William MacAskill

william macskill

IamA co-founder of two non-profits with over $400 million in lifetime pledges, professor at Oxford, give most of my income to charity, and author of “Doing Good Better” AMA

Hi reddit,

My name is William MacAskill and I believe in “effective altruism” and have made it my life’s mission. I’m a professor in philosophy at Oxford University and I’ve co-founded two non-profits: 80,000 Hours, which provides research and advice on how you can best make a difference through your career, and Giving What We Can, which encourages people to commit to give at least 10% of their income to the most effective charities. Together we have over $400 million in lifetime pledges.

My first book was published this week Doing Good Better. The book explores the question “How can I make the biggest difference” backed up by evidence and reason instead of impulse or hearsay. If you’re interested, you can see an article here, or sign up at effectivealtruism.com and you can read a free chapter.

Personally, I donate everything above $35,000 a year to organizations that I believe will do the most good (reasons here), and also plan on donating all profits from the book as well.

Excited to be here so please AMA about what charities actually do good, how you can do more good in your lifetime, effective altruism, social entrepreneurship, book publishing, academia, or whatever else you may have on your mind!

Proof: https://twitter.com/willmacaskill/status/628277924689375232

Say I have $10,000 and want to make the biggest possible impact in the world. Lets say I think that is directly saving lives. How should I spend that 10k to best accomplish that goal of saving lives?

Donate to Against Malaria Foundation: https://www.againstmalaria.com/

GiveWell estimates that they save a life for about $3400. So with $10k you’ll save three lives (on average, and bear in mind that this is just a best guess; the true number may be higher or lower).

(Now edited with correct number.)

What is the best way to introduce the concept of ‘effective altruism’ to peers? Is there anything specific you’ve found to be effective at getting people interested?

I think the most important thing is not to be moralistic. There are a lot of people throwing blame around, and I don’t think that’s often helpful. Most people already want to make a positive difference in their lives – you don’t need to convince them of that. Instead it’s about showing how exciting and powerful an opportunity they have: they can do as good much good as the hero that drags a child out of a burning building every single year of their lives. And that’s just be choosing to spend a proportion of their money wisely, or by making slightly different career decisions.

Finally, the best way to convince people is to demonstrate it in yourself. If you’re a happy vibrant person excitedly talking about how awesome it is to do good with your donations and your time, other people are going to want to join in. That’s what got me involved.

Some more thoughts:

I think it is generally best to first reach out to others you know who may already act like effective altruists, or who otherwise seem predisposed to have a strong interest.

Perhaps they have an optimization mindset, are utilitarian, or are quite charitable. You can introduce them to the organizations, books, and online content that best fit each of those motivations as great introductions to movement.

My new book, Doing Good Better, is written as an intended introduction to the movement, and the early feedback (such as from Amazon reviews) is that it is quite successful at this purpose. If they’re likely to read it, perhaps giving or loaning out a copy of the book would be a great strategy.

Additionally, as you have friends who are searching for what to do next in their careers, what charity to donate to, or are generally considering the biggest challenges in the world, I’d recommend the organizations within effective altruism that address these questions best.

I have a background in sales and marketing in the consumer goods space and this is after an MBA. I have led large sales teams and also worked on campaigns impacting consumer behaviour across all ends of the income spectrum. I want to move to a career in Non-Profit in a few years and I am particularly interested in helping design and implement healthcare/ nutrition strategies that will work especially in countries such as India or Africa (I am Indian btw). Any pointers on how I can make this switch?

It’s great you have sales / marketing experience, as that’s particularly in demand in non-profits in my experience.

The most obvious way to make the switch in my mind is to reach out to organizations that you think are particularly effective (a good heuristic is “a well-run non-profit working on an important cause”) and where you think you could add value. See if you can volunteer, or take a sabbatical and do an internship. Given your background I don’t think you’d need to do a course – do find out as much as you can about the field, but I think you can do that well in your spare time.

What’s a TL;DR of your book? Or perhaps, what is the most persuasive argument that you could give for someone to become an effective altruist?

Tl;dr: You have the power to make an extraordinary positive impact in the world if you spend your time and money wisely. Even though many social programs achieve little, the best charities and the best careers do a tremendous amount of good: if you choose, you can save a live every single year of your own life.

You seem to have accomplished quite a lot for a young person (I think I read 28?). Were you always interested in doing the most good? At what age did you fully commit to that idea? Also, does being a young professor at Oxford pose any unique challenges? I imagine being close in age to the students doesn’t make life any easier. Lastly, what’s next for you?

Thanks! I was always socially concerned growing up (when younger I helped run a Scout troop for children with disabilities and worked at a care home), but hadn’t even thought about trying to do the most good. During my undergraduate degree, I was still concerned, but didn’t do that much about it.

It was only after working as a fundraiser for Care International (one of those annoying people who pester you on the street), encountering blank apathetic stares from the people I was trying to raise money from, that I realised I wasn’t living up to my own values. And then it was only when meeting Toby Ord in Oxford (in a graveyard of all places) that I discovered the importance of effectiveness. That was early 2009 – from that point I was sold, and Toby and I cofounded Giving What We Can later that year.

Being a young prof has pros and cons. The risk is that you get taken less seriously. But the benefit is that you still understand what it’s like to be new to the subject, worried about exams, and so on. On balance I think it’s a positive.

What’s next? I want to keep researching and promoting the ideas of effective altruism, and term will start again in a month which will use up most of my time. But I’m currently personally most excited about 80000hours.com – we’ve raised a lot of money in the effective altruism community, and we’re starting to get more talent constrained than funding constrained. I think that 80,000 Hours is the obvious place to address that – and it’s also exciting because a reasoned evidence-based approach to making a social impact through your career has never been done before. It’s a hard problem, but an exciting one.

What’s the one idea from effective altruism you differ most on from the rest of this community?

Great question! There are a few that leap to mind. I feel like I put more weight on ‘unknown unknowns’ than some other people – that we just have no idea about how to do the most good at the moment, so it’s imperative to do a lot more research, and to build up general-purpose skills and resources so that we can use them when we understand things better. I’m also a lot more sympathetic to moral realism – the idea that the moral truths are like scientific truths – than many other people I know.

Effective altruism is already making much headway in the English-speaking world. What can or will the effective altruism movement do in the future to reach out to other major nations, such as the rest of the EU, Japan, China, and India? How would you respond to rebuttals that effective altruism isn’t right for countries like China and India because they have hundreds of millions of their own people to lift out of poverty before they help the rest of the world?

There are chapters being set up in Japan and Hong Kong. I’ve love to see more of this – if the EA movement could make the world more interconnected and transcend national boundaries, I’d be very happy.

I think you can be an EA in India and focus on the poor in India. Same for China. No conflict there at all!

Which areas of philanthropy do you think are the most exotic in terms of risk/reward (i.e. very low probability of success, but if it is successful, the reward is so high that it is better to donate money here than on other more dependable causes)?

The ones that leap to mind are global catastrophic risks, especially risks coming from new technology such as biotech, AI, and geoengineering. These have great positive potential, but some small risks of being civilisation-ending. So it’s worth thinking a lot about those risks, and mitigating them if it’s possible to do so while harnessing the benefits.

GiveWell have written about them and investigated a bit: http://www.givewell.org/labs/causes/global-catastrophic-risks

Do you think the “weird” existential risk, friendly-AI strand of effective altruism and the “actually helping suffering people” strands can continue to co-exist as the movement grows? As global poverty EA continues to expand in size I have noticed a lot more griping and explicit attempts at “converting” or belittling people who are not on board with Ex-risk.

If there’s any belittling going on, I think that’s a real shame. We should constantly be aware of how little we know – if we think cause X is better than cause Y, that’s always a provisional judgment, you should never be confident or put down others.

I think they’ll be able to co-exist. The key idea of EA is doing the most good – whatever that means. It’s hard to build a movement around an abstract idea, but I don’t think it’s impossible, as long as we build the right culture – a culture of openness, epistemic humility, and respect.

Do you remember the first charitable donation you made? Where did you donate to and for how much?

I’m not sure if I remember the very first donation. But the earliest one I remember was to Oxfam (I think), age about 17. Some of my (very unfit) friends intended to do a half marathon, and I didn’t believe they’d complete it. So I said I’d give them £90 if they completed it – and they did! This seemed like quite a lot of money for a high schooler – even then I was very pro-charity, but I hadn’t thought much about effectiveness.

Who, of living people, do you think has done the most good in the world? Why?

The first person ever? I recently suggested that Viktor Zhdanov, who helped create the smallpox eradication campaign, which has saved over 60 million lives, is a contender. http://boingboing.net/2015/07/30/the-best-person-who-ever-lived.html

Norman Borlaug is a great example too – when he won the Nobel Prize, they suggested he was involved with saving 1 billion lives. I think the real number is lower than that, but it’s still amazing.

But when you start to think about it is a question without a good answer. Norman Borlaug’s mum is responsible for all the good that he did, and presumably did a bit more good too – so she’s done more good than he. And same is true for his grandparents, and their parents, and so on…

Not all charities are created equal, what charity or charities do you think could do more? Also, what are some of your favorite charities that you aren’t affiliated with?

Nearly all of the world’s largest charities could be much more effective. Many do not focus on those with the greatest need, those where money can be spent most efficiently, nor on measuring and evaluating their programs to determine the most effective method of achieving impact.

My favorite charities include GiveDirectly, Against Malaria Foundation, Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, DeWorm the World Initiative (led by Evidence Action), and Project Healthy Children.

Do you have a notion of a preferred distribution between EAs working on projects VS earning to give? (I feel bad for not making radical life changes besides donating.)

I currently feel that ideally about 15% of effective altruists should be earning to give. This is lower than my recommendations in the past.

A couple of the significant factors for this change is that:

  • Effective altruist organizations generally report that they are talent, rather than money constrained.
  • GoodVentures is looking to spend most of its billion-dollar resources over the next few decades, and it seems likely that other multi-billion dollar foundations will contribute to effective altruism soon as well. This would increase this already pressing need for talented individuals to continue research into how best spend this money.

I discuss this in a bit more depth here: https://80000hours.org/2015/07/80000-hours-thinks-that-only-a-small-proportion-of-people-should-earn-to-give-long-term/

Why do proponents of effective altruism seem to favor charities that focus on developing countries rather than local, community-based charities? Is a hungry American less deserving that a hungry Nigerian? If I’m donating vegetables from my garden to a food bank, is that not also a worthy pursuit? It seems that there is a bit of a shame culture that persists among EAs, like I should feel bad if I’m not doing what they approve of as worthy charitable work.

I believe that Americans and Nigerians are equally deserving. As I write in Doing Good Better, you can benefit people in the poorest countries by about 100x the amount by which you can benefit people in the US. (People in the US are 40x richer, and money goes 2.5x as far in poor countries).

I think that all attempts to do make a difference are great, but some things do much much more than others, and we should focus on the best. That doesn’t mean that local charity is ‘unworthy’, it just means that some things are even better. (Analogy: the fact that the universe is vast doesn’t make the solar system ‘small’.)

I have recently been struggling through what I’m calling a “quarter life-crisis”. I have the drive, motivation, and entrepreneurial spirit to devote time and energy into something I’m extremely passionate about pursuing. Unfortunately, I have no idea what that passion is. How can I position myself to figure out what I’m meant to do in life?

That’s great you’re thinking about how to have a big impact!

If you’re still early on in your career the most important thing is to build skills. That can be working as an early employee at a promising startup or a big company, working in consulting, directly learning skills like coding, or starting your own project. In the course of doing so keep an eye out for potential cofounders and potential projects – think about problems you personally face, and how you could create solutions to those problems. I’d also encourage you to spend some time in the developing world if you can: I think that a great way to create a highly impactful company is to build something that serves people in poorer countries. Again, spend time thinking about what problems you face while there and whether you could solve those problems. This approach led to one of my favourite for-profit companies, Wave, which makes it cheaper for immigrants to send remittances back to their home country.

Which of Peter Singer’s positions do you disagree with?

Infanticide is the obvious one!!

What do you think are the best careers someone can pursue besides earning to give our working directly for an effective non-profit organization?

You can get plenty of ideas using the 80,000 Hours career recommender

Top options include: entrepreneurship, policy, politics, high-value research, working as a program manager at a foundation or other grantmaking body, or just punting the question down the road and focusing on building skills in the for-profit world.

Interesting things you are studying. From your website, you appear very young. Can I ask how old you are? And more importantly — how in the world have you done all this, already?!

I’m 28. Answer is luck in big part – I cofounded GWWC age 22, and it happened to take off in a big way, then there’s been a big domino effect from there.

I do work pretty hard, and try to use my time as effectively as I can. Since I starting using my time to help others I’ve been a lot more motivated to achieve as much as I can (which has then as a side effect benefitted me in a whole host of ways).

Also: get enough sleep, exercise, and do whatever you need (meditate, friends, counselling, whatever) to stay happy.

Would you rather save one horse-sized duck or a hundred duck-sized horses?

I’d certainly rather save a hundred duck-sized horses.

It’s hard to know how to compare the moral importance of different creatures’ experiences. How many happy chicken-days is as good as a happy chimp-day?

The best guess I currently have is to use the logarithm of neural mass. And I think that the total log(neural mass) of a hundred duck-sized horses is much greater than that of one horse-sized duck. There’s just a lot more experiencing entities, and even if the horse-sized duck’s experiences are a bit more valuable in light of greater computational resources powering them, it’s not that much greater.

Moreover, horses live a little longer than ducks (25-30 years compared to about 20 years, according to a quick google). Insofar as I think we should care not about number of lives saved, but number of quality-adjusted life-years saved, then saving the duck-sized horses is clearly going to have the bigger impact.

What is the most insightful book on effective altruism that you would recommend to someone already familiar with the basics (e.g. someone who has read Doing Good Better) who wanted to learn more?

If you’d like more reading material, I recommend the excellent Effective Altruism handbook.

Perhaps the best way to take the next step to further engage with the movement is to talk with friends and effective altruists about these ideas. Whether online at the EA Forum on in person at you’re local effective altruism meetup, there really is no replacement for discussing these ideas with others who are like-minded.

What do you look for when choosing a charity to donate to? Also, how do you feel about volunteering or donating resources as opposed to money?

In Doing Good Better I give a framework for assessing different charities.

The key aspects are: 1. How cost-effective is the program/cause that the charity is working on? 2. How well-run is the charity? 3. Does the charity actually need additional money? What would thay money be used to do?

Donating resources is generally a bad idea unless you’re going to throw them out anyway – instead you should just give cash which has much lower overheads.

Volunteering can be great but it depends – there’s a management cost to volunteers, and so you can be net negative for a charity. Anecdotally I’ve heard charities taking volunteers just because they’re more likely to donate afterwards.

What are your thoughts on the western world paying reparations for the conquering and pillaging that went on? Linked to that, are you in favour of radically redistributing wealth to poorer countries and within individual societies themselves?

I’ve done a bunch of thinking about reparations in the past. I would really like the argument to work, because it would be an additional argument for global distribution, but I don’t think it quite does. The reason is that the people in poverty who exist today wouldn’t have existed were it not for the atrocities that the European countries committed in the course of colonialism. (There would be people in poor countries, but they would be different people.) So we can’t say that those people have been harmed by colonialism; and you need to be able to make that claim for the reparations argument to work.

However, there is a different (related) argument. Which is that most of the money we make is based on the inherited infrastructure that was build on the fruits of injustice. So I don’t think we have any just claim to the resources and infrastructure we inherit; and those determine 80% of our earnings over the course of our lives. It’s like we’ve luckily found a briefcase full of money that fell out the trunk of a getaway car. Given this, it seems the right thing to do (given that we can’t return the money) is to use it to do whatever will do the most good.

I’m in favour of much greater redistribution from richer to poorer countries – basically as much as would not compromise the sustainable long term growth of the global economy. I don’t know what % that is, but I bet it’s greater than 0.7%.

Are you optimistic about the way the world is heading and what do you think are the biggest problems facing the world?

I’m optimistic about the world. I think the biggest negatives from human progress – which has overall been astounding – are from factory farming and catastrophic risks from new technologies (e.g. the risk of nuclear war as a result of fission technology).