An up-and-coming visionary in the world of philanthropy and cofounder of the effective altruism movement explains why most of our ideas about how to make a difference are wrong and presents a counterintuitive way to think about how each of us can do the most good possible.
Most of us wish we could make a difference in the world. We donate our time and money to organizations and causes we think will make an impact, choose careers we deem meaningful, and patronize businesses and buy products we think make the world a better place.
Unfortunately even those who make doing good a priority-donating a portion of their income or time to causes they deem worthy-often end up doing very little to effect change. Why? Because we rarely have enough information to make the best choices. You wouldn't invest in a company without knowing how your money would be spent, but we often invest in charities because we feel good about doing so and assume our contribution will be put to good use. But, like for-profit companies, not all altruistic endeavors are created equal.
While studying philosophy and figuring out which career to pursue in order to have the greatest impact, William MacAskill confronted this problem head on. As a result, he developed the concept of effective altruism, a practical, data-driven approach to making a difference.
Effective altruists operate by asking five key questions before they decide on what action to take: 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? Through these, he shows that many of our assumptions about how to do good are misguided. For instance, he argues that one can potentially save more lives by working on Wall Street than becoming a heart surgeon; measuring overhead costs is not the best way to determine a charity's effectiveness; and individuals should stop donating to cancer research.
Though some will find his statements controversial, MacAskill forces us to think differently, set aside biases, and use evidence and careful reasoning so that each of us can do the most good possible.
William MacAskill earned a PhD in Philosophy from Oxford University, studied at Princeton University as a Fulbright Scholar, and is currently a Research Fellow at Cambridge University. He lives in Cambridge, England.