When I saw that Peter Singer was giving a talk on effective altruism at the Melbourne Writers Festival I signed up straightaway. I spend most of my waking hours trying to work out how to be self-sacrificing, (well, a few minutes, occasionally). Given Professor Singer’s unusually practical approach to philosophy, I thought he might provide some useful tips on how I could be more kind.
To be precise, I was looking forward to Singer’s views on how to deal with bores without either going mad with boredom yourself or hurting their feelings, (this I regard as the single most challenging problem facing would-be altruists) , why I get so enraged by the sound of people rustling paper as they unwrap food at the cinema, and how I can learn to be more tolerant in such situations, and whether I should keep giving change to the man who accosts me several times a day at the local shops, wanting six bucks for the taxi to hospital to see his sick mum.
Disappointingly, shortly after arriving at the Deakin Edge at Federation Square, which is where the talk was taking place, I discovered that I should have done my homework. I’d been expecting a talk about effective altruism – the really difficult business of individual self-sacrifice, particularly how to willingly spare time for those who need you but don’t excite you. What was on offer was a talk about Effective Altruism, which is a new worldwide movement founded by Peter Singer and based at Oxford University where it has a centre, plus staff – and even a blog of its own.
All this was explained by Singer himself, a tall man whose eerily calm demeanour suggests he lives on a higher emotional plane than those of us still struggling with questions about sweet wrappers in cinemas. Following an introduction from a former student, in which we learned that the professor’s teaching method was to enmesh you in coil after coil of boa constrictor logic, Singer took the stage.
He showed us a video of a two-year-old in China being hit by a truck and left for dead. He explained how we, in our comfortable lives, effectively do the same thing as the passers-by in the video, because we don’t give much thought to the millions of infants who die each year as a result of global poverty. He told us how Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates have saved around six million lives since the Gates Foundation was founded. He showed us a picture of Toby Ord, an Australian philosopher at Oxford University, who has decided he can get by on eighteen thousand pounds a year and so donates the rest of his salary to a charity that saves people’s sight in third-world countries – a much more worthy cause, Singer explained, than giving money to help in the training of Guide Dogs, since preventing loss of sight goes to the root of the problem rather than patching up damage after it has happened (plus being more cost-effective in its effect on a per-capita basis).
Next, Singer showed us a photograph of a young man who had been one of his students at Princeton. From Princeton, this individual moved to Manhattan where he found work as a banker. As an Effective Altruism acolyte, he now gives away one hundred thousand dollars a year. We were then provided with details of some of the charities that Singer believes are particularly good. He closed by explaining that giving what you can is a way of life and that donating to charity will provide our lives with meaning. If we embrace Effective Altruism, he suggested, if we decide to give away quite a lot of the money we earn, our lives will acquire renewed significance and we will experience a sense of real satisfaction.
It is hard to argue with any of what Singer said about Effective Altruism, except perhaps the statement that it is only recently that the world has seen the creation of such an organisation – one that wants people to think about living better lives and helping others. Whatever one might think about the Christian Church, and the things that have been done in its name over the ages, I don’t think one can argue that a fundamental element of its philosophy is the belief that human beings should be motivated by love and self-sacrifice and the desire to put others before themselves. But this is a mere quibble. The really troubling aspect of Singer’s talk was what he left unsaid. He made no mention at all of the causes of global poverty or of how we might go about tackling them. Moreover, when asked whether going into banking and then giving away large proportions of your salary justified the fact that the activities you were engaged in might actually create more poverty he argued that, while some might feel you should keep your hands clean at all costs, others would recognise – à la George Bernard Shaw’s Andrew Undershaft – that if you didn’t take the job someone else would and that person might not use any of their salary for good. In other words, taking a job that contributes to the creation of poverty is justifiable if by so doing you are not increasing the total amount of harm that is done on a global basis.
Giving to the less well-off is the least those of us lucky enough to be born in a country like Australia can do. Such behaviour should not require a movement to encourage it; it should be second nature for the wealthy in the West, which, relatively speaking is pretty much all of us – if you can afford a cup of coffee in your local cafe you can afford to give to charity. What worries me is that Effective Altruism seems to use charity as a kind of modern day papal indulgence: its members achieve a sense of meaning and satisfaction by handing over money. That means they need global poverty to continue existing – for, without it, how will they clear their consciences and feel good about themselves?
For me, altruism should involve more than sparing the poor a few crumbs from our table. It should be about changing our behaviour and trying to be nicer to the people we find most irritating. Peter Singer’s Effective Altruism doesn’t address this aspect of good living at all. His movement is just about doing stuff with money. It’s a cult for wealthy middle-class Westerners who don’t want to change their behaviour but feel a bit guilty about the comfort they live in. The Effective Altruism movement allows its followers to continue their privileged existences – they buy themselves absolution by signing a direct debit docket to one of the EA-authorised charities. True altruism involves self-sacrifice; Singer’s altruism involves salary sacrifice and nothing more.