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Host: Rick Kleffel Guest: William MacAskill

But really the big problem is lack of vitamins.


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William MacAskill, 'Doing Good Better'

Interviewed by Rick Kleffel

William MacAskill is a reedy Scot, with a soft voice a soft burr and a razor-sharp mind. He delights in playing the Devil's Advocate, both in person and in his book 'Doing Good Better.' He's a great spokesperson for Effective Altruism, a smart pragmatist who knows how to use numbers and has a sly sense of humor.

For me, and I think for most readers, the real eye-opener of this book and this interview is the sort of charities that do the most good. I'm not giving away the good part when I mention just how darned interesting it is that fighting basic diseases (malaria, intestinal parasites) and malnutrition (lack of vitamins, he says, not calories) proves to be the best way to fight all that follows from them – lack of education, which leads to lack of opportunity, which leads ultimately to lack of equality.

As MacAskill and I spoke, I kept the focus on the math and science that underpin his work, and steered clear of the outer fringes. Effective Altruism is a pragmatist's paradise. It's hard but so very worthwhile to check your emotions at the door when you set out to give to charity, to give back to the world. He takes this idea in a variety of directions, from donations of money and goods (money for medicine is a more effective way to fight bad educational outcomes than new books) to donations of your work and time (you may create more impact by working and making a pile of dough to give to charity than devoting your career to charity.)

MacAskill brings this all together with a delightfully crisp style. You can hear the short version of the interview here.


Reviewed by Rick Kleffel

macaskill-doing_good_betterCompassion created the human race. Our ability to care about others is the basis of society and civilization. But these great creations bring with them their own set of problems, most notably inequality. Many of us are comfortable and secure enough to miss that most are not. And even when it comes into our consciousness that the majority of our kind live in poverty, it's unclear just how we can help. We reach for the first place to do so, organized charities, and hope (or presume) that our gifts help.

While there are means to measure charities, none are quite so powerful as the host of tools offered by William MacAskill in 'Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference.' MacAskill carefully analyzes then uses science and statistics to de-construct our understanding of how giving works. He forces us to look closely at cause and effect. And he manages all of this with a light hand and a subtle sense of humor that makes reading about giving fun.

MacAskill begins the book with a cautionary tale about charity idea that sounds fantastic; the PlayPump, a children's merry-go-round that pumps water in third-world countries. It sounds like a great idea. But MacAskill's crisp analysis suggests that what sounds good might not be so in the everyday world.

From this point the book is broken into two major sections; "The Five Key Questions of Effective Altruism" and "Effective Altruism in Action." Macskill's gift is to make math seem exciting and new by virtue of applying it to the analysis of the effects of charity. He likens charity to battlefield triage, and suggests that we're best supporting the work of those who help the most people in the most measurable manner. He creates the "QALY" (Quality-Adjusted Life Year) to bring some more solid numbers into action. He likes un-sexy charities such as human-de-worming. He's absolutely and delightfully unafraid to demolish what we take for granted with statistics.

As MacAskill points out, we're picky when it comes to spending money – unless we're giving it away to charity. Then we seem to think that no matter what we do it will come to good. 'Doing Good Better' gives readers the tools they need to analyze charitable giving in a reasoned manner. Your favorite charity may not, indeed, probably does not measure up. MacAskill gives readers the double-edged sword of reason. Wield it carefully. You have more power than you know, and with this book, the ability to use it wisely.