Doing Good Better - Book review and comments

post by MichaelDello · 2015-12-26T01:52:10.869Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW · Legacy · 21 comments


  Review and comments

This is cross-posted from my blog here. Feel free to skip the intro, as it contains a very high level introduction to EA concepts.



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.

Review and comments

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 being vegetarian but not donating?

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). If you were in a position to either donate that $500 to an effective animal advocacy charity and eat meat, or be vegetarian and donate nothing, would it really be acceptable to say that you would let so many more animals die because of your refusal to not eat meat? Now this is just the trolley problem. You’re changing who lives and dies in that situation, 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 just not eating meat, I don’t think that really excuses the meat consumption. We’re not in the world of my above 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 is my thoughts on 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 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.

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.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-12-26T02:55:04.926Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I confess I got stuck at the first sentence itself:

  • "For anyone sleeping under an asteroid lately, a new movement by the name of Effective Altruism is slowly taking the world by storm."

Is this post aimed at a specific section of the world, or for a global readership? I seem to be in a country full of persons living under asteroids :)

As EA is basically data-driven in its approach, I would appreciate if you can give me some link to definitions, numbers or stats that help me understand the scope of "world" and the extent of "slow" and "storm" :)

comment by AGB · 2015-12-26T17:46:56.816Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, that first sentence also seemed off to me. I would just remove it or replace it with 'What is Effective Altruism?'.

comment by MichaelDello · 2015-12-26T04:07:48.776Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Having to quantify figures of speech in an introduction isn't necessarily the best way to get a point across!

comment by [deleted] · 2015-12-26T04:56:00.995Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Perhaps at least specify which countries you are including in the world, or how "slow" and "storm" mesh together?

But even if not in an intro... is there such data?

comment by MichaelDello · 2015-12-26T05:11:46.036Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

There are estimates, but I'm really not sure it's relevant for the post.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-12-26T10:34:56.753Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you. I was not suggesting that your post should include data. I was only trying to find resources I could use to know more about the growth and the spread. Based on your responses and also the fact that you have not mentioned any specific references, I assume the sentence was of the nature of a dramatic entry point expressing an opinion/ impression about EA growth and world-wide spread.

The reason I asked was because I keep hearing such sentences--about EA being global and about its rapid/ exploding growth. But I have not yet been able to get any actual data to substantiate this. Every time I have chased up, it has always been impressions, or quoting others who quote others and so on. The only actual discussion I found on this is this thread on Facebook: which doesn't seem as exciting as a storm. They are, in the words of one commentator, "a steady, moderate growth". In fact, as Tom Ash says at one place: "The numbers you've provided do constitute evidence against claims that EA has undergone explosive growth, though as others have noted they do suggest it's seen steady growth, at least in terms of interest. It would likewise be helpful for someone to provide hard numbers and evidence to justify the common claim that the EA movement is growing fast in both numbers and impact. Anyone up for doing that?"

I was hoping to get some references from you to further peruse the topic. Thanks anyway.

comment by MichaelDello · 2015-12-28T03:51:00.182Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I see your point, but I used the language I did because this was originally posted on my blog, which is primarily about my PhD (space science research). I used a bit of poetic/creative license because it's more engaging than saying something like 'a movement called EA is undergoing a steady, moderate growth'. I'm comfortable saying that because, to me, it doesn't seem inherently misleading, and it's a very common technique in many forms of public writing.

In terms of EA's actual growth, I can only speak in rather vague terms, most of which have already been covered in the post you linked.

comment by Tom_Ash · 2015-12-28T16:40:49.183Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, to excite a popular audience so some small fraction start looking into EA, a bit of poetic license could be appropriate. 'Explosive' is a term you can stretch pretty far. If I were writing an academic paper, I'd say "A movement called EA is undergoing a steady, moderate growth!" But you weren't doing that; you just happened to cross-post here, where there's no perceived need to big up EA, and for good or ill people often apply academic-style standards.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-12-29T02:45:11.456Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I see your points, and appreciate them. That is definitely one way of looking at it: exciting and attracting others. A dramatic sentence provides a good entry into an article around advocacy, and I suspect that most people would take that sentence as a fact, and not examine it. They may be enthused, and peruse more, etc etc.

I take a somewhat different view. My view is that someone slightly more data-driven (the profile you aim at?) may start looking around, and find very little evidence for the statement. Such a person may wonder why use drama, and whether the movement does not have enough factual backing to attract data-driven persons (like I did). Given that so much of EA is about critically examining claims of other movements and of charities to say, look at data, not emotional hooks, this seems more odd. For example, would stretching "explosive" be considered a valid approach if applied by a charity that is ineffective?

Basically, I am not sure whether attracting persons less inclined to examine (and question) dramatic claims is good for EA or bad.

It really depends on who you aim at. Thanks for the very interesting discussion.

NB: Maybe people can be attracted and excited using data presented attractively, and not by stretching terms?

NB-2: The above thought-sharing/ personal observation is related to general writing in EA and in this forum, and not about the specific post or sentence...

comment by MichaelDello · 2015-12-28T22:52:27.551Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Agreed Tom. I did think about modifying the post for this forum but decided against it for consistency. I may do just that next time.

comment by Tom_Ash · 2015-12-29T00:59:13.148Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

To clarify, I wasn't saying that was necessary, or worth the time. :) Your flag that it was a cross-post does the job, perhaps with an explicit mention that this is "aimed at a different audience", etc.

comment by Denis Drescher (Telofy) · 2015-12-26T19:12:33.539Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I asked Will about that exact section about the offsetting and he said it was an argument from a nonconsequentialist position and that it doesn’t go through at all from a utilitarian viewpoint.

I think one important distinction to make is whether causing some harm is instrumental to causing greater good. In the trolley problem I need to kill one person in order to kill another person. In the case of meat eating I do not need to kill animals for consumption in order to donate to THL, so I would have no excuse if I did it.

Note that I in the previous paragraph really refers to me. Meat-eaters have repeatedly made the case that forgoing meat would strain their willpower and reduce their quality of life. I attribute it to typical mind fallacy that this seems odd to me.

Some EAs have written about offsetting recently, Jeff and Scott among them. Well targeted offsetting fundraising could even solve a number of problems for farmed animal activism, and would be expedient at the moment. I’ve argued this here.

comment by MichaelDello · 2015-12-28T05:51:46.757Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks Telofy, that makes sense, but I was referring more to the fact that Will seems to argue that carbon offsetting is good but meat offsetting is completely different and wrong. All I'm saying is that I think they're more or less the same, one is just more damaging than the other.

comment by Tyle_Stelzig · 2016-01-12T17:12:24.696Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

The difference between carbon offsetting and meat offsetting is that carbon offsetting doesn't involve causing harms, while meat offsetting does.

Most people would consider it immoral to murder someone for reasons of personal convenience, even if you make up for it by donating to a 'murder offset', such as, let's say, a police department. MacAskill is saying that 'animal murder' offsetting is like this, because you are causing harm to animals, then attempting to 'make up for it' by helping other animals. Climate offsets are different because the offset prevents the harm from occurring in the first place.

Indeed, murder offsets would be okay from a purely consequentialist perspective. But this is not the trolley problem, for the reason that Telofy explains very well in his second paragraph above. Namely, the harmful act that you are tempted to commit is not required in order to achieve the good outcome.

comment by number42 · 2015-12-26T03:29:34.554Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Great introduction for non-EAs; it's worth mentioning that EAs likely won't learn anything new about it.

comment by MichaelDello · 2015-12-26T04:06:52.815Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Point taken, but I was hoping for some feedback on my take regarding offsetting meat consumption, which as far as I know is not a stance widely taken.

comment by AGB · 2015-12-26T17:51:34.202Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think your stance makes sense if one believes, as you do, that "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 controversial, so I invite you to leave your thoughts or criticism in the comments below."

I'm pretty far away from agreeing with that (mostly with the 'easiest') for reasons that are probably out of the scope of this thread, but just wanted to give that speculation as to why your stance is not one more widely taken.

comment by Linch · 2015-12-30T07:13:25.641Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I disagree with the idea of offsetting in general ( , but think that MacAskill's argument that offsetting is acceptable for climate change but not vegetarianism is especially odd. Suffering is suffering is suffering.

" 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). "

A realistic scenario where this might happen is when food is not purchased by yourself. For example the company I used to work at will have free food at certain times in the day, and they don't always have fully plant-based options. If I decide to value my personal aestheticism over actual suffering, then I will indirectly cause more suffering by choosing to purchase my calories instead of taking advantage of the free options.

comment by Tyle_Stelzig · 2016-01-12T17:00:07.180Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Regarding your first paragraph: most people would consider it unethical to murder someone for reasons of personal convenience, even if you donated to a 'murder offset' organization such as, I don't know, let's say police departments. MacAskill is saying that 'animal murder' offsets are unethical in this same way. Namely, you are committing an immoral act - killing an animal - then saving some other animals to 'make up for it'. Climate offsets are different because the harm is never caused in this case.

Regarding your last paragraph: This is a nice example, but it will fail if your company might modulate the amount of food that it buys in the future based on how much gets eaten. For example, if they consistently have a bunch of leftover chicken, they might try to save some money by purchasing less chicken next time. If this is possible, then there is a reason not to eat the free chicken.

comment by Vidur_Kapur · 2015-12-26T10:07:08.771Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm in agreement with you on the meat consumption issue: morality doesn't begin and end with meat consumption, but it's better to donate lots to effective animal charities and be vegan, as opposed to offsetting one's meat consumption or having fancy vegan meals and being vegan. This seems to be the standard utilitarian stance. That's without taking into account the benefits of being vegan in terms of flow-through effects too, which have been discussed on this forum before. Personally, after having become essentially vegan, my family has had to reduce its meat consumption too, because it's not worth it to buy a lot of animal products anymore when 1/3 of the family is now vegetarian/vegan.

In terms of the overall review, I agree that it's a good introduction for non-EAs. I enjoyed 'Doing Good Better' a lot, and I would highly recommend it too, though I doubt many people on here won't have read it.