Doing Good Better

June 2017

The Individual Scenario: You have $100 to donate to charity, how do you spend it? Please write where you might donate before reading further:

The Bulk Scenario: Oprah has given you $100 million and asked you to donate it to charity. What a huge responsibility! How do you spend it?

The Individual Scenario feels a bit easier to decide, doesn’t it? It’s only $100, which can’t make much of a difference no matter where you donate it. In the Bulk Scenario, the stakes are much higher, aren’t they? If so, what exactly is at stake here? In the Bulk Scenario, we feel a greater duty to spend the money wisely because an unwise decision would squander an opportunity to do a lot of good.

The Crowdfunding Scenario: Oprah has changed her mind. Instead of donating $100 million directly, she’s asked you to decide how a million of her Twitter followers should each donate $100. How do you instruct her fans?

Do your decisions in the Bulk and Crowdfunding scenarios differ? In each scenario, you’re deciding how to donate $100 million. Let’s compare two crowdfunding options:

Bulk Crowdfunding
You instruct 1 million people to donate to the same charities in the same total amounts as you decided in the Bulk Scenario, so $100 million goes to: (you didn't write this down!).
Individual Crowdfunding
Ask each person to decide individually how to donate $100. Suppose they decide as you did in the Individual Scenario and $100 million goes to: (you didn't write this down!).

Which scenario do you think is better for the world? Should we donate $100 million to , or to ? “Better for the world” could be difficult or even impossible to determine, but try to decide which scenario has the better outcome.

If you believe that Bulk Crowdfunding will do more good than Individual Crowdfunding, then you likely agree with the central argument in William MacAskill’s Doing Good Better, and you should treat the Individual Scenario with the same care and consideration as the Bulk Scenario.

Unsurprisingly, ‘Individual Crowdfunding’ is what’s actually happening in practice, except it occurs on a much larger scale–many more people than follow Oprah decide, individually, to donate millions of dollars every day to instead of . MacAskill argues that we could be more effective altruists by thinking more carefully about how we donate, because the same amount might do only a little good, or ten times as much good, depending on who you donate it to.

Doing Good Better introduces the concept of effective altruism, roughly defined as the endeavor to maximize the good one does when donating money to charity. MacAskill begins,

I donated to development charities, but I always felt uneasy about whether I was actually helping others or merely alleviating my own sense of guilt about being born privileged in a world with so much need.

Have you ever felt this unease? Perhaps you do now. Either way, Doing Good Better is short, well-reasoned, fascinating, and relevant.