Book review: Doing Good Better, by William MacAskill.
This book is a simple introduction to the Effective Altruism movement.
It documents big differences between superficially plausible charities, and points out how this implies big benefits to the recipients of charity from donors paying more attention to the results that a charity produces.
How effective is the book?
Is it persuasive?
Probably yes, for a small but somewhat important fraction of the population who seriously intend to help distant strangers, but have procrastinated about informing themselves about how to do so.
Does it focus on a neglected task?
Not very neglected. It’s mildly different from similar efforts such as GiveWell’s website and Reinventing Philanthropy, in ways that will slightly reduce the effort needed to understand the basics of Effective Altruism.
Will it make people more altruistic?
Not very much. It mostly seems to assume that people have some fixed level of altruism, and focuses on improving the benefits that result from that altruism. Maybe it will modestly redirect peer pressure toward making people more altruistic.
Will it make readers more effective?
Probably. For people who haven’t given much thought to these topics, the book’s advice is a clear improvement over standard habits. It will be modestly effective at promoting a culture where charitable donations that save lives are valued more highly than donations which accomplish less.
But I see some risk that it will make people overconfident about the benefits of the book’s specific strategies. An ideal version of the book would instead inspire people to improve on the book’s analysis.
The book provides evidence that donors rarely pay attention to how much good a charity does. Yet it avoids asking why. If you pay attention, you’ll see hints that donors are motivated mainly by the desire to signal something virtuous about themselves (for example, see the book’s section on moral licensing). In spite of that, the book consistently talks as if donors have good intentions, and only need more knowledge to be better altruists.
The book is less rigorous than I had hoped. I’m unsure how much of that is due to reasonable attempts to simplify the message so that more people can understand it with minimal effort.
In a section on robustness of evidence, the book describes this “sanity check”:
“if it cost ten dollars to save a life, then we’d have to suppose that they or their family members couldn’t save up for a few weeks, or take out a loan, in order to pay for the lifesaving product.”
I find it confusing to use this as a sanity check, because it’s all too easy to imagine that many people are in desperate enough conditions that they’re spending their last dollar to avoid starvation.
The book alternates between advocating doing more good (satisficing), and advocating the most possible good (optimizing). In practice, it mostly focuses on safe ways to produce fairly good results.
The book barely mentions existential risks. If it were literally trying to advocate doing the most good possible, it would devote a lot more attention to affecting the distant future. But that’s much harder to do well than what the book does focus on (saving a few more lives in Africa over the next few years), and would involve acts of charity that have small probabilities of really large effects on people who are not yet born.
If you’re willing to spend 50-100 hours (but not more) learning how to be more effective with your altruism, then reading this book is a good start.
But people who are more ambitious ought to be able to make a bigger difference to the world. I encourage those people to skip this book, and focus more on analyzing existential risks.