June 25, 2015 6:59 AM EDT

When British doctor Greg Lewis felt called to contribute more to the world, he looked into leaving the U.K. to serve less fortunate patients. That seemed a better way to do good than working in a pristine hospital.

But when he crunched the numbers, they told a different story. By treating patients in a poor country, he calculated he might save four lives per year. By choosing a specialty at home and working toward an annual salary of $200,000, he could donate up to half to a charity providing antimalarial bed nets–helping stop infection in the first place and saving dozens of lives per year. As William MacAskill explains in his forthcoming book, Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and How You Can Make a Difference, Lewis chose to earn in order to give.

MacAskill takes an irreverent approach to the rules of charity, suggesting that impulsive altruism can often do more harm than good. Boycotting brands that use sweatshops, for example, risks putting workers out of much-needed jobs with better conditions than they would otherwise find. Choosing where and how much to give should be “a scientific approach,” he writes.

It’s also a choice that should become a priority for corporations, Matthieu Ricard argues. In his new book, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, the French author (and Buddhist monk) contends that investing in altruism can actually help a bottom line. After Johnson & Johnson started a health initiative, for example, two-thirds of its smoker employees quit cigarettes–saving the company $250 million in health care bills.

–SARAH BEGLEY

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