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The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically Paperback – July 5, 2016
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Even if I hadn't, though, I think I'd have found this book compelling. The first ten or so chapters are uniformly excellent: My favorite pages were those telling the stories of dozens of people (from tech CEOs to low-income graduate students) who live extraordinarily generous lives. Singer also gives a more fluid introduction to the concepts behind effective altruism than you'd find by just reading blog posts or newspaper articles written by a variety of authors. He uses very little technical philosophy and a lot of plain language -- I finished the book in a couple of hours, and enjoyed every minute.
Why only four stars? Near the end of the book, Singer begins to explore some of the in-depth causes that certain effective altruists support. These chapters were interesting to me, but they're also filled with numbers and speculative calculation and feel "colder" than the rest of the book -- they won't appeal to everyone. Still, this is an excellent book overall, and I'd recommend it to effective altruists and non-EAs alike.
(If you've never heard of effective altruism, you may want to watch Peter Singer's TED talk on the subject before buying this book. The TED talk is free, it takes fifteen minutes to watch, and it's changed the lives of many people I know.)
Importantly, he shows that doing good things for the world altruistically is perfectly compatible with making yourself happy -- in fact, it's complementary. Some takeaways you can expect to get from this book are:
- explanation of what effective altruism is, and the growth of the movement
- real examples of ordinary people who have used the principles of effective altruism to accomplish extraordinary good
- how to balance your own interests and needs against the moral duty to relieve suffering in the world
- altruistic strategy on finding a career that maximizes social impact
- altruistic strategy on choosing causes and charities to support
- balancing between causes with concrete, predictable outcomes (e.g. preventing malaria) and those with highly uncertain but potentially very high benefits (such as political advocacy)
If you want to be challenged to think deeply about how you can best use your skills, time, or money to improve the world, this book will help you do that.
That being said, I don't believe a book was the best medium for this. It is really short for the price you pay, and it seems to repeat itself over and over again. Basically, "Hey, you should donate to charity. Look at these 234982304 people who donate to charity. This is how they donate to charity." Then at the end of the book there are a few more essays that are tangentially related.
Ultimately, the book, to me, comes off as disorganized and far too simply written for the ~18$ price tag.
The basic message, which I said above in quotes, could have been eloquently written into a journal/newspaper article or a speech (which I believe he already did via TED). There just isn't enough content, especially non-fluff content (e.g. a million unnecessary mini biographies of people who donate money), to warrant a book, let alone an 18$ book.
I like Peter Singer, but I would save your money and not purchase this. It seems as if Singer just wants to milk this (good, but small) message for as much as he can. I would have returned it but I wrote on one of the pages, so I ended up tossing it after I finished. At least Singer donates a good amount of the money I wasted on this book to charity, if what he says in his book is true!
People familiar with Singer's work will recognize many of the themes of this book, although the content is almost entirely new. The book is very much intended for the general public and not philosophers, so anyone looking for deeper engagement with the subject will need to look elsewhere.
The only real flaw of this book was that, since it's written for the general public and gives such a brief introduction to such a complex topic, it can over simplify some complex issues, particularly in the later chapters where it discusses cause selection. For example, the risks from artificial intelligence are dismissed with just a few short sentences.
That's an extremely minor quibble though, because a deep overview of those subjects was not really the intention of this book. Its goal was to introduce and inspire the reader to effective altruism - a goal which it thoroughly accomplishes!