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Doing Good Better
Many people want to make a difference. The desire to help others is seemingly embedded in our DNA and a key component of many religions. We choose careers and donate time and money to worthy causes in hopes of making the world a better place.
In his book, Doing Good Better, Oxford philosophy professor William MacAskill uses real-life case studies to illustrate how these decisions are often based on assumptions and emotions. Through these stories, he shows that our best intentions may lead to ineffective – and sometimes even harmful – outcomes.
MacAskill is a prominent figure in the “effective altruism” movement – a philosophy that applies data and a scientific method to charitable decisions. While trying to figure out which career would allow him to have the greatest impact, he discovered that the potential for change was often hampered by a lack of information and our own personal bias.
Instead, MacAskill and his colleagues developed a practical, data-driven approach that suggests each of us can make a tremendous difference no matter our available resources. Effective altruists believe we must do good better.
Questions and analysis
In weighing one choice versus another, effective altruism ask five key questions:
- How many people benefit, and by how much?
- Is this the most effective thing I can do?
- Is this area neglected?
- What would have happened otherwise?
- What are the chances of success, and how good would success be?
MacAskill shows how many of our assumptions about doing good are misguided. His more rigorous and analytical approach is often counter-intuitive. For example, he argues that one might save more lives by becoming a plastic surgeon rather than a heart surgeon, simply by donating money earned to worthy causes. After all, a heart surgeon can only operate on a finite number of hearts in a career.
The book defines ‘altruism’ to mean ‘simply improving the lives of others’ and ‘effective altruism’ to mean ‘doing the most good with whatever resources you have.’
I wanted to like this book. In the course of consulting for nonprofit organizations, I have often found faulty assumptions and misunderstandings at the root of less-than-effective outcomes. So, an approach that promises to improve decision-making – to let our better altruistic tendencies shine – was appealing on its surface.
The book makes the case that charitable efforts should be measured and judged for effectiveness, and that improved understanding will help us do good better. However, despite MacAskill’s persuasive arguments, my enthusiasm began to wane the more I read.
Lack of humility
It’s clear that MacAskill, in setting out to make a difference in the world, has the best of intentions. He has done his homework and wants to share his insights in support of those goals. In doing so, however, he can’t help but reveal his own biases, no matter how much evidence he collects.
I believe most people aim to treat others well, sharing whatever time and resources they can. And each of us hold some causes more dear than others. A concern with doing the MOST or being the BEST is often driven by ego as much as a commitment to a cause.
With the wisdom of experience, recognizing that ‘good enough’ is a reasonable and authentic goal should not diminish one’s altruism. Our charitable impulses are rewarded by making us feel good, a fact that the author does not take into consideration.
Not all of us can be doctors, pursue advanced degrees, or contemplate helping others as an intellectual exercise. And yet, if you are not counted among these elite difference-makers, in order to do the most good with whatever resources you have, MacAskill essentially implies that you should just support the causes he considers worthy.
In war-torn Africa, an emergency surgeon with limited resources must perform triage by assigning degrees of urgency to wounded patients. MacAskill uses this story to illustrate both the harsh realities and benefits of asking critical questions. How serious is the problem? What happens if we wait to treat it? What are the chances of success if we act now? Those who work in health care know how difficult it can be to accurately answer questions like these.
To determine which charity or cause is most worthy of support, MacAskill uses the quality-adjusted life year (QALY), which is a measure of health across time. QALYs are based on gained health outcome. For example, assuming two patients will live to the same age, is it better to cure a man of blindness at age 20, or cure a woman of cancer at age 55? QALYs are supposed to provide an objective answer.
When “data-driven” decisions are fueled by subjective or even speculative answers – how good would success be? – it really undermines the whole premise.
One altruist cares deeply about Arctic wildlife endangered by climate change. Another volunteers countless hours to help the homeless in her community. And another donates money every year to buy mosquito nets to help stop the spread of malaria in Central Africa.
According to the book, only the third person is “doing the most that they can with the resources they have.” This is a preposterous assertion.
By broadly framing its methodology and implications, Doing Good Better oversells effective altruism as a practical tool and comes off looking more like a promotion for GiveWell.org, the charity evaluation site launched by the movement’s founders. The website doesn’t hide its bias:
We believe that there are many organizations that do great work but don’t meet our criteria or work on issues outside the scope of our research.
How do we do good?
The question is worth asking. Doing Good Better is a good read – MacAskill is an engaging writer who poses many provocative questions. There are enlightening stories and observations that would be helpful to anyone who cares about helping others. The chapter on ethical consumerism – many product purchases don’t help the intended beneficiary nearly as much as a direct donation would – is particularly eye-opening.
Those who donate time or money are likely to be more effective altruists if they think critically before taking action. Those who are looking for a way to measure effectiveness should keep looking.