Thoughts on Effective Altruism and “Doing Good Better”

During some of the most difficult times in my life, I received a lot of help from friends and community. I have always been really grateful for their help and been looking for ways to pay it forward.

I was introduced to the book “Doing Good Better” by William MacAskill recently, and joined an Effective Altruism community. It has been such a thrilling experience to meet people who also care about the well-being of others, and want to contribute to the society positively in the maximal way. The author of the book “Doing Good Better” is one of the cofounders of the Effective Altruism movement, the book details varies ways where an individual can help make the world better, it could be the job that you do everyday, where you volunteer, or where you donate your money to. As a book about sociology, the content is surprisingly quantitative, which is really satisfying for me, and maybe many other scientists and quantitative thinkers. I do not intent to write a book review, but I would like to share some of my thoughts on parts of the book which I found enlightening.

In introduction, the author tells a story where some MIT researchers hope to help improve the education effectiveness of Kenya. They tested many variables, the amount of the books the children got, the number of teachers available, and so on. None of them were proven effective, until one day, someone working at the World Bank told him to try deworming. Now, it is safe to assume that the vast majority of people living in the first world countries have no clue about what this worm is, or the need to deworm. And it was exactly what the researchers were ignorant of such option. But once he tried, the scores of the students improved drastically. They then founded the nonprofit Deworm the World Initiative, and they have performed more than 40 million treatments.

This was really eye opening for me, and it also reminded me of some politicians making statements such as “the homeless people are so lazy”. While some politicians have incomes in the top 1%, those homeless people are in the bottom 1%. Their lives have nothing in common. How is it fair for a rich people to point fingers at poor people when they have no idea what they had gone through? Before we make comments about how bad the education in some third world country is, are we even remotely aware of the struggles they face everyday, or how there might be worms in their stomach that can be physically debilitating? before we judge people, even though we probably should never do that, we need to fully acknowledge the lives that they had leading up to their behavior. And maybe if we do that, we would stop jumping to conclusions, and maybe we can stop judging people altogether, and instead we can be more understanding and helpful.

Another recurring theme of the book is that while some people do want to help others, they try to help in the way that makes sense to them, instead of doing what’s most effective. for example, the author tells the story of PlayPump. It was supposed to make water pumping in Africa fun and easy, therefore reducing the physical demands of the traditional pumps. However, due to technicalities, the PlayPump was never going to be more advantageous, and only became a burden for the towns that installed them. Another example, people in first world countries protest to not wear clothes that were made in sweatshops. Those sweatshops are located in third world countries and the employees are paid little for long hours of work and poor workplace conditions. We thought we were being helpful, if we stopped buying those clothes, the employees will be free from their terrible sweatshops. But little did we know, in those countries, working at sweatshops are considered a privilege, where other available work are mostly in farms, the conditions are much worse, and they get paid a lot less.

There is a life lesson to be extracted here. Most of the time we believe what we do or say is right, but we can be wrong more often than we think. When we want to help someone, we should do what’s best for them, and not what you think is the best for them. because again, you probably do not know their upbringing and struggles, therefore almost always if we just assume what to do, they most likely will not be what the other person truly need. This shows the important to communicate, with the emphasis on listening, and be humble. Only by actively listening to other people’s needs, we can then be able to help them in the most effective way. This also applies to close relationships, between families and close friends, often times we think we know the other person so well that we feel like we can give good advice, or sometimes in the case of parents and children, parents believe that since they love their children and have their best interests, that the children should just obey what they say. It is important to sit down with the other person, treat them as an equal, and listen to them with the intension of wanting to learn. This way not only we can do the most amount of help, there is more trust built into the relationship which strengths it.

One more idea that I would like to point out, is that the book argues we should donate to causes that have the most impact, rather than the causes that we personally want to see success in. This can be a bit counterintuitive. Most of people who donate to charities, probably are like me, where they have personally struggled with a situation or have seen someone close struggle. For example, I really want to see the ending of domestic violence for women and children, because I was a victim. I know how much it hurts, therefore I wish no other human beings have to go through that again. The book argues that this is not the most effective way to help out with the following counterargument. Since first world countries have most wealth and do most of the charity, when will we ever get to the problems that people in third world countries are facing? If everyone in America donates to Cancer research, because they may have lost loved ones to cancer, how will we deworm the Africans, when deworming is a lot easier, cheaper to achieve, and can have an impact on a lot more peoples lives immediately? Although the motive of donating may stem from emotions, if we really want to be effective at helping, we should examine the impact of the cause and the charity to make a more informed and rational decision.

There are a lot more stuff I could write about but I will stop here, and maybe pick it up at a later time. I feel like this book has changed me so much, and have taught me how to combine the emotional and the rational so I can achieve our best potential. I hope that someday this book will be made a textbook and all the school kids will learn about it. I believe it is important for people in the first world countries to realize how privileged they are to have born into affluent places. Although there is nothing we can do about our birth places, we do have the choice to be empathetic for the unfortunate, and actively try to help them.

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