Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference, by William MacAskill, New York, NY, Gotham Books, ISBN: 978-1592409105, 2015, 258 pages, $26.95 hardcover.
What happens when two disparate disciplines like moral philosophy and economics intersect? When described by the pen of William MacAskill, the outcome is a remarkably compelling description of a new mindset and movement called ethical altruism. Everyone who wants to help make the world better owes it to themselves to read this book.
Ethical altruism is not concerned with just doing good, but with doing the most good one can do with one’s life. The first half of the book walks the reader through an ethical altruist’s answer to five questions:
- How many people benefit, and by how much?
- Is this the most effective thing you can do?
- Is this area neglected?
- What would have happened otherwise?
- What are the chances of success, and how good would success be?
Readers may be surprised to learn that one may make a larger difference by contributing to neglected needs in undeveloped countries (e.g., parasitic worm infections) than to popular disaster relief efforts; that a hedge fund manager willing to donate to effective programs will save hundreds more lives than a medical doctor; and that some high-risk pursuits—such as research careers, politics, advocacy—have such significant upsides that they may be worth the risk of failure.
Ethical altruists understand that the difference between doing good and doing the most good can be different by a factor of more than 100 times. In a rare event, one might run into a burning building to save a child, but a mere $3,200 a year donated to supply anti-malarial nets can save one life every year.
Organizations like GiveWell and 80,000 Hours are doing the research to show which programs are the most effective at doing good and which careers have the most potential for good. In the second half of the book, MacAskill sketches some of the ideas ethical altruists have developed to compare charities, ethical consumerism, career choice, and the hard-to-quantify issues of climate change, criminal justice reform, international labor mobility, and factory farming.
While reading this book, I could not help but think of the story of the girl throwing starfish back into the ocean. “It makes a difference to this one” is the kind of sentiment that ethical altruists oppose. In their view, compassion and good intentions do not count for much. They want to quantify how many starfish are saved and how many are swept back on shore. They want to compare shore walks and starfish throws to other ways the girl might spend her time doing even more worthwhile things. They call for rigorous clearheaded thinking about how one invests her or his life.
I wish I had read this book when I was 20 years of age, and I highly recommend it to the most caring people I know—social workers and social work students. Ethical altruism has great potential to make each of us a better and more effective professional and practitioner.
Reviewed by Peter A. Kindle, Ph.D., CPA. LMSW, assistant professor at The University of South Dakota. Dr. Kindle can be contacted by e-mail at Peter.Kindle@usd.edu.