Doing Good Better

Sun, 05 Feb 2017

A friend of mine recently recommended William MacAskill’s 2015 book “Doing Good Better” - I read it last week, and very highly recommend it to any of my friends that care about their impact in the world.

The book aims to help people think rationally and holistically about how to have the most positive impact: through one’s work, through donating to worthwhile causes, and through influencing others.  It provides frameworks for choosing between different ways to make a difference.  Real examples help make the book enjoyable, and show how this kind of thinking is valuable (as well as challenging).

To be honest, I often dislike books and talks on philanthropy, feeling that they are more certain of their logic and values than they deserve to be.  What I particularly liked about “Doing Good Better” was its honesty in the face of the very many uncertainties.  MacAskill is far more interested in helping you rationally achieve your goals than using emotion and guilt to persuade you.  By offering frameworks that you could apply to your skills, values and assessments, he recognises that you may come to different conclusions to him or other people - that is to be expected.

The key message from the book is that although assessing outcomes is difficult and your temptation to not think too much and just go with your heart is understandable, thinking rationally can lead to outcomes orders of magnitude better than what you might otherwise do.  And if you do it properly, it won’t lead you to becoming cold-hearted and thinking that charity is a waste of money - the best opportunities out there are unquestionably worthwhile.

Being very interested in decision theory, I also enjoyed some of the encouragement to think more rationally.  For example, people considering a career in medicine often mistakenly consider the average good that a doctor does, rather than trying to assess the marginal good that they will do as one extra doctor in the system.  Likewise, a charity may have a great track record addressing an important cause, but if it can’t effectively use additional donations you are better off donating elsewhere.  Many people underestimate the significant value of seeking neglected opportunities.

Even though MacAskill’s goal is more to teach frameworks than specifics, the examples did teach me quite a bit that I didn’t know (and correct some of my misapprehensions), particularly about environmental issues (he also talks draws examples from global health and poverty).  There were a few places in the book that I disagreed with how he weighed values - but that didn't detract from the book - after all, its intention was to provide frameworks for thinking about things rather than "the answers".

The chapter on thinking rationally about your career was extremely good (not surprising given his involvement in - so even if you’re less concerned about philanthropy at this stage of your life, I’d still consider the book worth reading on the basis of this chapter.

I hope my friends that read it find it useful and enjoyable.