Do you get criticized for your approach to philanthropy? Yeah, sometimes more so than you might expect, given that we're really aiming just to be a bunch of people who are trying to improve the world and kind of figure out honestly how we can do so as well as possible.
Hello and welcome. I'm Shane Parrish and this is the Knowledge Project, this show explores ideas, methods, mental models and frameworks that will help you expand your mind, live deliberately and master the best of what other people have already figured out. You can learn more at F-stop Blogs podcast. My guest today is William MacAskill, co-founder and president of the Center for Effective Altruism, an associate professor in philosophy at Oxford University. In our wide ranging conversation, we talk about injecting science into philanthropy, how we can identify effective charitable organizations, taxes and so much more.
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William, I'm so glad to have you on the Knowledge Project. Thanks for having me on. I'm really excited to be here.
I want to talk in broad themes about some of the things that you've been studying and writing about. You've described what you do is injecting science into a sentimental issue of doing good in the world. What does that mean? Why is it different from the way philanthropy has been done in the past?
The approach we take is called effective altruism. It's as you say, about trying to make them to do good more scientifically. They give us more evidence based, more based on argument, and that is pretty different than how most people normally try to do that. Where charitable giving, for example, is often very emotion driven, it's often very unreflective. And people just assume that if you're going to give to charity, for example, the place you give, you know, if they've got good intentions, that's going to be good enough.
What we've seen and through our research over and over again in this is that sadly, that is often the case. You can have the absolute best of intentions. You can be really meaning to do good. But then firstly, you can often just fail to have any sort of impact at all. But then secondly, even within those programs that work well is often just a vast discrepancy between those that are good. Those are just actually making a positive impact in the world and the very, very best ones that like really transformative.
And I think we can identify those ways of doing good ahead of time. And so what we do in the effective altruism community is try and work out what are those ways of doing good, whether that's the money for your time, your career choice, what are those that are going to have the very biggest impact possible?
How did you get into this into this world? I mean, you started off studying philosophy, right. And what led you to this exploration of effective giving?
Yeah, the initial impetus was from a philosophical argument, actually, from a philosopher called Peter Singer. And he made the following argument, which is that imagine you see someone walking past a shallow pond and that person sees a child's face down in the water. This child at almost no cost to themselves. They can just walk into the water and pull the child out, but then they realise the willingness, really expensive suit. In fact, it's such a nice suit.
It cost several thousand dollars. And now suppose the person thinks, well, no, obviously it'd be nice to save a kid. No, but I don't want to be in my seat, my suit. This is like it's a nice suit. And so they walk on by and they let the child down. Now, how would you react morally to someone who chose to do that in moral philosophy, who have this technical term that we use to describe someone like that?
We'd call them an asshole. Yeah. And and I think, you know, that's just like the common sense, moral view.
The amount of money is like three thousand dollars is just nothing in comparison to a child's life. But then where the argument takes a twist is that Peter Singer asks us to say, consider the fact that there are thousands of children in poor countries around the world who are losing their lives as a result of neglected diseases, who could be saved just for use of several thousand dollars, for example, by buying bed nets and distributing them to those who need them just for the single digit thousands of dollars.
Physically speaking, you can save a child's life, in which case, how is it justifiable for us in rich countries to be spending money on luxuries when we could be spending money that same money in order to save lives of people we don't know? And I found this argument extremely compelling. So compelling, in fact, that when I was just starting graduate school, I did some calculations. I thought about how much money I needed to live on over the course of my life.
And I decided even as an academic, I'm not going to earn as much as perhaps I could have done. I am still going to earn much more than I need to be happy. And so what I did was chose choose some baseline where everything above that baseline I was just going to give to charity. And I worked out of a. That would be about kind of half of my lifetime earnings, I now expect it to be quite a bit the amount I'll give to be quite a bit more than that.
But it meant I now had quite a lot of money over the following 40 years that I had to think about donating. And so the natural next question was, well, if I'm going to start donating my money, seriously, you know, I want to ensure that, like, actually making a difference if, you know, if I have this duty to try and help other people. And I also have a duty to help them as much as I can, you know, just being kind of blasé or assuming that it's easy, you know, that would be that would be problematic.
And just the same way as just not thinking about the problem at all would be. And so in early 2009, another philosopher, Toby Ordinariate, co-founded an organization called Giving What We Can, which encourage people to give at least 10 percent of their income to the most effective charities they knew of. But then in order to advise people to do that, we created a list of top recommended charities that, at least at the time, those that were focusing on the developing world in order to help people do as much good as possible with the charitable donations.
Do you give this money above the certain threshold yearly or is it something that you just set aside and then do something with and then you'll give it later?
So I give for my income just once a year. I just look at how much income I took in over the course of the year and then donate everything above that. So this year, for example, that would be about 25 percent of my income. And I do a kind of annual giving. The primary reason for that is in order to kind of keep myself accountable. I also think there are strong arguments for giving earlier about and giving later, because often money that you donate compounds in just the same way that you return on investment if you save the money, can compound in particular if you're investing in a small growing area, often the rate of growth of that cause area will be far greater than the rate of return you can get from a financial investment.
Certainly the certainly the discount rate I would have had for the nonprofits I set up would have been much greater than seven percent or even 10 percent per year in the early stages.
I guess when you're talking about that, I mean, one of the things that comes to mind is Warren Buffett's decision to give away most of his wealth, but not do it until he had compounded it over a period of 70 years, basically. And now he's giving away much more than he would have had. He given it away all along. But I guess his ability to compound that was probably not something within reach for most of us. Yeah, that's right.
So if you're Warren Buffett and if he does have the investing skill, it's legendary legend has, although I will note he just one is this competition that you had with the hedge fund folks about having an index fund would outperform hedge funds over the long run. So even he believes that very few people are Warren Buffett. Yeah, but yeah, you know, if you can compound it like 50 percent per year, then take those investment opportunities. The amount of goods you're going to be able to do in the future will just be much larger.
If you've got a more typical return, if that's six percent per year or something, then I do think you're probably going to be having more of an impact earlier on, partly because the places you can fund know, helping with the growth of that area and also just because the world's getting richer is more and more smart money in philanthropy. And in general, the best giving opportunities are going down over time.
Do you get criticized for your approach to philosophy?
Yeah, sometimes more so than you might expect, given that we're really aiming just to be a bunch of people who are trying to improve the world and trying to figure out honestly how we can do so as well as possible. Yeah, a few different angles. So one set of criticisms came from existing charity evaluators. So the charity Charity Navigator were really quite critical of our approach, where what Charity Navigator does is assess all sorts of different charities. But just by looking at kind of financial metrics, the most famous of which was the overheads ratio, the amount that charity spends on administration costs rather than program costs.
And we for the long time he said that that's just a really poor metric. If you want to actually try and do as much good as possible, because imagine if you've got a really lousy charity, something that doesn't do any good at all. It's working on a program that's just completely ineffective but has zero administration administration costs, perhaps having volunteers and so on. Well, then it's still a bad charity is just in some sense an efficient charity where there's perhaps something needs to invest charity, need to invest a lot in monitoring and evaluation of all sorts of operations in order to do it and what it does extremely well.
And they assist assistance on the grounds that the very idea of kind of making comparisons between different areas. Just meaningless. I think that's just far too extreme if I can cure one person of blindness or one person with a broken leg or a thousand people of a life threatening illness where they would have certainly died otherwise, I think it's just clear intuitively what does the more good you know, if you can save a thousand people than one, that's more important, save a thousand if you can save someone's life rather than, you know, save someone's broken leg, then as long as the person has a good, happy life, it's more important to save that person's life.
And so that's kind of axiomatic philosophical foundation. But I just don't think it's actually that controversial. Then a second line of criticisms we've heard of often just involve not really understanding what we're about and often is focused on the fact that with respect to development, at least, we're very often focused on programs that have a very large evidence base, like distributing insecticide treated bed nets via the Organization Against Malaria Foundation, and that we even sometimes advocate deliberately going into a high earning career in order to donate more.
But that's only like a very small part of kind of what we're thinking about. We are very strongly in certain areas outside of global health and development, including attempting to benefit in the very long run future of humanity. And in those areas, you just often don't have randomized control trials. Often you need to use, you know, less quantitative evidence. But that's OK. That doesn't rule that out. Not everything can be quantified. And then we also just think very, very many ways of having an impact.
Money is only one, but we are very strongly encouraging people to pursue careers in policy and research and working for non-profits, too.
Yeah, I want to come to that in a second. What is giving away money seemed like such a difficult thing to do properly. I mean, intuitively, it seems like it would be pretty easy. I mean, it's all upside, right? And the dollar would help, but it doesn't seem to work that way in reality.
Yeah, well, again, think about the analogy with investment. So, I mean, firstly, we wouldn't think, oh, investing your money is easy, especially if you're doing seed or angel investing in companies saying, no, it's incredibly hard because different companies can vary so much in their productive capacity, the ability to take an early investment and turn it into really rapid growth. And so firstly, you've got that exact same difficulty when it comes to nonprofits.
But then it's even more difficult again, because in the case of the for profit world, there's a kind of natural evolutionary mechanism. The companies that aren't able to turn a profit will eventually die. You know, the bad companies will get and will get killed effectively. But that doesn't happen in the non-profit world. In the non-profit world, the charities that aren't having any impact because the beneficiaries aren't the funders. It's not inevitable that they'll get killed off because you could be a very bad charity, but still extremely good fundraising and marketing.
And when you donate, you don't get the feedback of did this actually have an impact or not? You have to rely on the charity itself. And sadly, that means that we can just have incredibly, I think, incredibly mis parvati's spending, resulting in the fact that we have some charities that can do hundreds of thousands of times more good than others, which is an amazing opportunity if you are trying to do the most good, but at the same time is indicative of the fact that it's just very hard to tell between these really effective charities and ones that are less effective.
What's your take on an ambitious young people making philanthropy a career choice rather than something you do after you've already had your career, presumably a successful one or well, you're in a career. I know you've personally advocated for basically making as much as you can legally and morally, so as to maximize the amount you can give to others. That would seem kind of at odds with pursuing a career in the nonprofit sector, wouldn't it?
Yes. So I think the main point I want to make is just that when young people, people on college campuses are thinking, oh, I really want to have an ethical, altruistic career, they typically think, oh, therefore I want to have a nonprofit career. And they don't realize just very many ways of having a positive impact on the world. So that could be going into government, because we definitely know that having competent leadership is extremely important and showing the world as well could be going into the search, could be going into certainly some areas of business as well.
But then one stark comparison is just to think about, well, supposing you do go into business, go into finance investing, and then you just donate kind of every year, is it the case that through your donations you could pay for someone better than you to be going into the nonprofit sector? And often it is the case so often you can actually have more of an impact by going into a higher learning career and donating a very significant proportion of your earnings, then you can by simply working at a nonprofit.
And I know a number of people who've chosen to do this and actually just some of whom are just a few years out of college and already able to donate on the order of a million dollars per year. So if you're really passionate about that area, I think it can be an extremely good thing to do. I would I would caution against it's not the only way of having an impact. And in fact, for many causes, I think they're more constrained by having a really good people, very talented people, than by having just, you know, additional money on the margin.
That seems like a very financial way of looking at things. How would you counsel someone who's like, well, I can make more money in the private sector, but I'd really rather go into the nonprofit sector or what are the other variables involved in those decisions as you see them?
Yeah, so what I call personal effect, I think is extremely important because, you know, in particular, supposing you've got you know, you're not the only person making this decision and suppose someone else thinking about this decision and perhaps they're thinking, well, I'd really like to go into finance, but I feel like I want to go into the nonprofit world, even though, you know, I've got much longer passion or personal competitive advantage in finance. Well, it makes some sense.
What you don't want to happen is for that person to go into the nonprofit and you to go into finance and to give, because what you want is both parties to be pursuing the thing that may happen to be better, better that. And so I do think that a lot of weight should be put on what we call personal fit, especially once you've narrowed your career options down to options that you think are kind of plausibly impactful for the world, then considerations of personal fit can do a lot of work.
But I think it's important to be careful about how you think about that, where it doesn't mean what you're passionate about necessarily, or your calling, because people's passions change a huge amount over time. And so you want to avoid just getting locked down by what you're currently existing passions happen to be, nor even necessarily what you're good at right now. Again, because what people skills, what skills people have can vary a lot. And so instead, I think the personal fit you should think I suppose I invest a significant amount of time in the months or years getting good at this.
Would I become very good? And if the answer is yes, then obviously that means you going to have an impact by working in that area. And it also means that you're probably going to find yourself passionate about it as well. His passion tends to result from a mastery of a subject or mastery of an area rather than vice versa. Talk to me about that, because sometimes we're passionate about things that we don't know that much about. I mean, we're passionate about learning and we're curious about it.
How do you see that?
Yeah, I mean, when you look at what people are actually passionate about, the vast majority tend to be passionate about things where it's extremely hard to have a promising career. So that's the arts. That's music, that sport. And that's not a coincidence. The reason it's so hard to become a professional sportsperson is because so many people are really passionate about this thing and therefore they want to work in it and make it extremely competitive. I think the whole faming kind of misconstrues the way that, you know, passion and deep space actually works, where I feel like this idea of vocation or calling conjures up the idea that you just close your eyes and you look deep inside of yourself and you see this burning desire for something that's, you know, very specific.
And then you pursue that thing that firstly, most people don't have that outside of arts and music or sports. And then secondly, that's just psychologically not the way deep into this work. Instead, kind of as I said, what happens is you learn an error, you become good at it, and then you start to develop a kind of mastery of that area and that results in a kind of a passion or a compulsion. And I think it's very hard to judge what those are going to be just by kind of looking inward at yourself and rather worried that command is trying out a bunch of different types of work.
You know, the organization that I set up that advises people in the class is called 80000 hours, which is the number of hours that people typically work in their lives. Listeners of this podcast who might be more and we do that to partly get class, you know, this is this huge decision. And even if it means you're taking a couple of years and a few years out by a bunch of different things in order to work out what is the area where you can spend the remaining 75000 hours on, that's like a great use of your time.
And that's a much more reliable way of working out. What's the area that you can become passionate about will become extremely interested and good at than simply trying to kind of introspect on your own passions or desires.
And that's so hard, though, because if you're you're taking some time at the start of your career to figure out, you know, kind of this intersection of what works for you and what you can do and what you'll make and what kind of life you're going to live. And you're watching other people maybe get ahead quicker. It becomes really hard to to do that.
Yeah, I think there's a lot of social pressure, too. You probably got your parents telling you to become an accountant. So, you know, there's this feeling that you've got to do everything kind of all at once. Society doesn't really reward you for taking your time to make a really good decision. I just think it's so worth it. I mean, I think if there are people who are still undergraduates listening that, you know, that's also I'd say I'm a university professor.
Maybe I'll get into trouble for saying this, but I think the time that you spend thinking about what career you should pursue and, you know, we provide a ton of materials on 80000 hours to work, including one on one coaching for people who are instilling some key priority areas. But, yeah, I think there are times when thinking think it is just going to be more useful on the margin, at least in time, additional time spent studying the new degree.
But people tend to spend all their time thinking about the degree and what that much time on on their career. So it does take a little bit of willpower. It can be it is trading a kind of short term cost, but it's for the long term goal.
Long term benefit, I think, is too much of the philanthropic world sort of like this self-perpetuating bureaucracy, or is this like something I made up? I mean, in other words, are there incentives or agency costs, as they call them, in economics that kind of almost encourage bad outcomes? And how is that problem best solved?
Yeah, I think it's not so much that they're encouraging bad outcomes, but it's more that it's just hard to do things well. And unless you've got, like, some really intense feedback mechanism, then you're the kind of natural state you end up with is focusing on the wrong thing and and also kind of ending up bureaucratic. So, you know, look at any big company, kind of old company often ends up kind of very bureaucratic. Government institutions can be the same old institutions like universities as well to be the same.
And so whereas, you know, famously startups are able to be kind of much more efficient. They've got much closer connection between the impact they're going to have and loss and the activities they're doing. And so we need to do then is create kind of independent institutions that are assessing different organizations, different nonprofits and providing, in effect, that kind of evolutionary feedback of force. So one organization, for example, is give well known organization I co-founded. But when I expect very highly, which tries to work out what other nonprofits, especially those focused on extreme poverty, that are really having as much of an impact as possible.
And that means that now these are the charities, ones that want to try and get their recommendation. They actually have a goal. They're going to be assessed by these very skeptical, very rigorous researchers. And if they do that, if they do well, if they do get a recommendation that results in many, many millions of dollars going to the organization. And so I think ultimately it's just about the set of institutions and social structure that's currently lacking.
If we can build things that are providing that feedback mechanism, then I think things could change quite radically like that. What are your thoughts on limited life foundations as opposed to perpetual ones like Chuck Feeney, for example, who founded the Atlantic Philanthropies, has pretty much given away all of his money, which was once in the billions, and now he lives on a few million that he's got left. I would love to live on a few million, but I think Warren Buffett has a similar plan and he wants all of his money to kind of be giving given away in a limited time period.
What? He appealed to this approach as to something like the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, which has existed for, you know, decades.
Yeah, I mean, I'm extremely pro limited like foundations and very skeptical of perpetual foundations where within that I'd include universities as well. It kind of baffles me that organizations that organizations like Harvard and Stanford are requesting donations from their alumni while at the same time sitting on an endowment of 35 billion dollars that they could be spending them. And the reason is just that. Well, I mean, there's a few things. One is just the foundations that can stay in perpetuity often have this weird relationship with the founder, where the founder might set up a foundation for the purpose of solving a particular social problem.
And then that problem just goes away. Perhaps it's been solved. And yet you've still got this foundation that has to give out money to do this. One of those bizarre charity I know of is called Scotts Care So Scottish. And this charity exists in London and exists to benefit Scottish people who are poor in London, which is kind of a weird thing to do. It's like, well, we benefit, you know, people with brown hair in London or something.
It's kind of like it seems quite an arbitrary way to give out your charity. The reason it exists is because it was set up in the 17th century when a lot of Scottish immigrants to London as a result of. Yeah, as a result of the personal Union of England and Scotland, and it just has never died. Discontinues is going to benefit Scottish people. And even though that problem has now been solved for several hundred years and I feel like the same is true of the foundations where you can have a very particular set of requirements from the founder and they just no longer.
And then the other thing I'd say is, again, just many of the biggest social problems in the world are just getting better over time. Not all the world's in most ways, the world getting better in some ways. I think it's taking a step backwards, steps backwards. But if you're focused on something like education or improving people's economic livelihoods, well, we're just vastly richer than we were 100 years ago. And so if someone were to set up a foundation in perpetuity, then a fairly large chunk of that endowment would be being spent on people who are far richer than those who are alive today.
And I just don't think that makes any sense.
I think you did your Ph.D. and ethical uncertainty, right?
Yeah, that's right. What to do when you're unsure between different moral perspectives.
So I think that's a great place for this part of the conversation, because I'm curious, what how how should we think about deciding between, you know, saving lives, bringing water to people, you know, fostering medicine in terms of the quality of life, like how should we or how? I don't want to ask, how should we think of it? But how do you think about it?
Yeah, well, I think so. Obviously, this is kind of a deep ethical, philosophical question. There's plenty of disagreement on the topic. But here's one thing which basically all reasonable moral views agree on, which is that making people better off is a good thing to do. And the greater the amount by which you can make people better off, the better. That's like really pretty uncontroversial. You know, there's much more controversial things about how much value you place on the natural environment perhaps you can agree on and so on.
But all different moral views would agree that that's of moral value. And that's what we, you know, and the effective of altruism community tend to focus on. We look at all sorts of different interventions, programs, and look at how many people are going to be affected and by how much or how little are you benefiting them, where if you can benefit a large number of the people by a lot, that's better than benefiting a small number of people by a lot or a large number of people by a little and put like that seems.
I hope that this seems kind of common sense. That's often not the way people think about it. And part of that reason is because people often are wanting to talk too often about instrumental facts on the kind of ultimate facts that we care about. You mentioned providing water so people might say, well, how would you possibly compare how many wells are being built versus how many books are being distributed versus, you know, how many bed nets we can provide?
And all of these have this common metric, which is, again, just how many people are benefiting and by how much. And tons of research within both health, health, economics and economics more widely has worked in order to help us provide answers to these questions. And often the answers are kind of, you know, Willy, you don't get an approximate figure, but because the difference is an impact between areas so great, you know, it's not a fact of one area being 10 percent as effective as 10 percent more effective than another.
It's a matter of it being 100 times affects. As another then even just very rough assessments can still be extremely useful in determining at least cutting down a list of priorities that we might have. How do you measure the return on that giving? Like how does one go about saying, you know, hey, she's giving effectively, but he's not? I mean, one of the metrics by which you you evaluate that.
Yeah. So there's at least a couple. So one that I like a lot is health metrics and health economics, which is called the quality adjusted life here. Where that takes it looks at two things. One is by how much you extending someone's life and secondly, by how much you including the quality of life. So using survey data, they find out how bad basically on a scale of zero to 100 is living with different conditions like living with malaria, living with tuberculosis and living with HIV AIDS.
How bad how bad is that? If I move someone from 50 percent health to 100 percent health for two years, that would count as one quality adjusted life year. Or if someone was already a 100 percent health and extended their life by one year by providing, let's say, a cardiac surgery that would also count as one quality adjusted life year. And so that is a health economist to directly answer this question of just how many people are benefiting and by how much.
I think you can also do it with income. So in general, if you can increase someone's income by the same percentage, that's worth about the same, no matter how much someone's income is. So you can then look at just how much improving people's income as a percentage and then how for how many people have you increase their income. And that's an alternate way of looking at how much of a benefit you're providing, sort of people or organizations.
Would you point me to the models for effective, efficient? I would say effective, first, efficient second, if I wanted to do a better job. Who would you point me to as a model?
Yeah. So the organization that tries to find the most effective giving opportunities and recommends strategies on that basis is give well, and they're just incredible at what they do, which is finding the best giving opportunities within global health and development. And they're extremely transparent. So you could read literally, I think, millions of words that they've written up on the justification for the charities they've chosen. And that includes Against Malaria Foundation, which I mentioned, that distributes insecticide treated bed nets, that includes Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, where in the world that treat children for intestinal worms, which makes them very sick, and then give directly, which simply transfers cash to the poorest people in the world.
However, they do only focus on extreme poverty. And I think there are many extremely pressing problems in the world. And so a separate organization called the Philanthropy Project is actually advising a large foundation, Dustin Moskovitz, encouraging his foundation to invest. Moskovitz was one of the Facebook co-founders. And I just think this is the moral foundation, again, extremely transparent in terms of how that's using causes, being extremely strategic and what cause areas they choose to focus on.
And they're the kind of primary focus. You know, they do fund a number of things, but primarily focus is on ensuring that new technology and technological developments that could be extremely good and could be extremely bad. So as an analogy, think of kind of nuclear power in the 40s and 50s, huge potential, that huge potential for that, ensuring that those technologies are used for the benefit of humanity rather than its destruction.
Yeah, well, exactly. That's right. And so a couple of particular focuses from them are developments in biology, in particular, the ability to synthesize novel pathogens. It could be, you know, hugely important in terms of giving us protection against viruses and bacteria, but could be very dangerous because it gives people the ability to create new viruses and new forms of weapons and then also artificial intelligence. One of the fastest growing areas of technology at the moment could be hugely beneficial and could basically solve almost all of the world's problems.
Because, you know, the reason we've made so much progress as a species is the ability to solve problems through our intelligence, but could also be extremely risky as well. And it takes a while to go to go into that. There's significant risks that the you develop artificial intelligence is where you have. They told us properly and they don't do what you want. You give them more power and that results in very bad outcomes because they optimize for what they've been told to optimize for.
But that's not what you want them to optimize for. And then I think there's also a risk that if it is such a powerful technology, if it does mean you can solve all sorts of problems which include military strategic problems, it could give a very large amount of power to a very small number of people. And I think both of those have potential risks of catastrophe for humanity. And I think that is particularly well justified, because if you're concerned not just about the present generation, but about future generations as well, because there's just so many people, so much culture and civilization that might exist in the future, literally thousands, millions of years of potential human history that we risk cutting short if any kind of technology gets ahead of us and we have some sort of global catastrophe and they are the foundation.
But we are nonprofits. We set up a mechanism so that people can donate to the fact that that foundation is also donating to and that's called the effect of altruism funds, part of the Center for Effective Altruism. And the way that works is you can donate into a fund where program officers from that foundation will then use the money within the fund on whatever they think is best. And often those might be small living opportunities that the larger foundation isn't isn't concerned where it doesn't want to investigate itself, but still seems extremely cost effective are the things that need to be done in the world that can be solved by philanthropy, that are going to need capitalistic solutions or government driven solutions?
And what do you see as those problems?
Yeah, I mean, in a sense, I think that most problems in the world shouldn't be addressed with philanthropy. I mean, my views in terms of the structure of society are in general, like just fairly mainstream from the kind of economic perspective. In a certain sense, I think the default is that you want to have markets that are so unpredictable ways in which markets fail. You want to correct for them whether they are taxes or some regulation. I do think certain ways in which I'd depart from the mainstream, in particular, placing so much value on those who don't yet exist, people in the future who don't get to participate in markets, they don't have a vote politically.
So I don't know what kind of such a society a bit in order to that, we're kind of more responsible for future generations. And in general, I think that like the ideals that most most of the world's problems just get solved by markets. And when they fail by market, kind of by government forces, philanthropy is really that like last line of defense, as it were, where you both got kind of market failing and a Democratic failing. And I think that applies for people in very poor countries who, you know, they don't get a vote over who's the US president, even though the president's actions affect them significantly, they do get to participate in markets a little bit.
But because of their poverty situation to a very small extent, it's also true for future people as well. More significantly. And so when it comes to those people who just structurally speaking, aren't going to be benefited by markets or by or by governments, you know, well functioning governments, then I think it's like France kicks in and has a kind of last measure, as it were.
It seems like there's increasingly a feeling amongst world developed nations, perhaps, that taxes are a form of charity. How would you respond to that?
Yeah, this is to ask the criticisms of effective altruism in the past earlier as well. And sometimes people do say, oh, I already do my bit, I pay taxes. And I just think that's just a misconception of what taxes are where there are so many goods that only are available, like our ability to make an income is very heavily dependent on a very large number of public goods, goods that are provided by the government. So I'm only able to make the income I have because there is the military protecting the country and because there are roads that allow me to get to work and as a functioning legal system that will protect my property and so on.
And so it's a kind of weird argument to me to think of taxes as charity as if it's something that's this additional thing. They weren't given this money and then you're losing some of it in order to be able to, you know, give to the government to help others, because at least for a very significant fraction of that of those taxes, you're paying for prerequisites of the money that you're earning. So I think actually it's only you can. A small proportion of you know, in general, the taxes that you're paying is like contributing to a well functioning society, that is precisely what allows you to make that money in the first place.
And therefore, I think that's kind of very different from charity. I mean, I think there are some things that governments do that are, you know, more kind of genuinely philanthropic. So especially from countries like Sweden and the U.K., the money that they spend on overseas development aid, you know, sometimes that's politically motivated. It's political gains in different countries fairly. And how how much of the foreign aid spending, but least to a significant extent that, you know, that is kind of philanthropic money.
That's just we're trying to make other people better off because we have a moral duty to do so. And so at least that part of the money, I think genuinely is could count kind of as as charity. But most of it isn't. Most of it's paying for things that just everyone benefits from, including the taxpayer. What should governments do?
I mean, if you were put in charge of the U.K. government, how would the charitable giving or how would you tackle things differently than what's happening now with the same amount of money, with the same amount of money?
Yeah. So I'd certainly invest a lot in global public goods in particular. So much medical research. You can do a huge amount of good while at the same. You know, this is these are cases where you're both benefiting the whole country and benefiting the world. Respect to development aid, very heavy focus on global health. So if you look at the past 50 years of aid spending, the track record of spending on economic development has really been mixed.
You know, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. In fact, that kind of spending on global health is just outstanding. With increased life expectancy by more than 50 percent, neonatal mortality under five mortality, number of people suffering from most of the major diseases have just plummeted to the matter. And there's still huge gaps there. So I'd certainly spend half a billion pounds a year on closing the gap so that all children are protected from bed nets and ensure that all the major kind of immunizations are fully funded.
And that would probably the result in most of its spending. But then the final thing I'd also want to do is test all of that spending against simply simply donating cash. So this is, you know, you know politically well, politically provocative, but also extremely powerful. Is that huge? The huge amount of spending goes on and we don't even know whether to spend that spending, such as buying livestock or providing wells or providing textbooks, is actually having more of an impact than simply giving poor people cash, which is the simplest thing to do.
We know it's extremely effective. There's a huge number of studies on this, so it's extremely powerful, but less politically palatable. Less politically palatable. Absolutely. It could mean you can have a much smaller department for international development if a very significant part of the budget was simply giving poor people cash. And people also think about it's like handouts or something. That's actually a very different event, different scenario.
The other disturbing, perhaps growing trend I see is a view of take care of our own before we take care of other people.
Yeah, I know this is a view I just have very little sympathy towards, ultimately. I mean, I just think all people are born equal. They have equal moral value is you know, it's through sheer luck that I was born into a rich country, poor country. And the 80 percent of the income that people earn is explained by the country of birth and socioeconomic status of the parents. And that's just clearly not deserved. And so there's a kind of double jeopardy going on here where if we're if we say, oh, charity starts at home, we should just look after our own, then not only is it the case that people in poor countries have the misfortune of being born into a poor country with poor institutions where they're not able to make productive use of their own labour?
Not only that, but also the people in rich countries who have an ability to help and improve the situation aren't going to do that. They're going to benefit people close to them. And if people still kind of want to defend this view, then what I'd ask is supposing someone living in Beverly Hills would say, oh, well, you know, I could give to help the US poor, the homeless, homeless and so on. But I really think that I ought to benefit members of my own community.
And so I'm just going to benefit those slightly wealthier doctors and lawyers and actors living in Beverly Hills because, you know, their plight of only living in 100000 thousand dollars a year just breaks my heart. And we think that was absolutely absurd. But then, globally speaking, that's the same as the situation we're in now, where even the very poor in the United States, for example, or Canada, they they're still in the richest 10 to 15.
Per cent of the world's population, and that's not at all to belittle the problems that people in the poverty line in North America are going through, the UK like life is like, you know, very hard. An unbelievable number of social partners in North America and the UK is just that the problems are far, far greater than other countries and most importantly, is just a much, much easier to solve because the people in question have such low incomes.
And I think just a lot of people don't appreciate just quite how extreme that discrepancy in global income is, where people are in a typical income in a rich country earning something like 100 times the amount that the poor, the 700 million people in the world have. And that's just you know, this is a mind blowing difference. Something is very unintuitive, very hard to get our heads around. And most of it's due to luck, as you say, from where you're born.
One of the ways that I like to frame that kind of thinking, to give people a different perspective or offer a different perspective is to ask them what the world should look like if they didn't know what country that were going to be born in the past.
Love that. So that actually dates back to an economist called John Hachani, who wrote about this idea in the 1950s called The Veil of Ignorance, which is saying, yeah, exactly. Your moral views should be given by asking you if you didn't know who you were going to be in society, but you could picture to society, however, however you liked, how would you structure it? And the answer is that you would structure that so as to maximize total happiness, because that's the way you're going to do best for yourself.
But once people have found out that they're already in a better country, somehow people become more reluctant to say, well, that's the correct thing.
There's a lot of reasoning that some types of giving, I mean, some types of foreign aid even contribute to ongoing poverty. And that if we're not careful, even if we have good intentions or despite our good intentions, perhaps givers may encourage poverty to continue. I know it's a bit of a tense subject, but what's your take on that? How should us think about that rationally? Yeah, I mean, certainly I think that can be the case.
This vast numbers of, you know, you're doing something very complex, especially if you're living in a foreign country, but also if you're living at home, it's remarkably easy for the activities you pursue to backfill. And the development community, I think we learned the hard way. There were a number of, you know, ongoing high profile kind of failures with respect to aid. But it happens in the home rich countries too often give the example of scared straight, which is you might know it from TV, but it's a program where takes juvenile delinquents on a tour around the prison.
So they spend three hours going around a and seeing how horrific conditions are inside in order to be scared out of the life of crime. And this is touted as extremely effective. And of course, being in the US, it's all televised, the reality TV and it was so bad, it is extremely effective. But there's was actually many, many studies that have been done on this, including randomised controlled trials and meta analysis. So studies of studies show this kind of among the higher the evidence you can get and what they discovered was not only was the program ineffective, it was actively harmful so that juveniles who went through this program would go on to commit more crimes.
That's more thefts, more rapes, more murders if they had gone through this program than if they had it. And one think tank, in fact, estimated that for every dollar spent on the program, society bore the cost of two hundred and thirty dollars of cost of criminality and penitentiary costs. And yet this program continues to this day and this just goes to show just how, you know, again, you just don't have the right feedback effects. The people who are running these programs, they see, you know, the children getting shouted at in prison.
And sure, the juveniles who go through say never commit a crime again. So they feel like it's really working, but it's not. And the sad truth is just the world is a very complex place and it's just it's much easier to do harm than you might think. I want to switch gears just a little bit here for a second. You I think you became a tenured professor at Oxford at 28. That's right. How did you and it's a remarkably young age to be a tenured professor at such a prestigious university.
How did that come about?
Yeah, I mean, surprisingly as well, didn't have that much to do with the work I do in effective altruism. It's actually much more of my PhD work. And it's been one year out of my PhD and I'm still a little bit unsure how that happens.
I don't I definitely don't claim to be the best philosopher in the world of anything. But I think one thing that does differentiate me from. Other people within academia is like quite a bit more action oriented, and obviously that is evidenced by having set up various non-profits and so on. But it also means, I think more about, you know, I think very carefully about research topics they choose to research. Topic I my on was extremely neglected and it was clearly a very right field for research.
So rather than just like adding a little bit of knowledge to University of Art and having to spend an entire year understanding the literature and then after that, like trying to make some contribution, a very crowded field, instead, it took me two weeks to read the whole literature because there was so little written on it and it meant there was just a very open field and therefore, you know, very fertile ground for being able to publish a lot of articles quite quickly.
And that was definitely kind of yes. So that was definitely a huge help. I also think that having the kind of effects about this mindset that helped my work and it has helped my work and ethics in general because it gives this whole new lens on which the search topics to choose, because normally the way that you choose the search topics is, well, what are the hot topics in the literature? What's your supervisor work on? And kind of looking backwards.
Whereas for me, you know, I have this overriding question, which is how can I do the most good in a ton of questions that you need to answer in order to be in order to answer that question? Some of them have been pivotal, of course, but what we do, many of them philosophically as well, and some of those questions already have a bunch of work done on them by philosophers or economists, but many haven't. In which case, is this just a powerful way of discovering new, very important research questions that, again, can be one of the first people working on.
So and that was two of my PhD, actually. It was. Even though my future is more theoretical, it was driven by this question of, well, if I want to do the most good, I'm actually unsure what good consistent. But I need to make decisions. I need to make decisions like now, because the problems now and that result, that means that we need to have a way of making a decision even. And in light of that uncertainty about what we might we ought to do.
And that's what my team is creating a framework for that. What did you learn about uncertainty during your Europe that you can apply to decisions outside of philanthropic work?
And I think that the biggest kind of general lesson is that people are incredibly overconfident. So I know you had Julia Galera from the broadcast previously. She talks a lot about the ways in which the human brain is biased. And I think this is chief among them is overconfidence and the various studies on this. So it's been found that when people say that something has a one in a million chance of happening, I think it happens about 10 percent of the time when someone someone says, oh, this has a 1000.
Yeah, absolutely. When someone has one thousand chance of having happened 30 percent of the time. So people are just at the top end of the bottom and people are incredibly overconfident in their own views. And that, I just think is so damaging. It means that people, you know, we go to war like we go to war when we shouldn't go to war. You will make total business decisions when they shouldn't make business decisions. And so if there was one thing in terms of understanding of probability and getting everyone to work on it would be improving the way they think about the own probabilities that they assign to events where you can actually do a calibration cleaning game.
If you look online, you can find it. They just ask you loads and loads of questions and you have to answer. You often have to give a range. So it's questions you shouldn't know the answer to. Like how many potatoes were grown in Idaho in 2012 or something. And then you get for beans, perhaps you think it's between a billion and 10 million potatoes. And the aim is to give a range such that you're right 90 percent of the time or something.
And that means you can get better and better. But actually starting to understand and internalize what saying this is 99 percent likely to happen, what that really means or when it's 80 percent likely what that actually means. And then hopefully that also gives you a sense of your own fallibility, because, again, something that I think is very damaging is that we think that being very confident in your own view is a is a kind of mark of epistemic virtue.
So, you know, the typical least stereotypical company boardroom just has different people, like really stating their case and, you know, really firmly believe in their own views. Whereas the way I think of things, if I believe something and I meet someone who I think is just as smart and just as well reasoned in this case as me, well, then I just become ambivalent because this person is likely to be right as I am and in the non-profits that are thankfully the centre for the fact about tourism.
And it has now is. Thankfully, we really have that culture. And it's it's fantastic because it means the best argument wins and just whoever has the loudest voice. And so, yeah, I think there's 20 things of not being overconfident and then as a supplemental, supplemental manner, recognizing your own fallibility and people with a smile as you just have as good a shot at getting the right answer as you do. That's how I most want to change people's assessment of probabilities.
While I have you on the phone, I have some philosophical questions for you perhaps that we can tackle. What would you say are your foundational values as a person?
I mean, in part, that's the question that I'm always I'm always asking is what are the correct values and values? I ought to have those I kind of do have. Ultimately, my preferred model view is the one according to which for every action I take, what I ought to do is whatever will provide the most well-being and happiness for other people. Where I measure happiness in terms of good mental status and bad mental status, having more happy experiences and fewer experiences of suffering.
So that's the kind of like deep fundamental value, though I recognize also at the same time, you know, and sure about that. And in actual decisions, I want to consider a variety of ethical views. I like that. I think that that's a really interesting way to kind of approach how you are in the world. Do you believe in radical honesty?
I think that we ought to be, in general, much more honest than we typically are just again, on kind of altruistic grounds. I think that dishonesty is generally benefiting the person who's dishonest in exchange for harming kind of other people. It's also just I'm not even sure how often dishonesty is benefiting the person who's being dishonest. This is very, very difficult to keep track of a lot of lies. And so in general, I have a principle of just trying never to lie.
I know that's different, however, from radical honesty, where you're anything that's on your mind, you just immediately say and or, you know, any thought you'd have, you kind of proactively say something as well as as well as just never telling a falsehood. And I think that's kind of too far. I think there's at least in the society and culture that we have at the moment, which is not geared up for that, then I think, yeah, what that's kind of maybe doesn't appreciate is that words have symbolic value as well as literal value.
So far. I'm going to spontaneously say, wow, you're you know, that suit of yours looks really ugly. It's very ill fitting. You know, maybe the person doesn't even really care what I think about their suit. But the fact that I'm saying that is must be symbolic of something. It must be representative of the fact that perhaps they don't think of it much as a person or something or I just want to put them down. And so I think, yeah, going all out in terms of radical honesty is not appreciating that kind of symbolic aspect of language.
It's just kind of it's like somewhat too narrow, too little in terms of how it understands language.
I think it gives people a crutch, too. I mean, it seems to give people a leeway to they can say whatever they want without regard to the other person and just be like, oh, I'm just being radically honest. And it has actually nothing to do with honesty and more to do with intent on their part.
Yeah, I think so. That is one thing that I wish people were more honest about their positive feelings. And maybe I'm just saying this in the UK where people are notoriously emotionally reserved. And I think just very often people don't say positive things about others. They know, like, you know, how much they value them, how much they love them, how much they respect them on the grounds that, you know, it feels silly. It's like so slightly socially weird or something.
And I think if people did that more often. So, you know, you've got something positive to say about me that someone would immediately say it. I think the world would be much better. I agree.
How would you define success?
Again, I think I'd define success in terms of positive impact I'm making in the world. Right. I know that's going to be playing a broken record by this point, but I mean, I think anything else. So I mean financial success. We've got really great evidence showing that actually that doesn't really convert into happiness very much. Whereas if you think about success in terms of actually significantly improving other people's lives, well, think about kind of what you might think on your deathbed, kind of looking back at your life, if it's like, well, I made a huge amount of money and got a lot of status and so on, you can easily imagine yourself thinking, well, was that really worth it?
If you don't, just a huge amount of good you like. Wow. Transformed tens of thousands of people's lives, so they made a very meaningful contribution to the flourishing of the human race over centuries to come. It's really hard to imagine yourself thinking, but was that really worth it in the end? And so ultimately, I think, you know, success is very tied to the meaning of life. And I think the meaning of life is to contribute to the flourishing of humanity in the long run.
It's so interesting to me because I've witnessed a lot of people that I've worked with and reached the pinnacle of their career as CEO and then they go retire and they go from having all of these friends to having nobody. And it's almost as if the way that they've achieved their success is kind of mutually exclusive from living a life of meaning. However, they would define that because when when they leave the workplace, they find out that, you know, people don't want to actually associate with them.
And a lot of that has to do with the way that they they got to such a high level of power.
Yeah. And yeah, I think there's a lot of false consciousness where people believe that this is what's going to make them happy. This is what they've been told by society or marketing is going to be the key to fulfilling life. But I think for the vast majority of people, at least, the purely financial side isn't obviously kind of building something great can be very important, including building a great company. I think it's pretty obvious evidence to secure financial compensation that really does it.
What's the most common mistake that you see people make over and over and not investigating how to do something? So people for any given task, if I want to go so if I have a given task given go, the first thing I do is just find out who else is attempting to do this. What information is there and how to do this well. And then if it's publicly available information, that's great. If there's books and so on, it's great.
If not, then find people who did it and ask them for advice. So I paid my way through grad school through a variety of nine different scholarships.
And so I got really quite good at applying for scholarships.
But it was just the same take time, which was this particular scholarship. The committee are going to have particular things that they were kind of looking for. Talk to the people who successfully got the scholarship and then ask for them, would like ask for the advice, like think about kind of what people actually looking for and playing to that. Whereas just over and over again I see people, they've got a kind of aim. And even though many other people have tried to do the same thing, they try and, you know, invent the wheel, reinvent the wheel and work on this stuff from scratch.
And, yeah, that doesn't make sense. It just doesn't make sense to me.
I want to end with a particular question that a friend of mine brought up, and they demanded that I ask you, which is a big philosophical question, but that is what is the meaning and purpose of life?
And yeah, I mean, it's a great question. And I think ultimately the question of, you know, what are your values and what's the meaning and purpose of life is the same. So I think there's no difference between the question of just what what you do and what is your purpose to do. And so, again, I think ultimately the meaning of life is to yeah, the meaning of life is to contribute in a way that improves others lives as much as possible.
So that's that's a spectrum. That's the more you can improve people's lives there, the more you've contributed. But ultimately, that's the purpose. And then I think when you consider the very long run, the fact that, you know, the human race been around for 2000 years and we could be around again for many millions and billions of years, I think the kind of meaning of the meaning of life for the purpose of life today, for the kind of whole civilization, is to kind of carry this very fragile candle of humanity like and pass it on to the next generation where it's totally non, you know, non-trivial that we'll be able to do that.
There's very, very many ways in which the activities that we that humanity will likely do over the 21st century could lead to global catastrophe, civilization, collapse or even extinction. And I think ensuring that we're not we're not the generation that ends the human story, I think that's really important meaning and purpose for us in this generation to have.
I don't think there can be anything more meaningful and important than destroying the rest of humanity to be as a great way to end this conversation.
Thank you so much for coming on the show, William Cohen. Thank you so much for having me.
Hey, guys, this is Shane again, just a few more things before we wrap up.
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