—Taking real good action


What is the most good you can do?

You have decided you want to do some good in the world! Excellent, how can you best get started? How do you ensure your efforts are doing real good, rather than causing more problems? What are the most effective actions you can take to make progress toward what ought to be? Will doing good feel good?

Committed people are doing good improving our world and helping others as they increase their own gratification. Consequential action combined with well-chosen, human-based values can make a significant difference. Courageous achievements that help others around the globe for all time is real good action. When Rosa Parks kept her bus seat and Martin Luther King Jr. organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott their actions created substantial, important, and lasting progress for all people. This is doing good. Fortunately there are many ways you can do good, without requiring the courageous actions of these heroes.

The course is organized into three major topics: 1) learning what you ought to do, 2) effective altruism, and 3) citizenship.



The objectives of this course are to:

  1. Recognize the distinction between feeling good and doing good.
  2. Identify options for doing real good.
  3. Learn to assess the relative value of various alternatives for doing good.
  4. Encourage you to do the most good you can.
  5. Help to make the world a better place.
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There are no prerequisites to this course and all students are welcome. If, however you find material difficult to grasp, or if you are doubting, resisting, or opposing the normative recommendations made in the course it may be helpful to complete the corresponding sections of the living wisely course to study the topic in more depth. This course is assigned during the later stages of the living wisely course because the earlier stages of that course establish background and context useful for fully understanding the reasoning that leads to the various recommendations made in this course. The course is designed to accommodate students from the living wisely course, and others who have not taken that course.

The course contains many hyperlinks to further information. Use your judgment and these link following guidelines to decide when to follow a link, and when to skip over it.

This course is part of the Applied Wisdom curriculum.

If you wish to contact the instructor, please click here to send me an email or leave a comment or question on the discussion page.

Please begin by watching this TED video on The why and how of effective altruism by Peter Singer.

A Shortcut to Doing Good


If you are impatient to get started, here is a simple and reliable shortcut to doing the most good you can do.

  1. Go to the website GiveWell.org.
  2. Find their top recommended charity.
  3. Give all you can afford to the GiveWell top recommend charity. Rather than donating to other charities, redirect all of your charitable giving to that charity. If you want more variety, spread your donations among any of their top rated charities.
  4. Repeat these steps each year.
  5. Encourage others to do the same.
  6. Enjoy knowing you have done the most good you can do.

Much of the remainder of this course will explain in detail and help you understand why this is likely to be the most good you can do. If you have followed these steps, feel free to skip the rest of this course! None-the-less, we recommend you complete the course, preferably after you contribute as suggested above.

Exploring What Ought to be


You can begin to do good by living ethically and learning more about what ought to be and how others are doing good.

Live ethically


Begin by committing to live ethically. Live the golden rule and the moral virtues. Complete the course on Moral Reasoning and apply your own well-chosen moral reasoning throughout your life. Reduce waste, want what you have, and focus on what matters. Complete the personal responsibility section of the living wisely course. Follow the suggestion in the creative solutions section of the limits to growth course.

Actions that promote human flourishing, increase well-being, help others, are considered from a global perspective, and consider short term and long term time frames are good. Other actions, such as those that promote a tribal perspective to the detriment of a global perspective are generally not as good.

A deep understanding of the golden rule combined with reliable knowledge of the relevant situation and accurate empathy for all involved is often sufficient to allow you to determine the right thing to do. To gain a deeper understanding, complete the section of the living wisely course on What Ought to Be.

Learning to do good


The majority of academic institutions, reference sources such as Wikipedia, and nonfiction books are knowledge based and oriented toward exploring what is. These knowledge based resources can help you learn facts, but provide little or no guidance regarding what ought to be.

Fortunately this is beginning to change. The learner-centered organizations described below are dedicated to exploring what we ought to do. They go beyond exploring knowledge and the realm of what is to explore what can be and what ought to be.

  • The Wikiversity Applied Wisdom Curriculum provides a variety of courses on the overall theme of pursuit of well-being. These courses are provided as open educational resources and are freely available to anyone with an internet connection. According to the site: “This Applied Wisdom Curriculum is being designed by asking how we can best prepare ourselves to solve the great universal problems that prevent us from realizing and enjoying all that is most important in life. Knowledge has not been enough; we need the broad scope, human perspective, and good judgment of wisdom.”
  • Certain courses freely available through Coursera, especially including How to Change the World, and related courses, prepare students to address the most challenging problems facing the world.
  • The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) is a research center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose members advocate using randomized evaluations to study poverty alleviation. When problems are posed, the lab designs and conducts experiments and uses these empirical results to learn what approach works best. The lab experimentally determines what works best, and hence what we ought to do to best alleviate poverty.
  • Innovations for Poverty Action is an American non-profit research and policy organization founded in 2002 by Yale economist Dean Karlan. They conduct randomized controlled trials, along with other types of quantitative research, to measure the impacts of development programs in sectors including microfinance, education, health, governance, agriculture, social protection, small & medium enterprises, and governance.
  • American political philosopher and Harvard University Professor Michael Sandel teaches the popular course What is the Right Thing to Do. Videos of these lectures are freely available on the justiceharvard.org website. Each lecture poses a difficult ethical problem and challenges the students to decide what ought to be done in each case. He is also currently teaching this course on edX.[1]
  • Wikiprogress is a crowd-sourced knowledge portal of data and other resources related to well-being and sustainability. The purpose of Wikiprogress is to make it easier for researchers, practitioners, policy makers and the general public to find data and other key resources on well-being and sustainability. Anyone can upload relevant content to the database, in a number of different formats.[2]
  • Quora is a question-and-answer website where questions are asked, answered, edited and organized by its community of users. Often the questions ask for advice on what to do. These range from the mundane to the bizarre, and answers are from volunteers who may or may not have expertise to offer. Within this chaotic realm however, are often gems of good advice.[3] Because you can pose your own questions, browse the answers, continue researching promising leads, and use your own good judgment to decide what you ought to do it can be a helpful aid for decision making.
  • Columbia University offers courses on Peace, Conflict and Sustainability[4] through their Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity.[5] The consortium works to enable and support integrative research and practice on sustainable peace, constructive conflict engagement, and sustainable development.

In addition, the Wisdom-Inquiry Network maintains this list of institutions devoted to helping humanity make progress towards as good a world as possible by intellectual and educational means.


  1. Identify the consequential decisions you make. These may include everyday decisions on how to treat others, how you spend your time, what you pay attention to, and how you spend your money. It also includes the major decisions including what to study, what career to pursue, the relationships you pursue, the friends you choose, and who to vote for etc.
  2. Draw on the resources described above for guidance in deciding what you ought to do.
  3. Reevaluate your present activities and cease those that you now recognize are not as effective at doing good as other choices can be. Replace less effective activities with more effective activities.
  4. Do the right thing; do good.

Effective Altruism


Effective altruism is a philosophy and social movement that applies evidence and reason to determining the most effective ways to improve the world. Effective altruism encourages individuals to consider all causes and actions, and then act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact, based on their values. It is this broad, scientific approach that distinguishes effective altruism from traditional altruism or charity. While a substantial proportion of effective altruists have focused on the nonprofit sector, the philosophy of effective altruism applies much more broadly, e.g., to prioritizing the scientific projects, companies, and policy initiatives which can be estimated to save and improve the most lives.

Most of the $300 billion donated annually in the US is given on the basis of emotional responses.[6] Effective altruism seeks to change that by providing incentives for charities to demonstrate their effectiveness.

It is great to feel good, but this course is about doing good, rather than feeling good. It is important to understand the difference and it is likely you will want to do both. Charity is not about benefiting yourself; it’s about helping others.[7] Altruism is contrasted with egoism, which is concern only for oneself. Those who give small amounts to many charities are not so interested in whether what they are doing helps others—psychologists call them warm-glow givers.

The goal of charity is to make the world a better place.[8] To ensure the most good results from each contribution, effective altruism uses these criteria for deciding where to direct contributions:

  • A world with less suffering and more happiness, all else being equal, is better than one with more suffering and less happiness.
  • Living longer, all else being equal, is better than shortened lifespans,
  • Effective altruism recognizes that all lives have equal value.[9]
  • It is generally recognized that helping your own children or other family members is a special responsibility that deserves priority over helping strangers.

Comparing Goodness


It costs about $40,000 to supply one person in the United States with a guide dog; most of the expense is incurred in training the dog and the recipient. But the cost of preventing someone from going blind because of trachoma, the most common cause of preventable blindness, is in the range of $20-$100.[10] Over the past 35 years, the Seva Foundation has helped more than 3.5 million people in more than 20 countries to regain their eyesight. It is clear that dollars go much further when used to aid those outside the affluent nations. To do the most good we need to recognize and overcome the bias that causes us to care more for people who are similar to us than those who are distant, unknown, or different from us.[11]

Some charities may be as much as a thousand times more successful at making the world a better place than other charities are.[12] It is helpful to know what charities are doing more good than others. When deciding to contribute to a charity, it is important to ask the question “Which organization will improve the world the most with my donation?” Some of the very best charities are described below, along with an estimate of the good they can do with the money they receive.

An analysis of the work done by the Against Malaria Foundation, the top charity organization recommended by GiveWell estimates that the cost per child life saved by their program of distributing long-lasting insecticidal nets to populations at high risk of malaria, is about $2,838.[13]

According to the World Health Organization, over 870 million children are at risk of parasitic worm infection.[14] Worm infections interfere with nutrient uptake; can lead to anemia, malnourishment and impaired mental and physical development; and pose a serious threat to children’s health, education, and productivity. Infected children are often too sick or tired to concentrate at school, or to attend at all.[15] The Deworm the World Initiative supports the governments of India and Kenya in their respective national school-based deworming programs, and works with the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative in supporting Ethiopia's national school-based deworming program. The cost of treatment is estimated at a total of about $.30 per child.[16]

The Schistosomiasis Control Initiative helps governments in African countries treat schistosomiasis, one of the most common neglected tropical diseases, caused by parasitic worms. The organization spends less than $1 for each child it deworms and less than $1,000 for each child it spares from debilitating disease.[17]

The Seva Foundation is able to restore a person's eyesight for as little as $50.[18]

Because different charities and different approaches in the same field can result in dramatic differences in efficiency,[19] it is important to choose charities by determining how much good each one does per additional dollar contributed.[20]

Preventing Problems


Working in a hospital assisting in the care of accident victims is good. Working to effectively prevent automobile accidents from happening can be even better. When comparing the effectiveness of various charities, compare the impact of preventing problems to that of repairing problems after they occur.

Choosing a Charity Field


Various charity organizations address different charity fields—the stated purpose of the charity. These may include: abolishing slavery, alleviating hunger, animal rights, clean water, community development, disease prevention, education, environmental protection, family planning, human rights, medical care, nuclear disarmament, poverty reduction, preventing blindness, promoting the arts, reducing human trafficking, restoring eyesight, woman’s rights, and many others. Your own values will help you decide which of these causes are most important.

It may be useful to consider this inventory of grand challenges when setting priorities.


  1. Consider the list of charity fields above. Supplement the list as necessary to include your highest priorities.
  2. Choose the one or two fields that you consider to be the highest priority for doing good—those fields you believe are most important and effective for making the world a better place.
  3. Focus your giving on efficient charities in the fields you have identified as being most important.

Career Choice


Would it be better to pursue a high paying career, live modestly, and donate the rest to an effective charity organization, or would it be better to choose a career as an aid worker? The website 80,000 hours provides advice on evaluating the total good you can do by choosing various careers. Based on their analysis, they conclude some careers aimed at doing good are far more effective than others. Within their framework for assessing different career options, the value of a career is regarded as depending on both its potential for impact and on the degree to which it gives the individual better opportunities to have an impact in the future.

The 80,000 hours website provides a framework for strategically selecting a cause,[21] and an analysis of which causes are most effective.[22] Their list of most promising causes includes: prioritization research, promoting effective altruism, identifying and mitigating global catastrophic risks, research policy and infrastructure, ending factory farming, global health, improving decision making, immigration reform, geoengineering research, biomedical research, and developing world economic empowerment.

The Experience of Giving


People want to do charitable things because they want to make the world a better place.[23] People want to do good.

Many altruists report positive outcomes—feeling good—as a result of their giving.[24] Research shows that although using our income to buy more stuff does not make us happier, it turns out that using it to help others does.[25]

It can feel good to do good. In any case, use your head to guide your giving. Ensure you are doing the most good you can do. The charity evaluators described in the next section can help.

Charity Evaluators


The following organizations evaluate charities according to their effectiveness at doing good. Students who use these charity evaluators to direct their charitable dollars have reasonable assurance they are doing the most good with their contributions. Use these sites to identify trusted charities, backed by evidence.

  • GiveWell is an American non-profit charity evaluator and effective altruism-focused organization. Unlike many other charity evaluators, GiveWell focuses primarily on the cost-effectiveness of the organizations that it evaluates, rather than traditional metrics such as the percentage of the organization's budget that is spent on overhead.
  • Giving What We Can is a charity evaluator that advocates for people to make significant donations (typically 10% of income) to the most cost-effective causes and charities.


  1. Review the charitable donations you made last year. If income tax records are available they may provide a useful summary of your charitable contributions.
  2. Identify the charity to which you donated the most money.
  3. Determine the cost per good done for each of the charities you donate to. If they have been rated by one of the charity evaluators listed above, this information is available from those evaluators. In any case the charity should be able to provide you this information. If they are unable or unwilling to provide this information it is probably not a good choice of charity.
  4. Compare this cost per good done to the top charities recommended by GiveWell or the other charity evaluators listed above. The Charity Impact Calculator on The Life You Can Save website provide convenient ways to calculate the impact of your charity donation.
  5. Based on this information, reassess your charitable goals.
  6. Plan future giving to best meet these goals

Organizations doing good


If you have learned to recognize real good, and you want to get personally involved and take direct action, consider joining or supporting one of these organizations:

  • The United Nations (UN) is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to promoting international co-operation. Its objectives include maintaining international peace and security, promoting human rights, fostering social and economic development, protecting the environment, and providing humanitarian aid in cases of famine, natural disaster, and armed conflict.
  • The Peace Corps is a volunteer program run by the United States government. The stated mission of the Peace Corps includes providing technical assistance, helping people outside the United States to understand American culture, and helping Americans to understand the cultures of other countries. Cuso International provides similar opportunities to Canadians. Voluntary Service Overseas is an international development charity that works to bring people together to fight poverty.
  • Doctors Without Borders is an international humanitarian-aid non-governmental organization and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, best known for its projects in war-torn regions and developing countries facing endemic diseases.
  • The European Voluntary Service is the European Commission's project that allows a young person (18–30 years) to become a volunteer in another country for a specified period, normally between 2–12 months. The service activities can be, for example, in the field of environment, arts and culture, activities with children, young people or the elderly, heritage or sports and leisure activities
  • Human Rights Watch is an international non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy on human rights.

Abandon Obsolete Ideologies


Many ideologies sound good when they get started, but eventually prove to be obsolete, unreal, or otherwise unhelpful.

Learn to recognize and avoid tribalism, and choose a global perspective instead.[26] It is fun to cheer for your favorite sports team, but it is destructive to disparage the other teams or their fans. While loyalty to your sports team is fun and harmless, beware of divisive forces in theism, nationalism, and other ideologies.

Abandon pursuits that are not real. Use reasonable care and critical thinking and apply your theory of knowledge to identify and avoid wasting time and money on pseudoscience. In particular, avoid the pursuits described in this list of topics characterized as pseudoscience along with superstitions and myths.

Assessing Real Good


So far in this course we have explored what ought to be, studied effective altruism, learned how to compare goodness, and we have cautioned against wasting time on bogus pursuits such as pseudoscience. Now that we are learning what is good and what is real, we can begin to assess the relative merits of our actions to determine the real good we are doing.

Plot activities on this grid to display their relative goodness and realness.


  1. List the organizations you had been contributing to before starting this course.
  2. Plot each of those organizations as points on the grid shown to the right. (It may be helpful to double click on the grid to show it full size, or print it out to make working with it easier). Those activities that are doing the most good will be plotted higher up on the grid. Any that are bogus will be plotted toward the left on the grid.
  3. List the organizations you plan to contribute to, now that you are completing this course.
  4. Plot each of those organizations on the grid shown to the right. Those that are doing the most good will be plotted toward the top of the grid. Those that are bogus will be plotted toward the left on the grid.
  5. Continue to reevaluate the charitable organizations you support. Work to identify and support organizations that can be positioned farther into the upper right hand corner of this grid.

Active Citizenship


Another way you can do good is through active citizenship—fulfilling both your rights and responsibilities in a balanced way. The suggestions that follow are oriented toward students who live in countries with democratic governments. If your country has an authoritarian government, the only suggestion I can offer is to consider ideas in the book From Dictatorship to Democracy.

Begin by envisioning the future world you want. Complete the course on envisioning our future. With a clear description of the future you want in hand, you are ready to begin to work toward making that future happen.

Adopt a global perspective and expect elected officials to adopt a global perspective. Complete the course on Global Perspective. Analyze problems and issues from that perspective. Ensure your elected official address issues from a global perspective.

Use this inventory of grand challenges to set priorities.

Study the most important issues in depth. Use reliable sources that provide a neutral point of view. Use reliable fact checking services such as PolitiFact or FactCheck.org to assess the accuracy of statements made by elected officials and candidates. Communicate your views on essential issues with various government leaders.

Assess the personal integrity, moral virtue, and statesmanship of the candidates. Expect them to act wisely. Assess the wisdom of various political candidates.

Challenge the candidates to describe in detail the future they want. Support the candidates that most closely share your vision of the future.

Vote in every election for which you are eligible to vote. Vote for the wisest statesman running for office.


Students interested in learning more about doing good may be interested in the following materials:

I have not yet read the following books, but they seem interesting and relevant. They are listed here to invite further research.

  • Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference, by William MacAskill
  • The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty, by Peter Singer
  • Infectious Generosity: The Ultimate Idea Worth Spreading, by Chris J. Anderson
  • What We Owe the Future, by William MacAskill


  1. See: Justice
  2. About Wikiprogress
  3. Various proposal have been made to improve the effectiveness of Quora as tool for exploring what ought to be. See, for example: https://www.quora.com/What-ideas-do-you-have-to-improve-Quora
  4. Masters Programs in Peace, Conflict and Sustainability
  5. Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity
  6. Singer, Peter (April 7, 2015). The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically. Yale University Press. pp. 232. ISBN 978-0300180275.  Preface
  7. Cooney, Nick (April 27, 2015). How To Be Great At Doing Good: Why Results Are What Count and How Smart Charity Can Change the World. Jossey-Bass. pp. 208. ISBN 978-1119041719.  Chapter 2, "Doing Good, of Doing a Lot of Good?
  8. Cooney, Nick (April 27, 2015). How To Be Great At Doing Good: Why Results Are What Count and How Smart Charity Can Change the World. Jossey-Bass. pp. 208. ISBN 978-1119041719.  Chapter 1 "The Goal of Charity"
  9. TED Talk, The why and how of effective altruism, Peter Singer, 2013.
  10. Singer, Peter (April 7, 2015). The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically. Yale University Press. pp. 232. ISBN 978-0300180275.  Chapter 10
  11. Cooney, Nick (April 27, 2015). How To Be Great At Doing Good: Why Results Are What Count and How Smart Charity Can Change the World. Jossey-Bass. pp. 208. ISBN 978-1119041719.  Chapter 7 "Our Biases Try to Rule Us, and This One Is Really Bad"
  12. Cooney, Nick (April 27, 2015). How To Be Great At Doing Good: Why Results Are What Count and How Smart Charity Can Change the World. Jossey-Bass. pp. 208. ISBN 978-1119041719.  Chapter 3 "All Charities Are Not Created Equal"
  13. GiveWell.org, Cost per life saved
  14. "Soil Transmitted Helminths". WHO
  15. Miguel, Edward; et al. (May 2015). "Worms at work: Long-run impacts of a child health investment" (PDF). Working Paper.
  16. What do you get for your dollar?
  17. Cooney, Nick (April 27, 2015). How To Be Great At Doing Good: Why Results Are What Count and How Smart Charity Can Change the World. Jossey-Bass. pp. 208. ISBN 978-1119041719.  Chapter 4 "When Following the Bottom Line Means Making Big Changes"
  18. Seva website claim. See: http://www.seva.org/ Looking deeper, their 2014-5015 annual report shows total revenue of $7,792,906 and reports completing sight-saving surgery for 92,792 people who were otherwise unable to afford care along with providing 961,030 people with eye care services, including eye examinations, free and low-cost glasses, medicine to treat infection and sight-saving surgery, 172,985 children had their eyes examined and received vital eye care and 5,055 doctors, nurses, community health workers, school teachers and hospital administrators were trained. Although the cost for each of these various services cannot be calculated directly from the figures in the annual report, their claim of restoring eyesight for $50 per person seems consistent with these figures.
  19. Cooney, Nick (April 27, 2015). How To Be Great At Doing Good: Why Results Are What Count and How Smart Charity Can Change the World. Jossey-Bass. pp. 208. ISBN 978-1119041719.  Chapter 5 "There Are Massive Differences Between Charities in the Same Field"
  20. Alternatively, if you are considering donating your time rather than money it will be important to how much additional good can be provided as a result of your additional volunteer efforts.
  21. A framework for strategically selecting a cause
  22. Which cause is most effective?
  23. Cooney, Nick (April 27, 2015). How To Be Great At Doing Good: Why Results Are What Count and How Smart Charity Can Change the World. Jossey-Bass. pp. 208. ISBN 978-1119041719.  Chapter 1 "The Goal of Charity"
  24. See, for example, Giving Gladly by Julia Wise.
  25. Elizabeth Dunn, Lara Aknin, and Michael Norton, “Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness,” Science 319 (2008) 1687-88.
  26. Greene, Joshua (December 30, 2014). Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. Penguin Books. pp. 432. ISBN 978-0143126058.