Altruism Doing good things 25 July 2022 • 15 mins reading time

I’ve recently been reading Will MacAskill’s book “Doing Good Better”. This book is about Effective Altruism (EA), which is a crossover between Philosophy, Science and Economics that focuses on finding the best ways we can do good. While I have been interested in the EA community for some time now, this book really opened my eyes and inspired me to do more.


Contents


Things I’ve learnt so far about EA

In the past few months I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of Effective Altruism. I’m so pleased I found this community because it is asking (and answering in some cases) the exact questions I have been thinking about.

I’m interested in highlighting some of the key things that I’ve learnt from the EA community is the past few months, as I imagine that these are things that others may also not have known until now.

General

Worldwide income

What percentage of the global population do you think earn more money than you?

Perhaps 20%? What about 30%?

In fact, if you’re earning at least $52,000 (£42,300) then you are earning more than 99% of the world - you are the 1%!

For comparison, this puts the top 30% of UK earners in the global top 1%, and about 40% of US earners within that same bracket.

This is extraordinary and is not what most people would expect. I think it also goes to show just how much progress is needed still globally to raise the tide across the board.

What does it mean to live on a dollar a day?

One of the most shocking revelations to me was understanding what hearing that someone in a given country is living on the equivalent of $1 a day.

I, like I’m sure most people, assumed that this means $1 in their local currency which will go further than $1 in the US.

This is false! It means that that person is living on the equivalent of someone in the US living on a dollar a day (defined in 2014).

Can you imagine living on a $1 or £1 a day?

Worldwide poverty

Around 700 million people around the world live in poverty (defined as those living on less than $1.90 a day).

700 million.

That’s more than 10 times the population of the UK, and is over twice the population of America.

In fact, there are nearly more people globally in poverty than there are people in Europe.

However, Poverty is more than just based on income, there are many dimensions to consider beyond financial means, for example a lack of opportunities, basic rights, security, sanitation etc.

We’ve made great progress in the past decades on tackling global poverty but there is still so much more progress to be made. Imagine the potential that could be unlocked by lifting the poorest in our societies up?

Perhaps what I find most upsetting is that poverty is probably one of the easiest global problems to tackle. Time and time again, highly researched interventions like cash transfers, access to clean water, malaria nets, and education have been shown to raise people out of poverty. And yet, it feels like we could be eliminating poverty at a much quicker rate than we are.

Just pause for a moment to recognise how incredibly fortunate we are to have been born into the lives we have.

Cost-utility of interventions

The “Doing Good Better” book introduced me to the concept of a “QALY” - Quality-Adjusted Life Year. Wikipedia defines this as “a generic measure of disease burden, including both the quality and quantity of life lived”. Therefore, we can have an impact by extending a life and/or improving the quality of a life.

The quality aspect to use in this definition is determined by the current, projected or desired health status of the individuals. Quality of life under different conditions is determined through subjective questioning during studies or clinical trials. Here’s some examples:

Condition Self-reported quality of life
Perfect health 100%
Stroke 75%
AIDS 50%
Blindness 40%
Depression 30%

While not perfect, QALYs give us the ability to compare interventions to decide which will have the best impact.

Intervention impact on QALY

By Jmarchn - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67001576

Consider the following contrived example (with average life expectancy of 80):

Option Cost of intervention
Cure a 40 year old of blindness $100,000
Cure a 30 year old of AIDS $80,000

Now let’s work out the QALY-impact of each option:

Condition Remaining QALY without intervention Remaining QALY with intervention
Blindness 16 (40 years * 40%) 40 (40 years * 100%)
AIDS 25 (50 years * 50%) 50 (50 years * 100%)

And now work out the cost-utility of each option:

Condition QALYs saved through intervenntion Cost per QALY saved
Blindness 24 (40 - 16) $4,167 ($100,000 / 24)
AIDS 25 (50 - 25) $3,200 ($80,000 / 25)

Therefore in this contrived example, AIDS would be the better intervention.

Saving a life

How much does it cost to save a life in the developing world?

According to research, it’s around $3,400. Yes, just $3,400. Which works out to roughly $100 for one QALY (a life is considered to be around 36.5 QALYs).

This is incredible. To put this into context, for the amount of money someone can easily spend on a night out, we can provide one year of perfect health to someone in a developing country. One year!

Alternatively, if the average graduate were to donate 10% of their first job’s salary, they could effectively save a whole life.

Career

How we spend our careers matter

This seems a little embarrassing to admit, but a year ago I didn’t realise quite how important our careers were on our ability to do good. I assumed that the main thing I could do was to donate to local charities.

Here’s just some of the many ways one can do good with their career:

  • Working for a company doing good - One of the most obvious options, e.g. working for a company with a mission that you align with.
  • Earn to give - Pursuing a high-income career with the intention of donating a significant portion to charity.
  • Research - Researching and publishing papers/reports that can help steer public and private efforts and policy in the right direction.
  • Entrepreneurship - The huge potential upside of starting a start up allows you to donate a lot of money.
  • Politics - Working at some level in politics is a great way to have a high impact over things like public policy.

Being aware of these alternatives has opened up a world of possibilities for me in terms of how I think about the good I can do. For example, I recognise now that focusing on a high-earning career is okay if that’s what I’m good at provided I donate a significant portion of it.

Marginal improvement, or how you can do more good than a doctor

When we think of one of the most impactful jobs one can do, most people immediately think of a doctor. Doctors in America on average will save around 70 lives during their career, although experts scale this down to around 25 or 30 once you take into account nurses and other hospital staff.

And yes, while on average doctors are very impactful, it’s not quite so true to say that each additional doctor in the workforce will be as impactful as the average. In fact, as you continue adding doctors to the workforce, the marginal value of each subsequent doctor gets lower and lower (because all the most impactful interventions are already happening).

For a student choosing to become a doctor now, the expected impact they will have is closer to 160 QALYs (i.e. about 4 lives saved).

In an earlier section, I mentioned that saving a life costs around $3,400 in developing countries. Extrapolating this it’s not too bold to suggest that donating $14,000 to certain charities in the developing world would effectively be equivalent to the impact that a new doctor would have over their whole career. It’s worth being clear that this assumption only considers the QALY impact, as opposed to the qualitative benefits doctors provide (e.g. reassurance).

This isn’t to knock doctors - I have a lot of friends who are doctors and they all want to do good - but rather, it highlights how little we are educated on such questions and perspectives as we grow up. I can’t believe it’s taken me until now to realise how different reality is from our expectations of how much good we can truly do.

Are you adding more benefit that someone else would?

“Is it wrong/selfish to do a job if there’s someone who’s better placed?”

This is a question I thought about after reading a section of the “Doing Good Better” book and it really exemplified what EA is all about. If there’s a job vacancy and you are not best placed to do the job but apply anyway, is it wrong then if you get the job over someone who could have a greater impact in that role than you?

This is a really tricky question and I’m not sure yet on which side of the fence I am. My head says that I agree, but my heart says that people should still apply even if they aren’t the best possible candidate in the world. If it moves that person into a job that does more good than their previous job then surely that is a good thing. Perhaps in light of new arguments on information I will change my position.

The problem space

There’s a lot of problems to tackle

It can feel a little overwhelming once you realise just how much room for improvement there is across so many global issues, for example:

  • Global poverty
  • Climate change
  • Governance of Artificial Intelligence
  • Nuclear non-proliferation
  • Bioengineering
  • Pandemics
  • etc.

A lot of these problems are things that a lot of people forget exist, or that they expect people are working on. In reality, there are people working on all of these problems already. However, some of these problems are significantly underfunded compared to others, e.g. there’s a lot of people thinking about climate change, but less focused on that existential climate risk we could face if our current predictions are too far too conservative.

Like anything, the first step here is awareness. The more the average person is aware of the extent and scope of the global issues, hopefully the more funding and resources will be directed to each of them.

Frameworks for thinking about problems

With all the problems out there, how do we work out which to focus on? Thankfully, this is something a lot of smart people have spent a lot of time thinking about.

In both his book “Doing Good Better” and his Ted talk (below), Will describes a simple framework for how we can decide the most pressing problems.

There’s three key questions here:

Question Explanation
How big is the problem? It’s better to solve problems that will have a bigger impact. For example, curing all disease is preferable to only curing one disease.
How solvable is the problem? We’re better focusing on issues we’re more likely to solve, or that require less resources.
How neglected is the problem? Marginal utility suggests that focusing on neglected problems will have a bigger impact.

Charities

Some charities are far more impactful than others

We may believe we are doing good by donating to charity, but it’s important to recognise that not every charity is equal. The global wealth distribution means that it is cheaper to address some problems over others.

For example, is it cheaper to improve the lives of people in extreme poverty, or those in richer countries? Naturally, it’s the former as interventions that can improve (and even save) the lives of those in extreme poverty are relatively cheap compared to the necessary interventions in wealthier countries.

Eliminating subjectivity is hard, but important

It’s tempting to donate to causes we are passionate about or that have affected us first-hand as we are naturally drawn to these. However we need to ask ourselves “If I had seen these other issues first hand, would I donate differently?”. If the answer to that question is “Yes”, then we’re simply letting our attachment to certain causes guide our decision making, which means that we’re not doing the most good with the money.

I definitely don’t feel quite as much attachment with my current donation to the Against Malaria Foundation as I did when I was donating to Shelter and Mind in the UK, however I realise that my money is going so much further now.

Frameworks for assessing effectiveness of a charity

Like any business investment, you wouldn’t invest money without at least doing a little bit of research and analysis to understand if it’s a good opportunity. Why should it be any different for a charity?

In “Doing Good Better”, Will shares a really useful framework for thinking about deciding which charities are having the best impact.

Question Explanation
What does this charity do? We need to understand the problem that the charity is trying to solve. If it’s trying to solve too many things, why?
How cost effective is it? The more money used for the actual programmes the better.
How robust is the evidence? Lots of charities may implement programmes with little to no evidence to back up its claims. Other charities may have well studied programmes that may make it a safer bet, e.g. cash donations to poor communities.
How well is the programme implemented? It’s important that the charity is transparent and can acknowledge its mistakes to learn from them.
Does the charity need additional funds? It’s important to understand what they need the money for and why that money hasn’t been raised yet.

Thankfully organisations like GiveWell are focused on doing a lot of this research and they publish their guidance on the most impactful causes you can donate to.

Currently, the Against Malaria Foundation is their top recommendation. See here for GiveWell’s full report.


My journey towards doing good

In the last year or two I’ve become passionate about finding ways in which I can help do my bit in making the world a better place. I’m not sure exactly where this push came from, but I’d say my awareness towards global issues probably began around the time I was transitioning to being vegetarian.

Turning vegetarian

I’ve been vegetarian over 18 months now and looking back I’m sad that it took me so long before becoming vegetarian. For the year leading up to my transition, I knew eating meat was bad but like most people I tried to bury this feeling rather than face the difficult decision of having to take action. After a year, this feeling became too much to continue to ignore and I decided to go vegetarian.

When I transitioned to being vegetarian, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

Ironically it’s only in recent months that I’ve learnt the full extent of the atrocities involved in the meat industry and the conditions that animals are kept in. I can see why vegans are stereotyped as being so vocal - it’s because it’s utterly reprehensible!

In the last week or so, I’ve decided I will go further and be vegan as I can’t continue to justify eating dairy products after having understood the impact it has on animals and the climate.

Donating to charity

Initially I was naïve about the best ways to give money and started with some classic things people think of as a good. For example, I set up regular donations to local charities such as Shelter and Mind as these are issues I was passionate about. Although, over time, I began to ask myself some questions which in retrospect highlight how far I’ve come:

  • What does this charity actually do with my donation?
  • Are there charities that have a bigger impact?
  • Should I be focusing my efforts on domestic or global issues?

At one point I had so many ideas and questions floating around my head that I decided to try and answer some of them and ended writing a blog post.

Ultimately, it was during this period of questioning that I stumbled across the EA community and realised that other people were already thinking about these questions.

As of today I donate monthly solely to the Against Malaria Foundation based on GiveWell’s recommendation and wealth of data to back up this intervention. I’m grateful that my employer currently matches my donations.

Mentoring and volunteering

A big part of me has always enjoyed mentoring as work since it’s an opportunity to help people grow. Over the past year at work I’ve been expanding this mentoring out of my direct team at work and have been providing coaching to people more widely to

I’m currently involved in an outreach program through work where I’m mentoring a Palestinian college student and helping them navigate their journey from college student to the tech industry. While it’s only a few hours commitment a fortnight, it’s by far the most gratifying work I do.

My experience with this volunteering has pushed me to search for more opportunities that are a good fit. Indeed, I recently signed up to volunteer for Shout and I can’t wait to get started helping people.


Conclusion

I’m so glad I have discovered Effective Altruism and all of the incredible resources available. There’s an overwhelming amount of problems and questions, but that’s a reason to dig in and get involved rather than turn a blind eye.

I’m going to continue to learn and look for ways I can get involved further and do more good in the world.

There’s so much good we can all do. Ultimately we need to ask ourselves, “If not me, then who? If not now, when?”

Resources