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Want to Do More Good? This Movement Might Have the Answer

27 minute read
Naina Bajekal is executive editor and international editor at TIME, where she oversees World and Technology coverage. She is the editor of the TIME100 AI and the co-editor of TIME's Women of the Year list.

Thirteen years ago, William MacAskill found himself standing in the aisle of a grocery store, agonizing over which breakfast cereal to buy. If he switched to a cheaper brand for a year, could he put aside enough money to save someone’s life? It wasn’t the first time he’d been gripped by this kind of angst. His life has often felt like a series of difficult choices: Should he donate even more money to charity? Should he quit academia and work in politics—even if he hated it—in the hopes of having a greater social impact? What if he moved to a different city—could he do more to help others elsewhere?

For anyone enjoying a comfortable life in a world of horrifying inequality, examining your choices closely might spark similar questions. For MacAskill, a 35-year-old Scottish philosopher who co-founded a movement dedicated to doing the most good possible, the stakes of even mundane decisions can feel especially high.

Yet when we meet on a sunny July afternoon in Oxford, he seems to have found a way to carry that load. In fact, for a man who’s spent the past few years thinking about how humanity might permanently derail its future, he’s surprisingly cheerful. He’s just returned from a week of surfing with his partner Holly Morgan on the south coast of England. After years of suffering from depression and anxiety, he now prioritizes sleep, exercise, and meditation. He enjoys swimming outdoors, playing the saxophone, and holding “fire raves” in fields with friends, dancing around a bonfire to house music until the early hours. “There are many things in my life I care about for intrinsic reasons,” he says, “not because I’ve done some 12-dimensional maths about how it contributes to the greater good.”

The greater good has been the focus of his work for more than a decade, since he helped start the effective altruism (EA) movement, which aims to use evidence and reason to find the best ways of helping others, and to put those findings into practice. EA holds that we should value all lives equally and act on that basis. It is the antithesis of the old do-gooder’s credo “Think global, act local.”

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His new book, What We Owe the Future, argues we should expand the moral circle even further: if we care about people thousands of miles away, we should care about people thousands or even millions of years in the future. The book, which has been praised by the likes of Stephen Fry and Elon Musk, makes the case for “longtermism,” the view that positively influencing the long-term future—not just this generation or the next, but the potentially trillions of people still to come—is a key moral priority of our time. Through analyzing the risks of climate change, man-made pathogens, nuclear weapons, and advanced artificial intelligence, MacAskill has come to believe we’re living at a pivotal moment in human history, one where the fate of the world depends significantly on the choices we make in our lifetimes.

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For many years EA, which is both a research field and a real-life community, drew a small group of moral philosophers, nonprofit researchers, Bay Area rationalists, and altruistically inclined students. Now their ideas are increasingly taking off outside of those circles. More than 7,000 people have signed a pledge to give away at least 10% of their income to the kinds of high-impact charities recommended by, for example, GiveWell, which started in 2007 in New York to evaluate charities based on cost-effectiveness. There are more than 200 EA chapters around the world, from Nigeria to India to Mexico; this year, approximately 6,000 individuals will attend conferences in cities including Prague, Singapore, and San Francisco—where EA, with its data-driven approach to doing good, has found a particularly receptive audience. EAs, as members of this movement call themselves, are working in government, advising on policy, and running for office.

The expansion has been fueled by a substantial rise in donations. In 2021, EA-aligned foundations distributed more than $600 million in publicly listed grants—roughly quadruple what they gave five years earlier. While this is a minute fraction of global philanthropy—and only 0.1% of U.S. giving, which amounted to $485 billion the same year—the movement is growing and has the support of a new generation of young philanthropists planning to funnel their fortunes into EA causes.

The vast majority of EA’s newfound wealth comes from two tech billionaires: Dustin Moskovitz and Sam Bankman-Fried. Open Philanthropy, which is primarily funded by the Facebook and Asana co-founder Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna, distributed more than $440 million in grants in 2021, a third of which went to global health and development, 28% to longtermist interventions (such as biosecurity and EA community growth), 18% to animal welfare, and the rest to research in areas such as economic policy and criminal-justice reform. Four months after launching in February this year, the FTX Future Fund had committed more than $130 million in grants, mostly to longtermist causes. The money comes from Bankman-Fried, the CEO of cryptocurrency exchange FTX, who was inspired to pursue a high-earning career after meeting MacAskill in 2012.

Bloomberg estimates Bankman-Fried’s net worth at $12.8 billion (down because of this year’s crypto-market crash) and Moskovitz’s at $13.8 billion. Both have committed to giving away most of their wealth, with EA-aligned organizations as the tributaries. Between them, that’s more than $26 billion. That far surpasses the endowments of two of America’s oldest private foundations, the Ford Foundation ($16 billion) and the Rockefeller Foundation ($6.3 billion). Like those foundations, Open Philanthropy and the Future Fund function as grantmakers for projects, non-profits, and individuals they deem high-impact.

Read More: MacKenzie Scott Gave Away $6 Billion Last Year. It’s Not As Easy As It Sounds

Despite all this growth, MacAskill still worries he’s not doing enough. Every year, millions of people die from easily preventable diseases, millions more are oppressed and abused, and hundreds of millions go hungry. On top of that, some 80 billion land animals are killed for food every year. “That’s just a f-cked up place to be,” he says. As he sees it, pure moral philosophy leads to the conclusion that the correct thing—at least for someone with his privileges in a wealthy country—is to sacrifice everything you could for the greater good. “The question is,” he says, “how do I manage my life such that even though I believe that at the fundamental level, I don’t go completely insane?”

The EA movement has proved remarkably expansive, allowing those who might be inclined toward radical individualism to work alongside the more collectively minded. But for it to deliver on its aim—to improve as many lives as possible—it needs to help answer an impossible question: How much comfort should we be willing to trade for potentially enormous gains to society?

Many of the people who helped give rise to EA felt compelled to do good from a young age. At 11, Niel Bowerman tried to encourage his London classmates to carpool to help combat climate change. As a 13-year-old in suburban Richmond, Va., Julia Wise began giving away her allowance. The summer before his senior year at Stanford, Alexander Berger signed up to donate a kidney to a stranger. Sixteen-year-old Benjamin Todd conducted an audit to show how his school could reduce carbon emissions; in response, the school started an organic garden. “That wasn’t really what I had in mind,” he says now, laughing.

As a teenager in Glasgow, MacAskill was similarly interested in big ideas and helping others. Born William Crouch (he took his ex-wife’s grandmother’s maiden name when they married in 2013), he was the youngest of three sons. His mother worked as a geneticist for the National Health Service while his father worked in IT for a clothing company. He wrote in his journal about the philosophy of love and harbored aspirations of becoming a poet; he volunteered at summer camps for children with disabilities and worked at an eldercare facility. “My mum was honestly always pretty confused by it,” he says. At Cambridge University, MacAskill became vegetarian, got involved in climate activism, and started attending lectures on political philosophy, feminism, and global governance. It was during his final year that the urge to do good began to bubble more strongly. He spent the summer after graduation working for a humanitarian nonprofit. “All day, every day, I was thinking about extreme poverty,” he says.

Shortly after he arrived at Oxford for graduate studies in philosophy, MacAskill was introduced to the Australian philosopher Toby Ord, who had pledged to give more than half of his future earnings to charity and was thinking about how to connect others interested in doing something similar. The 22-year-old MacAskill volunteered to help him, and in 2009 they launched Giving What We Can to encourage more people to take the 10% donation pledge.

Read More: Why Giving Is the Best Gift This Year

Two years later, in 2011, MacAskill and Todd, a fellow Oxford graduate, co-founded the nonprofit 80,000 Hours (named for how long the average person spends at work over their lifetime) to provide advice on using your career to make a positive difference in the world. After debating a bunch of terms for their burgeoning community—from “good maximizers” to “rational altruism”—MacAskill and his colleagues founded the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA) in 2012, as an umbrella organization for the two projects. Their first significant donations came from a couple in Boston: Julia Wise, the former allowance gifter, who was by then a social worker donating a significant portion of her salary, and her husband Jeff Kaufman. After years of working in cafés and libraries, CEA rented its first office in the basement of a real estate office; about a dozen people worked there, eating bread and hummus for lunch.

Associate Philosophy Professor William MacAskill, at his office in Oxford on July 14
Associate philosophy professor William MacAskill, at his office in Oxford on July 14Sophie Green for TIME

Nine years on, I meet MacAskill outside Trajan House in Oxford, a sleek, glass-walled building that several EA organizations share with Oxford University. There’s a small gym, weekly yoga classes, and a nap room. Our lunch from the office canteen is a Tuscan ribollita stew, garlic bread, and salad provided by vegan caterers Greenbox. MacAskill sometimes misses the bread-in-the-basement days, which felt consistent with the mission. But CEA now has an annual budget of $28 million, which allows for the sorts of amenities one doesn’t typically associate with shoestring nonprofits. MacAskill says the comforts help to maximize productivity and well-being, and they’re cautious about not overdoing the perks. “We don’t want to go for obscene luxury,” he says, “but the main thing to focus on is how much impact we’re having.”

When assessing a potentially worthy cause, EAs calculate impact using three components: importance or scale (how much good could arise from working on it), tractability (how solvable it is), and neglectedness (how overlooked it is in terms of committed resources). One result of filtering the world’s problems through a lens of where an extra dollar or hour would have the most impact is that EA donations can seem to lack any obvious connection: among Open Philanthropy’s causes are South Asian air quality, farm-animal welfare, and the risks of advanced AI.

The emphasis on neglected causes has led many EA leaders to focus more on how to maximize the good not just for those alive today, but also for the many, many generations to come. As more intellectual excitement and resources have started flowing to causes like existential threats, some in the movement have worried that the reasons they all got into this—to help tackle urgent, overlooked suffering—could end up falling by the wayside.

MacAskill seems acutely aware of the trade-offs of prioritizing future people, though he believes they are uniquely disempowered by the incentives of our current political and economic systems. “If you’re a small force in the world, then there’s an argument that you should be going all in on one thing,” he says, noting that far more money goes to foreign humanitarian aid than to pandemic preparedness, AI safety, and preventing nuclear war. “EA is always fundamentally asking: What can be done on the margin? Moving the global allocation of resources potentially just a little bit in one direction can have an outsize impact,” he says.

Read More: Meet the Researchers Working to Make Sure Artificial Intelligence Is a Force for Good

But MacAskill wants EA to be an adaptive community, not an intellectual monoculture—which means he favors a breadth of causes. “When I start thinking in practice, if you’ve got some things that look robustly good in both the short and the long term, that definitely makes you feel a lot better than something that is only good from a very long-term perspective,” he says. This year, for example, he personally donated to the Lead Exposure Elimination Project, which aims to end childhood lead exposure, and the Atlas Fellowship, which supports talented high school students around the world to work on pressing problems. Not all issues are equally tractable, but MacAskill still cares about a range; when we met in Oxford, he expressed concern for the ongoing political crisis in Sri Lanka, though admitted he probably wouldn’t tweet about it.

With countless problems worth addressing, he knows “moral vertigo” can feel inevitable. Suppose you decide you’re going to raise money for people dying of malaria, he says. Then what about all the people dying of tuberculosis, because you’re choosing to focus on malaria? “We are in this horrific situation where you’ve got to make trade-offs about what you do,” he says.

The answer, he believes, is to be honest about it. In philanthropy, big donors typically choose causes based on their personal passions—an ultra-subjectivist approach, MacAskill says, where everything is seemingly justifiable on the basis of doing some good. He doesn’t think that’s tenable. “If you can save someone from drowning or 10 people from dying in a burning building, what should you do?” he proposes. “It is not a morally appropriate response to say, well, I’m particularly passionate about drowning and so I’m going to save the one person from drowning rather than the 10 people from burning. And that’s exactly the situation we find ourselves in.”

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A big part of MacAskill’s work these days is trying to persuade very wealthy people to change how they give away money. Like so many others in philanthropy, he both counts on the largess of billionaires and worries about the risks of dependence. “Look at any moral movement in the past, you will find examples of the ideas being misused to justify actions that aren’t in line with the best thing,” he says, positing that liberalism was used to justify colonial atrocities, and Marx and Engels’ concern for the working class was exploited by Stalin.

That’s partly why he thinks it’s crucial that EA continues to have culture-setters who are serious about their moral obligations. MacAskill and Ord see it as especially important to stick to the “Further Pledge” they both took to donate not just a certain percentage of their earnings, but everything above a set sum. MacAskill currently lives on £26,000 ($31,000) a year, which is slightly above the median household income in the U.K., and the proceeds of his new book all go to the Effective Altruism Funds. “It’s a legible demonstration that I’m in this because I really care, I’m not getting any financial benefit,” he says. That kind of commitment helps signal the moral seriousness of the EA community, he hopes, and is also personally reassuring. “I might worry, am I drifting in values? OK, no, if I’m still doing these things, I guess I must still be a good person.”

It’s possible that MacAskill wouldn’t still be thinking about doing good at all, if not for that chance introduction to Ord. Like many young people, he had a sense that the world was full of injustice and a desire to make a difference, but he didn’t know where to channel it. There was plenty of discussion about how terrible the world was, he says, but little offered in the way of concrete action. “I was feeling really bad, but what I really wanted was to make the world better, rather than to make myself feel worse,” he says. “It’s quite plausible to me that I would have had this wave of moral motivation, not found an outlet for it, and it would just have faded away over time.”

​I was in a similar position when I first encountered effective altruism as a university student. I’d grown disillusioned about a planned career in international development after a year working at a nonprofit when I came across the 80,000 Hours career advice. At the time, it was promoting a strategy called earning to give, encouraging students to pursue lucrative careers doing, for example, quantitative trading at hedge funds, in order to donate a significant portion of their salaries—rather than working directly for nonprofits. (80,000 Hours has now de-emphasized this approach.) That strategy is controversial and certainly wasn’t a good fit for me. But as soon as I graduated in 2014 and got my first internship at this publication, I signed the Giving What We Can Pledge. I now donate about 15% of my pretax income, mostly to EA-recommended charities working on global health, climate, and animal welfare. (I had never attended an EA event nor met any key figures until I began reporting this story.)

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I was interested in EA as a set of ideas, if less in the community. Even today, the typical effective altruist is a white man in his 20s, who lives in North America or Europe, and has a university degree. (While geographic diversity is growing, gender diversity still lags.) I was glad to know that there was a group of people taking seriously the question of how to do good, but they just didn’t seem like my people.

Even for MacAskill, the community can have its downsides. Back in 2015, effective altruism felt like the majority of MacAskill’s identity; he recalls attending the wedding of his best friend from high school and realizing that he wasn’t one of the groomsmen because he had let the friendship fallow. That year was a turning point: he separated from his wife, the philosopher Amanda Askell, got his Oxford professorship at the exceptionally young age of 28, and began actively cultivating a more multifaceted life.

Still, EA remains a lodestar. “It doesn’t impact my feeling of happiness in the way that dancing might impact my feeling of happiness,” MacAskill says. “But there’s this deeper sense of satisfaction or even harmony with the world.” He might still worry about how bad everything is, or how much worse it could get, but he is largely doing his best to find solutions. “The mode of ‘everything sucks’ is not helpful. Maybe it’s true, but the relevant question is: what can we do?”

Many EAs echo that sentiment: that doing something, even when the right course of action is unclear, is better than giving in to fatalism, which is often where I find myself. It can be tough to work in journalism—a field that stares right at the world’s problems—and not become cynical. When things feel particularly bleak, I sometimes tell myself that even if I had the time and energy to try to make the world better, I’d probably fail.

Effective altruists try anyway. They know it’s impossible to take the care you feel for one human and scale it up by a thousand, or a million, or a billion. Rather than getting overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem, they focus on the difference a single person can make. “Some people would think that what we do is just a drop in the bucket,” Ord says. “But it doesn’t really matter what size the bucket is. If what you can do in your life involves really saving hundreds of lives, or transforming the lives of hundreds or thousands of people, that’s just as big no matter how many other people need help.”

Is doing any of this actually a moral obligation? Effective altruists tend to be divided on the subject. MacAskill says EA explicitly doesn’t make moral demands. It tries to answer the question of how to most effectively use a given amount of resources, whether a dollar or an hour, to improve the world, but it doesn’t tell you how much money or time to give to these efforts. Ord and MacAskill have left the question open in how they’ve framed Giving What You Can. “The general approach is: if you hear this message and you’re excited about it, come join us,” Ord says. “Let’s go do it.”

Both have, however, been influenced by the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. In his famous 1972 essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” Singer argues that if you would feel morally obliged to wade into a shallow pond to save a drowning child, even if it would destroy your clothes, you should feel equally obliged to save the lives of people you can’t see by forgoing the cost of a new outfit.

This line of thought can lead to a crushing sense of responsibility. In the 2015 book Strangers Drowning, journalist Larissa MacFarquhar describes a frustrated and isolated Julia Wise, then in her 20s, as believing she was not entitled to care more for herself than for others. In one memorable episode, her boyfriend buys her a $4 candy apple and she weeps bitterly, feeling immense guilt that she might have deprived a child of a lifesaving anti-malarial bed net.

Wise says that mindset predated any encounters with effective altruism. “Young adults want to be hardcore about something, and I decided to be hardcore about sacrifice,” she tells me, with a soft laugh. Once she connected with like-minded people in Boston and Oxford, she began to wonder if choosing the right problems to work on could have far more of an effect than simply working harder and sacrificing more. “Just feeling that I was on a team with other people mattered a lot. I realized this isn’t about how hard I can drive myself,” she says. “It’s about what I and others can accomplish as far as making the world better.”

Like many EAs, Wise—who is now CEA’s longest-serving employee—finds Singer’s arguments compelling, but she believes obligation is not a strong motivator in the long run. She also doesn’t hold quite the same attitude as Holden Karnofsky, the co-CEO of Open Philanthropy and co-founder of GiveWell, who has written about “excited altruism,” which stresses that being able to make a significant difference to others is an exciting opportunity. To Wise, the fact that it’s relatively easy and cheap to save a life is an indictment as well as an enticement. “A better society would have prevented this by now,” she says. Because it hasn’t, what she feels is a kind of determination—hope that the world could be better, and resolve because the problems are so appalling.

In a 2015 review of MacAskill’s first book, Doing Good Better, the philosopher Amia Srinivasan writes that “effective altruism takes up the spirit of Singer’s argument but shields us from the full blast of its conclusion,” which is that small luxuries may be morally unacceptable. To Srinivasan, effective altruism is essentially just collective decency with better branding and organization. As she wrote, “either effective altruism, like utilitarianism, demands that we do the most good possible, or it asks merely that we try to make things better. The first thought is genuinely radical, requiring us to overhaul our daily lives in ways unimaginable to most … The second thought … is shared by every plausible moral system and every decent person.”

The EA movement believes it lies somewhere between the two. In encouraging a norm where people give 10% of their income—significantly more than the 2% of disposable income the average American gives—to causes that are unrelated to their immediate emotional satisfaction, effective altruism is asking more of people than to simply “try to make things better,” says Alexander Berger, the co-CEO of Open Philanthropy. On Twitter, he recently wrote that one of the core insights of effective altruism is that “comfortable modernity is consistent with levels of altruistic impact and moral seriousness that we might normally associate with moral heroism.” A world where college-educated Americans gave 10% to GiveWell-recommended charities (or similar) would be a massively better world, he argued, with far lower child mortality and poverty.

That EA is more comfortable meeting people where they are is probably why it’s taken off in a way that Singer’s arguments haven’t in the past 50 years. “EA doesn’t require you to refashion your sense of self,” Berger tells me. “You can have a lot of impact without becoming a radical ascetic.”

Another critique is that EA is too deeply rooted in the values underpinning current power structures and it shouldn’t be up to individuals to fix seismic problems. MacAskill agrees, pointing out that EAs are doing a lot of work to try and change things at the policy level, but he also believes the argument can be used as an excuse by well-off people to defer responsibility. “Society just consists of individuals; governments consist of individuals; corporations and so on,” he says. That leads him to argue that EA should focus on both trying to change what big institutions do, and on individual action.

Believing that it’s truly possible for one person to make a difference can inspire people to reorganize their priorities. Niel Bowerman was a climate scientist and activist when he met MacAskill and decided to change tracks; he helped set up 80,000 Hours, where he now works.

In such a young movement, though—a 2020 survey put the median age at 27—that belief can also lead people to put immense pressure on themselves to optimize all their life choices. “When I first encountered EA, there was this slightly alluring idea of: Why don’t I just dedicate my whole life to this thing?” Bowerman says. He soon came to realize that wasn’t sustainable, nor was it the best way to do the most good.

Many older EAs—those in their 30s qualify here—say doing good has become one of many goals, not the only one. Wise has three children, which has helped ground her. “It’s both not realistic and probably not desirable to be so absolutist about this that you don’t have other significant pulls in your life,” she says. “We all need to make decisions that work for us as humans and not as if we’re only optimizing machines.”

On MacAskill’s desk in Oxford are portraits of three people: Mozi, the ancient Chinese moral philosopher who taught that morality should involve equal, impartial concern for all; Benjamin Lay, the Anglo American Quaker who was a prominent early opponent of slavery; and Irena Sendler, the Polish humanitarian who rescued Jews during the Second World War.

Looking at them reminds him of the long path from these moral pioneers to the widespread uptake of their ideas. The first public protest against African American slavery was the 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition. Slavery was only abolished in the British Empire in 1833, decades later in the U.S., and not until 1962 in Saudi Arabia. History encourages MacAskill to favor gradual progress over revolution. Abolition, he says, is “maybe the single best moral change ever, it’s certainly up there with feminism, and they’re extremely incremental. They don’t seem that way because we enormously shrink the past, but it’s almost 300 years we’re talking about.”

The moral pioneers on MacAskill’s desk: humanitarian Irena Sendler, abolitionist Benjamin Lay, and philosopher Mozi
The moral pioneers on William MacAskill’s desk: humanitarian Irena Sendler, abolitionist Benjamin Lay, and philosopher MoziSophie Green for TIME

As MacAskill works to advocate for the generations to come, he tries to keep in mind how ideas play out over decades and centuries. In What We Owe the Future, MacAskill argues that a flourishing future is not fantasy; it may not be likely, but it is possible. “It’s a future that, with enough patience and wisdom, our descendants could actually build—if we pave the way for them,” he writes.

Part of that task requires cultivating imaginative compassion. At the end of the hardback edition of MacAskill’s new book, a QR code takes you to a short story, “Afterwards,” dedicated to his girlfriend Holly. Set thousands of years in the future in a eutopia (meaning a “good place,” whereas utopia means “no-place”), there is a scene where a character describes how she has been reading some history. She is incredulous that people once traveled around in trains underground, crammed together, making one another sick. “And they’d do it every day. And they’d hate it. But they’d keep doing it, because they had to, just to have a life that was barely good at all. And they hardly thought about how much better life could be.”

I find this surprisingly moving. If I think about my ancestors even 200 years ago, they would never have been able to picture my life now. It’s no wonder that it’s hard for me to imagine a future that’s much better than what MacAskill calls a “global Scandinavia,” where everyone has about as good a life as the most well-off people alive today have.

“We could really make things very good in the future,” he tells me. “Imagine your very best days. You could have a life that is as good as that, 100 times over, 1,000 times over.”

In the days that follow, I find myself thinking of that conversation—of the moments in my life that have shimmered with beauty and joy and love and laughter, and the stability and safety that made those moments more possible. I think of all the people alive right now who deserve to have such moments, and all the lives still to come that could be so much better and richer in meaning—or so much worse. If that depends on what we all do in the next few decades, I don’t know exactly how to help ensure our actions are for the better. But if the future could be as vast and good as MacAskill thinks, it seems worth trying.

—With reporting by Leslie Dickstein/New York

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Write to Naina Bajekal/Oxford, U.K. at naina.bajekal@time.com

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