Effective Altruism vs. Feel Good Altruism: How to Make a Bigger Difference in the World

effective altruism

Many of us have a desire to do good in the world but we don’t quite know how to do it.

If a charity advocate comes to your door or approaches you on the street, you may be compelled to donate some money to them (even if it’s just a few dollars). Or if you find out a percent of a product’s sales go to a certain charity, you may be more compelled to buy that product over another brand.

These small acts of altruism can often make us “feel good” and lead us to believe that we’re making a bit of a difference. But how effective are they really? And are they the best ways to make the world a better place?

In Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference, William MacAskill warns us that many times when we act altruistically we are motivated by our emotions and not our reason.

The book describes an emerging concept called effective altruism that applies a more scientific approach to how we choose to donate and volunteer our time to helping others. According to MacAskill, we must learn to use both our “heart” as well as our “head” when trying to make the world a better place.

If someone approached you on the street trying to sell you a TV, you likely wouldn’t want to buy it. Instead you’d want to first do your research into the product, compare it to different options, and figure out where the best deal was before you made a decision.

Yet we don’t typically apply this rigorous analysis to how we donate or volunteer, perhaps because it seems too “cold” or “calculating” – and that hurts the spirit of what we normally think of as altruistic and kind.

However, if we want to help others and make the biggest difference we possibly can, it’s important we put in some time and effort to do research on where we donate, how the money is spent, and whether it’s having the positive impact that it intends to have.

Good intentions aren’t enough to do good

One of the first main lessons in “effective altruism” is understanding that good intentions aren’t always enough.

Just because you have the best intentions doesn’t necessarily mean you know what’s best for someone. And sometimes we can fall into the trap of thinking we’re doing good just because we have a strong desire to do good.

A popular example of this in the book is the “PlayPump” which was designed to help poor communities in Africa get easier access to water.

The idea behind the project was to build playgrounds for children, and these playgrounds would also serve as a water pump. The more children play, the easier it is to get access to water (rather than relying on a hand pump that was often seen as tedious and annoying).

However, despite winning many awards and receiving endorsements and donations from big celebrities, it turned out the PlayPump wasn’t as efficient as it was originally thought to be.

Follow-up studies showed the PlayPump often took more energy per gallon of water than the original hand pump, and some communities became so desperate for water they needed to pay children to play on them.

If more research was done on the PlayPump before the project was launched, it could’ve avoided a lot of misallocated resources:

    “When it comes to helping others, being unreflective often means being ineffective. The PlayPump is the perfect example. Trevor Field and everyone who supported him were driven by emotions – the appeal of seeing happy children provide their communities with clean water through the simple act of playing – rather than facts. The Case Foundation, Laura Bush, and Bill Clinton supported the PlayPump not because there was good evidence to believe it would help people, but because it had the thrill of a revolutionary technology. Even critics of the campaign should stop short of accusing Field and his supporters of bad intentions – they no doubt genuinely wanted to help people of rural Africa. But relying on good intentions alone to inform your decisions is potentially disastrous.”

The PlayPump was an exciting idea, but it didn’t deliver on its promises. Sometimes the solutions that work best aren’t as sexy or revolutionary as we expect them to be.

In another example, researchers Michael Kremer and Rachel Glennerster were looking into ways to improve education in Kenya. They tried doing various commonsense things like donating books and adding new teachers to decrease class sizes, but follow-up research into these approaches didn’t seem to lead to any significant changes.

Surprisingly, the program they found most effective for improving education was deworming. Deworming is a cheap medical intervention that rids people of parasitic infections. These infections aren’t as serious as AIDS or cancer, but they are a common source of illness that can be cured for pennies.

The deworming program was the best measure for improving education in Kenya because it raised school participation: children became sick less often, so there was less absenteeism. Students who received the deworming also reported greater incomes later in life.

Because proper research was conducted, Kremer and Glennerster were able to discover a super cheap and simple procedure that greatly improved the lives of others from a health, education, and economics standpoint. This is the essence of effective altruism.

effective altruism

Doing Good Better is one of the most important books you’ll read all year. It teaches us how to approach altruism from a scientific viewpoint so that we can do the most good with the limited resources we have. The book warns against common “feel good” approaches to altruism that often give us the illusion of doing good when they may be misguided or counter-productive. One of the main lessons is do your own research on a charity or non-profit before donating money or volunteering your time.

Effective altruism: a scientific approach to doing good

The goal of effective altruism is to apply a scientific approach to doing good. This means putting in the leg-work to figure out what charities and organizations are the best to donate your money and volunteer your time.

Theoretically, giving only $10 to a superb charity may be a much more productive use of your money than spending $100 to a mediocre charity that doesn’t manage its resources properly or measure the efficacy of its programs. By doing research into the best charities, you can do a lot more good overall.

William MacAskill describes the philosophy of effective altruism here:

    “Effective altruism is about asking, ‘How can I make the biggest difference I can?’ and using evidence and careful reasoning to try to find an answer. It takes a scientific approach to doing good. Just as science consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what’s true, and a commitment to believe the truth whatever that turns out to be, effective altruism consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what’s best for the world, and a commitment to do what’s best, whatever that turns out to be.”

While many people help to make the world a better place through their careers (doctors, teachers, or activists), MacAskill believes that one of the most effective ways to help people is “earning to give.”

The “earning to give” approach is characterized by choosing a lucrative career in any field, and then donating a percentage of your earnings to the best charities.

The cool thing about this approach is that it enables anyone to do good in the world no matter what their profession is (or even how much money they make). Effective altruism often recommends that we donate 10% of our earnings to charities and non-profits, but this can vary depending on your own financial situation.

Keep in mind, if you live in a developed country then you are likely wealthier than 90% of the world. This puts you (and me) at a great advantage to do a lot of good in the world, especially since a dollar spent in a third world country often has much more power than a dollar spent in a developed country.

By investing our money into impoverished areas, we are actually making the best use of our money from both a moral and economic standpoint.

There are 5 key questions behind effective altruism. These questions include:

  • How many people benefit, and by how much? – What’s the scale of the problem? Generally, the more people a problem affects the more urgent the cause should be.
  • Is this the most effective thing you can do? – What’s the best way to address the problem? Which charity has empirically shown to provide the most benefits?
  • Is this area neglected? – How well-known is the problem? Are there already many well-funded charities addressing the problem or this area not recognized by most people?
  • What would have happened otherwise? – If you chose to do nothing, what would happen? What are the costs of doing nothing?
  • What are the chances of success, and how good would success be? – How likely is it to see progress in this cause? Is the potential reward worth more than the costs and risks?

In general, these are good questions to ask yourself when deciding on what charities and causes to support.

GiveWell is a great website that considers these questions when analyzing charities and how effective they are in achieving their goals. It’s a popular resource for those practicing effective altruism.

According to MacAskill, there are very few “really good” charities and they are remarkably better than your average charity. If you check out the GiveWell website, you’ll notice only a handful of recommended charities in their “Top Charities” section.

These top charities include the Against Malaria Foundation (which provides insecticide-treated bed nets), The Deworm the World Initiative (treatment for parasite infections), and GiveDirectly (which gives money and economic power directly to individuals and families in developing countries).

These are organizations that GiveWell has found to be above and beyond the typical charities. According to them, these charities provide the most good for your dollar and are where you can have some of the biggest impact.

80,000 Hours is another popular resource in the effective altruism movement. It focuses more on how to choose a “high impact” career, rather than the “earning to give” approach (80,000 hours is the typical amount of time a person will work throughout their job or career).

Making a bigger difference

Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference is a really refreshing perspective on how to be a more critical thinker when it comes to making the world a better place.

Of course, every act of altruism however small can make a positive difference and shouldn’t be discouraged. However, I think it’s useful to also want to learn more on how to maximize our efforts, and that’s where these ideas can be very important.

The book focuses a lot on major issues like global poverty and global health (which are often considered the bigger issues facing our world today), but it also gives key insights into other important issues like climate change, animal rights, criminal justice reform, sweatshops, and other potential catastrophes (nuclear threats, bioterrorism, etc.)

The tools and advice in this book can be applied to any other issue as well. The most important thing is to bring a scientific approach to doing good, and not merely seek easy and convenient ways to “feel good” without paying attention to the actual effects of our efforts.

If you’re someone who seeks to do good in the world and would like to get more involved in charities and non-profit organizations, this book has some very valuable insights that you must check out.

It’s very surprising and uplifting how much good we can accomplish with the right tools and perspective. This book has shown me that we can all contribute a lot more than we think.

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