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

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:

***

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, finding work that you can excel in, staying fit and healthy. This isn’t just my anecdotal experience either: there’s a ton of evidence from the psychological literature that, above around $30,000 per year, additional income doesn’t do much to increase happiness.

People are often motivated to donate or care about causes that tug at their heartstrings. In this way you could say that we are biased (toward people that look like us as well as to causes we understand). We are also often in a state of outrage and fear and discouragement as a result of the stream of bad news we see and read. How do you suggest people manage to see and understand the world around them clearly and objectively? This helps be more effective with their altruism right?

We’re hugely biased by what’s presented to us in the news: the mass media is an industry that’s optimizing to find ways for you to read their content, not to understand the big picture of what’s going on in the world. So it ends up that we know all about the latest scandal or tragedy, and know very little about the big trends in the world — the ways in which we are ending extreme poverty, or the huge challenges that we’re going to face in the coming century.

My biggest single piece of advice would be: ditch the news, and instead spend that time reading books or listening to podcasts that look at big-picture trends. I’m currently reading The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert J. Gordon. It’s excellent; great for understanding our current levels of economic and technological advancement in historical context. For podcasts, I’d recommend In Our Time, hosted by Melvyn Bragg who discusses history, philosophy and science with leading academics, and the 80,000 Hours podcast hosted by my colleague Robert Wiblin, who interviews experts on the big moral challenges of our time, and what we can do to address them.

You’re a tenured professor of philosophy—one of the youngest ever—you’re a bestselling author, you’ve just got a new massively popular TED Talk. How do you balance your ambitions and interests with the causes you are trying to help? A lot of people have trouble either being too self-promotional or not promotional enough, particularly in the space you’re in. How do you see the balance?

For me, I pretty monomaniacally choose what work I do by what impact I think I’m going to have. (I’m in the extremely privileged situation of being healthy with great relationships and job security, which gives me the space to focus on impact.) It’s been very rewarding to see my ideas take off in the way that they have, but if I thought I could do more good with a career that was more low-key, I’d do that instead.

In terms of promotion, my main aim is to figure out what’s right and present that in as clear and compelling a way as I can. My hope is that better marketers than myself will take these ideas and run with them. Perhaps you are one such person!

You also co-founded a nonprofit called 80,000 Hours—named for the number of hours people typically work in a lifetime and how they can best use that time. The Stoics were big on meditating on our mortality, being very aware of how finite and uncertain our life on this planet it. From your research, how can people make the hours they have, whether it’s 80,000 or more or less?

Firstly I’d say young people should spend real time – and here I mean hundreds of hours – thinking about how they’re going to use the rest of their lives, and treat that as a serious research project. Even this amount of time would still only be around 1% of your life, and most people spend much less than this. The second thing to do is reflect deeply on your values, and figure out what you think the most important, tractable and/or neglected problem in the world is: is it alleviating suffering, rectifying injustice, building a stable civilization into the future? The third thing is to figure out what the world needs in order to solve that problem. Then, finally, you should figure out how you can develop the skills, and become the sort of person, that can provide one of those solutions.

The theme threading everything you’re involved with is doing good. You’re using years of research and data to understand how we can delegate our resources most efficiently. What’s been the most surprising finding in all your research?

The eradication of smallpox in 1980 has saved more lives than if we’d achieved world peace since then.

Is there a school of philosophy you most gravitate towards? What about Stoicism? Have you spent much time studying the Stoics? Do you see any overlap in the Stoics and the work you do?

In terms of moral philosophy, I’m most sympathetic to utilitarianism: the idea that the rightness of an action is determined by the extent to which that action promotes the wellbeing of all sentient creatures.

I confess to not knowing the Stoics as well as I should. I think that Stoicism and effective altruism are pretty different projects, and non-competing. I think there’s important insight in the Stoic ideas that we need to accept what is and isn’t within our control, that we should pursue a life of virtue, and (more radically) that only the virtuous are truly free. I think the four cardinal Stoic virtues of Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and Temperance are a pretty good guide to life, though I’d want to add Beneficence to that list.

Any book recommendations? After your own, what’s one book you give people who want to do good? What are your top three favorite books?

For people who want to do good, I’d have to recommend 80,000 Hours by Benjamin Todd, my co-founder of 80,000 Hours.

My favourite books are:

Practical Ethics by Peter Singer.  The single most influential book on my life – set me on the course I am today.

Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom. I don’t agree with all of this book, but I do think that artificial intelligence is probably going to be the most important technology of the next century, and it’s of monumental moral importance to ensure it’s used wisely.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I was sympathetic to existentialism for many years, and I still find the core questions contained within that book powerful and unsettling.