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.

Zoe Colvin

Zoe Colvin is a former Hansard editor who lives in Canberra but likes to get away as often as possible. Her blog is: www.zmkc.blogspot.com.au, where you can also find her novel, Holding On. Despite the best efforts of Sheil Land Literary Agency, it remains available to interested publishers.

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  1. I am not intimate with the particulars of Singer’s philosophy, but it seems to me from the information offered in this article that Singer’s rejection of giving money to guide dogs as it does not help prevent the root cause of disease could be equally applicable to the idea of going into banking & giving a pile money into charity: it does not help prevent the root cause of poverty.

    Stephen Wright’s article on Bill Gates (http://overland.org.au/2013/07/bill-gates-vs-polio/) discussed this issue, so Singer’s use of Bill Gates would seem an interesting contrast. Does Singer expand on this?

    1. That comment about the Guide Dogs and blindness prevention charities by Singer struck me particularly because, if you extend its logic, then surely giving to charities that try to prevent global poverty itself is what one should do – but eradicating global poverty was not mentioned at all. Decades ago, I worked for an aid organisation and got to know so many people whose careers were predicated on there being a never-ending supply of the poor and the hungry for them to be paid to help. Singer didn’t expand on the two Gates and Buffett – he merely cited them as people who’ve given away a great deal.

    2. Peter Singer compares the cost of training and maintaining the guide dog about $40,000 or you could pay $20-40 and cure one person of trichoma which would lead to blindness later in life.

  2. “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.”

    When you think about it, how can a moral imperative towards altruism ever stably eliminate inequality?

    The moral imperative predicates itself on existing inequality. Judging by some of the examples Singer seems to have given, from a hugely wealthy banker right up to the world’s absolute richest tycoons, it’s a sharp and bracing inequality we should have in mind.

    But if subsequent charity reduces inequality, the imperative also diminishes. At some threshold point it goes altogether, at which point all the other incentives of self interest (which were always there, albeit elided in the analysis by the sound of things) return in force.

    The resulting dynamic is guaranteed to be a bandaid at best – with the social world oscillating between different states of severe inequality dependent on the whim of philanthropists. We can do better than that.

    1. I still think inequality of wealth is not the most interesting level on which to discuss altruism. True self-sacrifice is engaging in lengthy and regular conversation with a lonely bore.

      1. No, engaging in lengthy and regular conversations with a lonely bore is self-punishment, not self-sacrifice. There’s a difference.

        You wrote up above that “True altruism involves self-sacrifice; Singer’s altruism involves salary sacrifice and nothing more.” Altruisim is defined in the dictionary as “unselfish concern for the welfare of others.” There is no sacrifice required or necessarily implied in human altruism, although as the level of altruism increases the level of self-sacrifice generally increases with it. If Bill Gates donates $1 million, it’s no sacrifice to him, but if I were to donate $1 million I’d have to borrow the money and live in debt for the rest of my life. But either donation qualifies as altruism because it’s an unselfish act with the welfare of others in mind.

        To claim that Singer’s altruism involves nothing more than “salary sacrifice” is to ignore all of the other things that could have been done with the portion of the salary that was donated. Some effective altruists donate 10% of their income; others donate more than 50%. In either case the altruist could have spent that money on other things that would have brought him or her direct, selfish rewards.’

        For example, the thousands of dollars that I donate to charities each year could instead be used to pay down my mortgage, buy a newer car, or allow me to retire before age 78. But I choose to give that money to charities instead. That’s more than just a “salary sacrifice.”

  3. “True altruism involves self-sacrifice; Singer’s altruism involves salary sacrifice and nothing more.”

    Giving to the ultra-needy far away is entirely compatible with being compassionate to the people near by oneself. Singer is just not addressing issues like how one treats one’s friends and family; but I assure you he would agree that we ought to sacrifice for our friends and families sometimes. He just thinks we should not spoil them at the expense of the lives of diseased children across the globe. See his /The Life You Can Save/, Chapter 8.

    “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.”

    EAs do achieve great fulfillment through their generosity, as I can personally attest. I get pure joy from tracking the dispersion of the malaria-stopping bednets I’ve paid for through Against Malaria Foundation.

    But it’s just not true that giving is the *only* thing from which we get fulfillment in life. We have normal lives too, with families, careers, ambitions, pastimes–and we fit giving into that, often as a large part of it. In a sense, I’d compare it to the lost art of stargazing: it’s a really unique experience that everyone should have, although they could have a great life without doing it.

    1. I couldn’t be more in favour of giving to charity in the way Singer suggests – it’s just that I’d expected to hear something I didn’t already know. Surely all of us recognise that something along the lines of tithing is what those of us who have more money than we need ought to do. I am also troubled by the views Singer expressed about taking jobs with unethical companies and also by his lack of reference – on the evening of his talk at least – to trying to find ways to do something about the underlying causes of poverty in how we give. I think it’s important to try to give to charities that work to do something about causes of poverty beyond those things that are related to going blind or whatever. I think it important to try to address the things that actually make a country the kind of place where you do go blind or get malaria.

      1. @zmkc: you wrote “I think it’s important to try to give to charities that work to do something about causes of poverty beyond those things that are related to going blind or whatever.”

        This is where the “effective” in effective altruism comes in. Sure, you can contribute to charities that work to address the underlying causes of poverty, but it takes many decades of effort and many billions of dollars to bring about those kinds of changes. Your donation will have very little incremental impact. Effective altruists seek to maximize the impact of their donations, doing the most good per unit of currency donated.

        I agree that both types of efforts are needed: we need to continue addressing the root causes of poverty, but we also have opportunities to save lives, improve lives, or reduce suffering today. For most individual donors, our donations will do the most good if we put them to focused causes that achieve verifiable results today. You could spend six lifetimes donating to charities that address the root causes of poverty without seeing much in the way of results. That isn’t to say it’s not worth giving to those charities, but there is an opportunity cost in doing so.

  4. Giving to charities or other causes like political groups, which reduce the overall all amount of poverty and systemic injustice is all very well, if you know which charities they are. (Indeed, I don’t know about Singer’s group ‘The Life You Can Save’ but certainly, for the similar group Giving What We Can, you can give to such causes as a member, provided their in the developing world, where money for all kinds of causes goes further.) But it seems to me that people often DON’T know which groups are good at this. In so far as good evidence can be given that an advocacy group is good at making western countries behave in a less rip-off way toward the third world or something, I’m sure Singer would recommend giving to them. (If your view is more like ‘work to end capitalism’, I don’t see why the rest of us are obligated to believe this is a good thing, however unjust capitalism is, unless you have a well-worked out replacement and some chance of actually making a difference.)

    It’s worth saying that whilst Effective Altruist types like Singer can often seem very conservative on politics, preferring charity to the fight against injustice etc., I’m not sure this is to do with their general instincts and politics. Most of these people have very radical animal rights views: ban factory farming, everyone should be a vegan etc. (Alas, I still eat meat, but I never said *I* personally was an especially good altruist.) The difference here is that they think there’s actually something concrete people can do about the unjust systemic problem of the abuse of animals in the farming system, other than helping around the margins, and their less convinced of this on global poverty, at least for a lot of people. (I do know of at least one other philosopher involved in Effective Altruism who’s spent loads of his salary getting dubious lobying access to a liberal senator to try and get him to push the US congress into plowing money into tropical disease research on diseases that are very harmful, but because they’re mostly suffered by the poor, don’t attract much private sector funding. That’s an attempt to correct one particular systemic injustice caused by the current ‘system.’)

  5. I’d also separate the political objection Singer and other Effective Altruist people, which despite what I said above, might have something going for it from the ‘it’s not a real sacrifice’ objection. Firstly that’s just false for some of the people hear, like Toby Ord who give 50% of their income. Maybe someone giving 1% won’t notice the difference, but if you give half your income you certainly will.It’s not *just* a sacrifice of money, but also of the stuff you could have done with it. But secondly there’s something weirdly self-centred about this kind of objection if you really think about it. It says that it’s more important that a lot of people do something genuinely difficult for them, than that they help other people they most. Put most literally it says it’s more important you go up to a person who’s very unpleasant to be around for whatever reason, and chat to them while their miserable and lonely for 20 minutes, every day, rather than stopping ten kids of dying for malaria before their eighth birthday. That can’t be right surely?

  6. I think you are being precious about your own particular definition of “altruism”. There can be other views about the word, how it is used and what it means … and of course the dictionary.

    I do think about systemic injustice which results from capitalism, globalisation and so forth. There are political causes addressing these problems.

    We can in fact be embedded in an injustice we participate in along these lines, quite apart from “being in a job which does dubious stuff”. My own favorite is the idea that well paid people in silicon valley might be spending money on good things, much as their participation in a “high rev” economy means that access to housing in the area they live in is reduced for the less well off – there are known problems about the “two speed” economy and just how service industry people can afford to live there. I eat meat, while recognising I could “adding” to this stuff in that way. But I expect there could be a lot injustice we’re “embedded in causing”, not just the dubious well paid job – and addressing these issues means going political, worrying about systemic injustice and the economy, etc. etc.

    And then without being so concerned about “politics”, there is the issue of what causes poverty as compared to fixing up its symptoms. However, even focusing on its symptoms does have a valid moral link – the casual wealth of our everyday lives compared to those that starve – you don’t need to worry so much about “causes” as the-here-and-now.

    But, having this “movement” meaning people give more to charity than they otherwise would – well, why not? You might say you shouldn’t need it in the first place, but hey … whatever works. Further, if you are going to enjoy giving, I think these sort of things can help to develop and enhance the feeling where you might not be so readily discover it individually.

    Yes … you wrote this article a long time ago. I guess I’m only now grasping what I see as some subtleties 🙂

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