Doing Good Better

How effective altruism can help you make a difference

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It is my pleasure to introduce William MacAskill for an AMA at 1pm PST. William is an Associate Professor in Philosophy at Oxford University, and author of Doing Good Better. He is the cofounder of the non-profits Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours, which have raised over $400 million in lifetime pledged donations to charity and helped to spark the effective altruism movement. Ask questions in advance... :)!
Hello! Welcome :) Where does your and Peter Singer's thinking differ the most?
@jacqvon and to piggyback on this, what was the biggest takeaway from his most recent book?
@jacqvon In a few ways. Historically he's been sympathetic to the view that wellbeing consists in preference-satisfaction, whereas I've been more sympathetic to the view that wellbeing consists in positive experiences; he's been sympathetic to the view that moral statements are more like expressions of desires, whereas I've been more sympathetic to the view that moral statements are attempts to describe facts just like scientific statements. However, I've heard that recently he's been coming round to my perspective! The biggest difference is our relationship to utilitarianism. Peter is a die-hard utilitarian. I'm sympathetic to utilitarianism, and think there are very strong arguments for that view, but it's not how I guide my choices. Instead, as I argue in my PhD, I think you should give weight to a variety of different moral views in which you have some degree of confidence, and then choose actions that represent the best compromise between those views. That means I think we do have strong obligations to help others; but also that I think you shouldn't e.g. kill one person to save the greater number.
@jeffumbro That's hard to say. I think the biggest idea contained in it (which I also talk about) is that of cause-neutrality. Normally when people talk about effectiveness they talk about how to be as effective as possible within a cause (like US education, or animal welfare, or extreme poverty), but choose a cause based on personal passion. Cause-neutrality (or 'strategic cause selection') is about being open to the idea of pursuing programs within any cause, and being willing to change your mind about which cause to focus on. I think that's very important. Even the very most effective programs that are tackling US poverty just aren't, in my view, going to compare to the most effective programs tackling extreme poverty. So if you chose the wrong cause, you could lose most of your impact.
Hey! There aren't that many people that can both build businesses and write books. What's enabled you to do both? I'm actually helping put together a book atm (aiming for September release) so keen to hear your thoughts :)!
@bentossell That's great you're writing a book! I agree it's a very different skill-set. I'm naturally inclined towards writing and research - growing up I wanted to be a novelist and a poet, then I wanted to be an academic for quite a long time. I cofounded Giving What We Can and then later 80,000 Hours simply because I thought these ideas were really important and no-one else was promoting them. So in terms of management, sales, fundraising, operations - I had to learn all that from scratch, and I don't claim to be particularly good at them. So I think that the answer to the puzzle is that GWWC and 80k are based on genuinely important ideas, that people quickly see the importance of, and so they've been able to grow and flourish quite independently of my competence or lack thereof as an entrepreneur! (But maybe that's a very British answer).
@willmacaskill well I am Welsh :) so I am happy with a British answer!! Thanks so much
@bentossell Ah great! My mum's Welsh - we're probably distantly related! :)
I donate a few hundred dollars to my friends charity races each year. Is this a smart use of my funds?
@jeffumbro What are the charities that your friends raise money for? I'd encourage them to raise for GiveWell recommended charities like Against Malaria Foundation, Deworm the World, Schistosomiasis Control Initiative or GiveDirectly.
Who are some of the thinkers you admire the most?
@russfrushtick Derek Parfit leaps to mind. He's one of the most influential moral philosophers of the twentieth century. In his book Reasons and Persons he made a series of dazzling contributions: arguing that there's not really such a thing as continued personhood over time, only varying degrees of psychological continuity; and arguing that it's crucially morally important to prevent the extinction of the human race, because of the tremendous numbers of people who would never get a chance to exist if we do go extinct. In terms of someone who combines academia with public impact, Peter Singer has (unsurprisingly) been an enduring inspiration for me. He got me into philosophy, convinced me of the importance of animal welfare and global poverty, and has done the same for many others. For someone still producing outstanding novel research now, I'd say Nick Bostrom, who's been doing research on how we should handle (whenever we achieve it) the development of human-level artificial general intelligence. Even if you don't agree with his conclusions, it's certainly incredibly important work.