The Four Best Books on Effective Altruism

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This page contains a list of the four best books on effective altruism in no particular order:

Doing Good Better – Will MacAskill

Category: Contemporary | Length: 272 pages | Published: 2016

Publisher description: While a researcher at Oxford, William MacAskill decided to devote his study to a simple question: How can we do good better? MacAskill realized that, while most of us want to make a difference, we often decide how to do so based on assumptions and emotions rather than facts. As a result, our good intentions often lead to ineffective, sometimes downright harmful, outcomes.

As an antidote, MacAskill and his colleagues developed effective altruism—a practical, data-driven approach to doing good that allows us to make a tremendous difference regardless of our resources. Effective altruists operate by asking certain key questions that force them to think differently, set aside biases, and use evidence and careful reasoning rather than act on impulse. In Doing Good Better, MacAskill lays out these principles and shows that, when we use them correctly—when we apply the head and the heart to each of our altruistic endeavors—each of us has the power to do an astonishing amount of good.

The Most Good You Can Do – Peter Singer

Category: Contemporary | Length: 232 pages | Published: 2016

Publisher description: Peter Singer’s books and ideas have been disturbing our complacency ever since the appearance of Animal Liberation. Now he directs our attention to a new movement in which his own ideas have played a crucial role: effective altruism. Effective altruism is built upon the simple but profound idea that living a fully ethical life involves doing the “most good you can do.” Such a life requires an unsentimental view of charitable giving: to be a worthy recipient of our support, an organization must be able to demonstrate that it will do more good with our money or our time than other options open to us. Singer introduces us to an array of remarkable people who are restructuring their lives in accordance with these ideas, and shows how living altruistically often leads to greater personal fulfillment than living for oneself.

The Most Good You Can Do develops the challenges Singer has made, in the New York Times and Washington Post, to those who donate to the arts, and to charities focused on helping our fellow citizens, rather than those for whom we can do the most good. Effective altruists are extending our knowledge of the possibilities of living less selfishly, and of allowing reason, rather than emotion, to determine how we live. The Most Good You Can Do offers new hope for our ability to tackle the world’s most pressing problems.

Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence – Peter Unger

Category: Contemporary | Length: 200 pages | Published: 1996

Publisher description: By contributing a few hundred dollars to a charity like UNICEF, a prosperous person can ensure that fewer poor children die, and that more will live reasonably long, worthwhile lives. Even when knowing this, however, most people send nothing, and almost all of the rest send little. What is the moral status of this behavior? To such common cases of letting die, our untutored response is that, while it is not very good, neither is the conduct wrong. What is the source of this lenient assessment? In this contentious new book, one of our leading philosophers argues that our intuitions about ethical cases are generated not by basic moral values, but by certain distracting psychological dispositions that all too often prevent us from reacting in accord with our commitments. Through a detailed look at how these tendencies operate, Unger shows that, on the good morality that we already accept, the fatally unhelpful behavior is monstrously wrong. By uncovering the eminently sensible ethics that we’ve already embraced fully, and by confronting us with empirical facts and with easily followed instructions for lessening serious suffering appropriately and effectively, Unger’s book points the way to a compassionate new moral philosophy.

Famine, Affluence, and Morality – Peter Singer

Category: Classic | Length: 120 pages | Published: 2015

Publisher description: In 1972, the young philosopher Peter Singer published “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” which rapidly became one of the most widely discussed essays in applied ethics. Through this article, Singer presents his view that we have the same moral obligations to those far away as we do to those close to us. He argued that choosing not to send life-saving money to starving people on the other side of the earth is the moral equivalent of neglecting to save drowning children because we prefer not to muddy our shoes. If we can help, we must–and any excuse is hypocrisy. Singer’s extreme stand on our moral obligations to others became a powerful call to arms and continues to challenge people’s attitudes towards extreme poverty. Today, it remains a central touchstone for those who argue we should all help others more than we do.

As Bill and Melinda Gates observe in their foreword, in the age of today’s global philanthropy, Singer’s essay is as relevant now as it ever was. This attractively packaged, concise edition collects the original article, two of Singer’s more recent popular writings on our obligations to others around the world, and a new introduction by Singer that discusses his current thinking.


This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:

  • browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
  • searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
  • browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • searching for recommendations on philosophy forums

The following sources were used to build this list:

University Course Syllabi:

If you’d like to learn more about Effective Altruism, check out this collection of beginner friendly resources on Effective Altruism.

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