Doing Good Is No Place for Emotion – Podcast with Will MacAskill

August 03, 2015

When the next natural disaster strikes, Will MacAskill does not want you to donate to the relief effort. And if a relative dies from a disease, he doesn’t think you should try and raise money for that cause. Rather, he wants you to focus on the "ongoing disasters" that sicken, maim and kill thousands of people every day, mostly in the developing world.

“The impulse to want to do good – if a family member dies, for example – is a perfectly natural and admirable one,” he starts off, “but I have family members that died of cancer and I think – supposing they had died of something else, would that have been any less tragic? Of course not. What I ultimately care about there, what gives me the moral motivation, is that someone died or suffered before their time. Whether it was from one disease or another is neither here nor there....Take that moral motivation but turn it to just reducing suffering or reducing early death in general.”

As the cofounder of the Effective Altruism movement, Will wants people to understand that he is in favor of people doing good, but he just wants us all to do good in the most efficient, effective and rational way possible.

“[Each day] seventy jumbo jets worth full of children [die] as a result of easily preventable diseases, and that’s not covered in the media. But obviously it’s just as big a catastrophe as natural disasters, and if we care about preventing natural disasters and preventing the scale of suffering caused by them, making countries economically better off is a great way to do that.”

I met MacAskill at Google’s campus in Palo Alto, California, the venue for the Effective Altruism Global conference. Silicon Valley seems a natural home for this movement (although there are conferences in other locations around the world), as it does seem to draw a data-driven, entrepreneurial, tech-centric crowd, interested in issues of dangerous Artificial Intelligence (killer robots to you and me) and existential synth-bio risks (really scary bad bugs).

You can listen to a clip of my podcast with Will MacAskill below or hear the whole thing here.

I was at the conference giving a talk about CGD’s view of how to do the best good. My talk was entitled "Why Policy Change? Why Not Stuff?" and I explained why CGD focuses on changing the policies of rich countries and institutions, rather than using our limited resources to, say, dig water wells or build schools. It’s because we believe that by making the rules of the global game fairer, we can help developing countries build stable, prosperous well-governed economies – and that ultimately benefits us all. It’s a perspective that is gaining greater traction among the followers of the EA movement, who in the past have thought of altruism more as being about "stuff" (we are glad more people are seeing it our way!).

CGD’s approach passes muster with the hyper-rational MacAskill too. In a recent article on, he described us as doing "extremely insightful analysis" that’s "certainly a very good use of money." Awww shucks.

An associate professor in philosophy at Oxford University, MacAskill has cofounded two nonprofits: 80,000 Hours which provides research and advice on how to make the most difference through your career, and Giving What We Can, which encourages people to commit to give at least 10% of their income to the most effective charities. His new book "Doing Good Better" explores the ideas of Effective Altruism in depth and comes up with a five-step process for determining if a particular cause is worthy of your time, skills or effort:

  1. How many people benefit, and by how much?
  2. Is this the most effective thing you can do?
  3. Is this area neglected?
  4. What would have happened otherwise?
  5. What are the chances of success and how good would success be?

I found MacAskill’s ideas on Effective Altruism fascinating and worthy of argument. What do you think? I’d love to see your comments on this!


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.