Altruism is often harmful – effective altruism evangelist
In times of uncertainty, empathy is our moral compass and altruism is our way through. But how to make sure that our good intentions do not pave the road to hell? We ask effective altruism evangelist and professor of philosophy at Oxford University, William MacAskill.
Sophie Shevardnadze: William MacAskill, Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University and the co-founder of the Centre for Effective Altruism. It's really great to have you with us today. Welcome to our show, William.
William MacAskill: It's great to be here. Thank you for inviting me on.
SS: All right, so the movement you're associated with is called ‘effective altruism’. I mean, the very notion of effective altruism makes me wonder, can altruism be ineffective or even harmful? And in what cases?
WM: Yeah, so I think sadly, altruism very often is ineffective, or even harmful. So there are many attempts where people try and do some amount of good, but actually end up achieving very little, or just achieving far less than they could have done. So for example, a program in the United States called ‘Scared Straight’ takes juvenile delinquents and shows them around prisons in order to scare them out of a life of crime. But this has been studied many times over. And actually, it turns out that this program increases the rates of criminal activity among those teenagers in the years following the program. So this is actually an example of an activity that's actively harmful, not just ineffective. But most of the time, things do some amount of good, it's just that the very best things we can focus our time and money on do enormous amount to improve the world.
SS: Let's talk about the inefficient ways to quench my desire to do something altruistic. Like I read an example in one of your interviews, a charity that, for instance, sends books to Africa, for kids to learn with, but there are no teachers there. So the books aren't really making much difference, so your money is sort of wasted. Give me other causes that aren't effective enough to be donating to? If I spend money on, for instance, Alzheimer's research, is it money well spent? Is it effective?
WM: Something like funding Alzheimer’s research or funding treatment for illnesses that affect some of the richest countries in the world - you know, these are good things to do, they're making the world better. But the question is, are they the most effective things you can be doing? And I think generally not. And the reason being that illnesses that affect people in rich countries, well, there's already an enormous amount of money and resources going towards those causes. So that includes, you know, many important issues like Alzheimer’s, cancer, and so on. But when we look at the poorest people in the world, you know, those living on less than a couple of dollars per day, well, they don't have the very, very most basic life-saving medical treatments. So a long-lasting insecticide-treated bednet costs just $4 and it can protect two children for two years, and statistically speaking, you'll save a life there for just a few thousand dollars, that's incredibly cheap. Whereas if you're trying to save a life in a rich country, then via, you know, some of these other causes, you're gonna be spending more like millions of dollars to save a life.
SS: Altruism is traditionally defined as unselfish behaviour for the benefit of the others. But it's no secret that doing good for others actually makes you feel good, right? And it gives you the sense of fulfilment, self-respect that you often look for. Do you agree that altruism has an element of egoism to it? I mean, egoism in this case, the desire to just feel very good about oneself, the reason for as being altruistic?
WM: Well, I think that we should divorce the idea of altruism from unselfish behaviour. If I can help lots of people and then also get a benefit from it myself that's a bonus, that's another good thing. That's not a reason against doing that thing. And in fact, I and others in the effective altruism community, we often make quite significant decisions like to donate 10% of our incomes or more and we often feel good about this, you know, it's a rewarding way to live a life. And that's something that we should feel good about, I think, because if you feel good about acting altruistically, well, that's great. That's going to motivate you to do even more over the long term.
SS: About a third of all donations in the United States, for instance, goes to religious organisations, and I found that very interesting. How effective is a church as a charitable organisation? Is giving to a church, in your opinion, an effective donation?
WM: Well, I think many people give to the church, not on the grounds of pure effectiveness, they're doing it for some other reason, perhaps, that's, you know, a mark of loyalty to the community they’re part of. If you want to look at these organisations in terms of their effectiveness, I think often you can just do a lot better. So this kind of large church-based organisations, even when they're focused on the right cause areas like improving the lives of the poorest people in the world, it's often very hard to know exactly what the money is being used for, what change they're making that wouldn't have otherwise happened, whereas we have some organisations like the Against Malaria Foundation that provides bednets, that we know saves lives for thousands of dollars. And given that there are these organisations, well, we should target our money towards them, rather than taking this much more kind of broad shotgun approach that church-based organisations typically take.
SS: Given a charity is so very widespread and part of the culture in the United States, but much less if I say in Europe, for instance, or I don't know, in China, why is that? Why do you think - are Americans more soft than other nations? Where is this coming from?
WM: I think there's a couple of reasons. So one is just the effect of Christianity. So the United States among rich countries, has a much larger adherence to the Christian faith, certainly than European cultures. And then the second, I think, is the history and culture of tackling social problems being a matter of individual action, rather than state action. So in Europe, there's a larger role for the state, or at least that's how it's perceived. And so people naturally think, ‘Well, the right way of helping those who are poor is via taxes’, whereas in the US, it's more likely to be via philanthropy. And then kind of, as you said, just church-based donations are an enormous part of similarly giving back to one's alma mater, the university you graduated from. And that accounts for a large proportion of it too.
SS: Like I told you before the interview, I'm also on a board of trustees for a hospice charity fund. Can I consider myself an effective altruist? I wonder what you think of that?
WM: I think the question you should ask yourself is “How did I come to engage in this sort of activity? Was it that I really just stood back and thought, what are all the problems that the world faces, what are those that are the biggest in scale, yet the most neglected, yet that I think I can make... have little traction on, and then chose, you know, that organisation on the basis of thinking, ‘yes, this is where I really think I can make the biggest difference’? Or alternatively, was is just an opportunity that kind of arose?” And I think it is the case that, in general, if you're trying to aim to benefit the poorest people, well, the very poorest people in the world are those in the poorest countries, rather than in, you know, middle-income or richer countries. And so that's where I tend to think that the most effective organisations lie, if we're trying to benefit people alive today.
SS: In one of your books, you propose this really interesting ethical test. When you have a burning house in front of you with two rooms, in one room, there's a child, and in another one, there's a Picasso. And of course, if the choice was up to me, I would save the child because I think that any human life is priceless. But if we look in the standpoint of effective altruism, you'd say it's better to save the Picasso because then you can sell the Picasso and save millions more lives around you. Is effective altruism more about calculus, rather than emotional intentions?
WM: I think effective altruism is about both emotions and calculating. So your emotional impulse that you get when you see, say, a child suffering, that's extremely important and that, you know, motivates you to do good, but we need to use reason in order to guide our motivations. We need to use a kind of more logical part of our brains. And so in this thought experiment that Giles Fraser directed towards me, - It was a thought experiment, it's a philosophical idea, not necessarily something that plays into the real world but the thought was, well, if you can save someone who's right there in front of you, or via this more indirect means, save a painting that you can then save, you know, thousands of other lives. Well, my response is that the way we should think about that is that just as a child in this thought experiment, right there in front of you in this burning building, who you can save, well, there are also just thousands of children around the world, in fact, millions of children around the world that you could potentially save. It's like we’re in this situation of facing a burning building just all the time, and that's why our ability to use our money in the right ways is so important, and that leads to the conclusion of this thought experiment.
SS: But where does the calculus actually stop? Because when I compare the bang of my buck, and I keep analysing things through the prism of effective altruism, you know, I could come up to a conclusion, the one I heard from many politicians in Africa, that actually aid in general is really a bad thing in the long term because it's free stuff, free stuff kills industries, and actually it creates dependencies. So for efficiency sake, I shouldn't be contributing to any charities, let's say that send stuff to Africa, or should I?
WM: The issue of aid in the cases where aid can be actively harmful I think is really important, we need to think about it. And it's true that many government-to-government aid programs in the past have, you know, sometimes done damage, helping to prop up, in fact, cover up dictatorships and so on. But there's two caveats to that, I think. The first is if we look at global health spending, this has just been enormously beneficial. The eradication of smallpox has saved something like 60 million lives. If we look at malaria, tuberculosis, diarrheal diseases, these are all drastically down and global health spending has been a big part of that. I don't know of any serious academic who disputes that. And then the second is looking at aid money that's going to non-governmental organisations, rather than government-to-government organisations. So the literature that's critical of aid spending, that's normally focused on government-to-government spending, rather than via nonprofits. And so I think, even if you are relatively sceptical of the value of aid in general, that doesn't mean that these very best nonprofits that you can be funding aren't doing an enormous amount of good. And in fact, we have positive evidence for thinking that they are doing just a huge amount to improve the lives of the poorest people in the world.
SS: Well, have another one. Let's say, I give money to charity, and it saves children’s lives in a poor country, but I have no control over what the children are going to do with their lives. Like my donation did not address ethnic hatred or unemployment, it only saved lives. And the kids who are saved, they grew up in the same sort of messy environment that their parents did, become angry at their neighbours, go fighting in a war, etc. How's the world a better place thanks to my donation in this hypothetical scenario?
WM: Yeah, so I think there's two ways in which the world's better as a result. So one is just that, I think, even among the poorest people in the world, and even though, you know, by saving lives, you're not addressing all the problems at once, I mean, such a thing is impossible, these people still have good lives on balance. They're happy that they exist. And the world is better for their contribution to it. And so one thing is you're just directly benefiting them, you're also benefiting their family who don't have to mourn the loss of a child dying young. But then secondly, I think you're also contributing to the long-run prosperity of that country. So these issues like ethnic fragmentation, and unemployment and other issues, they tend to go away as the country gets richer and more developed. And you're, you know, making just a little difference, a little difference to a big country, that’s a big project. And so you're helping to get these countries to a higher living standard early on and along with that these other problems dissipate much more.
SS: Just recently, I spoke to the philosopher, I'm sure you know him, - Slavoj Zizek, and he actually tells me that charity work while easing some lives somewhat basically perpetuates the system that makes these lives miserable in the first place. So as if we're guided by the principle of effectiveness in the end it seems much more effective for me to join, let's say, a political organisation that would tackle inequality or other faults of the system instead of giving to charities that will only fix the symptoms but not the illness. Do you know what I mean?
WM: Yeah, I completely understand. So I think the crucial thing here is to say that you just can direct charitable money towards fixing the root problems rather than just the symptoms. So this has a long history. Even Karl Marx, when writing Das Kapital, he was funded by Friedrich Engels acting as a philanthropist, Marx wouldn't have been able to do the work he did, whether or not for that philanthropic contribution. And so similarly, if you're looking at some of the big problems in the world, well, activists, you know, obviously they need people to help. But they also need money for the running costs to organise, to provide pamphlets and so on. And so if you're more worried by the systemic issues facing the world, and including the extreme poor, you can fund organisations like the Center for Global Development that's helping to get fairer trade deals for the world’s poorest countries, or many other organisations that are tackling the poorest’s problems in the world. So I think it's important not to generalise across all of philanthropy, it's a very big tent.
SS: Well, the effective altruism line of reasoning calls upon us to treat a charitable donation as an investment and to put the money where the most return on investment will occur. But with some causes, I mean, it's tricky to calculate the return. I mean, if I donate to my local symphony, it’s not as effective as donating to a slick and tight anti-poverty NGO, but then again, maybe having a symphony around is just as good as helping a third world country kid somewhere so far away. How do we measure the level of goodness?
WM: I think there are many areas which are just very hard to get meaningful quantitative comparisons on. And we have a general framework for looking at causes where it's harder to get precise numbers, which we call the ‘importance, neglectedness, tractability framework’ where you look at a problem, you look at how big this problem is; what's the importance of it; how neglected is it; how much money is already flowing towards this and how tractable is it, how much progress can we be making. And all things being up, all things being equal, you want to look at the biggest problems that yet are being very neglected. So I think that's true for global health and development. I think it's true for animal welfare. I think it's true for issues that might imperil civilisation, such as existential risks. But then the other thing that you can do is also just create what we might call a back-of-the-envelope calculation. So just actually start looking at - ‘Okay, if I fund the symphony, how much money - if I give them, let's say, $10,000, what will actually happen as a result and how plausible is it that this could be comparable to saving several children's lives?’ I think if you did this calculation, you would probably find that maybe you can help a few more people go and see a symphony but it's going to be hard to make the claim that that is as important in terms of its contribution to human well-being and flourishing as say, having lives saved.
SS: You know, when we're talking about doing good and using charitable donations as an example, and when we talk about effective altruism and you explain it everywhere, what you really mean by altruism is basically giving money, right? But is doing good - Is altruism really just about the money? I mean, sometimes it seems that you're pigeonholing the right notion of altruism into the choice of charity to donate to. Is that really all there is to it?
WM: Yeah, it's a great question and I think this is an important misunderstanding of effective altruism. So way back in 2011, I actually co-founded an organisation called ‘80,000 Hours’, which is basically the hours you work over the course of your life, and it advises people on what careers they can pursue if they want to have the biggest difference, so how can you use your time to do good rather than just your money. And in fact, most people in the effective altruism community are choosing to do good primarily via the time by working in research or policy or for nonprofits, rather than by merely giving money. So often with these issues it’s, you know, somewhat easier to think about them in terms of charity or philanthropy, and that's certainly where we've had a huge amount of success as a movement. But I just absolutely agree that what you can do with your money is only a small part of the question of how to do the most good in general.
SS: I just came out with a book, it's called ‘The Future Is Now’ and together with my guests, in this book, we actually discuss this new post-COVID reality and we all come to a conclusion that in order to navigate these times of uncertainty, you need certain qualities like adaptability and emotional intelligence and empathy. And I was wondering, what do you think - Do you expect people to actually become more empathic, and therefore maybe more altruistic now that we're all in this deep mess together?
WM: I think it is the case that when there is a global crisis, people do tend to band together, you get greater kind of community bonding. And that's something that's, you know, really good, really positive. And in this particular case, I hope that we’ll learn the right lessons where we appreciate just how bad this has been, how we want this to never happen again and that it could be even worse. And I think we should be worried about, in the coming decades, the possibility of even worse pandemics again, including when we look to technology like the ability to create new pathogens, not just natural pandemics, but manmade pandemics as well. This is something that should be off the table as an option for humanity and I hope we can respond in that way. And I think you're right that, you know, greater levels of empathy that this pandemic has caused can maybe help us ensure that we take the right actions.
SS: I’m thinking that if you take the COVID situation, for instance, as an example, is wearing a mask and social distancing actually more effective than donating a ventilator to a hospital? Because there's only so much you can buy, like one, two, okay, if you really, really rich - a hundred. But if you wear a mask, you're really saving far more people from getting infected than if you were to buy ventilators for the hospital. So what's more effective here in terms of altruism?
WM: Yeah, it's a good question. I think the crucial thing is you can do both. So wearing a mask and social distancing is just something one can do in addition to any donations that you choose to make. But then secondly, again, when we're thinking about importance, neglectedness and tractability COVID-19 is an enormous issue, it has killed over a million people and will kill probably millions more but it's extremely non-neglected at the moment. It's the most well-known issue in the world at the moment, and enormous amounts of funding, tens of billions of dollars are going towards it. And so it seems relatively unlikely that unless you're very well-informed, and unless you have, you know, an unusually good opportunity in front of you, it's unlikely that an individual philanthropist, in my view, could do an enormous amount to improve the situation now. The thing that would be more neglected, more promising is funding something like Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security based in the US, which would be helping to design policies such that we learn the right lessons and in the future, don't allow such terrible pandemics to occur.
SS: Presently, we're faced with so many challenges at once. So we have the climate change, decline in biodiversity, growing inequality, extremism, and these are just the most obvious ones, but there are so many more. And you say getting priorities right is of utter importance. So which problem in your opinion should be the centre of focus right now?
WM: So the general way I’m thinking about the top priorities, in my view, is that we should look for what are those issues that most impact the very long run? Well, that's thinking about centuries or thousands of years hence. And that's because future generations matter just in the same way the present generation matters. And the future is just so long, so big. So if there's anything we can do that affects the very long run, that's of enormous importance. And then there are two issues that I think really stand out there. One is the risk of even worse pandemics, the sort of pandemic that could really imperil civilisation, in particular, it might come from the development of manmade pathogens, perhaps as a result of war. And then the second is developments in artificial intelligence, where artificial intelligence is advancing very rapidly and, I think, could bring about a point where a single group or entity is able to get much greater power over others and kind of lock-in their values or ideology. And that can be very bad for the very long run.
SS: Well, that's like a whole new big topic that I would like to discuss with you separately in a separate program. But on that interesting thought I want to wrap up our talk. It's been great speaking to you, thanks for sharing your thoughts.
WM: Yeah, thanks, super enjoyable. Thank you.
SS: Thank you so much, and I hope we’ll speak soon.
WM: Great, thank you.