Doing Good Better book review

For anyone sleeping under an asteroid lately, a new movement by the name of Effective Altruism is slowly taking the world by storm. Put simply, EA involves thinking critically about which causes and charities to support. It may seem strange, but the differences between charities can be enormous, and it’s not just about overhead and transparency.

For example, it costs around $40,000 AU to train a guide dog to care for a blind person. Giving a person the ability to get around is a great thing to do, but a $60 donation to the Fred Hollows Foundation is enough to cure someone of blindness in a developing nation. For the cost of training one guide dog, we could cure over 600 cases of blindness. For some, this raises concerns about whether it’s ok to say one charity or cause or life is worth more than another. But in reality, by not undertaking this comparison, you are saying that one life is worth more than 600 others. We have a remarkable opportunity to save a lot of lives by just changing how we think about charity. If you’re still not convinced, I gave a presentation about this recently which introduces these ideas.

This year has seen a number of Effective Altruism books being released, including The Most Good You Can Do by moral philosopher and co-founder of EA, Peter Singer, which is a good introduction.

I recently finished reading Doing Good Better by William MacAskill, which dives into some of the less obvious ways that people can maximise the good they can do throughout their lives. I’d like to take a bit of time to summarise the key themes of this book and give my thoughts.

Will MacAskill. Image taken with permission from
Will MacAskill. Image taken with permission from

One new idea floating about is that it’s possible to do a lot of good by working for a company that might typically be seen as unethical, such as a bank or finance company, rather than working directly for a non-profit. This is because, by working for a non-profit company, you are likely taking the job from someone else, almost as equally skilled as you, and so the marginal good you do is small. However, by working for a bank, you could earn a high salary, which you can donate to an effective charity. If you earn enough, you could donate enough to pay for the salary of several non-profit staff that otherwise wouldn’t have had jobs if you didn’t donate that money. EAs call this ‘earning to give’. That’s not to say that everyone should drop everything and work for the most evil corporation to earn a lot of money, just that it is another option. Some causes, like artificial intelligence research, are more talent constrained than funding constrained, so in some cases working for a non-profit is still better than donating to them.

One activity that is often seen as a way of ‘greenliving’ is buying local produce, but unfortunately, the benefits of buying locally are often overstated. On average, only 10% of the emissions from food come from the transport, while 80% comes from the production. The effect of this is so strong that it is more effective to cut out red meat and dairy of one’s diet one day a week than to buy entirely locally produced food. This isn’t to say that buying local isn’t a good thing to do, just that there are easier ways to reduce one’s carbon footprint. This counterintuitive nature is a common theme with reducing carbon emissions. Leaving a phone plugged in for a whole year is equivalent in carbon emissions to having one hot bath, and leaving the TV on for the year is comparable to driving a car for just two hours.

MacAskill proposes an even more effective way of reducing emissions. Carbon offsetting involves paying someone to reduce or avoid carbon emissions or to capture carbon, for example planting a tree. This isn’t a new concept, though one carbon offsetting charity, Cool Earth, is particularly effective at this. Using analysis by William MacAskill and 80,000 Hours, even with the most conservative estimates it would only cost around $135 for the average Australian to offset their carbon emissions – for a whole year.

People often tout catching a train as being a more environmentally friendly way to travel between cities. However, trains are usually significantly more expensive than flights for long distance travel, so you’re almost certainly doing more good for the environment by flying somewhere and donating even half the savings to a carbon offsetting charity. Not to mention the time you’d be saving, which if you were serious, could be used to do even more good for the environment.

MacAskill also discusses the possibility of offsetting one’s meat consumption. Charities such as The Humane League distribute advertising material to convince people to eat less meat, thereby reducing animal suffering and environmental damage. It costs about $100 to convince someone to stop eating meat for one year (or the equivalent reduction over multiple people). If this is the case, would it be possible to donate $100 to such a charity rather than go vegetarian, and be able to say it’s the moral equivalent? What if you donate $200 a year, but eat meat. You’ve essentially convinced two people to be vegetarian for the year. Is that better than eating meat but not donating?

Permission for use of image granted by The Humane League.
Permission for use of image granted by The Humane League.

MacAskill’s conclusion is “I don’t think so. There’s a crucial difference between greenhouse gas emissions and meat consumption: if you offset your greenhouse gas emissions, then you prevent anyone from ever being harmed by your emissions. In contrast, if you offset your meat consumption, you change which animals are harmed through factory farming. That makes eating meat and offsetting it less like offsetting greenhouse gas emissions and more like committing adultery and offsetting it, which we all agree it would be immoral to do.

I’m not completely convinced by this. Let’s try a thought experiment. Say that being vegetarian costs an extra $500 a year compared to eating meat, due to the food being more expensive (to be clear, it’s not, a vegetarian diet can be substantially cheaper). You might have two options. Option A is to eat meat, save $500 and donate it to an effective animal advocacy charity. Option B is to be vegetarian, thereby losing the $500 you might have otherwise donated. Would it really be acceptable to take option B and let so many more animals die because you refuse to eat meat? Now this is just the trolley problem. You’re changing who lives and dies in that situation to minimise death, so why not this one?

Now let me be slightly contradictory and say that, while I think eating meat and donating $100 to The Humane League would be morally equivalent to being vegetarian, I don’t think that really excuses the meat consumption. We’re not in the world of this thought experiment, so ideally one should be vegetarian and donate to effective charities. Foreseeing potential criticism, I myself am vegan and donate to The Humane League.

Related to this are vegans who regularly go out for fancy meals. If you are spending $500 more than you reasonably need to on meals per year, I would argue that is potentially less ethical than a meat eater who only eats cheap meals and donates $500 to The Humane League every year. Morality doesn’t begin and end with whether or not you eat meat. But after all this, I still believe that eating less or no meat is one of the easiest ways people can change their lives to do a lot of good. I appreciate that this is all quite controversial, so I invite you to leave your thoughts or criticism in the comments below.

On a related vein, MacAskill argues that ethical consumerism probably isn’t as good as we think it is. If it costs $30 to buy an ethically produced shirt, and only $5 to buy one produced in a sweatshop, you’re probably doing more good by buying the sweatshop shirt and donating the $25 savings to an organisation that advocates for workers rights. In fact, it’s widely agreed by economists that sweatshops are, overall, good for poor countries. They are steady sources of income for many people in developing nations, and they probably wouldn’t otherwise have jobs. By boycotting sweatshops, we just make things worse.

In Will’s words, “We should certainly feel outrage and horror at the conditions sweatshop labourers toil under. The correct response, however, is not to give up sweatshop-produced goods in favour of domestically produced goods. The correct response is to try to end the extreme poverty that makes sweatshops desirable places to work in the first place.

When it comes to choosing a career, Will cautions against ‘following your passion’, which is a common piece of career advice. This is bad advice for two reasons. One is that most people don’t have passions that fit the world of work. The second is that your interests change. It’s ok to realise after finishing a degree or working in a career for 10 years that it’s not what you really enjoy or are good at, and to move on. The idea that people should know what they want to do for the rest of their life by the age of 18 is ludicrous.

Considering the amount of time people spend working over a career, they spend comparatively little time thinking about what the best career for them really is. An organisation called 80,000 Hours is seeking to combat this by providing advice on finding personal fit for a career and reviewing careers for how much positive impact people can have within one. 80,000 is the number of hours the average person will spend working, yet most people spend substantially less than 1% of that time thinking about their career itself.

The 80,000 Hours team. Image taken with permission from
The 80,000 Hours team. Image taken with permission from

Doing Good Better talks about so many things that I could never cover them all here, but hopefully I’ve given you a taste. I highly recommend it, and look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Until next time.

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