William MacAskill's youth, scepticism and academic exactitude are some of the qualities that won him a legion of fans, writes Charlotte Metcalf.
At just 29, William MacAskill has ambitions that would daunt Macbeth. He aims to eradicate global poverty and disease, end food and water shortages and drag our war-torn, polluted, troubled globe back from the brink of disaster. Before we dismiss him as a naïve, presumptuous crank, his supporters argue that he’s well on the way to achieving his goals. Certainly his meticulously researched, academic approach is winning him legions of admirers.
To summarise what MacAskill is doing, let alone judge its efficacy, is difficult because he’s working on so many projects at once. Literally and metaphorically, I lose my way as I set out to meet him at the Centre for Effective Altruism in Oxford. Despite heavy rain, he offers to cycle to meet me so he can guide me. Bespectacled and softly spoken, he resembles an eager student more than a man in possession of potential solutions for global salvation.
His workload is formidable. He is associate professor of philosophy at Lincoln College. He is also co-founder and president of 80,000 Hours (set up to help people find careers that make a difference), co-founder and vice-president of Giving What We Can, and at the helm of the effective altruism movement. He writes articles, is a broadcaster and prolific public speaker and has completed an acclaimed book, Doing Good Better, which introduces the principles of effective altruism to a popular audience.
Doing Good Better shocked many with some of its claims — like buying sweatshop-produced goods is no bad thing. One of MacAskill’s bêtes noires is PlayPump, a charity that built merry-go-rounds for African children that were also water pumps. PlayPump raised millions, becoming the darling of the international media with headlines like ‘Pumping Water is Child’s Play’ and ‘The Magic Roundabout’ — but the merry-go-rounds were expensive and hard to maintain and repair, and the children quickly became exhausted. Ultimately PlayPump was a disaster.
Effective altruism’s premise is that we can do much more good by supporting the most cost-effective charities, which are tens or hundreds of times more effective than the average charity. So MacAskill has devised a rigorous system for analysing charities and concludes that a charity that focuses on eliminating intestinal worms can save far more lives than a big disaster charity with a wide remit. The five key questions are: How many people benefit and by how much? Is this the most effective thing you can do? Is this area neglected? What would have happened otherwise? What are the chances of success and how good would success be? MacAskill’s own integrity is beyond doubt — he gives away everything he earns over £24,000 plus tax and inflation.
The book’s irrefutable logic has attracted many in the City, especially in the wake of Kids Company’s spectacular collapse. ‘Morgan Stanley was criticised for its partnership strategy with Kids Company and City CSR is often perceived with cynicism,’ says 24-year-old George Howlett, a senior risk consultant at Deloitte who has pledged 10 per cent of his income to Giving What We Can. ‘An effective altruism “stamp” indicates a charity is well-run and has a strong positive impact on those it seeks to help.’
MacAskill and his band of young, high-performing followers are also less intimidated than many older people by the speed at which technology is advancing, and thus more able to calculate how best to harness it.
‘The key question for us is how to ensure that new technologies have a positive, not a negative impact,’ he says, explaining the work of the Future of Humanity Institute and the Global Priorities Project. He tells me how geo-engineering could artificially cool the earth’s climate. ‘The consequences could be drastic so you can’t just experiment,’ he says. ‘People find it scary just thinking about it so there’s been very little research, and that’s a mistake. We need an official body and a global consensus on what the risks are, since what we want to avoid at all costs is a single country meddling with the climate.
‘Synthetic biology is developing at a rapid pace. As well as incredible benefits, like creating vaccines and eradicating global diseases, there are risks, like creating pathogens with the potential to effect a pandemic larger than any we’ve ever seen. A new pathogen could leak out of a lab or be used by terrorists or an apocalyptic cult.’ I grimace, though I’m enjoying the way the cerebral conversation seems to have veered into disaster movie territory. ‘People are reluctant to face up to all this as it can seem like science fiction, but the first 1945 nuclear bomb must have seemed like that. It’s unpleasant to face the risks but we need to plan for unlikely outcomes.’
We move on to artificial intelligence. I can see why MacAskill is such a successful professor and teacher because he explains patiently, using the graspable example of a robot tasked with making paper clips — if a human were competing for the same resources, the robot would logically seek to destroy it.
Mentally, I’m now inhabiting the world of Ex Machina and I, Robot. Seeing my face, MacAskill laughs: ‘Hollywood rarely portrays the unparalleled advantages that artificial intelligence could bring to the planet. We have already created AI that can forecast, research, solve problems and access far more data than humans. Science, business, law, the economy, medical diagnoses — all could be done by AI and we wouldn’t have to work in the same way any more.
‘People worry about robots taking over and what meaning and purpose life would have without work. But I’m not concerned — many have lived a life of leisure and people will be able to entertain themselves with virtual reality. If we had a universal basic income, we could spend our time as we wished.’
Sebastian Farquhar, the 25-year-old director of the Global Priorities Project, says: ‘To choose the most important projects to work on as a global community, we need to assess the risks and focus on funding areas that are really helpful, so we’re trying to make those choices as robust, quantitative, and explicit as possible.’
80,000 Hours was founded to help people work out their optimal career path. ‘The main thing is to think about what good you want to achieve and then work out the best way to do it,’ says Farquhar. This sounds obvious, but MacAskill caused controversy by proposing that people were squandering millions of lives and that it may be more useful to be a banker creating wealth in order to donate it than to earn a pittance working for an ineffectual charity. ‘People have a real opportunity to make the world better by seeking out evidence and analysis as a first step in deciding what they’re going to do rather than relying on their gut,’ says Farquhar.
Young people are often told to follow their hearts and passion — a notion that MacAskill eschews. Passion does not equal usefulness. Volunteering to build an African school or join a medical team in a war zone may feed our souls, but are we changing anything?
‘Global poverty is not an insoluble problem,’ says Mark Barnes, former global head of Forex for RBS. ‘But for effective altruism really to take hold, everyone needs to realise that if we spent as much time investigating the right charities to donate to as we do to buying a computer or phone, we might suddenly find the world is a better place.’ It’s the winning combination of youth, academic exactitude and scepticism towards the kneejerk charitable gesture that makes William MacAskill’s approach so persuasive. As I leave, I ask how long it might be before he sees the world transformed. He grins. ‘Fifty years?’