‘Effective altruism’ author speaks in Cambridge

by Stephen Hewitt | Published 16 Oct 2017

 Professor William MacAskill speaking in the Cambridge Union on 13 October 2017
Professor William MacAskill speaking in the Cambridge Union on 13 October 2017. 'World Income Distribution' was the title of one of his first slides, seen here.

At the Cambridge Union on the evening of Friday 13 October 2017 William MacAskill, Associate Professor in Philosophy at Oxford University, and author of a book Doing Good Better, gave a public talk under the same title with audience questions afterwards.

MacAskill was introduced by Seb of the Effective Altruism Society in Cambridge. The talk was billed by the society on Facebook as “an introduction to the global movement of Effective Altruism” and covered similar topics to MacAskill's book.

MacAskill said that effective altruism was “primarily an intellectual movement and then a social movement”.

In 2009 he set up Giving What We Can, which aims to encourage people to give 10% of their income, or more. He said that he himself gives everything over £25,000 after tax. This charity now has 3,100 members.

It is easier to do good, said MacAskill, “if you find yourself part of a community doing similar stuff.”

One audience question was about whether a violent revolution against capitalism would be justified. Amongst other things MacAskill said that talking about abolishing global capitalism was “way too abstract and vague” and went on to say that where we've tried to put socialist governments in poor countries, “it's got a pretty bad track record”.

Perhaps his assertion about socialist governments was controversial, I suggested to him afterwards, and I asked him whether he had any examples in mind to support it. His reply was “most of sub-Saharan Africa”, specifically Ethiopia. Prompted for the time period for Ethiopia, he said the 1970s. Unprompted, he then went on to say that Deng Xiaoping, who introduced market reforms in China, “did a lot of good”.

The audience for this free talk was enough to fill the floor of the chamber, although there was no shortage of space in the balcony. There were plenty of audience questions still coming when the allocated time was all used.