Are good intentions enough to make a difference in the world?
The short answer is no.
Meaningful change isn’t created by good intentions alone. No matter your passion, if you want to have a big impact, you must be armed with evidence and the resolve to make informed decisions and difficult trade-offs.
I was reminded of this in William MacAskill’s thoughtful new book, Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and How You Can Make a Difference. He provides a straightforward guide to help anyone make the largest possible difference in the lives of others.
Framed around a series of insightful questions backed by thorough analyses, Doing Good Better reads like a mashup of introductory economics and MacAskill’s own philosophy about how to make the world a better place.
An associate professor of philosophy at Lincoln College, Oxford, MacAskill provides a manual for how to harness your generosity as effectively as possible — on a scale both small and large. He argues that, when armed with precise questions and a measure of steely pragmatism, people can become effective altruists.
Underlying his prescriptions for how to be an effective altruist is a simple and inspiring idea: It’s good to be generous.
I couldn’t agree more. Generosity is fun. It can even be addictive. It’s become one of my recurring New Year’s resolutions to try to be more generous than I was the year before.
The best part is that generosity isn’t exclusive — there are no prerequisites to helping people. You can just be generous.
And for any skeptics who might think your individual voice or time or money won’t make a difference, I say try it and see what happens. Your efforts will matter. And the most surprising part of giving is how it changes you.
It may not always seem like it, but generosity and compassion are mainstreaming. Last year, Americans donated more money to charity than ever before.
MacAskill draws upon anecdotes from many charities to convince readers just how much good they are capable of, no matter the cause. A great example is the story of smallpox — the only human disease to have been completely wiped off the face of the earth. It took bold thinking to even conceive of a plan to eradicate the disease in the first place. But more than that, it required rigorous surveillance and monitoring to ensure that vaccinators knew where to go to contain outbreaks of the disease. The lessons learned with smallpox continue to inform work today to eradicate polio and other diseases.
I’m not suggesting that anyone can just eradicate a disease. But when you combine compassion, generosity, evidence, and pragmatism, they can add up to remarkable results for the things you care about most.
It’s not a stretch to understand why I’m a fan of this way of thinking — it is how we try to approach our work every day at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We ask ourselves questions like: Who is suffering? What is the world not paying attention to? How can we harness the very best in medicine, technology, economics, and business to improve people’s lives?
It may not always seem like it, but generosity and compassion are mainstreaming. Last year, Americans donated more money to charity than ever before. There is a growing movement of global citizens who are channeling their passion to improve global health and poverty — causes I care deeply about. It is heartening to see effective altruism taking hold around the world.
I hope that whatever your cause is, you have the chance to witness and contribute to lasting impact, too.
Getting in the habit of giving back is never a bad thing. While good intentions might not be enough in their own right, a world full of people who care — and who are open to doing good better — can make a world of difference.