David Lynch
Professor MacAskill has researched the ethics of giving to charity

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Charity donors should behave more like consumers or scientists, says Oxford academic

Charitable givers should ignore their emotions and focus on evidence-based results when choosing where to donate their money, an Oxford University philosopher has said.

William MacAskill, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford, has published Doing Good Better this month. The book is based on his research into charitable giving and altruism.

Professor MacAskill says most people who give to charity do not give enough thought to where their money is going and how they can do the most good with it. He argues that donors should behave more like scientists, using evidence and careful reasoning to make a decision. 

'We very often fail to think as carefully about helping others as we could, mistakenly believing that applying data and rationality to a charitable endeavour robs the act of virtue. And that means we pass up opportunities to make a tremendous difference,' he says.

'Every year, hundreds of thousands of people donate to charities they haven’t heard of simply because a well-spoken stranger asks them to, or even simply shakes a bucket at them. And they usually have no way of knowing what happens to the money they donate.'

Professor MacAskill claims that much of the conventional wisdom behind charitable giving is irrational. For example, he says criticising charities for their spending on admin and overheads is “seriously flawed”.

'Think about the logic behind this reasoning if you apply it to personal spending,’ he says. ‘Suppose you’re deciding whether to buy a Mac or a PC. What factors would you consider? You’d probably think about the design and usability of the two computers, the hardware, the software, and the price.

'You certainly wouldn't think about how much Apple and Microsoft each spend on administration, and you wouldn’t think about how much their respective CEOs are paid.'

Professor MacAskill argues that choosing to give money to emergency appeals in response to natural disasters can often make less of a difference than giving money to other charities which fight poverty.

'If the international response to natural disasters was rational, we would expect a greater amount of funding to be provided to larger disasters and to disasters that occur in poorer countries, which are less able to cope,' he says.

'But that's not what happens. Funding seems to be allocated in proportion with how evocative and widely publicised the disaster is, rather than on the basis of its scale and severity.'

Professor MacAskill also urges caution about the rise of 'ethical consumerism', where people spend more money on goods that are produced by workers who are treated well. He says that in most countries where goods are produced in factories known as 'sweatshops', these jobs are more attractive than many other alternatives.

'The alternatives are typically backbreaking, low-paid farm labour, scavenging, or unemployment,’ he says. ‘Almost all workers in sweatshops choose to work there, and some go to great lengths to do so. In the early twenty-first century nearly 4 million people from Laos, Cambodia and Burma immigrated to Thailand to take sweatshop jobs, and many Bolivians risk deportation by illegally entering Brazil in order to work in sweatshops there.

'The average daily earnings among sweatshop workers are: $2 in Bangladesh, $5.50 in Cambodia, $7 in Haiti and $8 in India. These wages are tiny, of course, but when compared to the $1.25 a day many citizens of those countries live on, the demand for these jobs seems more understandable.'

As well as charity, Professor MacAskill discusses explores how people could make a social impact through their career. He argues that by taking a lucrative career and donating a large amount of your earnings to charity, you can have more of a social impact than becoming a doctor.

'By becoming a doctor, you’re really just changing who works as a doctor, not how many doctors there are,' he says. 'Socially motivated young people should consider ‘earning to give’: deliberately taking a lucrative career in order to donate a chunk of their earnings. Careers within entrepreneurship, research, and politics can also have a high social impact.'

Professor MacAskill co-founded the non-profit organisations Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours, which encourage people to use their time and money as effectively as possible to fight the world’s most pressing problems.

Between them they have raised over £7.5 million for the most cost-effective charities plus a further £240 million in lifetime pledges and helped to launch the effective altruism movement.