I will definitely follow up personally on several points. Thanks for the challenge

  • Maruca says:

    I loved this episode and have been thinking about it for days! I’d love to hear more of this kind!

    I need to rethink my giving and William talked about many things that raised a lot of questions for me about our society and our culture of giving (and my own). LOVED IT!

  • Keith Norman says:

    Hey Rich! Heard you mention you took the 80000hours test and it said you should be a startup entrepreneur but you didn’t have an idea. My reaction to hearing that was that if Rich Roll did a startup I would love to work for it (I’m a software engineer), so I thought for a brief moment about any ideas. Here’s what I came up with that I think is pretty decent: There are a proliferation of meal delivery services right now – Munchery, Blue Apron, Caviar, etc.. but none that I know of cater to the plant based diet. So, I think that niche is ripe for picking. But, to build on that what about a plant based meal delivery service personally catered to each individual taking into account their fitness goals, food allergies, and taste preferences, and going beyond just delivering meals it could be an entire wellness lifestyle package coupled with a training plan based on whatever an individuals goals are, and spiritual guidance including weekly meditations from Julie, passes to local meditations retreats and yoga classes, etc. You guys could locally source all the food included in the meals and advertise what farms the food is coming from to help further the awareness of mindfully sourcing food from good sustainable sources. You’ve already built a community of people who are passionate about bettering themselves, this would just be a new platform to make it even easier for people to connect to this community and really hit the ground running. I would sign up!

  • E Francisco says:

    Enjoyed the podcast (listened to it 3x) and bought the book. I think Rich is right. The book is excellent for people who want to donate in the most effective way, but misses the emotional component of donating for those who are already doing so. Families who have members with cancer will donate to cancer research, animal activists will donate to rescue specific species (cute pigs or magnificent lions) or perhaps the sanctuary they visit most. Yes, based on emotion, we are not saving the most lives, but we are helping to save the lives directly in front of us. Someone MUST be on their side despite the statistics. That said, I saw Peter Singer’s TED talk and began donating the Humane League and Vegan Outreach because he directed me to Give Well. So I’ve split my dollars between “effective altruism” and the all the other sanctuaries and rescues all around the country and other parts of the world. And just in case anyone is interested, in my most recent trip to Thailand, I’ve befriended Lek Chailert of famed Elephant Nature Park. She’s a smart, business minded Thai woman who uses donations to purchase a little bit of land each year (Thailand jungle real estate prices are rising but is still relatively affordable) and to rescue elephants. But Lek doesn’t stop at elephants, she wants to save all animals. Currently, the park is home to 63 elephants, 600+ dogs, 100+ cats, 60+ goats, 50+ water buffalo, 1 pig, many rabbits. Your dollar will go far in Thailand and I believe that sending money to Elephant Nature Park is effective atruism.

  • Nate justice says:

    Is William a vegan? I feel like that’s one of the biggest ways to do good in the world. In so many ways from the environment to healthcare to food security to animal welfare and world hunger. I honestly can’t think of one thing better than choosing to not eat animals. I loved the talk and he’s a brilliant guy but I hope he stumbles into The veg life. That would really take his altruism to the next level. Thanks for the content as always Rich, you rock my brain every episode and I really truly appreciate the free content! Peace + Plants

  • richroll66 says:

    Yes actually William is a vegan. Didn’t actually discover this until after the podcast but we had a nice talk about it. Had I had more time we would have explored this a bit more!

  • Nate justice says:

    Awesome that makes since because he really does seem like he’s trying to make the world a better place. Well now the next time you have him on you can talk about that as well. Thanks for getting back so fast Rich.

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