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Doing Good Better book summary

Doing Good Better book cover


This is a guide to the Effective Altruism movement, which encourages people to make the world a better place by ensuring the effectiveness and impact of their actions. The book explores concepts of altruism, philanthropy, and global development, and it provides practical advice on how individuals can contribute to positive change in the most effective ways possible. MacAskill suggests using rigorous evidence and careful reasoning to determine the best ways to improve the world, rather than just doing what feels right.

Chapter summaries

Chapter 1: Why Doing Good Is Hard

  • The chapter illustrates the challenges in doing good, emphasising that well-intended actions can sometimes lead to unforeseen negative outcomes.
  • MacAskill introduces the concept of "Effective Altruism," a practice that combines the heart's intent to help others with the mind's focus on effectiveness and efficiency.
  • The author suggests five key questions to ask oneself when attempting to do good:
    • 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?

Chapter 2: How Can You Do the Most Good?

  • This chapter presents the idea of using a 'cause-neutral' approach to altruism, i.e., not being attached to any specific cause but instead looking for the most effective ways to do good.
  • MacAskill introduces the concept of 'counterfactual thinking', considering what would have happened if one had acted differently, to measure the real impact of one's actions.
  • The author emphasises the significance of making career choices that allow for the most significant contribution to humanity, introducing the concept of 'earning to give.'

Chapter 3: Choosing Causes

  • MacAskill provides guidance on how to select causes to support based on their scalability, how neglected they are, and tractability.
  • He explains the importance of evaluating causes using evidence and reasoning, instead of personal attachments or popular trends.
  • The chapter introduces concepts like global poverty, animal welfare, and long-term future as examples of causes that might be highly effective to support.
  • QALY (Quality-Adjusted Life Year) equates to one year in perfect health. MacAskill proposes the use of QALYs as one of the means to compare the effectiveness of different projects, especially in the health sector. By looking at how many QALYs a certain intervention produces per dollar spent, we can compare the cost-effectiveness of different interventions.

Chapter 4: How to Do Good in Your Career

  • This chapter focuses on how to choose a career that allows for doing the most good. It introduces the idea that even seemingly unrelated professions can contribute significantly to effective altruism.
  • MacAskill encourages the reader to consider 'earning to give' as a viable career path, where high-income jobs can enable one to donate significant funds to effective causes.
  • The author discusses the idea of career capital, skills, connections, and credentials that will be useful in future endeavours to maximize one's impact.

Chapter 5: Giving to Help Others Vs. Giving to Feel Good

  • MacAskill argues that the goal of giving should be to help others rather than to make oneself feel good.
  • He emphasises the need to focus on effectiveness, not just the emotional satisfaction that comes from giving.
  • The chapter discusses 'impact bias' where people overestimate the emotional impact of an event, and 'focusing illusion' where people place too much importance on one aspect of an event while ignoring others.

Chapter 6: Why You Shouldn't Trust Your Instincts

  • This chapter provides a critique of common biases and heuristics that can lead people to make less effective decisions when trying to do good.
  • The author introduces cognitive biases like the identifiable victim effect, where people are more willing to help identifiable individuals rather than statistical lives.
  • MacAskill suggests that relying on data and systematic thinking, rather than instincts, can help individuals to maximize their altruistic impact.

Chapter 7: The Ethics of Effective Altruism

  • This chapter examines the ethical underpinnings of Effective Altruism, discussing both utilitarian ethics and consequentialist ethics.
  • MacAskill makes the case for why long-term future considerations and the well-being of all sentient beings should be taken into account in effective altruism.
  • The chapter introduces the concept of 'moral trade', where different parties with different moral views can cooperate for mutual benefit.

Chapter 8: Conclusion - Five Ways to Make a Difference

  • In this final chapter, MacAskill summarises five ways individuals can make a significant impact:
    • Earning to give;
    • Getting involved in politics;
    • Researching the most pressing problems;
    • Advocating for effective altruism; and
    • Supporting effective charities.
  • He emphasises the idea that small changes in individual behaviour can lead to massive impacts when considered collectively.
  • The chapter concludes with a call to action for readers to join the Effective Altruism movement and improve the world through informed and thoughtful decisions.

Key takeaways

  1. Maximize Your Impact: Not all charities are created equal. Some can do hundreds or even thousands of times better with the same amount of money.

  2. Earning to Give: MacAskill suggests that one of the most impactful things an individual might do is to earn a high salary in a conventional career and then donate a significant proportion to the most effective charities. This approach might do more good than directly working in the non-profit sector.

  3. Cause Prioritisation: Different causes have different levels of effectiveness. It's essential to prioritise global health and development, animal welfare, and long-term future causes as these areas often have the most significant potential for impact.

  4. Expected Value: When deciding how to do good, consider the expected value, which includes the scale of the issue, how neglected it is, and the tractability. This allows you to compare different causes and interventions.

  5. Room for More Funding: Just because a charity is effective doesn't mean it can usefully consume more funding. Check if there is room for more funding and if your donation will add to its impact.

  6. Counterfactual Reasoning: It's important to consider what would have happened anyway if you didn't do what you're doing. This kind of reasoning can lead to surprising conclusions about what actions are most effective.

  7. Career Choice: When choosing a career, consider its earning potential, but also consider its potential for direct impact, its potential for career capital (skills, connections, credentials), and how much you'll enjoy it. This concept is referred to as the 80,000 hours approach, reflecting the average number of hours one spends in their career.

  8. Plan for Learning: Rather than having a fixed career plan, have a plan that focuses on learning and adaptation. Seek out roles that allow for learning about oneself, the world, and the best ways to make a difference.

  9. Impact through Advocacy and Policy Change: Direct work and donations are not the only ways to have an impact. Advocacy and influencing public policy can also have a significant impact, especially for certain causes.

  10. Caring about All People Equally: MacAskill encourages us to care about all people equally, not just those in our local communities or countries. Many of the world's poorest people overseas can benefit more from our help than those closer to home.

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