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How To Do The Most Good: An Interview With Will MacAskill

Interviews

Of all the problems facing humanity, which should we focus on solving first? How can we do the most good for the world? How can we make the best use of our time here, for others, but for ourselves too? Those are some of the questions that drives everything WIll MacAskill does.

Will is the Associate Professor in Philosophy and a Research Fellow at the Global Priorities Institute, University of Oxford. He helped create the effective altruism movement and is the co-founder and the President of the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA). He also co-founded 80,000 Hours, a non-profit that provides research and advice on how you can best make a difference through your career. He is the author of Doing Good Better – Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference. And his recent TED Talk is approaching a million views.

Will’s knowledge on philosophy and his insights into the question we are all searching for an answer to – how to live a good life – comes from a deep curiosity and years of study. We are all fortunate to have Will share some of that with us:

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Effective Altruism basically holds two premises as we understand it. One, that we have an obligation to help other people in the world, particularly people we don’t even know. Two, that we should try to be as effective and efficient in doing so as possible—doing good better as you put it in your book—so we can help as many people as possible. Would you say that’s a good encapsulation?

Yes that’s a good summary. But not everyone in the Effective Altruism community think of what they’re doing as an obligation. Many don’t think they have any obligations to strangers, they just think of doing good as an incredible opportunity, and that using their resources to have a big positive impact is a full and exciting way to live life.

One of the things you’ve done in the pursuit of effective altruism is try to live conservatively and cheaply so you can give as much of your earnings away as possible. What has living that way taught you? The Stoics would probably say that it is beneficial in and of itself, even aside from the good you’re able to do with the savings.

I’m sympathetic to that Stoic idea. “Mo money mo problems” has some truth to it: the more things you possess, the more things there are to worry about, or feel sad about if they’re damaged or lost. And they take attention away from the things that really are important to making your life go well—your relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners, fin