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”.
What’s it all about?
A very brief summary of Singer’s effective altruism:
- The aim of effective altruism is to do the most good with one’s actions and resources
- Generally speaking, the most good involves increasing happiness and decreasing suffering in the world
- Individuals should not be prioritized for help due to proximity to one’s own culture, interests, country etc
- The action at the core of the effective altruism movement is donating money to good causes – philanthropy is a moral obligation, and donations should be guided by effectiveness, not just emotional pull
Within this there are elements that can be debated (the role of emotion is one such contested point), but overall I think it would sound reasonable to the average person and I think there are a lot of great points made in the book. The focus on effective impact, for example, is one. Another is the general idea that in affluent nations we should be giving far more to charity as an obligation – something that I wholeheartedly believe. There are, however, elements of Singer’s argument and outlook that make me question whether the concept of effective altruism, as outlined in his work, really does lead to the most good that we can do*.
(*for the purpose of these posts I’m going to bracket off three distinct topics: the value of the arts, the question of helping non-human animals – two topics where there’s so much there they warrant being discussed in their own right – and preventing human extinction, which I don’t really know how to address in this context).
Become a banker, save the world
The centrepiece of the first parts of the book is Singer’s argument (and the assertion of many effective altruists) that the most good you can do, in at least some cases, is get a very high paying job and then give a huge sum of money to effective organisations. Singer does entertain other ideas, such as becoming an aid worker or university researcher, and to be fair to his argument he does not say that there is just one way to do good – but throughout his book there is more than a strong endorsement of the “earn to give” way of life.
The problem is, there is very little real discussion of the limits of “earn to give”. Hedge fund management is given more than once as an example, but couldn’t it be argued that by working for massive investment banks that cause financial crises, speculate on world food prices and invest in all sorts of things that actually cause global poverty, you are contributing to the problem too.
Singer anticipates this argument with a discussion of individual integrity and the fact that someone would do these jobs anyway, and at least if an altruist is doing it there will be a greater net good. This element of the argument is less interesting to me, however, than the wider concern that such action supports a wider, problematic system that contributes global inequality. Singer replies to this issue with a reference to wider critiques of capitalism, but it is to my mind brief and inadequate.
Firstly, he asserts that even if capitalism is driving inequality, the consequences overall are not necessarily bad: it has also lifted people from poverty, and has allowed people to make lots of money that they can donate to charity. He then argues that even if it needs to go, there is no demonstrable alternative that will have better outcomes.
Addressing his second point first, this may be true – but then in some ways it transforms “the most good you can do” into a defeatist mantra, tinkering within the frame of an inherently bad system. This is certainly not a vision that I think Singer has – his writing and that of other effective altruists is one of global happiness, prosperity and opportunity – which is why I find it odd that the idea of systemic change is thrown away so quickly. At the very least, it should be considered in combination with this more immediate philanthropic activity – give now whilst the system is bad, whilst also investing to change it and make our charity less necessary.
This notwithstanding, I more generally question Singer’s “on balance” approach to global inequality’s structural causes. Wealth and resources in this world are finite, and in many cases the increased affluence of some societies is because that wealth has been extracted from now poorer societies. In a world of finite resources, those who take far more are leaving far less for others. Just because richer societies can then choose (or not) to balance the books doesn’t make this ok.
Furthermore, even if Singer does not believe in the intrinsic value of concepts such as empowerment and self-determination, then there is instrumental value in people not relying on charity and instead being able to solve their own crises and provide their own solution. Yes, in a life and death situation then this probably doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as not dying, but it is important. And if we’re taking a longer-term view, wouldn’t the instrumental value of empowerment make alternatives to “earn to give” a stronger contender for doing the most good?
I do wonder whether part of the reluctance to take system change seriously is a lack of belief in collective action. Though Singer has done a great job of showcasing philanthropists and working on the principle that high-profile giving will beget even more donations, this sense of collectivism is still fragmented: individuals inspire more individuals. There is very little exploration of communal action, linking with one another in a more traditionally “activist” or political fashion. Maybe it’s just not the right context for a foray into collective action, but without it I feel like the concept of doing the most good is missing something substantial.
Whilst the above points don’t necessarily have as much bearing on all of “earn to give” as a concept (for example, I still think it is a valid argument that we are obliged to give a significant proportion to charity if that is one way we can make other people’s lives better), they highlight that its analysis of the world’s problems is potentially a lot narrower than it acknowledges.
To be continued…
In part two, I’ll discuss two more concerns I have with Singer’s model – the definition and quantification of “good”, and the scope of problems that effective altruism can effectively address.