Doing Good Better

the cover of Effective Altruism leading textbook, Doing Good Better, written by Oxford professor William MacAskill


ISBN: 978-1592409105

READ: 2016-03-10

AUTHOR: William MacAskill

Doing Good Better is the manifesto of the rising Effective Altruism Movement, which applies evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the world.


Here you have some counterintuitive lessons from the book:

  • buying goods which were produced in sweatshops is actually better than boycotting them;
  • buying local and fair-trade goods is less effective than you might expect;
  • the best way to reduce your carbon footprint is to pay someone else to keep the forrest alive;
  • donating to dedicated charities reduces animal suffering more than going vegan;
  • ethical consumerism could be even harmful for the world;
  • “follow your passion” is actually bad career advice;
  • shifting your impact from 1x to 100x is easier than you may expect.

The book is quite technical, and completing notes with charts and figures would have resulted as too heavy. I suggest you use the following excerpts to inspire yourself and buy the book, and eventually use them as proper directives. 




When it comes to helping others, being unreflective often means being ineffective. p.9


We very often fail to think as carefully about helping others as we could,

mistakenly believing that applying data and rationality to a charitable endeavour robs the act of virtue.

And that means we pass up opportunities to make a tremendous difference. p.10


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. p.11

As I use the term, altruism simply means improving the lives of others. […] The second part is effectiveness, by which I mean doing the most good with whatever resources you have. p.12




You are the 1 percent


If you earn more than $52,000 per year, then, speaking globally, you are the one percent. If you earn at least $28,000 […] you are in the richest five percent of the world’s population. p.18


The fact that we’ve found ourselves at the top of the heap, globally speaking, provides us with a tremendous opportunity to make a difference. Because we are comparatively so rich,

the amount by which we can benefit others is vastly greater than the amount by which we can benefit ourselves.

We can therefore do a huge amount of good at relatively little cost.

It’s a basic rule of economics that money is less valuable to you the more you have of it. p.20


What the conclusions from the economic studies [Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, American Economic Review 103, n.3 May 2013] suggest is that

the benefit you get from having your salary doubled is the same as the benefit an extremely poor farmer gets from having his salary doubled.

If you’re on the typical US wage of $28,000 per year, the benefit you’d get from an additional $28,000 in income is the same as the benefit a poor indian farmer would get from an additional $220. p.22

This gives us a good theoretical reason for thinking that

the same amount of money can do one hundred times as much to benefit the very poorest people in the world as it can to benefit typical citizens of the United States.

This isn’t to say that income is all that matters to well-being – of course other factors like safety and political freedom are involved. But income certainly plays a critical role in how enjoyable, long, and healthy your life is. Looking at how much we can benefit people via increasing their income gives us a particularly robust way of assessing how much we can benefit others compared to ourselves. p.23


The 100x Multiplier

You should expect to be able to do at least one hundred times as much to benefit other people as you can to benefit yourself. p.23




Hard trade-offs


In order to make comparisons between actions, we need to ask: How many people benefit, and by how much?

This is the first key question of effective altruism. p.32


The difficulty of comparing different sorts of altruistic activity is therefore ultimately due to a lack of knowledge about how different activities translate into improvements to people’s lives.

It’s not that different sorts of benefit are in principle incomparable. p.40


By all means, we should harness the sadness we feel at the loss of a loved one in order to make the world a better place. But we should focus that motivation on preventing death and improving lives, rather than preventing death and improving lives in one very specific way. Any other decision would be unfair to those whom we could have helped more. p.42




How you can save thousands of lives


When evaluating whether aid has worked on average, it’s not enough to look at typical cases of aid; you also need to look at the best cases.

In the context of doing good, this is vital, because the best activities are often far superior to typical ones, which can make the average benefits of aid spending very high, even if typical benefits are small. p.47


In the context of helping others, the difference between a good use of money is huge. We shouldn’t just ask: Is this program a good use of money? We need to ask: Is this program the best use of money? p.51

Thinking carefully about how you can do the most to benefit others doesn’t just allow you to do a bit more good – it enables you to do vastly more than you might have done otherwise. p.53




Why you shouldn’t donate to disaster relief


If we want to do as much good as we can, we’ve also got to ask which cause to focus on. The law of diminishing returns provides a useful rule of thumb for comparing causes.

If a specific area has already received a great deal of funding and attention, then we should expect it to be difficult for us to do a lot of good by devoting additional resources to that area.

In contrast, within causes that are comparatively neglected, the most effective opportunities for doing good have probably not been taken. p.58


Our response to natural disasters is one of the clearest cases of how, when it comes to charity, most people follow their gut and respond to new events rather than ongoing problems. […] We forget there is an emergency happening all the time, because we’ve grown accustomed to everyday emergencies like disease and poverty and oppression. Because disasters are new and dramatic events, they inspire deeper and more urgent emotions, causing our subconscious to mistakenly assess them as more important or worthy of attention.

Ironically, the law of diminishing returns suggest that, if you feel a strong emotional reaction to a story and want to help, you should probably resist this inclination because there are probably many others like you who are also donating. p.60

Diminishing returns also provides a powerful argument for focusing your altruistic efforts on people in poor countries rather than those in rich countries. p.61


Asking “Is this area neglected?” and trying to focus only on those areas that truly are neglected can be counterintuitive. It means that the most popular areas are, precisely for that reason, the ones where it will be difficult to have a big impact. p.66




The best person who ever lived is an unknown Ukrainian man


In 1958, Zhdanov was a deputy minister of health for the Soviet Union. In May of that year, at the Eleventh World Health Assembly meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during the Soviet Union’s first appearance in the assembly after a nine-year absence, Zhdanov described a visionary plan to eradicate smallpox. […] He conveyed his message with passion, conviction, and optimism, boldly suggesting that the disease could be eradicated with ten years. […] He pointed to the Soviet Union’s success at eliminating smallpox, despite its vast territory and poor transportation networks. […]

By the force of his arguments, Zhdanov was successful. For the riots time in his history, the WHO agreed to forma a campaign to completely eradicate a disease.

To assess how much good Zhdanov did, we should bear in mind that, even if he had not lobbied the WHO, smallpox would probably have been eradicated anyway. Many of those 120 million lives that have been saved by smallpox eradication would have therefore have been saved anyway. But there would probably have been a considerable delay in the smallpox eradication campaign. Suppose, therefore, that Zhdanov moved forward the eradication of smallpox by a decade. If so, then he alone prevented between 10 and 20 million deaths – about as much as if he’d achieved three decades of world peace. p.69


We don’t usually think of achievements in term of what would have happened otherwise, but we should.

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. p.70


The good I do is not a matter of the direct benefits I cause. Rather, is the difference I make. p.70


Our default attitude should be that, if a social program is going to be rolled out on a large scale, then it should have been proven to be effective first. p.74


Earning to give means exactly what it sounds like: rather than trying to maximise the direct impact you have with your job, you instead try to increase your earnings so you can donate more, improving people’s lives through your giving rather than your day-to-day work. […] Time and money are normally interchangeable – money can pay for people’s time, and your time can be used o earn money – so there’s no reason to assume the best careers are only those that benefit people directly through the work itself.

If we are serious about doing good, earning to give is a path we should consider. p.76

Earning to give probably makes the biggest difference, unless yo are some sort of a genius and discover good practices that no one would have never known about.




Why voting is like donating thousands of dollars to charity


We shouldn’t dismiss more speculative or high-risk activities out of hand, […] because when successful, they can have an enormous impact.

We therefore need a way to compare higher-risk but higher-upside actions with actions that are certain to have an impact.

Within economics and decision theory the standard way to do this is to look at an action’s expected value. p.80


Thinking explicitly about expected value is important because humans are often terrible at assessing lo-probability high-value events. Psychologists have found that people ether give too much weight to low-probability events (as, perhaps, when people choose to play the lottery), or they simply ignore them all together. p.83

When trying to do good, we need to be sensitive both to the likelihood of success and to the value of that success.

This means that low-probability high-payoff activities can take priority over sure bets of more modest impact. It also shows that people are often confused when they say that “one person can’t make a difference.” p.84


On many issues, I find that people hold the following two views:

  • If many people did this thing, then change would happen.

  • But any individual person doesn’t make a difference.

Holding that combination of views is usually a mistake when we consider expected value. p.87


If you decline to buy some chicken breast, then most f the time you’ll make no difference: the supermarket will buy the same amount of chicken in the future. Sometimes, however, you will make a difference. Occasionally, the manager of he store will assess the number of chicken breasts bought by consumers and decide to decrease their intake of stock, even thought they wouldn’t have done so had the number of chicken breasts bought been one higher. (Perhaps they follow a rule like: “If fewer than five thousand chicken breasts were bought this month, decrease stock intake.”)

This isn’t just a theoretical argument. Economists have studied this issue and worked out how, on average, a consumer affects the number of animal products supplied by declining to buy that product. They estimate that, on average, if you give up one egg, total production ultimately falls by 0.91 eggs; if you give up one gallon on milk, total production ultimately falls by 0.56 gallons. p.88

The same reasoning can be applied when considering the value of participating in political rallies. p.89


For our purposes, the most important use of expected value reasoning is in comparing concrete, measurable ways of doing good with more speculative but potentially higher-payoff strategies. p.89


As well as assessing careers, the concept of expected value can be used to assess efforts to effect political change. Donating to highly effective charities provides a comparatively concrete, reliable and measurable way of doing good. But the potential gains of systemic change are even greater: if you can find the right area, funding or participating in political campaigns could potentially do even more good.

The point is simply that long shots can be worth it if the payoff is big enough.

When assessing a potential course of action, one should therefore not dismiss it as ineffective by saying “that’ll never happen”. p.94


Even if scientists had not already shown that man-made climate change is happening, the mere fact that man-made climate change might be happening is enough to warrant action. p.95


Just as most of the value from aid programs comes from the best aid programs, it’s often the case that most of the expected harm from disaster come from the very worst disasters. p.98




Overhead costs, CEO pay, and other confusions


One popular way of evaluating a charity is to look at financial information regarding how the charity spends it money. How much does the charity spend on administration? How much is its CEO paid? What percentage of donations are put directly to the charity’s main program? p.105

You certainly wouldn’t think about how much Apple and Microsoft each spend on administration, and you wouldn’t think about how much their respective CEOs are paid. Why would you? As a consumer you only care about the product you get with the money you spend.

If we don’t care about financial information when we buy products for ourselves, why should we care about financial information when we buy products for other people? p.107


Here are the five questions I think every donor should ask before deciding where to give. They are based on the criteria used by the charity evaluator GiveWell.

  • What does this charity do? How many different types of programs does it run? For each of these programs, what exactly is it that this charity does? If it runs more than one program, why is that?
  • How cost-effective is each program area? Is the charity focused on one of the most important causes? How cost-effective does the evidence suggest the program to be?
  • How robust is the evidence behind each program? What is the evidence behind the programs that the charity runs? Are there trials showing that the program is effective? Does the charity rigorously monitor and evaluate the success of its programs?
  • How well is each program implemented? Do the leaders of the charity have demonstrated success in other areas? Is the charity highly transparent? Does it acknowledge mistakes that has made in the past? What are the alternative charities you should give to? Are there good reasons for supposing that this charity is better than others?
  • Does the charity need additional funds? What would additional funding be used to do? Why haven’t other donors already funded the charity to the point it can’t use extra money? p.109


Because cash transfers is such a simple program, and because the evidence in favour of them is so robust, we could think about them as like the “index funds” of giving. […]

It’s only worth it to donate to charitable programs rather than simply transfer cash directly to the poor if the other programs provide a benefit great enough to outweigh the additional costs incurred in implementing them. p.115


This is a common difficulty we face when trying to do good: When should you pursue an activity with more robust evidence of more limited impact, versus an activity with much weaker evidence of potentially much greater impact? p.119




The moral case for sweatshop goods


Those who protest sweatshops by refusing to buy goods produced in them are making [the] mistake of failing to consider what would happen otherwise. […]

In developing countries, sweatshop jobs are the good jobs. p.130

Because sweatshops are good for poor countries, if we boycott them we make people in poor countries worse off. p.131


If we’re thinking about buying fair-trade ourselves, we need to ask how much we’re actually benefitting people in poor countries by shelling out a few extra dollars for fair-trade versus regular coffee. The evidence suggests that the answer is “disappointingly little”. This is for three reasons.

First, when you buy fair-trade, you usually aren’t giving money to the poorest people in the world. Fair-trade standards are difficult to meet, which means that those in the poorest countries typically can’t afford to get Fairtrade certification. […] We saw how fast money diminishes in value and how extreme global inequality is. That means that even if buying fair-trade was a good way of paying farmers more, you might make a bigger difference by buying non-fair-trade goods that are produced in the poorest countries rather than fair-trade goods that are produced in richer countries. p.133

Second, of the additional money that is spent on fair-trade, only a very small portion ends up in the hands of the farmers who earn that money. Middlemen take the rest. […]

Finally, even the small fraction that ultimately reaches the producers does not necessarily translate into higher wages. It guarantees a higher price for goods from Fairtrade-certified organisations, but that higher price don’t guarantee a higher price for the farmers who work for those organisations. p.134

Though the evidence is limited (which is itself worrying), the consistent finding among the the studies that have been performed is that

Fairtrade certification does not improve the lives of agricultural workers. p.135


Similarly, the focus on buying locally produced goods is overhyped: only 10 percent of the carbon footprint of food comes from transportation, whereas 80 percent comes from production, so what type of food you buy is much more important than whether that old is produced locally or internationally.

Cutting out red meat and dairy for one day a week achieves a greater reduction in your carbon footprint than buying entirely locally based food. p.136


The most effective ways to cut down your emissions are to reduce your intake of meat (especially beef), […] to reduce the amount you travel, […] and to use less electricity and gas in the home. p.136

However, there is an even more effective way to reduce your emissions. It’s called offsetting:

rather than reducing your own greenhouse gas emissions, you pay for projects that reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere. p.137

Cool Earth is claimed to be the most effective charity in the offsetting field. Check them out!


If you care about animal suffering, yo should certainly alter your diet, either by cutting out the most harmful products (at least eggs, chicken and pork), or by becoming vegetarian or vegan. However, there is no reason to stop there.

In terms of making a difference to the lives of animals, the impact you can have through your donations seems even greater than the impact you can have by changing your own behaviour.

According to Animal Charity Evaluators, […] by donating to charities like Mercy For Animals on the Humane League, which distributes leaflets on vegetarianism, it costs about one hundred dollars to convince one person to stop eating meat for one year. p.143

On reflection, we should expect it to be this way.

By donating, you can ensure that your money is spent only on the most effective activities.

Given the difference between the best activities and merely very good activities, this is a big deal. In contrast, spending more in order to buy more “ethical” produce is not a very targeted way of doing good.

Things may even be worse than that, however.

There’s some reason to think that the rise in ethical consumerism could even be harmful for the world, on balance.

Psychologists have discovered a phenomenon that they call moral licensing, which describes how people who perform one good action often compensate by doing fewer good actions in the future. p.144

Amazingly, even just saying you’d do something good can cause the moral licensing effect. p.145


Moral licensing shows that people are often more concerned about looking good or feeling good rather than actually doing good. […]

If we encourage people to do a small action but frame the request a s a first step toward a larger commitment, then the moral licensing effect may not occur.

Where it becomes crucial, however, is when people are encouraged to do fairly ineffective acts of altruism and, as a result, are less likely to perform effective ones later. p.145



Don’t “Follow your passion”


For the large majority of people who don’t have work-related passions, the advice to “follow your passion” might merely prompt anxious soul-searching and send them into the wrong careers. p.150


Research shows that the most consistent predictor of job satisfaction is engaging work, which can be broken down into five factors:

  1. Independence – To what extent do you have control over how you go about your work?
  2. Sense of completion – To what extent does the job involve completing a whole piece of work so that your contribution to the end product is easily visible, rather than being merely a small part of a much larger product?
  3. Variety – To which extent does the job require you to perform a range of different activities, using different skills and talents?
  4. Feedback from the job – How easy is it to know whether you’re performing well or badly?
  5. Contribution – To what extent does your work “make a difference”, as defined by positive contributions to the well-being of other people? p.151


The evidence therefore suggests that following your passion is a poor way to determine whether a given career path will make you happy. Rather,

passion grows out of work that has the right features. p.152


What about following your heart, your gut, or your itch to find work you love? The evidence suggests that won’t work, either, since we’re bad at predicting what will make us happy. p.152


In general, we recommend people think of three primary routes by which they can have impact on the job. The first is through the labor you provide. […] The second is the money you can give. The third is the influence you can have on other people.

Next, you need to assess how effective the causes or organisations to which you can direct these resources are.

The fourth and most important reason why “work in the social sector” might be bad advice is that if you are just starting out, it’s much more important to build skills and credentials than it is to have an impact on the job. p.156

Spending a few years building your abilities now, therefore, can pay off with increased impact over a much longer period. In addition, the most senior people within a field generally have a disproportionate amount of influence and impact within that field. p.157


Think of career decisions like an entrepreneur would think about starting a company.

In both career choice and entrepreneurship, you start out with a tiny amount of relevant information, but you have to use that information to cope with a huge number of variables. Moreover, as things progress, these variables shift: you are constantly gaining new information; ad new, often entirely unexpected, opportunities and problems arise. Because of this, armchair reasoning about what will and won’t happen isn’t very useful. p.159


Think like a scientist, testing hypothesis.

First, […] think of your career as a work in progress. […] It’s better to have a bad plan than no plan, but only if you are open to changing it.

Second, find out where you’re uncertain, then reduce that uncertainty. […] Ask yourself: What is the single most important piece of information that would be most useful for my career decision? Now, what can I do in order to gain that information?

Third, test yourself in different paths. p.160


One way in which you can asses whether an organization is money-constrained or talent-constrained is simply to ask the organization if they would prefer you donate to them or work for them. p.162


In general, jobs that require social skills (like public relations), creativity (like fashion design), or precise perception and manipulation (like boilermaking) are the least likely to become automated. Jobs that require physical proximity or high levels of training are also unlikely to be outsourced. p.165


If the beneficiaries of your action don’t participate fully in markets and aren’t governed by a well-functioning state, then there is a clear need for philanthropy. p.169

Properly-working markets already provide people the right opportunities to scale the social rankings. Well functioning states already have in place major welfare policies for allotting resources to people in financial need.


Like innovative entrepreneurship, research is an area that is drastically undersupplied by the market because the benefits are open to everyone, and because much of the benefit of research occurs decades into the future. Governments try to fix this problem to some extent through state-funded research, but academic research is very often not as high-impact as it could be – the incentive facing many academics is work on the most theoretically interesting questions rather than the most socially important questions. This means that, by deliberately pursuing research that has a large impact, one could make a significant difference that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. p.172

One good way to have impact within research is to combine fields.

[…] Research at the intersection of two disciplines is often particularly neglected and can for that reason be very high-impact. p.173


As a volunteer, you re often not trained in the area in which you are helping, which means the benefit you provide might be limited. At the same time, you’re often using up valuable management capacity. For that reason, volunteering can in fact be harmful to the charity you are volunteering for. […] This means

you should try to volunteer only in ways that cost an organization relatively little. p.175

However, you don’t need to limit yourself to this. Instead, I’d encourage you to think about volunteering primarily in terms of the skills and experiences you’ll gain, which will enable you to have a greater impact later in your life. Because the total time you spend volunteering will be only a tiny fraction of the total time you spend on your career,

the impact volunteering has on other areas of your life will generally be much greater than the impact you have via the volunteering itself. p.176

It might feel a little odd to volunteer simply because it benefits you, but I think that, as long as you think of volunteering as the first step toward generally moving your life in the direction of making a difference, there’s nothing problematic about this. p.176




Poverty versus climate change versus…


On the framework I propose, you can compare causes by assessing them on how well they do on each of the following three dimensions:

  • scale. What’s the magnitude of this problem? How much does it affect lives in the short run and long run?
  • neglectedness. How many resources are already being dedicated to tackle this problem? Ho well allocated are the resources that are currently being educated to the problem? Is there reason to expect this problem can’t be solved by markets or governments?
  • tractability. How easy is it to make progress on this problem, and how easy is it to tell if you’re making progress? Do interventions within the cause exist, and how strong is the evidence behind those interventions? Do you expect to be able to discover new promising interventions within this cause?

If we are thinking about contributions of time rather than just money, then there is a fourth important dimension:

  • personal fit. Given your skills, resources, knowledge, connections, and passions, how likely are you to make a large difference in this area? p.181


All other things being equal, the larger the problem, the higher priority the cause should be. p.181


The scale of a problem also determines how long we should expect the problem to persist. […] If the problem is very big, then it will take a large amount of resources before the most effective opportunities are used up. p.182


Even if a problem is hugely important and highly neglected, that doesn’t mean it’s an important cause to focus on. There might simply be very little we can do about it. p.182


Because of diminishing returns, all things being equal,

the more resources that have been invested in a specific cause, the more difficult it will be to make progress within that cause with a given amount of resources, because typically many of the most cost-effective opportunities will have already been taken. p.183

The causes we hear the most about are precisely those where it will be harder to make a big difference; the causes that get less attention are those where we may be able to have a massive impact. p.184