This post reviews the book, Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference by William MacAskill.
This book review includes:
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What The Book Is About
In Doing Good Better MacAskill introduces the principles underlying effective altruism and sets out a practical guide to increasing your impact through your charity, volunteering, purchases and choice of cause. On a whistle-stop tour of the key issues facing a would-be do-gooder, he’ll answer questions like:
– Why are some charities far more effective than others?
– How can cosmetic surgeons do more good than charity workers?
– Does boycotting sweatshops make things better or worse for the global poor?
How I Learned About the Book
I learned about this book through Professor Rebecca Kelly when she assigned parts of it to her students.
Design Thinking Framed Review: I Like, I Wish, I Wonder
My review of this book is based on the design thinking activity ‘I Like, I Wish, I Wonder (What If)’.
Aspects that stood out to me, were executed well, and that I just liked
Framing for College Students
Chapter 9 ‘Don’t “Follow” Your Passion: Which careers make the most difference? is the chapter that I would assign to college students (if we didn’t have time to read the whole book). MacAskill urges readers to forgo passion and instead pursue personal fit, impact on the job, and impact later in life.
He also offers an answer to which careers he feels could make the most difference. These options are framed as solid bets and high-potential long shots.
Overall, my favorite part of this chapter was MacAskill’s focus on skill-building. Skill-building is especially useful if you don’t know what you want to do. When framing your initial experiences as opportunities to build skills, it takes the pressure off of having everything figured out at the outset.
Skill building is short-term strategy, which can be a very good option if you aren’t sure about what you ultimately want to do. The idea behind this path is that you build up general-purpose career capital in order to keep your options open as much as possible, giving you time to figure out your long-run plans for having an impact and giving you skills that will be useful in what you choose to do.
Low Chance, High Impact
Chapter 6 ‘Why Voting is Life Donating Thousands of Dollars to Charity‘ introduced the economic and decision theory concept of expected value, which is the potential value of a variable in the future. MacAskill argues that expected value is important when considering low chance, high impact events like voting, natural disasters, climate change, etc.
I found the overall argument compelling. In addition, I appreciated that in the case of voting there was more of a collective mindset at play. Much of the book centers around individual actions and individual impact. Thus, I appreciated the shift in this chapter.
…when trying to do good, we need to be sensitive both to the likelihood of success and to the value of that success. This means that low-probability high-payoff activities can take priority over sure best of more modest impact.
Aspects that I would change/adjust and what I wish was there
Who Could Do It Better
A constant theme throughout the book is ‘effectiveness’, which makes sense since its premise is effective altruism. I appreciated the detail provided regarding assessing charities and potential career options.
MacAskill detailed a personal example in which he reflected upon his effectiveness as a teenager working in a care home. He pondered if he took the place of someone who could have done it better.
I do appreciate this reflection; however, I would have loved more details on how one could assess this for themselves. In particular, I worry about marginalized groups that might not enter certain spaces where they are truly needed due to access and/or self-doubt.
MacAskill is very clear on the outset that he is trying to help people do the most good as effectively as possible. Many of the examples surround global health and international aid. He does make a cogent argument surrounding his reasoning.
Nonetheless, I wish there was a bit more guidance on navigating non-profits and resources local community-based efforts. This probably against the book’s goal, but I still wanted to throw it out there because the connection to one’s local community is quite important to many people.
Since the goal of effective altruism is to do the most good we can, health is a good place to start.
New ideas, thoughts, and suggestions
Throughout reading this book, I wonder what impact COVID-19 would have on some of the charities mentioned and many of the suggestions outlined in the book. MacAskill explicitly states that further research and findings will alter their future recommendations. I just wonder where the effective altruism movement stands as we deal with COVID-19.
I’m sure that many of the recommendations made in this book will eventually become obsolete as we refine our research, collect new data, and investigate new technologies and systems that change the ways we give back.
Life Design Application
I first incorporated evaluating the concepts in this book, specifically surrounding career choice, with students in my 2021 Designing Your Sustainable Life Course. We devoted one class to discussing and evaluating some of the recommendations outlined in the book.
This book introduced me to job characteristics theory, which is coming out of psychology and posits the factors that contribute to job satisfaction. I’ve used this theory to help frame some life design activities.
Overall, this book has helped me to think intentionally about impact and draw in various viewpoints as I guide students. While effective altruism might be an approach that might not fit everyone, the recommendations MacAskill presents can prompt meaningful discussions and, hopefully, action.
Who Should Check Out This Book
If you’re wondering how you could make the most impact in helping the world, you should definitely check out Doing Good Better. I think this could also be a compelling read for people considering medical school or pursuing a career in the healthcare space. There are many health-related examples and stories that could be of interest. In general, I think it’s a worthwhile read for anyone considering the impact they might want to make.