An Interview with William MacAskill, Founding Member of Effective Altruism
William MacAskill is a co-founder and president of the Centre for Effective Altruism and the youngest ever appointed associate professor in philosophy at Oxford University. He is one of the founding members of Effective Altruism, a social movement that promotes the use of evidence and reason to help others by as much as possible with our time and money and has, through its affiliated organization Giving What We Can, secured over $1.5 billion in pledged donations to highly effective charities. MacAskill’s research at Oxford focuses on the fundamentals of Effective Altruism. He is currently writing a book on moral uncertainty, which he intends to release next year.
The Politic: You are the youngest associate professor of philosophy in the world, yet you are probably more famous for your work on the Effective Altruism movement. Although the movement has been growing a lot recently, there are still many people who do not know what it is about. Could you give us your version?
William MacAskill: Yeah, so Effective Altruism is about using your time and money as well as possible in order to try and make the world better by as much as possible, and using evidence and reason to try to figure out, of all the many ways of using your time and money to do good, what are those ways that do the very most good? And then finally, Effective Altruism is about actually acting on that and putting these good ideas into practice.
You are sort of the founder of this movement, or at least the philosophical underpinning of it. How did you come about to formulating these ideas?
It started with that I was extremely concerned by the problem of extreme poverty, and I was very convinced by the arguments of Peter Singer. He argues that our refraining from giving, you know, a few thousand dollars to a charity that could save the life of someone in a poor country is morally no different than simply walking past a child that is drowning in a shallow pond. Either way you’re refraining from doing an action that you know will save a child’s life. And I found that argument incredibly compelling and it really weighed on me.
I had several years as an undergraduate at Cambridge of being really morally conflicted. At Oxford I started to appreciate that I really had to start living my life in accordance more with my own values. I started giving a small amount of my graduate stipend, maybe four or five percent at the time, and I started really thinking about how I could use my career in order to do more good, even though I was aiming to be a philosopher and I wasn’t sure if I would have an impact there. And it was after I met Toby Ord, another philosopher, in early 2009 that I made a commitment to donate everything I earn over the course of my lifetime above 25,000 pounds after tax- well, what’s now 25,000 pounds, inflation adjusted by 2009 money. And that meant that over the course of my lifetime, I would be donating well over a million pounds, at least most of my life’s wealth.
And then once you are donating that amount, the question of how can you actually make the most of it becomes more obvious. So, along with Toby, I co-founded Giving What We Can, where we are encouraging people to pledge to give at least ten percent of their income. And we started doing research into charity cost-effectiveness where we were looking at the latest economics research in order to work out what are those charities that are having the biggest possible impact. It was in the course of publicising that that we realised that the question of where you try and donate is a bigger and more important question than how much you donate, because the difference in impact you can have is a difference of hundreds of times- rather than, you know, maybe ten times more you can donate.
What are some of the different issues or causes that you are concerned are not receiving enough attention, or what are some of the areas in which the size of the impact that’s possible is being neglected?
One would be factory farming, where especially, via recent campaigning such as corporate cage-free campaigns, you can have absolutely transformative impact on the conditions of animals living in factory farms. Where even just a dollar saves two hundred chickens from being kept in cages. And then the second, and in my view, an ever bigger one, is reduction of existential risks.
Almost all value we will ever achieve as a civilization lies in the future. It’s plausible that human civilization will continue for many thousands or even millions of years into the future, and all great works of art, all great scientific achievements, vast peaks of human flourishing may all lie in the future. Yet we have kind of entered a stage, firstly as a result of nuclear armament and climate change, but now increasingly as a result of new technologies like synthetic biology, artificial-born intelligence and perhaps geo-engineering, that we have the ability to really cause civilizational collapse or even human extinction. That would be a loss of almost everything that humanity could hope to achieve. And so given the importance of that you would think [avoiding] this would be a huge global priority already. But unfortunately it’s not.
To go back to your point on animal welfare, this is a concern that speaks to a lot of students at Yale. Which methods do you think are the most effective at reducing animal suffering?
Oh, I mean for sure the corporate cage-free campaigns; they’ve just been astonishing.
Corporate cage-free campaigns?
Yeah, so the way it works is that organisations like Mercy for Animals and The Humane League, they go to major companies—that can be McDonalds, retailers like Key Foods—and say, “This is the condition of animals, like chickens, in your supply chain. Are you happy to make a pledge to commit to going completely cage-free in five years?” And often the companies say yes!
And if they are less keen, they will basically get lobbied by these organisations showing them that actually consumers really don’t like the fact that animals are kept in these conditions, they are more than happy to pay more in order to prevent animals from being kept in these conditions and the kind of possible repercussions. They would run a campaign against the companies that refuse to make this sort of campaign and refuse to make this sort of pledge.
The impact has been huge. All of the top 50 fast-food chains and retailers in the U.S. have now agreed to going cage-free within five years, and that is as a result of only a few million dollars of funding. And this model is being replicated, firstly all around the world, and secondly for other sorts of food like broiler chickens as well.
Critics of Effective Altruism sometimes argue that the movement lacks a concern with systemic change. What do you say to such critique?
I think it’s based on a misunderstanding of what people in Effective Altruism do. So, there’s kind of broad and narrow senses of systemic change. The narrow sense is just political change. I think the broad sense is meant to be that you have this one-off investment that then gives you a continual return indefinitely into the future. Both are major parts that are heavily considered within Effective Altruism. f you look at what Open Philanthropy funds, it includes funding on immigration reform, criminal justice reform, funding for the way that we treat animals, for macroeconomic policy, as well as for different forms of scientific institutions.
If you look at particular organisations within Effective Altruism as well, openborders.info is explicitly focused on the political aim of trying to radically increase migration across borders, the Center for Election Science is an organisation that is focused on voting reform that actually received a grant from Open Philanthropy Project at my recommendation. And then if you look at 80,000 Hours, their top recommended career paths include working in government, working in policy, working in think tanks.
Are there any other misconceptions [about Effective Altruism] that you might wish to address?
Absolutely. [One is that] Effective Altruism is only focused on poverty, whereas a key part of Effective Altruism is cause agnosticism, which means trying to figure out what is the cause where you can have the highest impact. And so a lot of people choose to focus on other areas such existential risk mitigation, animal welfare, and science.
It’s also the case that people tend to think that Effective Altruism is just focused about donations. Again, it is much broader than that. Certainly there is a lot of focus on how people can use their careers to do good, but there’s also thought on, with the cause areas that we think of most highly, what is the best research that could be done to generate value, and what are the best policies that we could be promoting?
And then a final thought is a misconception that Effective Altruism is simply utilitarianism or simply applied utilitarianism. But again there is an important distinction where Effective Altruism is just a project of trying to work out how to do the most good. It doesn’t claim that you are always to do the most good in every aspect of your life and that the ends always justify the means, which is the stronger claim that utilitarianism would endorse.
In your opinion, what is the biggest weakness or blind spot of Effective Altruism?
Wow, that’s such a great question. [Pauses.] So, I think one big misunderstanding that a lot of people have in Effective Altruism is not appreciating how different different peoples’ values can be. I think people in Effective Altruism often think, “Oh, we are just about doing the most good!” and it’s just like purely a technical question.
But they don’t often appreciate that in our analysis of how you do the most good, there’s often a lot of ethical assumptions and philosophical assumptions going into that, which are often broadly welfarist, and are just perceive the welfare of people, whereas strong environmental concerns wouldn’t factor in. Or the idea that small benefits to very many people can add up to one large benefit. That sort of idea would like never really appear in Effective Altruist reasoning, and I’d like to see Effective Altruists a bit more cognizant of the ethical assumptions that they are making, just in order to understand the ways and the reasons why people might not be on board with Effective Altruism. I think it is important not to try and like stampede on other people’s value systems; to ensure that you are being appropriately cautious.
I was wondering if you could maybe tell us a little about your upcoming book?
It’s called Moral Uncertainty. It’s still under review at Oxford University Press. Hopefully, it might come out next year, and it’s addressing the question of what ought you to do when you are unsure about different moral views—say, you are unsure between utilitarianism and Kantianism and contractualism, or in a more focused way, you think it is somewhat plausible that animals have welfare, but you are not really sure. You think maybe even probably they don’t. The question is, how do you act in light of that uncertainty? We have very well developed morals of how to do that for uncertainty of what’s going to happen, but we don’t have good morals of how to do that when the uncertainty is about [what our values should be]. And so the book addresses that problem, argues that we should view empirical and moral uncertainty in basically the same way, and then works through a variety of problems for that account before then applying it to questions in practical ethics.
Where do you get your news?
So I prefer not to read the news because I think news in general gives you a very biased viewpoint of what is most important in the world. When I do read the news, it tends to be the BBC and sometimes Vox. […] Every day, the newspapers lie to you by telling you, “This is what is the most important of what is going on right now.” If I wrote a newspaper called the Reality Times, every day it would be the same front page. It would be that 5,000 children are being killed from mosquitoes. It would be that yet again there are still 10,000 nuclear warheads, many of which are poised with no one doing anything about them. Yet again it would be that every day 100 million animals are killed and tortured needlessly. It would be the same, same stories every single day.
If you weren’t in your current job, what would you be doing?
I think I would either—two very different approaches—I’d either be a tech entrepreneur or an author, [chuckles] like a novelist, depending on what sort of life I wanted. If I wanted a peaceful life with nature, I’d be a novelist. If I wanted the exciting fast-paced life, I would be a tech entrepreneur.
Do you ever considered writing a novel? A lot of former philosophers have written their philosophies through a fiction piece.
I would consider that. I am not sure if I am the best person to do it, but certainly if you look at the most influential books ever, often they are fiction.
Which living person do you most admire?
He’s not living, but Stanislav Petrov, who disobeyed orders and thereby prevented all-out nuclear war between the USSR and the USA.
What advice do you have to give to a current college student?
The most important piece of advice I’d say is the question of what you spend your career [doing]. College is an unusually good place for thinking about what you should spend your life doing, like, what should your life’s work be. People radically underinvest in this topic.
You will spend 80,000 hours working. If you spend just one percent of that time thinking about how you should spend the remaining 99 percent, that is eight hundred hours of time. So, if you haven’t at least allotted eight hundred hours to try and to figure out what you should be spending you life on, you are probably underinvesting in that question. And so, my most important piece of advice would be to take that question radically seriously. It’s much more important than whether you get yet another A in one of your courses or not.