Professor Will MacAskill | University of Oxford
Christmas 2013 at Giving What We Can
Christmas 2013 at Giving What We Can
Image taken from: https://www.facebook.com/givingwhatwecan

Professor Will MacAskill

Making these decisions about how you spend your income – deciding to live on less in order to give more rather than just spend it on yourself – is an exceptional way to not really make your life any less happy but do huge amounts for other people. And insofar as giving has positive benefits for you personally – the good feeling you get when you give and being part of a community of people who are thinking similarly and trying to do good things – it might well be good for your happiness as well.

There’s a tension between our immediate satisfaction and the greater good. What advice would you give to someone who wanted to live a morally good and enjoyable life?
The advice that really leaps out concerns how you spend your money. For us in rich countries, the relationship between income and happiness is very weak. There are two different measures of happiness: one is your hedonic satisfaction – how happy you are at one particular moment. And, above an income of about £20,000 per year ($28,000), there is no increase in hedonic happiness. A different measure is overall: how happy you are with your life in general. That more holistic assessment of how your life is going shows only a very small correlation between increasing income and happiness.

In contrast, the amount of good your money can do is absolutely astonishing. £2,000 ($2,800) can save a child’s life from dying from malaria by distributing long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets – many hundreds of thousands of children have already been saved in this way. $1000 (£700) can double the household income of a family living in Kenya for a whole year. In my book, Doing Good Better, I use some of these facts to estimate that when you take a dollar away from yourself and give it to someone who’s extremely poor, you can be providing a benefit that’s a roughly hundred times greater to them than the benefit you’re providing to yourself.

I think making these decisions about how you spend your income – deciding to live on less in order to give more rather than just spend it on yourself – is an exceptional way to not really make your life any less happy but do huge amounts for other people. And insofar as giving has positive benefits for you personally – the good feeling you get when you give and being part of a community of people who are thinking similarly and trying to do good things – it might well be good for your happiness as well.

 

I understand that you’ve given up a large amount of your salary to charity; what made you decide to do so?
I definitely didn’t go into it thinking it was going to be a good way to make my life happier. I was convinced by the arguments of Peter Singer, who wrote ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’ in 1972. He argues that, because people in extreme poverty are so poor and we can do so much to help them, we have a moral duty to give as much as we can in order to prevent their early death and suffering, just as, if we saw a child drowning in a shallow pond, you’d happily run in to save that child – even if it meant ruining your very nice suit, or maybe other material possessions of yours.

It was only when I came to Oxford and met another philosopher here – Toby Ord – that I thought about giving up portions of my salary. At the time Toby had made this commitment to give everything above £20,000. I found that very inspiring – that I’d met this person who had put this argument that I thought was very important, into practice. So, relatively quickly, I made a similar pledge and committed to give everything above £20,000 per year (inflation and cost of living adjusted to Oxford 2009 – so that now means about £24,000 per year).

Toby and I then set up Giving What We Can, which encourages people to give at least 10% of their income – a significant amount more than most people give, but also doable for most rich members of Western countries.

 

Could you describe the success of Giving What We Can since you set it up?
When we launched on November 14 2009, we had 23 members – that’s how many we’d gained from Toby talking about this for about 4 years beforehand and me recruiting for 6 months – so still quite a small affair at the time. We now have close to 1,600 members who have together pledged over $600 million to the most effective charities.

That success helped spawn a whole movement: the effective altruism movement – because the second half of what we were doing was research into what charities are most cost effective. We thought it was very important that the focus was to give but also to ensure that your donations be used as effectively as possible. We researched, drawing on health and development economics, which charities have the biggest bang per buck. That twin idea: of using more of your time and money, but also trying to take the scientific method to work out how we can use that to do the most to improve the lives of others – really took off and a number of other organisations have been set up and books written.

 

Did you find any of that research surprising?
Yes. Things like the fact that most social programmes don’t have an impact at all. According to one estimate, 3/4 of social programmes – when tested – just have no impact. But even within the ones that work, there’s a vast discrepancy in how effectively that money is used. The NHS is willing to spend £20,000–30,000 to give a person one year of quality-adjusted life. But you can do more than 100 times as much by focusing on something like insecticide-treated bednets. That discrepancy between the amount of good you could do was very surprising indeed.

The second thing was that the programmes that do the most good aren’t necessarily the ones you’ve heard of. The one that we championed most in 2009, and still champion, was deworming school children. I hadn’t heard of these conditions at all when I first looked into this, but over a billion people worldwide suffer from a number of intestinal worms. They don’t kill as many people as tuberculosismalaria or AIDS, but they do make a lot of people very sick. Our evidence suggests, in terms of long-term outcomes on increased earnings and number of hours worked, deworming children while they’re still at school is one of the most effective ways of improving people’s lives. That was very surprising to me because I hadn’t even heard of this condition.

 

If you pledge to give up a certain amount of your salary on Giving What We Can, do you know in exact terms what your money will be put towards?
We do a little bit. On the Giving What We Can website, we have a ‘How Rich Are You?’ calculator: you can put in your income and it’ll tell you where you are on the world income distribution. If you’re earning more than about £35,000 after tax you’re in the richest 1%. And then it shows you if you donate 10% where you’d be on the world income distribution, which is not much lower. It then shows you how much good you could do: you could distribute this number of bed nets, you could save this number of lives, deworm this number of children. That makes the impact of what you could do a bit more salient.

 

You’ve set up another charity: 80,000 Hours. Could you explain what it’s set up to do?
80,000 hours refers to the number of hours you’ll typically work in the course of your life. I’ve chosen the title because it shows that it’s a very big decision, a very important one, worth spending a lot of time on. It’s a scarce resource: you need to think about how you can use this time as well as possible if you want to really make a difference to the world.

We started off in 2011 as a volunteer organisation, we took our first employee in 2012, last summer it went through y combinator which is the leading incubator of new start-up companies: reddit went through there, as well as Dropbox and Airbnb – it’s produced a number of billion-dollar companies, but recently it has started accepting non profits as well. That was a really valuable learning experience for the charity – to be in touch with many of the leading figures in the Bay Area tech entrepreneur world.

We want to have the best research to advise people on how to make their career have the most impact. We have a large number of different career profiles. We have a couple of online tools: a career quiz, which about 30,000 people take every month. It’s a set of 7 questions and it will give you some ideas about what you might want to pursue. We have a make a decision tool as well which is more in depth and useful if you already have a few options.

In terms of the future, we want to build up the research, build up the online version and again have this as a go-to resource in college campuses.

 

As I understand it, 80,000 Hours isn’t telling you to devote your life to charity work but rather to upskill yourself and think about ways of pursuing a career and also doing good?
That’s right. Very often the advice that’s given when you think about ethical careers or careers that make a difference is to go and work for nonprofits. But we actually think that’s not very good advice. There’s a few reasons for this: one is just that if you work in some other sector you can normally go into nonprofits but it's harder to go in the other direction. Nonprofits often don’t have as much money or as good training. It’s all about making sure you work for the right place. 

We do encourage some people to work for nonprofits, but also to consider high-impact academic research, party politics, tech entrepreneurship, and quantitative hedge fund trading. The thing that has seemed to get us the most attention is the idea of earning to give: where you deliberately take a high-earning career in order to give. A reasonable percentage of the people we advise do choose to do that, though it’s certainly nowhere close to the majority.

 

How important are passion, skills and other components of job satisfaction in 80,000 Hours’ final algorithmic recommendation of what career you should choose?
We think that, to begin with, you should place a lot of weight on ‘career capital’ – more than people normally do – whether that’s skills, networks or credentials. How much you learn about yourself in the course of the job, how much you learn about the world's needs in the course of the job, how many doors you open – all of these considerations are very important.

We’re normally quite sceptical about ‘doing what you’re passionate about’ since very few people have work-related passions. Most people have things they are passionate about but they tend to be music and sports and art, which everyone else is passionate about. At the same time, only 3% of jobs are in the music, sports and art industries, so if these people followed their passions, the majority will fail to secure a job. Instead we encourage people to think about what you could become good at with work? Because if you’re coming out of a college degree, you probably haven't done much management, leadership, sales or many of the other useful skills to have acquired for work in the real world. It’s about thinking about the things that you could become much better at.

People also significantly underestimate how much their preferences change over the course of their life. If you’re making a career decision, that’s for 30 years – but if you think what your preferences were like 10 years ago, they’re very different to now. Psychologists talk about the ‘end-of-history illusion’ – where people are perfectly willing to admit that they were a completely different person 10 years ago but they still think they will be the same person in 10 years time as they are now. So, to begin with, we encourage people just to experiment, to think of their career as you’d think about it as an experimental scientist or investigative journalist – you are testing hypotheses about what you want to do.

And going back to living a happy life – doing meaningful work is important. Feeling that your work has greater purpose can be quite an important part of a meaningful life.

 

How much does your charity work tie in with your academic research at Oxford?
I have two threads to my research. One is almost directly on this topic – it’s on effective altruist theory, which is related to questions like ‘What are the best places to spend your money?’, ‘What are the best career paths?’, ‘Should you give now, or should you invest to give later?’, ‘What are the most important causes in the world: is it global warming or poverty, or should we be focusing on some other global problem?’

I also work on normative uncertainty. We’re trying to do as much good as we can, but we don’t know what good is, we don’t know what moral view is the right one. What my research addresses is, given that we’re ethically unsure what’s ultimately of value or which of all these different philosophers arguing their different cases is right, how you can take all of that uncertainty into account and, even in light of that uncertainty, make a decision on principled grounds. Economists and decision theorists have this very well worked out for cases of uncertainty about matters of fact – so if you’ve got a drink and there’s a 90% chance it’s tea and a 10% chance it’s poison, decision theorists can tell you exactly how you can work out whether you should drink the drink or not. You look at the probabilities either side and the utility you’d get from drinking tea and the disutility you’d get from drinking poison, and you can take the ‘expected value’ (which is the multiple of the likelihood of this event multiplied by its utility) and do whatever has the maximum expected utility. Now that’s all very standard when applied to questions of what’s going to happen. But if you’re uncertain about what the value of a course of action is, the question becomes: Can you just apply expected utility theory in the same way? I think you can, to some extent.

 

What do you think the biggest problems in the world are at the moment?
Extreme poverty is certainly one. Hundreds of millions of people live on the poverty line, which is $1.90 per day. People often don’t know what that means. It means what $1.90 would buy in the US, so it already takes into account that money goes further overseas. In financial terms they’re living on about £1 per day.

I think another global priority is the treatment of animals in factory farms. There’s almost no argument for treating animals the way we do in factory farms, but that’s how the vast majority of animals are raised – about 50 billion animals every year.

A third global priority is what we call global catastrophic risks: so low probability risks which have very bad potential outcomes. Some of these we’re familiar with: asteroids hitting the planet, super volcanoes, runaway climate change. An issue that’s been getting a lot of play in Oxford recently and is a bit more speculative, but I think should be taken seriously, is the development of artificial general intelligence, which is where there is a human level of artificial intelligence.

 

You are about the youngest associate professor in the world– how did that come about and how do you feel about it?
I feel extremely happy about it. I feel like I’ve been very lucky. After my PhD I spent a year as a Junior Research Fellow at Cambridge and then came here. There were two positions for moral philosophy in Oxford and one at the London School of Economics – and I got offers from all of them! I was lucky that there were positions being offered in moral philosophy because generally there are so few philosophy positions open - let alone two in the specific sub-field I specialise in.

I’ve had a few very good publications coming out and there’s no doubt that publishing in philosophy journals is a big lottery, I was lucky with the ones my articles appeared in. I was also lucky in my choice of PhD topic: it was something I had the idea for as a master’s student and it’s a rare area in so far as it’s clearly very important, there’s lots of work you can do on it, but almost no literature on it. I was able to read all the literature on it in about two weeks. That means you don’t get mired in other people's debates, you can just make progress. I had 2 really great supervisors: John Broome and Krister Bykvist, who also encouraged me to look at some specific literature in economics.

  

Do you think talking to the public online, through digital sites and tools, is a better way to make philosophy front and centre than more traditional means (through academic journals and so on)?
Yes – I would like to see more moral philosophers engaging with the public a lot more. And, online, it’s easier than ever to do! There’s more of a precedent of it in economics than in philosophy: Tyler CowenRobin Hanson, Paul KrugmanNoah Smith – these bloggers have huge amounts of attention. Interestingly that same thing doesn't really happen in philosophy. I don't think that’s because there isn’t interest in philosophy; if you look at Existential Comics and even xkcdSMBC – there’s clearly a lot of interest in pop philosophy, but there just isn’t that culture in philosophy at the moment. That’s a shame, because there’s so much for moral philosophy to say about what’s going on.

 

What three works of moral philosophy have most influenced you?
There’s two for sure. One is Practical Ethics by Peter Singer, which I read when I was 17. That had a very important impact on me and gave me a lot of the motivation I had for wanting to study philosophy. It showed that philosophy could be profoundly important in changing the world for the better.

The second book is Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit. Everyone would agree it’s an extremely important work in moral philosophy. Firstly it just introduces the field of population ethics. He also argues that the common sense notion we have of personal identity – of a continued person over time – doesn’t really exist. There’s nothing fundamentally distinct between me and you – it’s only a matter that I happen to have memories of my past and anticipation of my future.

The third one is more recent: Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom, which I think makes the case in a very compelling way for thinking that risk from Artificial Intelligence – while it may sound like science fiction – actually is something that we as a society ought to be thinking about. That’s not saying it’s round the corner, but it's perhaps sufficiently important that we should be thinking about it well in advance, in the same way that we are about climate change.