The Most Good You Can Do? – Part 2

In Part One of my blog post on Singer’s “The Most Good You Can Do”, I outlined the main components of “effective altruism” and discussed my criticism that it does not sufficiently address wider political and structural questions that surround development interventions.

In this second and concluding part, I will discuss two more concerns I have with the approach: a narrow definition of “good”, and the limited situations that one can apply the effective altruism approach.

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Keeping the pressure on after COP21

The headlines have heralded the new global climate deal – many groups have highlighted the red lines that the text has crossed. Ambition has been the buzzword of the week, but ambition doesn’t entail action.

Once the cameras leave, the news cycle moves on – what then for the coalition? What then for the people who are still threatened by rising sea levels, extreme weather events and the continued dominance of fossil fuel? How will all these words be put into action?

The focus now needs to shift to individual nations. Each country has made a pledge, now each person needs to not only hold their government to it, but push them to do more, faster, better.

So here are four simple things that we can all do to make #ClimateJusticePeace more likely, and to ensure the agreement in Paris makes lasting, meaningful change:

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The Most Good You Can Do? – Part 1

The media makes many of us despair, with stories of war, suffering, climate catastrophe and everything else going wrong. Simultaneously, more and more people are asking the question – how can I help? How can I do good? This two-part blog post explores one answer to these questions: the idea of “effective altruism”.

“What can I do?” is a question that is always on my mind, prompted by (among other things) my time studying ethics in my philosophy degree. One of the most consistently referenced people during my time studying was Peter Singer. His writing on utilitarianism, and its applications to (among many other things) animal rights and overseas aid, were core texts we used to debate and develop our ideas. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation examining arguments he makes in Practical Ethics, Famine, Affluence and Morality and The Lives of Animals. Today I’m re-visiting his writing, having just finished his latest book.

Since the early 2000s Singer has increased his focus on the logical outcome of his “drowning child” thought experiment (in one sentence: if you can do good, without sacrificing anything morally comparable, you have an obligation to do so). The Life You Can Save, published in 2009, discussed the practical implications of this: the moral obligation to give a significant proportion of your income to charity. But not just any charity – one that is effective, and does the most good. Cue: The Most Good You Can Do, an exploration of what has become known as “effective altruism”.

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The transformative potential of the #GlobalGoals

The following essay was a final assignment for a global development module, entitled “In what ways did the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) fail as a framework for transformative global development, and to what extent do the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) address such shortcomings?”

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are widely credited as setting the agenda for development in the 21st century and creating a global movement for poverty alleviation and the achievement of social goals (Bandara, 2012; Olukoshi, 2013). Their practical achievements, however, have been mixed and it is difficult to determine whether reductions in poverty can be attributed to specific MDGs or wider global economic factors (Clemens et al, 2007; Solheim, 2010). In this context, the debate around the MDGs has been a practical one: did they achieve their stated aims?

There are, however, other perspectives that question more deeply the goals themselves; in particular, how the goals were created in the first place, and the paradigm in which they operate. As the post-2015 development agenda aims to integrate the MDGs with the parallel global aspirations around sustainable development, most notably articulated at the Rio +20 Summit (Adams and Tobin, 2014), an analysis of these structural questions is essential in assessing the transformative potential of the Sustainable Development Goals. Defining “transformative” as challenging the structures that underpin the status quo, this essay will therefore take a broad overview and examine the structure of the MDGs, in terms of how they were created and how they framed development issues, to suggest that their failure to create transformative global development was due to the values framework that underpinned them. It will then consider the potential the SDGs have to provide an alternative, transformative paradigm for development, focusing on the crucial question of what concept of “sustainability” underpins them. It will argue that if the SDGs are based on a “strong” concept of sustainability linked to human rights, they can reconcile environment and development tensions and provide a vision for development that can address the structural shortcomings of the MDGs. How realistic such an alternative framework is, however, is questionable.

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