In the span of a few months, three intro-to-effective-altruism books came out- Peter Singer’s The Most Good You Can Do, Nick Cooney’s How to be Great at Doing Good, and Will MacAskill’s Doing Good Better. After reading all three, my preference order is: How to be Great… > Doing Good Better > The Most Good…, with fairly large gaps between the three. I actively disliked reading The Most Good…. On the other hand, if you measured the impact each person has had on moving money to effective charities, the order is most certainly Peter Singer >> Will MacAskill > Nick Cooney.* This leads me to believe my preferences are not wildly predictive and shouldn’t be given much weight. But I think I understand why I like How to be Great… best, and that information might be useful.
In a nutshell: Peter Singer tells you what to do, Nick Cooney teaches you a way to think about the problem.** In particular: I hate the argument from a drowning child. It works by evoking a primitive instinct that is
almost impossible to translate to rigorous analysis completely separate from the part of my brain that plans effective giving. The same instinct that tells you to ruin your suit to save a child will tell you to skip a one time opportunity to earn billions of dollars for charity to save a child. We like saving children. Meanwhile, Nick Cooney’s book is about building up the skills so you can look at tough choices without blinking. To me, this came off as simultaneously less judgmental of my faults and yet a stronger push for me to do better.
[I suspect high scrupulousness plays a role here- I constantly felt like Singer was saying I was a bad person because I wasn’t doing the most goodest thing, and it made me want to think about giving less.]
As EA-the-movement grows, I think it’s going to have to have very different inward and outward faces. On one extreme you have the very core- doing or planning on doing direct work, the kind of hardcore earning to give that depends on social support, organizing the movement, or spreading ideas outside it. On the other extreme you have people who are going to donate a modest amount to charity and are choosing based mostly on warm fuzzies, but are influenced by EA to donate more, or more effectively. I picture this group as slightly less rigorous than my parents, who I have convinced to donate to several EA charities, and who have done good research on charities themselves, but also still give money to my dad’s extremely well endowed alma matter. How to be Great… is for preparing people to be core. The Most Good… is for motivating people on the very fringe. I would place Doing Good Better between them, but much closer to The Most Good… If one of my friends wanted to know about EA, I’d give them Doing Good Better, on the theory that my friends are a lot like me. If a stranger wanted to know more I’d probably point them to The Most Good…, based on empirical results (unless they were highly conscientious). If you enjoy my blog I suspect you’re a How to be Great type- even if you don’t want to drink the EA koolaid, you probably like being taught more than being ordered.
*Singer had major influences on Bill Gates and Dustin Moskovitz (funder of GoodVentures) and after he’s done that there’s no point even counting the other people he’s influenced. Will MacAskill cofounded 80,000 hours and Giving What We Can. Nick Cooney runs some relatively small budget animal charities.
** If I had to pick a description for MacAskill’s approach it would be “descriptive”, but it doesn’t contrast with the other books as much as they do with themselves. Peter Singer also spends a lot of time describing the effective altruism movement but I found a lot of it to be wrong.